Rowan Williams: ‘Being Disciples’

Discipleship is, as your title indicates, a state of being. Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the courses we attend, but a state of being. It’s very telling that at the very beginning of St John’s Gospel, a text to which unsurprisingly I’ll be coming back later (St John 1.38-39), when the two disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus they say, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’, Jesus says, ‘Come and see’, and they remained with him that day. The Gospel teaches us that the bottom line in thinking about discipleship has something to do with staying.

No accident then that later in the same gospel the language of abiding is what is used to speak about the relation of the disciple to Jesus. In other words, what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time. Discipleship may be being a student in the strict Greek sense of the word, but it doesn’t mean turning up once a week for a course, or even a sermon. Discipleship is not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues. In the ancient world being a student was rather more like that than it is these days. If you said to a modern student or prospective student that the essence of being a student was to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in case you missed any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conducted themselves at the table, how they conducted themselves in the street, you might not get a very warm response.

But in the ancient world, it was a rather more like that. To be the student of a teacher was to commit yourself to living in the same atmosphere and breathing the same air; there was nothing intermittent about it. Discipleship in that sense is a state of being in which you’re looking and listening without interruption. It’s much more like, for instance, the state of the novice monks as they appear to us in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, who are just hanging around hoping that they’ll get the point, who occasionally say desperately to the older monks, ‘Give us a word, Father’, and the older monk says something really profound like, ‘Weep for your sins’ followed by about six weeks of silence. Or indeed the relationship between (even today) the Buddhist novice and the master in a Zen house, where something similar applies. You’re hanging around; you’re watching; you’re absorbing a way of being, and you yourself are in a state of being. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. So “‘Rabbi where are you staying?’ … ‘Come and see.’ … They saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.” is quite a good beginning to think about discipleship. And, as I hinted, I don’t think it’s any accident that John puts it right at the beginning of his Gospel. If we’re going to understand what he has to say to us about discipleship, we have to understand about abiding and sharing, and this non-intermittent side of being a disciple.

I shall have a little more to say about in a while about that sharing a place, an atmosphere, a state of being. But let us just stay with what it involves for a moment and think about it in terms of discipleship as a state of awareness. The disciple is not there to jot down ideas and then go away and think about them. The disciple is where he or she is so that they’ll change – so that the way in which they see and experience the whole world changes. That great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones wrote in one of his late poems of the poet’s relation to God: ‘It is easy to miss him at the turn of a civilization.’ And discipleship as awareness is trying to develop – to grow – into those skills that help you not to miss God – Jesus Christ – at the turn of a civilization, or anywhere else. Awareness is inseparable in this connection from a sort of expectancy, and I think that is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple.

The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.

I’ve always rather liked that image of prayer as bird-watching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening, and I suspect that most of us know that a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot called ‘the kingfisher’s wing flashing light to light’ make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens – has a great deal to do with discipleship, indeed with discipleship as the gospels present it to us. Interesting (isn’t it?) that in the gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they’re expected to look as well. They’re people who are picking up clues all the way through.

This is shown to us in very different ways in different gospels, different gospels which I think pick up those different keys and registers and styles of discipleship that all of us experience in different ways, so that we can recognize ourselves in very diverse modes. What I mean is that the gospel of St Mark on the whole portrays the disciples as incredibly stupid about picking up clues: they can’t do it. The kingfisher flashes past them and Peter, or someone (usually Peter), turns round and says ‘Oh, I missed that!’ Whereas in St John’s gospel, there’s a much more steady accumulation of moments of recognition and realization from the moment (right after the first sign in Cana of Galilee) when the disciples see his glory, and they pick up, moment by moment, and they see.

