by Fr. Rufus Pereira
The call to Christian Discipleship is a call to the imitation of Christ! (John 13:13-16)
The formation of a Christian disciple begins with awakening faith in the Word, continues with an ongoing reformation and transformation within the fellowship of the Faithful by the power of the Holy Spirit, and is manifested by his Fruit bearing ministry and personal witness.
Jesus himself began his public ministry by reading from the Scriptures, in a way that created an awe among the people, and teaching from it in a manner that attracted their admiration both by its newness, so distinct was it from that of their Scribes, and by its power that overawed even the demons (Mk 1:21-27). Our Christian Discipleship should likewise begin by being exposed to the Word of God, becoming familiar with the very text of the Bible as prescribed by the Council document on Divine Revelation, and adhering to the teaching authority and tradition of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles is all praise for the people of Berea, for they welcomed the message of the Apostles very readily, and everyday they studied the scriptures to check whether it was true, and therefore many of them became believers (Acts 17:10-12).
But just familiarity with the text of the Bible and the teachings of the Church is not enough. Even though the Apostles had the unique privilege of listening to Jesus for three years, that alone did not change their lives. It was only when they received the Spirit of Truth at Pentecost that they were guided into the full truth, as the Spirit now constantly reminded them of what Jesus had taught them, in a way that was relevant to their new situation, and faithfully spoke through them in dealing with the new challenges that faced them (Jn 16:8-15). Apollos was a very eloquent speaker with a sound knowledge of the scriptures, and preached with accuracy and great earnestness about Jesus. However when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him to their home and helped him understand the Gospel even better, so that he was now equipped to use the same scriptures very energetically even in public to prove that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:24-28).
The knowledge however of the words of Scripture should lead one to the knowledge of Christ the Word himself, in the well-known adage of Jerome. In the equally familiar saying of Augustine, before Mary conceived Jesus in her womb, she had already conceived him in her mind and heart. A student of the Catholic Charismatic Bible Institute, of which I was then the Director, was once bold enough to confront the Scripture professor, "You are indeed an excellent teacher, but I don't see Christ in your teaching." In his testimony published later in Charisindia, he confessed very candidly that that provocative challenge proved to be the turning point in his life. For he realised that, though he was an acknowledged Bible scholar and knew all about Christ, he did not really know Christ, - in a personal way. Even the best Bible Study course may be ineffective and fruitless, if it results only in head knowledge and does not overflow into heart experience.
How many today are Catholics in name only and are far from being Christians in fact. "Even though they will make a show of being religious, their religion won't be real" (2Tm 3:5). True, the immediate objective of Christian Discipleship is to grow in faith in the Lord, both as person and as message, but the ultimate goal is to grow in all ways into Christ, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself, i.e. become another Christ (Eph 4:12-15), so as to say with Paul, "I live now not with my own life, but with the life of Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). That was Paul's too only zeal and endeavour for his Galatian Christians: "My children, I must go through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you and is seen living in you" (Gal 4:19).
An authentic disciple will also become a 'nonconformist', for that is what a Christian is meant to be, - one who is not of the world, while still being in the world. Paul thus gives a warning to the Romans, "Stop being conformed to the world, i.e., Do not model yourself on the behaviour of the world around you" (Rom 12:2), doing just what everybody else is doing, going just by tradition or convention, taking the line of least resistance in everything and getting the most of everything whatever be the cost. Jesus himself had called his disciples to follow a standard of righteousness, much superior to that of the pagan world, and in close imitation of their heavenly Father (Mt 5:43-48), forgetting about themselves, taking up their cross daily, ready to be the servants and slaves of all, and prepared even to die for them (Mt 16:24).
