Discipleship in the Church

By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.

(Talk given an an Antiochian Orthodox Servants Conference, September 2017)

I’m very happy to be here today. My name is Evan, I’m from the Coptic Orthodox Church, St Mary and St Minas Church, Bexley. I’m also extremely happy that our Churches are working together and that we are able to come together in fellowship to grow together as children of the Lord. This is a huge blessing and I hope and pray this can continue into the future.

Today I’ll be speaking on: “Discipleship in the Church”.

We’ll start by looking at Discipleship. Firstly what’s a disciple? A disciple is a person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another; in other words a follower of another person’s teachings.

So what’s discipleship?

Discipleship is the process whereby we as teachers or leaders in the Church, help the people whom we serve, grow in the love and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, within the parameters of the revealed truth in the Orthodox Tradition. It’s the process whereby we help another person, grow deeply in their relationship with Christ, unto union with Christ, not only through our teachings but also through the model of our own lives.

Why is Discipleship Necessary?

Discipleship is necessary because the Church is a body. We are all united as the Body of Christ and thus have a role to play in ensruing the Body is healthy and growing into the fullness of Christ, into Christlikeness as individuals and primarily as a body.

Let’s have a look at 1 Cor 12:27-31:

“27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 28 And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the best[a] gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” – 1 Corinthians 12:27-31.

What’s really interesting with all these varied roles in the body, is that every role is one of serving the other. Every role is kenotic in nature, meaning a self emptying to serve the other. Let’s look at the roles again: Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Miracle Workers, Healers, Helpers, Administrators, Tongues. This means that every single one of us, if we are in the body of Christ, has a role to participate in the process of Discipleship, of helping other members of the Body of Christ to grow into the fullness of the likeness of God.

Not only do we labour individually, but we are all also mystically the one Body, so our work for others is essentially also a work for ourselves as we are all the one Body. We realise then that regardless of our position in the Church, regardless of our gifts and talents, as part of the Body of Christ, we have a responsibility and role to play to ensure the Body is healthy and growing. This takes place in and through the process of discipleship.

How do we do this?

Jesus is the perfect model of Discipleship. We see our Lord call his Apostles and Disciples and spend three years with them. During this time he teaches them concerning the kingdom of God, how to live a Godly life, and of course many other doctrines and teachings that have passed down to us today. We see our Lord develop a close relationship with his followers. He not only teaches them as a distant teacher, but also builds a relationship with them, a friendship, even calling them His friends.

“15 No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” – John 15:15

He shows them love and care as their teacher. He genuinely cares for their spiritual growth, correcting their errors when necessary, sometimes quite sternly as He did with St Peter, but always trying to help them take the small steps, step by step, that are necessary to grow into the people that they were called to be. When they are in fear He comforts them, He gives them hope, He encourages them. He not only teaches with His words but also through His example. He loves everyone, serves everyone, sacrificing His time and energy, sacrificing rest and other comforts, and eventually dies for everyone. And when he leaves them after the ascension, he eventually sends the Holy Spirit so that they’re guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, and empowered in their ministry for the building of the Body of Christ. We see in Christ the perfect model of discipleship, as a teacher with His pupils. His unbelievable love, sacrifice, care and commitment to his mission and service to humanity would definitely have left a huge impression on the minds and hearts on the Apostles and Disciples.

 

We then see the Apostles and Disciples implement the same model of Discipleship with those whom they are serving. Throughout the Pauline and Catholic Epistles we also see this great love and care from the Apostles and Disciples of the Lord to those whom they serve. They themselves learnt discipleship from Christ and now repeated this process in their ministry when serving others. They were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, fulfilling the promise of Christ, and through the grace of God were able to impart this grace to others.

We see them receive the rank of Apostles and continue to ordain Bishops and Deacons for the Church and eventually the Priesthood and Hierarchy is formed. Thus they participate in the process of building up the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. They also participate in imparting the Holy Spirit to the rest of the believers through Baptism and the laying on of hands, Chrismation. Thus we see varying gifts manifesting themselves in the Church for the building up, or edification of the Body of Christ. They travelled all over the known world, spreading the gospel and ministering to newly formed Churches. They exemplified amazing sacrifice, love, care and concern for others.

We see them putting in so much energy, writing epistles, letters, manifesting deep sorrow at times, sometimes deep joy. They became ‘all things to all men’ as St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, trying to bring as many people to Christ as possible.

St Paul says in Galatians 4:19 “My little children, for whom I labour in birth again until Christ is formed in you”. In other words as if he is experiencing extreme pains like those of a woman in labour out of his concern for his spiritual children. Eventually we see them give their all even unto death out of this true and pure love for the Lord and for His Church. They gave everything.

