Godtalk: Disciples with Different Faces


Christ and the Disciples, a statue at Sto Domingo de Silos in Spain, Lawrence Lew OP at flickr.com

In a new book entitled, Jesus of Nazareth, German scripture-scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, describes how people in the gospels relate to Jesus in different ways. Not everyone was an apostle, not everyone was a disciple, and not everyone who contributed to Jesus’ cause even followed him. Different individuals had their own way of connecting to Jesus.  

'We may say that the gospels, especially Mark, are aware of a great variety of forms of participation in Jesus’ cause. There were the Twelve. There was a broader circle of disciples. There were those who participated in Jesus’ life. There were localized, resident adherents who made their houses available. There were people who helped in particular situations, if only by offering a cup of water. Finally, there were the beneficiaries who profited from Jesus’ cause and for that reason did not speak against it.'

Lohfink then makes this observation.  These structural lines that run through the gospels are not accidental.  In today’s church, because it is a shapeless mass, we can find all these forms expressed.  It is a complex pattern, as complex as the human body. The openness of the gospels, the openness of Jesus must warn us against regarding people as lacking in faith if they are unable to adopt a disciple’s way of life or if it is something completely alien to them. In any event, Jesus never did.

If what Lohfink says is true, this has implications as to how we should understand the church, both as it is conceived in the abstract and how it is understood practically within our parish structures. The similarity to Jesus’ time is obvious. When we look at church life today, especially as we see it lived out concretely within parishes, it is apparent that it’s made up of much more than only the core, committed congregation, namely, those who participate regularly in church life and accept  the dogmatic and moral teachings of their different traditions.

The Church also contains a wide variety of the less-engaged: people who practice occasionally, people who accept some of its teaching, people who don’t explicitly commit but are sympathetic to the church and offer it various kinds of support, and, not least, people who link themselves to God in more-privatized ways, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious.’  

But we must be careful in how we understand this. It does not mean that there are tiers within discipleship, where some are called to a higher holiness and others to a lower one, as if the full gospel applies only to some. There were some centuries in Church history where Christian spirituality suffered from exactly this misunderstanding, where it was common to think that only monks, nuns, contemplatives, priests, and other such people were called to live the full gospel while others were exempt from the more demanding of Jesus’ invitations.  

No such exemptions. The Church may never be divided into the perfect and less perfect, full-participation and partial participation. The full gospel applies to everyone, as does Jesus’ invitation to intimacy with him. Jesus doesn’t call people according to more or less.  Christian discipleship doesn’t ideally admit of different levels of participation … but something akin to this does happen, analogous to what happens in a love relationship. Although ideally everyone is meant to go its full depth, each individual chooses how deep thy will go, and some go deeper than others.

And given human history and human freedom, this is not surprising.  As each of us has our own history of being graced and formed and wounded, we all come to adulthood with very different capacities to see, to understand love, accept love, and give ourselves to someone or something beyond us.

None of us are whole and none of us are fully mature.  We are all limited in what we can do. Hence no one can be expected to respond to something that is outside their sphere of possibility:  we will inevitably gather around Jesus in many different ways, depending upon our capacity to see and to give ourselves. Jesus, it seemed, was happy with that. We must be careful not to judge each other.” Rolheiser Column Archive 2014..

Could this kind of thinking help us towards the (re)union of the one, holy catholic/universal, apostolic Church we all profess in the Creed every Sunday?

Fifty years ago, the Vatican II Bishops spoke of the ‘Church of Christ’, in which the Roman Catholic Church subsists:  truth and holiness can be found outside our Church:  and we all agreed to accept the baptism of each other’s traditions, bringing all Churches now into partial communion. We had reached the point historically where we could see more clearly the emergence of one (re)united Christian Church inclusive of all denominations.   

We all celebrate ‘Church Unity Week’ each year, reminding ourselves that we all have to work towards this vision that may seem so far in the distance.  ‘Yet isn’t that is what we felt thirty years ago when we still wondered how the Cold War could be won?’ said Cardinal Kasper.  Then came the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR imploded. It wasn’t magic:  it was the cumulative effect of many years patient effort, often behind the scenes.

In a similar way, could we not imagine tomorrow when we wake up to see that we do have sufficient agreement now for a reunited Church, after so many years of seemingly fruitless effort.  We are dealing with God, a Mystery, and should not be surprised that we cannot set it all out neatly and tidily. 

When we realize that we are all walking with Christ, albeit at different speeds and occasionally wandering off the path, could it be that we already have enough unity  to form one Church - not perfect, but fit for purpose.(?)      

Peter Knott SJ