Discipleship as a work in progress
Most visitors to the great city of Barcelona will take time to visit the remarkable Sagrada Familia, the Basilica that is the distinctive architectural masterpiece of the Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí. Not only is this controversial church a visual spectacle, it is notoriously unfinished. Begun in 1882, it is not expected to be completed anytime soon, with the most optimistic completion date being 2026. Gaudí took over the project near its beginning in 1883 and then devoted himself fully to it from 1915, but never saw his magnum opus completed. In fact, after his tragic death in 1926 (he was run over by a tram), he was buried in the crypt of his unfinished church.
People travel from all over the world to admire this utterly distinctive building, admiring all that has been achieved, even though it remains a construction site. Much has been done over the decades to construct Gaudi’s vision, but it remains the case that his vision has yet to be fully realised. For many people, to understand the Sagrada Familia is to recognise that it is a work in progress.
This provides us with a useful illustration of being a follower of Jesus. Christian discipleship is not to be thought of as a switch (on/off, in/out) but is to be understood as a life of ongoing change and transformation. Each believer has enrolled in the school of discipleship, as one who is learning and growing. Each of us is a work in progress. We are called to grow in grace as believers.
It is integral to God’s purposes in creation and redemption that heaven will display the beauty of His holiness (Himself aside) by populating the universe with vast numbers of human beings, uniquely different in themselves, but each one displaying the perfection we see in Christ. The necessary work of transformation in our lives - required to reach that end - begins now, but it is a renovation which progresses through this life, without final completion till the next life.
Simon Peter is a case in point. He was introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew (John 1). Jesus words to Peter were prescient: Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) John 1:42. Peter is given a new name; one that is charged with the intimation of renewal in Peter’s life. Names, and especially the change of names, have great significance in Biblical culture (Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, and so on). Jesus’ introductory conversation with Simon was an intimation of intent, and that intention was that Simon’s life would be utterly transformed in relationship with Jesus. Following Jesus was not to be a detached or peripheral interest in his life, but a character-renewing, making and remaking, of the man. This brash man of fickleness and frailty and instability would be transformed by Jesus, through fear and failure, to become a man of solid dependability, whose new name ‘Rock’ would bear testimony to the transformation.
It is possible to pick out episodes from Peter’s discipleship through the Gospel records, and over the summer we did this as we explored the story of Peter on Sunday mornings. It is clear that Peter was a brash man, full of a misplaced confidence in himself. He was also a man full of fears. He was afraid of anything that might involve suffering, as evidenced by his presumptuous rebuke of Jesus when our Lord spoke of going to Jerusalem to die (Mark 8:32-33). Peter was also afraid of what people might think of him, shown in his threefold denial of Jesus to servant girls and bystanders in the courtyard where Jesus, after His arrest, was being interrogated by Caiaphas & Co (Matthew 26:69-75). Peter had an inflated view of his own strength and abilities, as seen in his insistence that, whilst the other disciples might abandon Jesus, he, by contrast, would be prepared to go to his death for Jesus, an affirmation exposed for its foolishness in his subsequent denial of Jesus. (Luke 22:33)
Often the key lesson for Peter, and the key lesson for us, is learning to listen to and obey the Word of Christ. At the end of John’s Gospel, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we read of how the disciples, led by Peter, returned to their old life of fishing. It is a choice and decision that seems tragically aimless. In the event, their fishing expedition was an unmitigated disaster, a night spent in frustration with nothing to show for it all. Then in an episode strangely, yet significantly, reminiscent of the first call of the disciples, Jesus tells them to fish a different way. Success follows, with no fewer than 153 fish in the haul.
The lesson from the account is plain: a self-directed life and self-directed service would lead to frustration and emptiness and even despair; but a Christ-directed life and a Christ-directed service would lead to joy and purpose and fruitfulness. There is a necessary ‘death to self’ involved, in Peter and in all of us who follow Christ; and that is an ongoing struggle in the adventure of faith.
The root of Peter’s problem in all of his failures was very straightforward - it is self-centredness. The challenge of discipleship is to ensure Christ is on the throne of our hearts, which by implication involves not allowing yourself to be the centre of the universe. Peter had a very clear idea of what his life would be, and humiliation and suffering were not part of this. In that same chapter of Matthew, in which we read of Peter rebuking Jesus for speaking of going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Jesus teases out what discipleship really means:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Matthew 16:24-26
Peter, wonderfully, learned and was changed, as evidenced by what he wrote many years later:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 1 Peter 4:12-16
This is a very different Peter from the one who stood in the courtyard cursing and swearing and embarrassed to be associated with Jesus. This is a very different Peter from the one who challenged in Jesus the idea of loss or suffering. Peter was changed, and as we listen to and follow the word of God so too should we.
It is significant that it is Peter who writes: grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ 2 Peter 3:18a
Your fellow pupil in the school of discipleship,