Q: Archbishop J, what is the heart of missionary discipleship?
At the core, centre and heart of missionary discipleship is obedience to God. This may seem trite or obvious, but it is true! If we think of the Kingdom of God in spatial terms, obedience is the portal by which we enter the Kingdom of God, the sacred door through which we proceed towards discipleship.
A disciple is one who follows a master: the master leads and the disciple follows. If the disciple chooses not to follow, that person is no longer a disciple. This following is not in special activities or in the religious sphere alone. It encompasses all activities and all spheres of human endeavour.
The acid tests
Who sets the agenda for your life? Is it God, other people or you? If you are setting your agenda and hoping it is pleasing to God, then something is wrong! If other people are setting the agenda, something is also wrong. The agenda for your life, big and small, should be set by God. God leads; we follow.
Many of us live our lives hoping God is pleased, hoping we are moving in the right direction. Many others just live and do not worry about pleasing God. This is the acid test of discipleship: Am I consciously attempting to please God in small and big things? And, beyond pleasing Him, am I attempting to obey God in all things?
In the beginning
In the beginning, we lived in harmony. We walked with God in the cool of the evening. The rules were very simple: The Lord God told the man, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden. But do not eat from the tree of learning of good and bad” (Gen 2:16–17).
We know the story; we messed up and disobeyed God (Gen 3:6). From that moment disharmony broke all the relationships: relationship with God—hiding; with neighbour—blame; with self—shame; with creation—pain. The first sin, arising from pride, is disobedience—the conviction we know better than God. The result: disharmony.
Consider the level of disharmony in our society and see there the results of sin. All sin is disobedience of God. All sin has consequences for the four fundamental relationships. This disobedience wreaks havoc in the lives of many.
Mary’s ‘yes’ to God marks the beginning of the New Testament: “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” This ‘yes’ (obedience) reverses Eve’s ‘no’ (disobedience) and opens the way for salvation.
On the night before He died, Jesus prays: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus’ bending His will to the will of the Father is the pivotal moment in salvation history.
Do we believe that God is Love? If we really believe this, then obedience to God is always obedience to love. This is not servitude or mindlessness. God wants our hearts, given freely. For God, love and obedience are the same. Living God’s will is always the path to the best version of ourselves, the path to true happiness. God’s will is God’s love.
St John says: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 Jn 1:6).
Writing to the Romans, St Paul says: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).
For Paul, obedience is not servitude; it comes through faith: “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake” (Rom 1:5). This obedience is only possible when people have encountered the living God and come face to face with Him.
Through encounter we come to faith; through faith we come to obedience. This is not duty or obligation. The stimulation is faith. To grow in faith is to deepen our resolve to live by God’s will. To have faith in God allows us to believe God is love and that God’s love is always perfect.
Living by faith
Living by faith requires obedience. In this is the heart and core of discipleship. Do we seek God’s will in the big and small things? Do we wonder about God’s purpose for us (vocation)? Do we set our priorities by first seeking God’s purpose for us and the situations which face us?
The Christian life is lived by bending the will to the will of God in little and big things, in a process of discernment through prayer, so as to understand its general direction and the little variations and nuances. So, Paul counsels the Christian to pray always (Eph 6:18).
The faculty that is most necessary for discipleship is conscience. St John Henry Newman described conscience as: “a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representative, a monarch…Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”.
Conscience is a messenger from God, and thus a faculty of communication. Its communication is not direct since it speaks behind a veil. We must pay attention, listening carefully to its dictates, for it is a monarch, a ruler—if we allow it to be. Here is the pivotal point. We could choose to ignore conscience.
Now, Newman uses an interesting term, “aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. Aboriginal refers to original peoples, before civilisation, unspoilt. “Vicar of Christ” connotes the Pope in Rome. We owe our conscience the same obedience as we owe the Pope.
We, unfortunately, are living in a time when people are willing to ignore both. To live as a disciple is to listen to Christ’s voice inside and outside of us—our conscience and the Pope.
Key Message: At the heart and core of discipleship is discerning God’s will in small and big ways.
Action Step: Look at your attitude to your conscience. Do you listen and obey? Or, do you ignore and live how you choose? Reflect in these next days on your docility to Christ; in your conscience and in your prayer. Pray every day— ‘Bend my heart to your will, O Lord.’