Discipleship is a mode of being, a way of life—this is the conviction that forms the guiding center of Rowan Williams’ reflections on the nature of following Jesus in his newly published book, Being Disciples. “We are caught up in the task of showing that what we say is credible,” he notes in the introduction (p.vii). While this task is always a pressing demand for those who follow Christ, I dare say that there are aspects of life in today’s America that make it especially challenging (let the reader understand).
The main body of Being Disciples is composed of six chapters, which were originally delivered on separate occasions as lectures and talks. The book itself forms a companion to Williams’ earlier examination of the essentials of the Christian life, Being Christian. The topics he addresses range from holiness and forgiveness, to the role of the disciple in larger society and life in the Spirit. In this post, however, I wish to concentrate especially on his opening chapter, “Being Disciples,” which gives some important reflections on what it means to embrace the invitation and command of Jesus to “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19, NRSV).
Being in the Company of Jesus
Near the heart of what it means to be a disciple, for Williams, is a commitment to persistently remaining in the company of Jesus, attempting to live with a deep attentiveness to both the words and patterns of life embodied by Christ, through the power of the Spirit (pp.5-7). This means that there is an important “non-intermittent” aspect of the Christian life:
Being a ‘disciple’, a learner, in that sense is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption… You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share… The disciple is where he or she is in order to be changed; so that the way in which he or she sees and experiences the whole world changes. (pp.3-4)
Following Jesus, Williams adds, means living with a sense of expectancy. “Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master” (p.4). It seems to me that Williams’ words here help readers avoid an attitude of dullness towards everyday life that overlooks the possibility of Christ having something to teach his followers in the midst of ordinary tasks. What does Williams think this posture of awareness and expectancy means for disciples today? It will come as no surprise to those who have already read Being Christian, but he primarily points towards the classic disciplines of the Christian life:
Like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which we live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in Scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection alive. (p.8)
Of course, all of these parts of being a disciple (awareness, expectancy, obedience, etc.) are bound up with the affirmation of the disciple’s identity as “someone who follows” (p.9). In the Gospels, the disciples—bumbling, slow, and prone to getting things wrong as they are—are the ones who follow Jesus wherever he goes. While this fact might seem fairly obvious, it leads to an important point for Williams: being a disciple means being where Jesus is, which is often “not where we would have thought of going, or would have wanted to go” (p.10). The sobering reality of this claim needs to be held onto. It does (and should) be a source of discomfort to Christians (like myself) who are prone to being overly-attached to the comforts of life:
Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself. If you are going to be where Jesus is, if your discipleship is not intermittent but a way of being, you will find yourself in the same sort of company as he is in. (p.11)
These are rightly challenging words. Christians must squarely face this summons of Christ to “Follow me,” including the call to love, listen to, and stand in solidarity with those excluded and marginalized by the rest of society. As they do this, they also must not forget that the Christian life is grounded in the empowering, incongruous grace of God. It is through the Spirit’s empowering presence—to borrow a phrase from Gordon Fee—that disciples cultivate the fruit of the Spirit and become more closely conformed to the image of their crucified and resurrection Lord (Gal 5:22-23; Phil. 4:13). In practical terms for Williams, this means “seeking constantly the company of other servants of Christ, the company of the revelation of Christ in Scripture, the company of the Father and the Son, in the Spirit, in prayer” (pp.15-16).
He seems to have little time for those who get sucked into disagreements about the relative importance of contemplation and action in the life of a disciple (p.17). In the same way that Jesus declared both love of God and neighbor to be central to the message of the law and the prophets (Mt. 22:36-40), discipleship must be rooted in both contemplation and action. For Williams, it’s both unnecessary and unwise to hold them in opposition. He suggests that seeing “contemplation as an openness to the real roots of transforming action” allows people to better grasping these two dimensions of spirituality as mutually enriching rather than in opposition to each other (p.18).
How should we situate Being Disciples among the various other books that have been written on what it means to follow Jesus? Beginning to answer this question could take us in many directions, but for now I would like to briefly bring Williams’ book into conversation with the pictures of discipleship sketched by Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. For Peterson, the challenge of discipleship is (among other things) that it demands a commitment to following Jesus over the long haul (p.202). Following Jesus doesn’t lead to an easy, quick, fix for the problems of life—hence the title of his book. Peterson argues that in a world where there are many voices advocating easy fixes and hasty solutions, Christians need to stop being tourists and begin living as disciples and pilgrims (p.17). In this respect, it can be seen that the conceptions of discipleship held by Williams and Peterson flow out of the same kind of tradition.
Bonhoeffer’s volume, first published in 1937 during the intense and tragic years leading up to the Second World War, is a direct and passionate call for Christians to remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of heavy attack. The Cost of Discipleship is, in Andrew Root’s words, “a book that in almost no way is after nuance, but only the provoking of direct, immediate, and faithful following of Jesus Christ” (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, p.173). While Williams’ writing does insist that Christians must respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, and even that this will take them into uncomfortable spaces, it lacks the stark, intense tone of Bonhoeffer. Being Disciples and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction present Jesus’ “Follow me” largely as an invitation to grow up in Christ over time, but The Cost of Discipleship presents it as a command and summons that Christians dare not ignore. Both of these emphases are important in every era, but they are especially important in this one.