Being a disciple means – put simply – imitating someone else. I guess there must be disciples of Wayne Rooney. – in the sense that they look to him as some sort of a role model and justify their own behaviour according to his. Which is an interesting notion the morning after he was sent off against Montenegro for a pointless attack on a player.
Being a disciple of Jesus means imitating the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. The only measure the church has for its own faithfulness to its vocation is whether or not it looks like an imitation of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Not a hard idea, is it?
I have been thinking about this while preparing for and being present at the Bradford Diocesan Day – over 400 people of all ages and from all sorts of places coming together to think about ‘discipleship’ for a whole wet Saturday in Bradford. I did the keynote address (video here) this morning and this was followed by seminars and workshops aimed at exploring what it means to be a follower/imitator of Jesus in everyday life.
In my address, after an introductory ramble through the Bible, I tried to say that the usual (discipleship) suspects are not always helpful to us. The giants who find their halo-ed faces in stained-glass windows are often the exception rather than the rule. What I mean by this is that people like Peter or Paul or Dietrich Bonhoeffer are examples of discipleship in extremis – but not always easy to relate to for ordinary Christians in our ordinary world.
Which is why I commended Zebedee as my icon of discipleship. Zebedee (not the one who goes ‘boing’ in The Magic Roundabout) was the father of James and John, the so-called ‘Sons of Thunder’ in the Gospels. When Jesus invited his sons to go walkabout with him, they could not have left without their father’s permission. Zebedee would also have had to replace them with extra hired workers in the family fishing business. In other words, the special discipleship of James and John was only possible because Zebedee paid the price and kept the ordinary graft of everyday routine going.
More of us are like Zebedee than his offspring.
OK, there is clearly more to it than that, and we can learn from the lot of them. I went on to describe discipleship in terms of (sorry for this) (a) Curiosity, (b) Commitment and (c) Company. Christians need, like the first disciples, to be curious enough to follow Jesus and see where the journey takes us. We need to commit ourselves – body, mind and spirit – to the one we follow/imitate. We don’t do it alone, but we also don’t get to choose who goes with us.
According to this simple way of putting it, the Christian Church should be characterised by people who are curious enough to leave the comfort zones, committed enough to re-shape the way they see God, the world and us, and brave enough to be thrown together with a company of people they wouldn’t necessarily normally choose for themselves.
Actually, that is what the church on the ground is doing all the time. This gets forgotten when the ‘high level’ arguments are dominating the headline agenda. The reality is that Christians are imitating Jesus every day in the ordinary spaces and places of life – even when the ‘noise’ suggests otherwise.
And that is the best bit of being a bishop in the Church of England: you get to see where God is at work, where Christians are imitating Jesus, and where the miracle of company is being exercised in the strangest places.
Imitating Wayne Rooney might well get us into trouble. Imitating Jesus has a habit of definitely getting us into trouble. But it’s never boring.