Almost the last words which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, spoke to his friends and Apostles, and his last commandment, was that they go into the world and make disciples, or more accurately, that they disciple the world. I think this is significant. He could have told them to go and make converts, or to make members of the Church, or to create activists working in various ministries. All of these are necessary. But this not what he commanded at the very end of his ministry on earth. What he asked of them was that they disciple the world.
The word disciple appears more that 250 times in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. It has a sense of meaning one who is a learner. But we shouldn’t confuse this with someone who is simply a student. All of us have been students at one time or another, but most of us have not been disciples very often. Most Christian children, in most of the various Christian communities, have attended Sunday School in one form or another, and heard the stories of the Bible, and learned a little of doctrine, whether Orthodox or not, and the some basic elements of spirituality perhaps. In our Coptic Orthodox Church the Sunday School movement has been an important means of providing basic Christian catechesis, especially at a time and in various places where this had been lacking. But this is also not the same as discipleship.
In recent times it has been encouraging to see an increase in the academic study of our Orthodox history and tradition, and increasing numbers of those studying theology and other related subjects at universities around the world. But this is also not quite the same as being a disciple and discipling others. Indeed it is possible to have been to many Sunday School classes, to have gained academic qualifications, even to be busy in the service of the Church, and to never have been or become a disciple.
It is interesting that our Lord Jesus Christ also said, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. That word translated as learn is also from the same root as disciple. Our Lord is not asking those who followed him then, and those who follow him now, to simply read about him, to take note of a number of facts about his life and ministry, to have a grasp of the themes of his teaching. These all have some value of course. But what our Lord is asking is that those who follow him become disciples, and a disciple is one who has entered into a relationship with another who shares more than knowledge and facts, but life and experience.
What does it mean when we are invited to be disciples of our Lord Jesus? It means, it seems to me, that we are not simply to learn about his life and teaching, but to enter into a living relationship with him by the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit so that by all means and at all times we are participating more completely in the life of our Master. This is what it means when the Church is commanded to disciple the world. It is perhaps easy to pass on facts and information, but to create disciples requires grace and the working of the Holy Spirit. We are ourselves to be those in a living relationship with God, and we are to be helping others, the whole world indeed, to enter into such a life-giving relationship with our Lord.
Yet discipleship, if it is not simply acquiring facts and information, is also not an entirely private matter between the soul and God. It is the Church which is commanded to make disciples. We make disciples of a person, not of an organisation. We make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and it is through our service and ministry, and especially through our own authentic and genuine experience of transformation and transfiguration, that we discover that we ourselves, the Church, are able to make Christ present to those who wish to sit at his feet with him. When Christ would wish to share his own life and transforming wisdom he now chooses to use the Church, his own Body, to speak for him, and in him, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
How does this commandment to make disciples work itself out in the Church? In the first place it demands that we ourselves are seeking at all times to be disciples of the Lord. If we have not experienced what we want others to experience then we cannot make disciples. Making disciples is not primarily about creating more organisation, but is about being a community of those who have life and experience to share. In a Church like our own it is easy to gain knowledge, to acquire skill, to commit ourselves to service and ministry. But Martha was also busy with many different things, commendable things. Yet it was her sister, Mary, who had chosen to be entirely occupied with the words and presence of our Lord Jesus who was praised and who is the model of a disciple.
And therefore in the second place, discipling the world is not a matter only for priests and bishops, though of course priests and bishops have their own part to play. It is a matter for each member of the Church. We must be a community of disciples if we wish to see others become disciples. And a disciple is not one who knows much, but one who has given much, indeed their heart and soul, their strength and mind, finding themselves always at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is someone who is committed with all their effort to growing closer to our Lord and experiencing authentically that life which he offers and communicates as their own life.
And so in the third place, discipleship must not and does not only take place in formal meetings in the Church, as if it was just an activity, but it is a matter of those who are themselves disciples of the Lord Jesus being able to share that experience with others as a living reality so that others are able to participate themselves. This is not a matter of every person thinking that they are a teacher, and far less does it validate any person teaching what they wish as if they were a great prophet or saint. But it does mean that older and mature Christians, who are themselves disciples of our Lord, and have authentic spiritual experience within the Orthodox Church and according to our Orthodox Tradition, should, as a matter of course, be supporting the spiritual development of other, and younger and less mature brothers and sisters, and attracting those who are outside the Church by the quality and character of their spiritual experience.
And this is the key element. Are we seeing spiritual development and growth in those we have relationships with? This is especially the concern of the priests and bishop. But it is a concern that should belong to us all. We all have relationships with others and these relationships make us responsible, if we are ourselves disciples, to make Christ present to all the others we live among and serve among. This does not mean that we must bear the burden which belongs to the Holy Spirit, but we should surely be moved to prayer and to care for those around us, asking God that he would give the grace for others to be made disciples. When we have spiritual conversations, when we pray with others, when we seek to share the life and love of Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit, this is surely a means by which Christ is discipling his own followers through us, if we are humble and obedient and spiritual men and women.
Relationships are a commitment to others, and they may provide a life time of service to others, of sharing our own life and experience in Christ, as an encouragement for others to also participate in that same life and love of God. Engaging in relationships with spiritual men and women is one important means by which we are ourselves discipled and become disciples of Jesus Christ through those in whose hearts he has poured out his grace. But committing ourselves to others who are perhaps less mature, younger and less experienced in the faith, is one important means by which we obey the commandment of our Lord to disciple others. There is no need for a special name. This is how we should be living together. It does not even require the greatest of knowledge of facts about our faith. But it does require of us a deep and an increasing experience of life in Christ, of life by the Holy Spirit, of life as a disciple of the Lord Jesus ourselves. The teaching authority of the bishop, and the teaching and sacramental ministry of the priest are not undermined by a universal sense of being and becoming disciples. If those in the Church are not experiencing the transforming and transfiguring participation in the divine life of the Holy Spirit and are not becoming themselves disciples of Christ, then all that we are doing is without value. But if the Church is filled with disciples, with life-giving spiritual relationships, that attract those who will be saved, then the teaching and ministry of the sacraments is surely bearing that fruit which is the will of God for us all.