And that theme of seeing of course comes to its great climax when Peter and the Beloved Disciple stumble into the empty tomb and see the folded grave clothes. It’s an inexhaustibly wonderful text because it distinguishes so clearly between the first moment when Peter looks in and ‘notices’ and the other disciple comes in and ‘sees’. And you can draw up a chart of those words as they evolve through the whole of St John’s gospel. That ‘seeing’ – noticing and seeing – the noticing and seeing which is part of the disciple’s task. And although the disciples may still be a bit slow in St John’s accounts, they’re not nearly as dim-witted as they appear in St Mark. And that corresponds to dimensions of our own discipleship: those longish periods where, looking back, we feel ‘How could we have been so obtuse?’ and those periods where we think ‘Yes: I don’t see it all yet but it’s beginning to link up.’ And to me the excitement of reading St John’s gospel, in the context of trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, is something to do with watching that excitement of things linking up as the great narrative unfolds. And I’m sure that in reality, Peter and John and the rest of the disciples and the Twelve were actually not so very different from us: that is, they had their dim-witted days, and their bright days.

Disciples watch, they remain alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts as well as listening for words; watching the actions that give the clue to reality being re-organized around Jesus. Let me just remind you of the beginning of John’s story once again – the wedding at Cana (St John 2.11): Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee. There he revealed his glory, he made his glory to be seen. And his disciples believed in him, his disciples trusted him. They see what’s going on and something connects.

Sometimes those signs are difficult or ambiguous. ‘What did you do that for?’ is a question that is occasionally hangs around the gospel narratives. There’s the occasion in the synoptic gospels of the cursing of the fig tree. Jesus goes to Jerusalem. The puzzlement of what’s going on there, a puzzlement which many modern readers share with the first disciples; but there it is, an action which Jesus so to speak offers to the disciples and says, ‘What do you make of that? Do you see what that’s about?’ Again, another strange exchange between Jesus and the disciples in the boat after the feeding of the multitude, ‘Do you see it yet? Do you understand what was going on yet? How many loaves? How many baskets of leftovers? What have you seen? Tell me.’ So, awareness and expectancy are very much around in the expectation that Jesus seems to have of the disciples. Watching the acts as well as listening to the words. Watching with a degree of inner stillness that allows the unexpected world-changing to occur.

And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are no less important. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and, in theory at least, we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. But like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive. We look, we listen – awareness, expectation. And (a point that I love to underline because it’s not always easy to hold to this in the Church) we look at one another as Christians with expectancy. It cannot be said too often, but the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given what we encounter in some of the other Christians we mix with much of the time, that can be hard work. But, none the less, that is the expectation of expectancy.

Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we look at one another with that degree of expectancy, which (as again I usually have to say) doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says. It simply means that you begin by saying, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics; never mind the policy; never mind anything, just ask that question and it does perhaps move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very biblical experience of the Church.

But now, awareness, expectancy, discipleship as not something intermittent – all of this presupposes the category of following, which is so very basic in all the language about discipleship. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it presupposes that we are willing to travel to where the master is, to follow where the master goes. And, of course, in the gospels, where the master goes is very frequently not where we would have thought of going, or where we would have wanted to go. Hence, taking up the instrument of our execution – the cross – and walking his way.

Let me take you to St Luke 14 for a moment. In that chapter Jesus repeats insistently in what sort of lives cannot be lived by disciples. And they’re hard words. Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters (14.26). And themselves as well: those who do not carry their own cross and come after me cannot be my disciples. ‘Cannot’: it repeats itself through that chapter in a very alarming way. But the point is that if you’re going to be where the master is, those things you think come naturally and comfortably are not necessarily going to be where you find yourself. The place where you’re going to be is always going to be defined by the master, not by you, because a disciple is not greater than his master, as both St Luke and St John in their different ways say.

Following so as to be in the same place as the master. There are two very interesting, rather different directions in which we can take this idea. First of all, a fairly obvious meaning, but one I think is quite important in thinking about discipleship in the New Testament. Being where Jesus is means finding yourself in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. So, when Jesus goes to be in the company of the excluded, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased, that’s where you’re going to find yourself. If you are going to be where Jesus is, if your discipleship is not intermittent but a way of being, that’s where you are going to find yourself, in the same sort of human company that he is in. This is once again an important reminder that our discipleship is not about choosing our company beyond choosing the company of Jesus.

