My guess is that when you heard the word “Discipleship” in the title of this conference, and of this lecture, you intuited, for however brief an instant, that it was “Christian Discipleship” or “Discipleship of Christ” that was to be discussed. And, at least as far as this talk goes, you were right. But isn’t it strange that a word which is in itself object-neutral has come to acquire a quick-flash association with Christ? In principle, at least, discipleship could be of any model at all: Ho Che Minh, Ethel Rosenberg, Marian Anderson or Saladin. What is odd is that because the followers of Christ are called his disciples, so discipleship has come to be particularly associated with him, as though there is a special form of religious following called discipleship which is an especially good thing and different from any other form of following. Well, my hunch is that when ordinary words become “religious”, it is time to take them to the laundry. Because what has usually happened is that they are being taken out of their normal field of application in interpersonal relationships and given a patina of specialness. This “special” quality then often mystifies at least as much as it illuminates.
I begin with four affirmations that I will exposit in some detail: (1) The God of the gospel is a God who calls persons and communities to God’s own self, to engage in praise and obedience. (2) The God of the gospel is a God who sends persons and communities to claim many zones of the world for God’s governance of “justice, mercy, and faith” (Matt 23:23). (3) The God of the gospel lives among and in contestation with many other gods who also call and send, but whose praise and obedience are false, precisely because there is no commitment to “justice, mercy, and faith.”. (4) Consequently, the persons and communities called by this God for praise and obedience and sent by this God for justice, mercy, and faith also live among and in contestation with other gods, other loyalties, other authorities. Inescapably, the ones called and sent are always yet again deciding for this one who calls and sends. This endless process of deciding again is accomplished in freedom from all other calling gods and all other sending loyalties. That endless deciding, moreover, requires great passion, imagination, and intentionality.
One thing I have learned from the Radical Reformers is that theological thought can never be separated from its embodiment in concrete communities of worship and service. Thus, when asked how my thought has been shaped by engagement with Radical Reformation theology, I must reply-in the spirit of what I have learned from the Anabaptist tradition-that I cannot answer the question without explaining how my life has been shaped by encounter with radical reformation communities.