Discipleship

When our Lord Jesus Christ began His earthly ministry He gathered disciples, both the Twelve and others, who absorbed His teachings and His way of life.  To be a disciple literally means to be a student, that is, one who studies under a teacher.  Now our modern, western conception of what it means to be a student differs substantially from what discipleship meant at the time of Christ.  Whereas “to study” today typically means an academic endeavor, i.e. receiving information from lectures and books, discipleship in it’s original sense was more akin to mentorship.  To be a student meant not only to acquire information but to become like one’s teacher by watching and imitating their life and their craft.  As with Christ’s disciples, to be a student often meant leaving everything behind to follow the teacher and acquire the his skills, the patterns of behavior, attitudes, and demeanor.  In a word, discipleship was experiential and hands-on.

Discipleship in the Christian sense, therefore, is not merely “study” of concepts, ideas, and information.  Rather it is a way of life, a way of living with the Teacher, Christ, following Him, and experiencing Him.  It is a process of being “formed” into the likeness of God, through Jesus Christ, by taking on His very Spirit, the Holy Spirit.  St. Seraphim of Sarov, a holy Russian elder of the 18th century, succinctly stated that “the goal of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”  For Orthodox Christians this is an active life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving or acts of love and mercy, conforming one’s life to God’s commandments, that re-directs the energies of one’s soul and body to be attuned God as a stringed instrument is tuned properly in order to make a beautiful melody.  

The tools of the spiritual life are not ends in themselves but are meant to bring one into a real and personal union with God.  To be a disciple of Christ is not to merely imitate Him on a moral level, it is to become like Him by grace so that our life is a manifestation and revelation of the presence of Christ.  Orthodox Christianity teaches, with the early Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus of Lyon (3rd c.) and St. Athanasius the Great (4th c.), that “God became man so that man might become God-like.”  Thus we do not only imitate the behaviors of Christ on some external level, but incorporate His life organically into our own unique personal being, entering into a real union with the divine.

The goal of discipleship then is real transformation.  The Apostle Paul summarizes spiritual transformation when he teaches: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your ‘mind'” (Rom. 12:2).  The Greek word translated as ‘mind’ is not the thinking mind, not the brain.  Rather it is the “nous”, the deep understanding, the depths of the heart, the spiritual center of man’s being.  This understanding of the “nous” has been lost in the western Christian experience and theology.  But it is essential to understanding the Christian spiritual life.  If the nous/heart is pure everything is pure and holy, directed toward God.  But if the nous is darkened, clouded with the passions, then the whole person is misdirected and all that he does will miss the mark of God-likeness.  

The nous is sometimes called “the eye of the soul.”  If one’s “eye” is darkened then one cannot see clearly and will misjudge and mis-perceive reality.  But if the spiritual eye is clear and enlightened by God’s grace it can perceive and see spiritual things and all things for what they truly are as created by God.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  We can also say the nous is like man’s “spiritual antennae.”  If the antennae cannot receive God’s signal, we cannot hear God.   Then there is no communication, no communion.

The goal of Orthodox discipleship is the purification of the heart or the nous.  If there is purification there can be illumination.  An illumined heart lives in harmony with God and beats according to His rhythm.  One cannot truly love God or neighbor — and therefore cannot truly be a disciple of Christ — without this purification and illumination of the heart.  Yet this purification and illumination is not a “pie-in-the-sky” abstract idea; it comes through a practical struggle against sinful passions, the practice of virtue and humility, and putting aside one’s own will to follow God’s will.  It is a life of vigorous and joyful repentance that seeks to come ever more into union with our Creator and Lord.

One cannot be a disciple of Christ without self-denial.  This is central to Jesus’ own teaching: “If you would follow Me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).  Self-denial is necessary because fallen man does not naturally incline toward the perfect love of God.  Rather he seeks the satisfaction of his own immediate self-centered desires or passions.  This self-centered or fallen condition is not man’s true, God-created nature; not his true self.  Self-denial is necessary to root out the false self, the sinful inclinations that undermine our ability to freely live according to God’s will and share His divine life and love.  Self-denial does not sound like an enjoyable experience, but it is the only way to be a true disciple of Christ and to find union with God.

For Orthodox Christians all of the above happens within the context of the Church, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).  In the Church, Christ’s Body and our “spiritual hospital,” one finds the medicines for the healing of the soul.  The life of the Orthodox Church redirects those who embrace it toward a tangible experience God’s kingdom, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).  The Church’s liturgy (worship), doctrine, ascetical life, prayers and hymnography, and atmosphere are transformative, healing, and illumining.  In the Church the disciple of Christ becomes a son of God by grace (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7).

We invite you to “come and see,” and to find a new depth of discipleship in Christ.