Instead Paul throws a challenge to the Romans, "Start being conformed to Christ". He has just assured them that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him, and he has therefore chosen them for an awe-inspiring purpose, - 'to become true images of his Son', so that he might be the firstborn among those whom he (God the Father) could now call in a special way his own sons and daughters, and whom his Son could now call his own brothers and sisters (Rom 8:26-29). But being 'conformed in his own image', that is, being like him, meant not just knowing him by faith in his word, or even experiencing the power of his resurrection, but also taking part in his sufferings and becoming 'conformable unto his death'. For Paul this meant to want to suffer and die as Jesus did, so that somehow he (Paul) also may be raised to a new life (Phil 3:10).
Again an authentic Discipleship will consist in being transformed by his Spirit and will result in bringing about a radical and genuine inner transformation of our lives, a spiritual revolution, beginning with the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2); that is, not just outwardly or superficially but inwardly and deeply, of our thoughts and values, our feelings and emotions, our attitudes and judgements - thus putting off the old man and putting on the new man (Eph 4:22-24). As we allow the Spirit to change our minds, hearts and wills, and make us new, God-like and Christ-like, persons; we will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him, free of all pretence and deception (Rom 12:2). It was by the manifest transparency of her life and actions that Mother Theresa attracted even her detractors.
But, as Paul cautions us, Satan himself will often appear transformed as an angel of light and there will arise false prophets who will pretend to be true apostles of Christ (2Cor 11:14,15). And what about the true apostles themselves? Well, Jesus had to rebuke Peter their head sharply for his ungodly way of thinking (Mt 16:23-24). Even though the apostles were with Jesus for three years, he had to reprimand them for their jealousy of the unknown exorcist and even of one another, for their craving for position, for their anger against the Samaritans and even for their suspicion of him, when they saw him conversing with the Samaritan woman. We all need as disciples of the Lord to make our own the prayer of that well-known hymn, 'Change my heart, O Lord, make it ever new; Change my heart, O Lord, may I be like you'.
The quality of our discipleship will finally have to be tested by our 'performance', by the way we function as Christians in our family and our community, in our work place and in our local parish. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus himself had to drive home to his Apostles, who were more concerned about his health than about his mission, "My food is to carry out what God has sent me to do and I must finish the work that he has given me" (Jn 4:34). And so at the end of his ministry he could make known with satisfaction even on the cross, "I have completed my task. Mission accomplished" (Jn 19:30). Setting himself as their model, he in turn would enjoin on his Apostles, "I have chosen and commissioned you to go forth and bear fruit, fruit that will last" (Jn 15:16), for the kind of disciples they have turned out to be will be known by the fruits of their lives and their ministry (Mt 7:20).
Jesus assures us today as he promised his Apostles 2000 years ago, "The Holy Spirit will help you and will tell you about me, then you also will tell others about me, because you have been with me right through" (Jn 15:26). Peter would later put across the example of Jesus, who went all around doing good under the power of the Holy Spirit, and healing everyone who was under the power of the Evil Spirit (Acts 10:38). Our performance as disciples will therefore consist in being prophets of God's Word and proclaimers of the Good News, always speaking the truth boldly, but with love, trusting the Spirit to tell us what to say and how to say it. It will consist in being intercessors for the needs and burdens of God's people, trusting the Spirit to help us to pray when we do not know what to pray for (Rom 8:26).
Above all the call to discipleship is a call to personal witness for, "By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples" (Jn 13:35). The only Bible that many will ever read is the open Bibles, the letters of Jesus, which we should be. The only Jesus some may ever know is the Jesus they see in us. In our Christian life we need to strike a balance between being the unnoticed salt of the earth and being the noticeable light of the world (Mt 5:13-15), between the necessary hidden files in the memory of a computer and the clear display on its monitor, between being the sound of God's infinite silence and the shouting of the Good News from the housetops.
After washing his disciples feet, Jesus said, "I have given you a model to follow, so that you may imitate exactly what I have done for you. A disciple must emulate his master. Now that you know this, do it - and you will be blessed" (Jn 13:15,17). Let us then "Try to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God" (Eph 5:1).
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Led by the Spirit reproduced with permission from Charisindia. Copyright © Fr. Rufus Pereira. All rights reserved.