 

This process is then repeated in the Church, throughout her history, as the faith is passed down through a process of Discipleship through the Holy Spirit from generation to generation. We see the greatest Saints of our Church being formed through discipleship, through relationship with their elders in and through the Holy Spirit. We see fathers and mothers passing this faith onto their children through their love and example. This is done with the same Spirit as seen by Christ and the Apostles and Disciples.

The great Early Church Father St Athanasius is formed under the love and care of St Alexander. St Basil, by his holy mother St Macrina and sister St Macrina the younger. In modern times Father Mathew the Poor under the wonderworker Pope Kyrillos the VI. All these saints were filled with the Holy Spirit, and were part of a process of passing on this faith and grace from generation to generation.

In other words the tradition of our Church, from the time of Christ, through the Apostles, through the greatest Saints, all the way to our times today, demonstrates a traditional transmission of Apostolic Truth, in an through the process of Discipleship, in and through the Holy Spirit.

This then  places a great responsibility on our shoulders to ensure the methodology we use in discipleship, can produce the same fruits as it has throughout history, of continuing to pass on, not only the Apostolic faith, but also to contribute to the sanctification of those whom we serve. Bringing them to Christlikeness.

How do we do this properly? How do we ensure we are being effective teachers and passing on the same Faith and love for God to those whom we serve? How can we also allow the Holy Spirit to use us for the building up of the Body of Christ? Firstly we must realise that if we are ourselves going to be standing in this unbroken chain of discipleship, whereby we assist in transmitting the faith to others, that we ourselves have something to transmit.

  1. Do I have a relationship with God?

Do I know Christ through my own relationship with Him? Do I pray daily talking often with the Lord? Do I have the same relationship I’m trying to pass onto others or am I teach one thing and practice another? This is a very important point. If I’m going to be effective in serving others I cannot do this simply through my own energy, wisdom and skills. I need the grace of God, active in my life, through a deep prayer life. I need to imitate Christ, the Apostles and Saints by having a deep prayer life myself. Even our Lord would spend time away from the crowds in solitude in prayer. Do I think I don’t need prayer in my ministry? Thus we realise that we need to have a solid prayer life is we are serving others. We can always develop a daily prayer rule with the wisdom and blessing of our spiritual father, but if we don’t know Christ ourselves through a living relationship, what will we pass onto others?

 

  1. Do I pray for those whom I serve?

We see Jesus praying for His disciples, he prays they remain firm in faith, that they don’t fall into temptation, that the Father keeps them safe. We see the Apostles also pray with deep yearning, without ceasing for those whom they serve. Do we also realise the necessity to ask God to work in the lives of those whom we serve? Do we have list of those whom we serve and pray for them daily?

We must realise that by doing this we are bringing the people we serve into the presence of God, we are praying that God clear the tares from their hearts, take away the spiritual blindness and grant that they may know Him. If we don’t pray for those whom we serve, we demonstrate that we think it’s our own wisdom or talents that are going to save people. This is a great delusion. As St Paul said: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” 1 Corinthians 3:6. We can only do so much; God is the one who will give the much needed grace and growth to a person to help them grow.

 

  1. Do I understand my faith?

Do I read the Bible regularly and also the writings of the Early Church Fathers and saints of the Church?  Do I acknowledge that there is a long standing tradition before I even came into existence and that I’m one link in this tradition, and thus need to understand it as best as I can to pass it onto others? If I don’t read the Bible and Patristic writings, then what am I sharing with others? My own wisdom? My own knowledge? And if so then am I really passing on the same tradition or my own understanding?

Thus we must read a little of the Bible every day and other Orthodox writings, to ensure we are passing on the Orthodox Faith to others. If we make it a habit to read the Bible daily and Orthodox writings with time we ourselves will acquire an Orthodox mindset, if of course we are doing all the other points we are discussing. Reading alone won’t impart an Orthodox mindset or ‘phronema’ to us. We also need an active spiritual life of prayer and sacramental participation in the Church. This bring me to the next point.

 

  1. Am I striving to live an Orthodox Life?

Am I trying to apply the Gospel commandments in my own life. Am I trying to be the person that Jesus has called me to be, genuinely loving Him as much as I can and loving my neighbour as myself? Through the obeying of the gospel commandments through a deep reliance on God assisting me in the process, in the Church, I start on the journey of purification/ sanctification and thus my knowledge of God changes from a ‘theoretical knowledge’ to an ‘experiential  knowledge’ based on the experience of God through a participation in his grace/energies. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” as our Lord said in the sermon on the Mount.