So that is indeed why so many great disciples across the history of the Christian Church, and indeed now, find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is. Those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the Gospel, and the spread of the Gospel; those who have found themselves in the midst of strangers wondering ‘How did I get here?’ – great figures like (one of my own personal heroes) Bishop Thomas French, a great CMS figure of the nineteenth century who spent almost his entire mission ministry as Bishop of the Persian Gulf at a time when there were (at a generous estimate) two Christians in the whole of the area he was looking after and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? The desire to be where Jesus was, Jesus waiting to come to birth – come to visibility – in all those souls whose lives he touched even though in the long years he worked in the Middle East he made barely one convert. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ reaching out to and seeking to be born in those he worked with. It’s the very failure, and the drama of that failure, that draws me to his story now (not, I hasten to add, because I have any kind of affiliation to failure, though archbishops perhaps ought to get used to it) but because it just demonstrates the utter value of a discipleship that is concerned with being where Jesus is regardless of the consequences.

But then there’s another, deeper and I think more exciting direction to this, a dimension that comes again and again into visibility in the fourth gospel. ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also’, (St John 12). And where Jesus Christ is – St John has told us at the beginning of his gospel – is next to the Father’s heart. The Word of God in the bosom of the Father. And so, where he is we are to be also. We are to be not only where he is in terms of mission and outreach and service in the world, where he is in serving the outcast; we are also to be where he is in his closeness to the Father. We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.

As I was thinking about this I was struck by a thought that that had never really occurred to me before: that there’s a connection in St John’s gospel between the way in which disciples are to see and do what their master is doing, and what Jesus himself says about his relation to the Father. If you look at St John 5.19, you find the great affirmation of the Son doing what the Father is doing. The Son gazes on and absorbs the eternal action of the Father, and the acts it out in his own life, in eternity and in history. The Son, the Word of God, drinks in the everlasting act of the Father and then makes it real in another context. Does St John mean us to pick up a sort of echo of that in various places in his Gospel, where he speaks in similar terms about seeing and doing? Look too at St John 7:3: ‘Leave this place,’ say Jesus’s brothers, ‘and go to Judea, so that your followers will see the things that you are doing; for no one hides what he is doing if he wants to be well known.’ And then of course there are the great meditations of the farewell discourses (St John 17) where it seems very clear that the seeing and the doing are connected. The disciples see what Jesus is doing, and they also see that Jesus is doing what the Father is doing, they see the glory that Jesus and the Father give to each other, and that glory is given to them. But I suspect that we’re meant at least to make some connection there between the seeing and doing of Jesus in relation to the Father, and the seeing and doing that goes on between disciples and Jesus. This helps us again in thinking about what I called at the beginning the non-intermittent character of discipleship. The relationship of Jesus to the Father is not episodic. Jesus does not receive an occasional bit of instruction from the Father, his relationship is sustained, eternal and unbroken. He gazes into the mystery of the Father’s love and he does it, in heaven and on earth. And we in our discipleship are gazing into the mystery of that incarnate love and we are seeking to do that same will, to act that same action, on earth as it is in heaven, as the Lord’s prayer puts it.

So, that suggests the rather ambitious thought (but an ambition entirely justified by scripture) that the heart of discipleship is trinitarian; that it is as we understand more deeply the trinitarian life of God that’s uncovered for us in those wonderful passages of St John’s gospel that we understand more fully what it is that is the root and energy of our being disciples here and now. We see and we do, not just because that’s the way discipleship or studentship worked in the ancient world; we see and we do because that’s what the Father and the Son are involved in for all eternity.

Let me try to draw some of this together. What I’m suggesting is that to get some perspective on the biblical sense of the disciples’ identity means first and most obviously the simple willingness to be consistently in Christ’s company. What that means practically for the Christian today is being consistently in the company of other servants of Christ, in the company of the revelation of Christ in scripture, in the company of the Father and the Son in the Spirit in prayer, all of which will require of us a certain degree of inner stillness and, what I think I called earlier, a sort of poise: the attentiveness of the bird-watcher again. Attention and expectancy, an attitude of mind sufficiently free of the preoccupations of this or that business of the ego to turn itself with openness to what God in Christ is giving.

