Discipleship: Growing in spiritual health, missional faithfulness

By the Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner-Triplett

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:1–3)

Near the beginning of 1 Peter 2:1 is a form of an adverb, translated as “so” or “therefore,” depending on the version. The word directs the readers’ attention to something that has come before and implies “for this reason” or “as a result of.” If we look back to the salutation of 1 Peter, we see that the epistle addresses a group of Christians throughout the Roman Empire who are likely suffering persecution: “To God’s chosen strangers in the world” (1 Peter: 1:1 CEB). Strangers in the world. People who live, play, love, work, study, worship in the world — they interact in and with the world on a daily basis — but who have habits and ways of being that make them strangers in the world.

I would love it if people thought of today’s Christian disciples that way. I can’t think of a better definition of a 21st-century disciple of Christ than believers who work with, talk with, listen to, laugh with, eat with, listen to, worship with, play with, listen to, pray with, cry with, serve with and listen to persons who hold dissimilar perspectives. Persons who do not think like we think, act like we act, look like we look, believe like we believe, worship like we worship, live how and where we live, learn like we learn, move in their bodies like we move in our bodies, vote like we vote, or get passionate about the things we get passionate about. Human beings who are unapologetically different but who can still see within us a powerful light that bears witness to the love of Christ.

Peter calls upon these chosen strangers in the world to get their minds ready for action. We can’t do anything until our minds have lined up with and are prepared to act on what the spirit of the living God is telling us to do. Peter then reminds them to measure their wealth by a standard that differs from a worldly focus on winning. Accumulating stuff, money, power, prestige, recognition, titles and positions, and buying into the notion that the winner is the one who dies with the most, is foolish. Instead, Peter calls upon them to be obedient to the truth so that they might love one another:

. . . love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” That word is the good news that was announced to you (1 Peter 1:22–25).

Only then does 1 Peter 2:1 have meaning. Christian discipleship assumes a personal encounter with the Creator and the humility to know that there is one who is greater than we are, an acceptance of the gift of life Christ gave us through the agony and victory of Calvary, and an ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit who indwells and compels us to grow and act in this world — in this place and time where God has placed us.

Christian discipleship in 21st-century America is difficult, messy and risky. Although our churches are aging, many are at a loss about what can be done to attract younger individuals and families. We pride ourselves on and exist in the midst of great diversity, yet we struggle to find effective means to embrace and utilize our differences. There was a time when, faced with dissimilar even polarizing economic, theological and political perspectives, people looked to the church for answers and for courageous leadership that engendered grace-filled conversations. But the voice of Christian disciples in our country has grown faint in the face of controversy. The 2016 presidential election was one of the most divisive in our nation’s collective memory. Yet leaders seem terrified to even mention the political, social and economic tensions that make headlines, permeate our TV screens and social media and, if we are honest, our very lives.

At a time when our nation is tearing itself apart across racial lines, our churches remain racially, culturally and economically segregated. Homogeneity can be a blessing in terms of attracting and building on the perspectives and gifts of persons with similar backgrounds, shared history and common ways of interpreting life. The collective efforts of the black church launched a civil rights movement that transformed our nation. Homogeneity is outstanding for addressing and correcting common concerns. But it is also challenging because groups of people who look and think alike are less likely to attempt, or even possess the capability, to understand and interpret perspectives that differ from their own. It is our inability to understand one another that leads to increased polarization, alienation and blind spots. And it is only through diverse relationships that those blind spots can be unveiled.

In five years, minorities will make up more than half of the U.S. population under the age of 18, a large segment of which is at the forefront of changes that are sweeping our nation. As Christian disciples, we must find ways to really see, listen to and act alongside one another. Doing so will propel us beyond our comfort zones, resulting in efforts that may initially appear clumsy, rife with tension and populated with mistakes.

We have to move beyond our innate desire to experience a form of Christian discipleship that exists in neatly tied packages, and embrace the realization that effective 21st-century discipleship looks more like an ordinary brown paper bag, creased and faded, but resilient enough to carry the redemptive message of Jesus Christ. We can take those pretty packages and put them in our tough brown paper bags because the discipleship we carry is not without hope or beauty. It simply doesn’t rely on things pretty and superficial to carry us along the paths God is calling us to follow — a path of witness marked by deeds as well as by words, as illustrated in a poem by Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School:

Preaching in Jerusalem
I was sick
and you knelt and thanked God
for your health.
I was homeless
and you preached to me
of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely
and you left me alone
to pray for me.
You seem so holy;
so close to God.
But I’m still very hungry
and lonely
and cold.
So where have your prayers gone?
What have they done?
What does it profit a man
to page through his book of prayers
when the rest of the world is crying for his help?
(“Be My Witness,” Judson Press, 2016)

The Rev. Marilyn P. Turner-Triplett, D.Min., is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ associate executive director of Missional Life and Leadership.