When we hear the word disciple, certain images come into our head. I dare say, with disappointment, those images are not of Jesus. Rather, they are of those so aligned with a conservative political movement and phrases like “becoming soldiers for God” that we find ourselves wanting more distance from “discipleship”. What does it mean if we stop, take a deep breath, and think about what Jesus wanted his disciples to go forth and do?
Jesus sought solitude then emerged from the wilderness and began his ministry. It was during this time he met those who would become his disciples and asked them to follow him. To be a disciple means to follow a great teacher, to be a learner. The word discipline is rooted in discipleship.
Jesus commanded His followers—in what is commonly referred to as “The Great Commission”—to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
You may be thinking, “I’m a UNITARIAN Universalist! I don’t believe in the trinity!” We UUs have a long history centering us on the idea that Jesus was a great teacher and leader, but no more divine than any one of us. What if we concentrate on his message? To love thy neighbor as thyself, to help the least among us, to care for one another? If our world was filled with disciples who took these teachings to heart we would have less injustice, less hunger, less pain in the world.
23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. 25 What is a man benefited if he gains the whole world, yet loses or forfeits himself?
To be a disciple of Jesus means that we have given up our lives in order to follow Him wholeheartedly and unreservedly. It means that our lives are no longer our own—they are His.
Unitarian Universalists value autonomy over almost anything else. We promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning as one of our principles and beloved values. We also value covenant. We teach our children that we are without a shared creed, but are a covenantal faith – that the promises we make one another about how we will be in community together is the bedrock of our religious tradition. This tells me the work to build the Beloved Community is perhaps more important than our autonomous needs. We value the individual, but we also value the whole.
Jesus and His disciples spent a lot of time together (Acts 1:21-22). They ate together, walked together, rode in boats together. They even fought together (Luke 9:46-48). The 12 disciples were in one another’s lives, constantly and intentionally.
You could even say they were a chosen family, united by their commitment and covenant with one another to go forth and share the teachings of Jesus.
In religious education ministry I often ask myself, what are we trying to make disciples of? So far, there’s been no good answer. I’ve taken this question to religious education council meetings and teacher meetings to find us only agreeing on the word love, while recognizing that the single word doesn’t feel quite right. We know we want to grow lifelong Unitarian Universalists. We know we want our children to be leaders who exemplify our values. We know we believe doing social justice work is part of the very fiber of who we are as Unitarian Universalists.
When watching the video found here, I found myself realizing the watch words they use are the guide. Love. Liberate. Lead. Launch.
We teach love as our primary value. It is evident in our first principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity, which is to say each person is important. We exemplify that value through the various statements, social witness, and social action we do through the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. We talk about building a Beloved Community. We want to follow Love – to share the message of Love, to be a people of Love.
We teach liberation through social justice work and through identity work. It is evident throughout our principles. We know that explicit anti-racism and anti-oppression work should be part of religious education. We know to do this work we have to help with identity building; religious identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on. We do this by modeling and explicitly sharing our acceptance of all who wish to be part of our community. We model this by working for justice on the behalf of marginalized identities.
We teach leading by giving children and youth developmentally appropriate ways to step into leadership in the congregation, by requiring service projects of their design or discovery for their rites of passage programs, by sharing leadership with youth both in the youth group, but throughout the congregation. We help children and youth find ways to lead that fit their identity, knowing not everyone is an extrovert who is ready to stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. We also model what it means to lead from a UU perspective. We show this in the way we conduct our business meetings in the congregation and the way we navigate difficult conversations. We show it every time we lovingly call someone back into covenant with us.
We launch young adults formally through the bridging program, a rite of passage that helps young adults identify how they can rely on their faith while away at college, serving in the military, or working as an independent young adult for the first time. We prepare them for entering another Unitarian Universalist community wherever they live. We have walked beside them this entire time and through bridging, we state explicitly in worship that we will continue to do so in a new relationship with them, one that honors that they are an adult in our community.
We teach love, liberation, leadership, and launch UUs into the world as disciples – young people who will take the message of Unitarian Universalism into new communities with them and share that there is a place where all are welcome, a place where we stand firm for social justice for all people, a place where we grapple with our values and our covenants in lifelong pursuit of growth and education. They will live their lives with our shared UU values as the bedrock of their faith and their lives.
Edit: When sharing this with my roommate he had this to say: UUism is not a revealed religion. This has not been handed down to us. We continue to have our faith lived and revealed because we determine right from wrong for ourselves through discernment guided by our principles and we can learn from and respond to the here and now”. This is pretty great considering he himself is not a UU. The results of living with an UU religious educator, perhaps?