For 2016, our congregation on Cape Cod is going to be spending time focused on discipleship. During the Advent season, we talked about hope using Julian of Norwich’s summary of the good news, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.” My assertion is that discipleship and lives shaped by faith blossom out of hope. The gift and task for every Christian is to study, do and live the practices that reconnect us to that hope found in Christ. This is a lifelong challenge because it is so easy to forget the promise and so easy to be distracted from the path. There are simply too many voices making promises of salvation through other means (like wealth, power and assorted stuff) and too many voices telling us that all will not be well, distracting us through fear and terror.
When Lutherans talk about discipleship, the biggest complaint is that we are stepping into the area of works. A misinterpretation of the Lutheran tradition is that because we are saved through faith in God’s work in Christ and not by our own works, we don’t have to do anything. This is technically true. There is nothing we can do to earn a relationship with God. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. These are precious and generous gifts from God.
However, in the Lutheran tradition, the expectation is that real faith will inspire real works. If our faith in Christ does not inspire us to want to live our lives centered on Christ, seeking ways to be closer, seeking ways to spread that good news, then we may need to reexamine the nature of our faith. If we as the church are not inspiring those who come to worship to deeper lives in Christ outside of worship, we may need to reexamine our purpose and practices.
In the past I have compared the gospel to an excellent piano (or whatever instrument you like) being left in your living room as a surprise gift. Whatever way you use the piano, it will be a lovely addition to your living space. I’ve been to many homes where the piano, probably acquired to give lessons to a less than enthusiastic child, is essentially an extra shelf for knickknacks, photos and flowers.
As you begin to explore this instrument you discover that along with it there is a collection of piano instruction books and even a set of free lessons with a teacher. The piano is yours, whether or not you take the time to study and learn, but imagine what can happen if you do take that time. Imagine working with this instrument, playing familiar melodies, creating harmonies, improvising something new from old. Imagine the joy you might find for yourself and the joy you can share with others.
This is the vision for discipleship. As we deepen our lives in the gospel, we participate in God’s unfolding vision for the world. We don’t do it because it makes us good Christians. We do it because the vision of hope, promise and life is good and just. We partner with God and God invites us to improvise on the theme of good news. We take our gifts and skills and use them to celebrate and be part of what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do.
The Zen Buddhist instructor Suzuki Roshi once wrote to his students, “You are perfect just as you are, and you can use a little improvement.” For me, this is a great summary of how I understand living as a disciple. The call to discipleship does not take away from the graceful promise of the gospel, but gives us the foundation to explore. We are accepted as we are and we are invited to go further than where we are. The promise of the good news, a promise into which we are baptized, is a beginning to a life of growth and depth in faith.