“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12 NRSV
“Make disciples and teach disciples.” Those were the words which surfaced from a lecture during my studies at Campbell University Divinity School some ten years ago. This particular course was focused upon designing church programs and on this occasion considered the core outcomes which we should aspire to when creating and evaluating ministries. It sounds rather straightforward and simple enough, but what exactly does this mean? We know from Jesus’ words found in the Great Commission of Matthew 28 that followers of Christ have a responsibility to go and “make disciples.” For the past couple of months, I have sought to expound upon the significance of discipleship within the life of a church specifically as relates to the work of Little Rock Original Free Will Baptist Church. In June, I emphasized that our ministry of evangelism is to accomplish more than conversion for the sake of conversion. Jesus longs for a people who are maturing into the image of Christ as we journey along in the faith. That is to suggest there is more to being a Christian than just “getting saved.” Last month, I focused upon the role of nurture within the ministry of discipleship and shared how people fulfill a pivotal role in helping us make sense of our faith. But what exactly do we mean by “teaching disciples” or, as our mission statement speaks of, our being a place for “instruction?”
We speak of “faith” in terms of the act of believing when we cannot see the details. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is that deep, unwavering, determined certitude of something (or in this case Someone) that is beyond our physical eyesight and human understanding. Even as people and circumstances try to dissuade our knowing, we continue to hold fast to what we “see” through the lenses of “heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Such an understanding of faith focuses upon that which we “have” in relation to something else. As the author of Hebrews 11 has written, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” However, faith also moves beyond belief in the sense that “I have faith” to the makeup of what it is that we actually believe. In one understanding of faith, it is an action which we engage in through the Holy Spirit, but at the same time it is the “stuff” of our beliefs. For example, we hear people use the language of “I am new to the Christian faith” or “Tell me a bit about your faith tradition.” Here we move beyond the point of faith as something we “have” or “do” to the core elements of who we are and what we have come to believe. It is this faith in which we offer instruction so as to help people connect belief with practice.
In the passage I shared earlier from Philippians 2, Paul addresses a young Christian community in the way of their new found faith. The chapter opens with what we have come to know as the “Christ Hymn,” a passage which looks at the significance of Christ from two aspects (divine and human). In light of what Jesus accomplished for the Philippians and as a result of the example provided by him, these new disciples should live in a manner which reflects the reality of a changed life through Christ. The language of verse 12 may seem to counter some of what Paul writes elsewhere (i.e. Ephesians 2 when he states that our works are not the means by which we experience salvation). Salvation is a work within us via God’s grace. However, I believe that to dismiss Paul’s words in Philippians as contradictory is to miss an important element within the apostle’s understanding of living into this salvation. While the terminology is that of “working out,” we must consider how such wording relates to salvation.
“Working out” is used most often in our culture with reference to getting into shape. When someone states he or she is going to work out or just had a workout, we know he or she performed some type of action aimed at building strength or trimming down. We also hear these words when someone is attempting to process or wade through an important decision or difficult time which he or she may have experienced. He or she might say “I need to work on me” or “I have a lot that I need to work out.” I believe both of these understandings can be helpful when considering Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12 because the living of our faith is pertinent to who we are becoming in Christ. We might say we attempt to “practice what we preach.” At the same time, we also realize how coming into the Christian faith is much like taking on a new job, having a child, or making sense of some moment in life. In this instance, we mean there is a need for sorting, processing, and understanding what has just happened, what the various pieces mean, and what to do in light of the discoveries.
Paul suggests his readers consider the implications of what God has begun in their lives. It is the instructional aspect of discipleship which enables both new and seasoned Christians a space and opportunity to consider together this faith, what it all means, and why it is important to life. The key element in performing such a ministry is that of humility. The Christian faith does not begin or end with us, and our personal preferences are not to be the core of our doctrine. Instruction in the faith begins with knowing what we do not know and accepting the realization we are all in a process toward Christlikeness. The “fear and trembling” emphasis offered by Paul captures the humility with which we are to enter into Christian instruction. Such an approach to discipleship encourages us to take a step back and realize that the substance of our Christian faith is much larger than any one single person, congregation, or even denomination. “Fear and trembling” removes the “comfortable element” in becoming Christian in that it keeps us constantly on our toes and open to a lifetime of learning in Christ. This instruction in the faith occurs in many diverse ways within the life of a congregation and there is no “one size fits all” technique to cover all disciples in one “swoop.” This work of diversity is reflected in a multitude of ways within the ministry of Little Rock and it is to this that I shall turn next time.
Humbly Learning Together,
The Rev. Kelley Smart