Through our sincere Christian struggle we participate in a process of purification and begin to perceive God’s presence in our lives in a wonderful way. To experience the fullness of this purification though, I need the mysteries or sacraments of the Church. When I fall out of human weakness do I go to confession? Am I myself a disciple so I’m learning from God’s priests and likewise being taught as they were? Confession is extremely important not only to receive absolution for my sins, but it’s also important as it allows me to receive advice from my spiritual father, thus continuing the process of discipleships as I learn from him.

Do I partake of the Holy Eucharist regularly? Am I nourished by the precious Body and Blood of our Lord? Can I dwell in Him and partake of the fruits of the entire economy of our salvation without eating His flesh and drinking His blood? In Holy Communion I participate in Christ and have imparted to me all the benefits of His incarnation and experience union with Him. He gives me everything He has by nature as a gift of grace.

We see then our Church has given us the means necessary to become Godlike, to experience union with God.

We really need to use these ‘tools’ brothers and sisters, to partake of the Holy Mysteries and live a Christian life in all regards, so that we can be transformed through God’s grace into His beloved Children. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and renew us, and make us living and effective members of the Body of Christ.

This is extremely important. If I am being fed through the Mysteries, I have Christ dwelling in me. If I have Christ dwelling in me through participation in the Holy Mysteries and also through the other points mentioned above I’ll be aflame with God’s grace. The Holy Spirit will be aflame in my heart.

I’ll be able to, with time as the years pass by, say with St Paul “it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” and also “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.

These of course a huge words by St Paul, but aren’t we called to this? To be so aflame with love and zeal for God? We see then brothers and sisters that to be a teacher is a great responsibility and requires much commitment and effort on our behalf. It’s not a game to be responsible for the souls of others. If I take this role seriously then I can truly make a huge impact on the life of those whom I serve and really be a great tool in God’s hand to bring many to salvation.

If I strive to love God and live an Orthodox life, I can truly transform the lives of others, through God’s grace.

If I do all the above then I truly become an effective servant in assisting others to know and love God. I can also be a part of the chain of the transmission of the Apostolic message, through being an effective teacher in the process of discipleship whereby I help the disciples know and love the true Teacher our Lord Christ.

 

Practically if I do the above then I also need to sacrifice my time and energy to serve in the Church.

There is a sad phenomenon in Orthodoxy. We focus on our own spiritual development, reading, struggle, yet if someone wants us to help them, or if we are asked to serve many times we say no and prefer to keep our spirituality to ourselves. It’s one thing to be a monk and another to be a Christian in the body of Christ in the world. The monk’s primary focus is the interior life. The Christian in the world cultivates the interior life while also sacrificing himself in service to others.

If God calls me, through His servants the clergy or other servants in the Church then I need to use my talents for the building up of the Church. Sometimes we can feel it’s too hard, or we are not worthy. This is normal. Moses the great prophet didn’t want to deliver the Israelites as he had a stutter. God worked with him through and delivered a whole nation from bondage. We are called to do exactly the same, to deliver those in bondage to sin and spiritual darkness, to a deep and intimate union with Christ.

If we do everything we have heard in this talk, pray deeply, regularly, unceasingly if possible, read the Bible and Fathers daily, struggle to grow in virtue, participate in the sacramental life of the Church, then with time we will become aflame with God’s love. The natural consequence will be a desire to help others also enter in the mystery of salvation and participation in the sweet presence of God.

We don’t need to be clergy or ordained ministers. That is a specific call, but as we saw earlier on, there are many roles in the Church that are all extremely important as they are all necessary for the building up of the Body of Christ. God will help us, through our spiritual father as well, to find our talents and be active participates in the process of building up the Church. We will become active members in the process of Discipleship.

And finally, on a very practical note, I must really love those whom I serve. It’s not just about giving them knowledge. At my Church we have something on practically every night at Church. We have something for the primary kids, high school kids, working youth, and all members of the congregation. The servants hang out with the youth, they really show them they care. We go on outings to Maccas, we go to the movies together. We really spend time with the kids. We call them to see how they’re going. We are their older brothers and sisters.

We do visitations at their homes and get to know their parents. Our Churches are literally filled with kids and youth. What makes a successful Church, is this really personal one on one nature of the service, and the love and commitment of the servants.

H.H. Pope Shenouda of blessed memory said a Church without youth is a Church without a future, so he ensured that allot of energy was put into children and youth ministry. But this requires effort from all the servants, not just the priests.

 

I need to know the person I serve like a brother or sister, like my own child, and really be available to them and sacrifice my time and energy to serve them. Imparting knowledge and truth is important, but is only possible when the kids or people we serve feel we genuinely love them and care for them.

If we do everything with great zeal and love, even if we lack some knowledge we will have very fruitful results. We will be able to continue the living transition of our faith from generation to generation unto union with Christ, not only for ourselves but also for those whom we serve and or the whole body of Christ. Glory be to God forevermore, amen.

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