The Importance of Community

Here it is – the final chapter of my Aberdeen dissertation. Thanks to anyone who’s read any part of it.

4.3 Discipleship in community

To answer the call to discipleship is to place oneself within the great tradition of the calling forth of alternative communities that are to embody the Way of Jesus and his kingdom come in the midst of day-to-day life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – using the phrase ‘new humanity’ in lieu of discipleship language – places a communal imperative on the process of following Jesus with this statement: “No one can become a new human being except by being within the church, that is, through the body of Christ. Whoever seeks to become a new human being individually cannot succeed. To become a new human being means to come into the church, to become a member of Christ’s body.”1 For Bonhoeffer, those called out by Jesus – the Word of God in bodily form – can “no longer remain hidden; they [are to be] the light which has to shine, the city on a hill which is bound to be seen.”2 Camp puts it this way: “We are called to be a people walking in faithful discipleship to the way of Christ, and thereby to be the salt and light the rebellious world so desperately needs.”3 In order for that light to shine most effectively, individual beams of light must become concentrated collectives intent on embodying the teachings and example of Jesus within the context of day-to-day life.

To be a disciple, therefore, is to become an active participant in “the way, the body of Christ, people of God, and a plethora of images that denote the social reality of being Christian and what it means to be a distinctive people formed by the narrative of God.”4 For Hauerwas, to be able to take the first steps of obedience and to embody a way of living that runs counter to the dominant powers of the day “requires nothing less than an alternative story and society in which the self can find a home.”5 The community of disciples is to be a group of people through whom “the stories of Israel and Jesus are told, enacted and heard”; through this ongoing process of hearing, telling and enacting, “the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.”6

For followers of Jesus, Hauerwas argues, “there is literally nothing more important we can do.”7 The entire concept of discipleship, then, “exists only by God’s calling of people”, and furthermore, “it is only through such a people that the world can know that our God is one who wills nothing else than our good.”8 In short, the world as it is meant to be is only truly known “through the practices and habits of a community constituted by a truthful story.”9 This is the role of disciples in the present world – to constitute a widespread community that embodies the teachings, example and practices of Jesus wherever they are, and in so doing, demonstrates to the world that a different way of living is possible according to the biblical story of discipleship.

Communities of disciples are to engage in the theological and embodied process of recovering a different way of seeing and living in the world that God has created. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it:

Theology’s recovery of a scriptural imagination must come from a relationship with Scripture that is mediated … by a faith community whose practices are ordered to the transformation of humans according to the world imagined by Scripture – a world, faith asserts, which expresses the mind of God.10

Communities of disciples are to examine the biblical story of discipleship as one that imagines a different way of living in the world, “and by imagining it, reveals it, and by revealing it, enables it to be brought into being within this physical space humans share with each other.”11

It is here that discipleship becomes distinct from the current popular notions of modern Christianity. The church, as a community of disciples, is to take seriously “the double movement of withdrawal from culture [and] increasingly see itself as a community which knows that its Lord is different from the lord of culture, its loyalties and values very different from the dominant consciousness of our culture.”12 Moreover, the church is to “live the life referred to in John’s description of Jesus’ followers as in the world, but ‘not of the world,’ grounded not in the world but in God.”13

Ultimately, the task of communities of disciples is “not to make the gospel credible to the world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”14 In other words, discipleship involves becoming a part of a community that shows to the world that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, one that requires active obedience fueled by the adoption of personally and socially transformative practices and habits.

Disciples, therefore, are to constitute a widespread community that take up physical space but without a necessarily fixed address; this community is to have a “very real impact on the life of the world” in that it “gains space for Christ.”15 As Brueggemann qualifies it, “the call to community is not to join an institution or to sign a pledge card; it is rather to sign on for a different narrative account of reality, one that is in profound contrast to the dominant account of reality into which we are all summarily inducted.”16

To be this kind of community means, “embodying God’s intentions for the world as revealed in Christ”; it is to embody a “new social order, the new-world-on-the-way.”17 This is ultimately accomplished by “having the patience amid the injustice and violence in the world to care for the widow, the poor and the orphan.”18 In this way, Willard asserts, “God’s promise to Abraham – that in him and in his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed – is carried forward to its realization.”19 N.T. Wright, while reflecting on the Gospel of Mark, articulates the implications of what it means for the church as a community of disciples to gain space for Christ and his kingdom in the world today: it is “to abandon its imperialistic dreams on the one hand, and its passive non-involvement on the other, and to become for the world what Jesus was for the world. This is what discipleship, following Jesus, really means.”20

4.4 Concluding Remarks

If practical theology is a process of critical and theological reflection that is undertaken ‘for the sake of developing practices that faithfully reflect the actions and character of the triune God, as God has revealed God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,’ then surely a recovery of the true nature of discipleship must be seen as an essential element of that process.

Disciples of Jesus, therefore, are to demonstrate to the world that to believe in Jesus is to understand that his message of good news is rooted within the present realities of life, and that to follow him requires a visible shift away from the dominant social, and cultural and political powers and into the world as imagined and revealed in Scripture and shaped by the teachings, example and practices of Jesus.

From this basis, those who respond to the call to discipleship by turning from the old to the new and taking tangible steps of obedience according to ‘the Way’ of Jesus, and who form communities whose practices and habits bear witness to the reality that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, will be better equipped to ensure and enable faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in and for the world

1 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 219.

2 Ibid., 226.

3 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 108.

4 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

5 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

6 Ibid., 372.

7 Ibid., 374.

8 Ibid., 373.

9 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and the Mentally Handicapped: A Continuing Challenge to the Imagination,” in Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology, ed. John Swinton (Binghamton: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2004) 56.

10 Luke Timothy Johnson, “Imagining the World Scripture Imagines,” in Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (April, 1998), 171.

11 Ibid., 172.

12 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision. Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), 195.

13 Ibid., 195.

14 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 24.

15 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 236.

16 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship,” 95.

17 Ibid., 115.

18 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” 375.

19 Willard, The Great Omission, xiii.

20 N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1994), 40.

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