At some point in the process of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, each of us must transition from a faith that is focused on corporate identity to a faith that is centered in personal identity. I have spoken of that corporate identity as responding to God’s initiative of grace by becoming part of the family of God.
Our first sense of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ is shaped by the community with which we identify. That community can be an actual family. It can be a Bible study group, a prayer and support group, or a worshiping community with which we identify. The “spiritual family” that this group represents provides affiliation, support, encouragement, challenge, and a sense of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In this family we find welcome, acceptance, affirmation, encouragement, and support. We also find boundaries that separate our corporate identities from those outside the group—boundaries that define the expectations of the group. These boundaries may be explicitly stated or shared by common understanding; but they will describe the degree of involvement, the comfortable depth of the mutual relationships, and often the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that are deemed appropriate for participation in the group.
This kind of response to God’s grace is expressed in publicly identifying with the “family,” becoming a “member” of the group, or “joining” a church. This “family of God” blesses us with an identity. It embraces us in its sense of community. It instructs and guides us in how to live as a separate and distinct “family of faith” in the world. For many people and many churches, this is as far as you need to go in your discipleship. You have been “saved.” You have identified yourself publicly as a believer. You have accepted initiation into the community by being baptized.
My contention is that this “completed conversion experience” that ends in affiliation with “the family of God” is only the very first step in discipleship. It is only column 2 of the 6 columns in the “Making Disciples” chart. I identify it as the “Old Covenant” kind of faith that falls short of the radical transformation that the Gospel describes in calling us to become children of God and disciples of Jesus. It may never challenge us to the kind of Christlikeness that loves God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loves our neighbors as ourselves.
The Gospel of John concludes with the fundamental question that I want to address in the days ahead. After three years of being associated with Jesus as one of his followers, Simon Peter faced an intimate encounter with the Risen Lord. Simon was a disciple—in fact, the lead disciple. He was deeply embedded in the disciple “family.” He had lived with Jesus, followed Jesus, and learned from Jesus. But one question still remained: “Simon, do you love me?”
“Of course, I love you. You know that I love you. I’ve shown you my love by following you through good times and bad. How can you question my devotion—well, maybe I did deny you at a crucial point—but that wasn’t the real me. I do love you.”
But Jesus pressed on—three times—with the central question of discipleship. We will explore the many facets of that question in the days ahead, and I will blend in with those some aspects of my own pilgrimage in seeking first to become a child of God, and then a disciple, and then a servant in the ultimate goal of striving to become like Jesus.