At the primary level, that will mean learning and deepening our attentiveness to the Bible, to the sacraments and to the life of the Body of Christ. And secondly, arising out of that, it means learning a level of attentiveness to all persons, places and things, looking at everything with the eye of expectancy, waiting for something of God to blossom within it. Being in Christ’s company, learning attentiveness and practicing that kind of still alertness that is looking and waiting for the light to break through. Then thirdly, it means being attentive to where Christ is going, keeping company with those he’s with. Among them we will find the most unexpected and unlikely characters, the kinds of people that Jesus seems to spend so much time with in the gospels and today. Most importantly we will find him keeping company with the Father, in whose company he eternally is.

Our attentiveness is not just a kind of aesthetic attitude, an appreciation of beauty. It is also a willingness to bring an active and transfiguring love into that situation of expectancy, to keep company so that an action and a relationship may come to being. So, being a disciple means being in his company, learning stillness and attentiveness, expectancy, being willing to go when Jesus is going and to be in the company of those he’s in company with, letting the action come through and the relation be made; letting his action come through us as the Father’s act comes through him. Finally what seems to be suggested by these reflections upon the biblical identity of the disciple is that our discipleship in the company of Jesus is a trinitarian mode of life that is imbedded in the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: that is, it is a contemplative mode of life (not in the sense that we might all become Carthusian hermits, tempting as that often appears); but that we’ve all got to grow into what I’ll call a ‘mature stillness’, a poise and an openness to others and the world, so that thirdly, it can also be a transformative mode of living in which the act of God can come through so as to change ourselves, our immediate environment, our world.

A trinitarian living, a contemplative living, a transformative living: no opposition here (as there isn’t in the fourth gospel) between contemplation and action. (And we do need to say that: it’s one of the awful clichés that Christians have sometimes been trapped by: what matters more, contemplation or action? Perhaps the only answer to that is: just try and think of contemplation without action or action without contemplation, and you realize you’re drawing up a charter for really sterile, and potentially even destructive, human living.) Hold them together – contemplation as your openness to the real roots of transforming action – and maybe it doesn’t look like quite such a stand-off.

The greatest teachers of prayer and action have held those together in the most remarkable way, like the great St Teresa of Avila (1515-82) saying that when you have finally ‘progressed’ through all the hair-raising mystical experiences that she describes, what it’s all finally about is enabling you to do some very ordinary things a little bit better. As she says, when you’ve been through the seventh mansion of spiritual union with God you’re better at the washing-up. The habit of attentiveness and expectancy towards God and one another results, overflows, in modes of being and action in the world that – because it can be free from ego and anxiety – actually allows God-shaped change to take place around you. Not by effort and struggle, furrowed brows and tensed muscles, but by allowing something to rise up, something irresistible within your awareness that is God’s purpose coming through to make the difference that only God can make.

Finally then, discipleship is indeed about traveling, and about growing. You can’t begin to describe the life of the disciples in the New Testament without coming to grips with that dimension of traveling. Disciples were people called away from home because they must be where their master is. And that is never going to be comfortable; but perhaps it becomes intelligible when one realizes (something that again is writ large on every page of scripture) that the home where you will finally realize who and what you are is the home, the place prepared for you, by Jesus. And the disciple is engaged in a journey from a place that looks like a comfortable and manageable home towards a home that is eternal and that – as St Augustine says – doesn’t fall away or fall into non-existence because we don’t happen to be living in it at the moment. Discipleship is, paradoxically, a journey away from home, and a journey toward home. Just as the conversion that is the daily task of a disciple, is a break with what seems closest and dearest to us, and a cleaving to what is actually deepest and most natural in us.

[Source: Fulcrum]

One comment

  1. “The relationship of Jesus to the Father is not episodic. Jesus does not receive an occasional bit of instruction from the Father, his relationship is sustained, eternal and unbroken.”

    What a loving Father we have!

    Thanks for posting.


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