Discipleship is Practicing the Basics
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … Therefore … work out your own salvation; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:5, 12b-13).
A few years ago, I read a brief article in Sports Illustrated magazine with a young woman who worked as one of the producers for a major television network’s broadcasts of major league baseball games. If you watch baseball on television, you know that the manager, along with some of the coaches and players, wear microphones during the games. This allows the network to occasionally broadcast parts of on-field or dugout conversations. The woman’s job was to listen to those conversations and determine what may be broadcast. The interviewer asked her “What surprised you most as you listened to all those conversations?” Her reply fascinated me. She said, “The thing that surprised me most was how often the managers and coaches reminded the players to pay attention to the basics of the game.”
Think about it. Major League players have played baseball nearly all their lives. They are among the best in the world at playing the game. Their coaches know that they must constantly be reminded of what’s needed to play the game well, attending to the basics, because they are easily taken for granted. And when the basics are taken for granted they are neglected. When the basics are neglected play gets sloppy and games are lost.
Good coaches and managers understand that becoming and being a baseball player happens through attending to the fundamental skills of the game. Anyone who has ever watched a baseball game knows how simple throwing, catching and hitting appear to be. That is, until you actually try them yourself. Then you realize how difficult these seemingly simple skills really are. But, with practice and some coaching from someone who has played the game for any time, you can throw, catch, and even hit with some confidence. And, if you love the game, study and learn its strategy, practice the basics and listen to your coach, you will become a baseball player.
Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with discipleship. As I study and learn about Christian discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition, I have become convinced that it is very similar to playing baseball. In other words, discipleship is a craft. There is a set of basic skills that must be learned and practiced. With discipline and practice persons grow in knowledge and ability to live into the goal of the craft. An athlete who engages in the discipline of baseball becomes a baseball player. A musician who engages in the discipline of the piano becomes a pianist. A person who commits his or her life to the discipline of following Jesus Christ in the world becomes a Christian disciple.
We know that not all people are gifted athletes or musicians. However, God has given every human being the gift of God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). This means that we are created to be like God who is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s triune nature is relational. God is a community of divine love. Therefore, to be created in the image of the triune God is to be created for relationship. This means we are created for love.
The gift that God shares with all of humankind is the capacity to love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). God has given us the means to develop and grow into Christ’s way of loving and living in the world: grace. Flowing from that grace are the teachings (Matthew 5:1-7:29), commandments (Matthew 22:37-39; 28:19-20a; John 13:34-35), and promises (Matthew 18:18-20; 28:20b; John 14:1-3, 15-27) of Jesus Christ.
Grace is the power of God working in the world to draw all of humankind to God’s self. It is the power of God’s love that gives human beings the capacity and ability to love. Grace is God working in with and through me and you to awaken us to God’s presence and power for good in my life and yours and in the world. Love is grace. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is God’s love, incarnate and active in the world in Jesus Christ, that awakens, equips, and empowers us to love as God loves. This love draws us to God and sends us into the world to love those whom God loves as God loves them.
The teachings, commandments and promises of Christ guide us into this way of life. They are like the rules of baseball in that they provide boundaries and direction for playing the game. Inside the boundaries of the rules there are infinite possibilities for how the game is played. The same is true of life lived in Christ.
The rules of baseball determine the basic skills and practices players must develop if they are to have fun and play the game well: throwing, catching, hitting, running, and thinking. They also establish that one must be part of a team in order to play the game. Baseball is not an individual endeavor. It is a team effort. The same is true of Christian faith.
The teachings, commandments and promises of Jesus determine the basic practices that must be taught and learned. They also establish that to be a Christian means being part of a community that promises to surround you with … love and forgiveness, to pray for you and to do all in their power to increase your faith, confirm your hope and perfect you in love (see The United Methodist Hymnal pages 35 and 38).
If we are to follow Jesus and love those whom he loves as he loves them, we need to learn and practice some basic disciplines: prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and studying the Bible, participating in small groups for mutual accountability and support, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing those who have no clothes, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners. John Wesley called these basic practices works of piety and works of mercy. He understood that attending to these “means of grace” is “faith working by love” (Galatians 5:6). They are how Christians “work out their salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13). In the process they regularly keep their daily “appointments” with God in the places and actions where God has promised to meet them.
These basic practices of faith are called “means of grace” because they are gifts given by God through which the Holy Spirit works in disciples to heal and form their character into the character of Christ. They are how disciples live into “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).
One of the purposes of Covenant Discipleship groups is to help disciples learn and practices the basics of Christian life. They do this with others who are seeking to grow in love of God and neighbor. Those who have more experience and maturity in discipleship share their experience with those who are less experienced. As disciples meet together weekly for mutual accountability and support for following Christ in the world they become more and more the persons God created them to be, in Christ. As Christians help one another practice the basics of following Jesus they become more confident and faithful witnesses to and channels of his love for the world.