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Rehabilitating the ‘D’ word

19 August 2016

‘Discipleship’ has been much maligned of late. In a new book, Rowan Williams explains why it’s important, and what it involves

The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei/WIKI

Follow me: Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

Follow me: Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

DISCIPLESHIP, as the title of this book indicates, is a state of being. Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being. It’s very telling that, at the very beginning of John’s Gospel (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 stay with him for the rest of the day. The Gospel teaches us that the bottom line in thinking about discipleship has something to do with this staying.

Later on in the same Gospel (especially John 15) the same language of “staying” or “abiding”, as it is often translated, is used again to describe the ideal relation of the disciple to Jesus: “Abide in me,” he says; “abide in my love.”

In other words, what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time. Discipleship may literally mean “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). It’s not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues.

The truth is that, in the ancient world, being a “student” was more like that than it is these days. If you said to a modern prospective student that the essence of being a student was to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow in his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in order not to miss any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conduct themselves at the table, how they conduct themselves in the street, you might not get a very warm response. But in the ancient world, it was 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.

Being a “disciple”, a learner, in that sense is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption. It’s much more like, for instance, the condition of the novice monks we read about in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, who hang around hoping that they will get the point, occasionally saying desperately to the older monks, “Give us a word, Father,” and at last the older monk says something really profound, such as, “Weep for your sins,” followed by six weeks of silence. Or, indeed, the relationship between (even today) the Buddhist novice and the master in a Zen community, where something similar applies.

You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. So that little exchange at the beginning of John’s Gospel — “‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ . . . ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” — is quite a good beginning for thinking about discipleship.

It’s no 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, this “non-intermittent” quality in being a disciple.


Being aware and attentive
I SHALL have a little more to say about that sharing a place, an atmosphere, a state of being. But for now let’s just stay with what it involves, and think a little about 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 in order to be changed; so that the way in which he or she sees and experiences the whole world changes.

That great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones wrote poignantly in one of his late poems about the poet’s relation to God: “It is easy to miss him at the turn of a civilization.” Discipleship as awareness is trying to develop those skills that help you not to miss God, to miss Jesus Christ, at the turn of a civilization, or anywhere else.

Awareness, in this connection, is inseparable from a sort of expectancy, and that is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple. Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something
about to break through from the Master, the Teacher; 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 are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a bit like that of a birdwatcher.

The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.

I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. 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. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot (in section IV of “Burnt Norton”) called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile.

And I think that living in this sort of expectancy — living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens — is basic to discipleship.

NOW, in the Gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they are expected to look as well. They are people who are picking up clues all the way through. This is shown to us in very different ways in different Gospels, as the disciples of Jesus begin to understand things in different ways and at different speeds.

So, for example, the Gospel of Mark tends to portray 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!”

In contrast, John’s Gospel presents us with a steady accumulation of moments of recognition and realisation, from the moment (right after the first sign in Cana of Galilee) when the disciples “see his glory” (John 2.11), and they begin to understand.

This theme of seeing comes to its great climax when (in chapter 20) 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”.

Indeed, you can draw up a chart of these words as they are used throughout the Gospel’s narrative to pick out the stages and modes of noticing that John wants us to be conscious of as part of the disciple’s task.

Not that the disciples always get it right, even in John’s accounts. They are still at times a bit slow, though not nearly as dim-witted as they sometimes appear in Mark.

But this corresponds to dimensions of our own discipleship: those longish periods where, looking back, we feel, “How could we have been so obtuse?”, and those times where we think, “Yes: I don’t see it all yet, but it’s beginning to link up.”

For me, as for so many, the excitement of reading John’s Gospel in the context of trying to be a disciple is something to do with the exhilarating sense of things linking up as the great narrative unfolds. I’m sure that, in reality, Peter and John and the rest of the disciples were actually not so very different from us: that is, they had their dimwitted days — but also those days when things begin to join up, and you see a hint of the overwhelming big picture that is being uncovered for you.


DISCIPLES watch, they remain alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts as well as listening for instructive words; watching the actions that give the clue to how reality is being reorganised around Jesus.

Back to the early stages of John’s story once again: the wedding at Cana (John 2.11): “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, at Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The disciples see what’s going on, and something connects; they know that what is before them is worthy of commitment.

But sometimes those signs, those symbolic actions, are difficult or ambiguous. “What did you do that for?” is a question that occasionally hangs around the Gospel narratives. There’s the occasion in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21.18-22; Mark 11.12-14, 20-25) of the cursing of the fig tree as Jesus goes to Jerusalem. The disciples’ puzzlement at what’s going on there is shared by many modern readers; but there it is, an action that Jesus, so to speak, offers to the disciples and says, “What do you make of that? Do you see what that’s about?”

Or, again, we have another odd exchange in Mark 8 between Jesus and the disciples in the boat after the feeding of the crowd of four thousand. “Don’t you understand yet? Haven’t you grasped it yet?” asks Jesus. He quizzes them about what they have seen in the feeding of the two great crowds of five thousand and four thousand, and ends, almost plaintively, “So you still don’t get it?” (Mark 8.21).

The exact significance of this exchange continues to give biblical scholars headaches, but what matters for us now is that Jesus clearly requires awareness and expectancy in his disciples, watching the acts as well as listening to the words, watching with a degree of inner stillness that allows the unexpected world-changing flash of the kingfisher’s wing to occur.


This is an edited extract from Being Disiciples: Essentials of the Christian life by Rowan Williams, published by SPCK (£8.99; CT Bookshop £8.09).


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