The first weekend in June, twelve men (an appropriately symbolic number!) participated in All Saints Church’s fourth annual Men’s Backpacking Trip. We navigated our way through just over 21 miles of Pisgah National Forest over three days, and David Hyman led us through a series of reflections on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In many ways, the dynamic nature of the trip with its grueling climbs, periods of disorientation (including times of separation within the group due to outdated maps), ten bone-chilling river crossings, times of singing and laughter, and even the occasional time of rest is paradigmatic of the dynamic nature of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Many of us at All Saints Church are thinking and praying deeply about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and how our church community can be more faithful in fulfilling our call to be and to make disciples. In the following reflections, I hope to meditate on discipleship—a topic that was stressed during the reflections on this year’s Men’s Backpacking Trip.
Theological/Ministerial Reflections on Discipleship
On our first night in the woods, Father David challenged us men to live lives of meaning according to the vocations and purposes that God has ordained for us. He challenged us to confront all that is in our lives that would inhibit us from directing our lives toward those ends. He read to us an article highlighting the challenge of living such lives in a world of increasingly individualized and disintegrated lives. In my personal reading this summer through The Brothers Karamazov, the minor character Mikhail describes a similar milieu to the young Zossima, and I find that it applies to the contemporary world just as well as it did to 19th century Russia. Zossima asks Mikhail what this isolation is that Mikhail keeps talking about. Mikhail states:
…Everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he has, and ends by pushing people away from himself…For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. Everywhere now the human mind has begun laughably not to understand that a man’s true security lies not in his own solitary effort, but in the general wholeness of humanity.
Mikhail knows well of this isolation, for he committed the act of murder in his youth and had isolated himself from others and even from his own conscience as a means to avoid being confronted for his sin. Such a life is antithetical to the life of discipleship. It is only once Mikhail confesses his sin to Zossima that he finds release and peace.
In his reflections on the life of discipleship in Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light…Sin must be brought into the light.” In a discipleship relationship in the midst of community, such openness and confession must take place. Bonhoeffer states that this transparency has only been made possible because of Christ. He states, “In the presence of Christ human beings were allowed to be sinners, and only in this way could they be helped. Every pretense came to an end in Christ’s presence…This is why Jesus gave his followers the authority to hear the confession and to forgive sin in Christ’s name.”
In fact, we are commanded as Christians to confess our sins to one another. The epistle of James commands, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Though Christ entrusted the absolution of sin into the hands of his apostles and down through the ages into the hands of the Church’s priests (John 20:23), confession among all disciples leads to healing, for it reverses Cain’s sardonic refusal to be his brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:9). Hearing a brother or sister’s confession with care is to declare that one is their brother’s keeper. To confess one’s sin to another is to trust the other as their keeper. Such an act redeems the brokenness of the Fall and is an act of Re-creation. Commenting in his memoir on the life of a man who discipled his theological development, Stanley Hauerwas states, “If I learned anything from John Howard Yoder, it is not to trust yourself to know yourself. You learn who you are only by making yourself accountable to the judgment of others.” We need others to help us to know whether we are truly Christian, or at least what parts of our lives are resisting the reign of Christ.
One of the most frequent descriptors of the Church is that it is the Body of Christ. In Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, he commands the Colossian Christians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, by teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” (Colossians 3:16) In Ephesians, Paul states something similar, saying, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, by singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, by singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, by giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 5:18b-20) When Christians teach, admonish, rejoice, and worship together, the word of Christ dwells among us and the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit, just as it filled Mary’s womb—and Christ is given flesh through our common life.
Of course, in ways, all of this is in part experienced in our time of corporate worship at All Saints Church. If one is a part of a 242 group (small group), these dynamics of discipleship in corporate worship are deepened and expanded in more profound ways. Yet, if discipleship is to look the way it looks in honest confession of sin, in admonishing and encouragement, in being our brother or sister’s keeper, discipleship must be much more intimate. In our time together on our second night, a few of us men shared how significant discipleship relationships have strengthened our lives as disciples of Christ. As a church, we are thinking and praying through how to implement such relationships into the life of the church. Please pray with us. Ask yourself whether you have such relationships within your life. If such relationships are missing from our lives, a holistic life of a disciple of Christ is not being cultivated in our lives. May we as a church commit to cultivating fuller lives of discipleship in our common life together. As we do so, may God richly dwell amongst His Church and may the Spirit fill us to be the Body of Christ in God’s world.
As we prayed on Ascension Day:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ
ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:
Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his
promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end
of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory
-Sean A. Ewing