Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati Young Single Adult Branch Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 22 June 2014 as Branch President
When I was in junior high school, my organ teacher one day told me that I ought to learn to play the viola. I didn’t even know what a viola was. When I told my older brother, he arranged for us to make the four hour trip to Salt Lake City to go to Peter Prier’s violin shop and he bought me a viola for $70. It turned out that the high school art teacher’s wife in our small Idaho town had played viola at one time, so she agreed to give me a few lessons to get me started. The next summer when I went back to the Ricks College summer music camp, I played in my first orchestra and had my first real lessons.
I continued going to that music camp for the next several years and at one point, the viola instructor looked at me and said “You have made no progress since last year. So you need to decide whether you really want to do this or else just stop wasting your time.” The art teacher and his wife had moved, so there was no one to take lessons from short of driving to Pocatello—and my mother would not do that. I couldn’t do much about not having a school orchestra to play in, but I did make arrangements with the director of the Idaho Falls Civic Symphony to give me a ride to rehearsals once a week. The summer I turned sixteen, I spent a month at a music camp in Michigan majoring in viola. So, in answer to the challenge, I did step up as much as I could.
But I still didn’t make a whole lot of progress and so before Christmas of my senior year of high school, I stopped wasting my time and gave up the viola. Fifteen years later, I decided to give it another try and so I took it out of the closet and joined a community orchestra. Because I was making some slight improvements just by playing it each week, I thought maybe it was time to replace that cheap $70 instrument. But it wasn’t going to be enough to just buy a new one: I knew that I really needed some lessons to learn how to play it. So I dedicated one summer to a disciplined study of the viola. One of the things I really appreciated about that summer was that my master teacher not only focused on technique, but taught me, her disciple, how to listen—as strange as it sounds—to my viola, to learn from it and not treat it as a mere tool.
We all are involved in various forms of discipleship. Some of us are disciples of fitness, training for marathons and even iron man competitions. Others are disciples of good food or film. Others are disciples of sports or video games. And that we are all here today suggests that each of us has some desire, some proclivity for becoming or at least wanting to be a Disciple of Christ.
So what is a disciple? That it comes from the same root as discipline suggests that it implies a deliberate, conscious, committed following–almost to a regimented degree–of certain practices and behaviors. However in my mind, it is more than merely being a follower or even an adherent. The goal of the practiced, disciplined regimen is to eventually move beyond being a disciple to becoming a master. During that summer when I was a disciple of my master viola teacher, following the practices and principles she was teaching me, my goal was to be able to play the viola as well as she did. Now I will admit that by the end of that summer I didn’t get there because I had not given myself enough time, but I did make some significant progress following the regimen.
So when we claim to be Disciples of Christ, it does not just mean that we are mere followers of Christ. It suggests loftier goals of wanting and working to actually become like Him—not in a blasphemous way of supplanting or taking over from Him, but humbling receiving and honoring His invitation and plan to progress and become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
Whether it is Yoda teaching Luke, Dumbledore teaching Harry, or Jesus teaching Peter—the master often includes in the training he or she provides, the description and story of his or her own journey of discipleship. Not surprisingly, Christ spends a fair amount of time teaching his disciples about His own disciplined experience and journey of becoming like His Father. And he shares his own story because becoming like His Father is, ultimately, not only His goal but ours as well.
Let us remember that latter-day revelation has clarified that God the Father and Jesus Christ are two separate and distinct beings—glorified, resurrected and immortal men. They are not different manifestations of the same entity. They are as distinct as Jesus and Peter. So when Jesus teaches us about His own discipleship—His own journey to become like His Father—he is talking of something very similar to our own discipleship, our own journey to become like His Father. And because His Father and our Father are the same Father, He has something very real to teach us about that journey of discipleship.
That said, however, there is one very fundamental difference between Jesus’ discipleship of becoming like His Father and our own discipleship of becoming like that same Father. That difference is one that we can call a difference of indirection: Christ is able to become like His Father directly, through a direct relationship to Him. Christ, on the other hand, teaches that He is the only way for the rest of us to come to the Father. We become like the Father indirectly through our discipleship of His Son. Jesus is the only way for us to become like the Father. We miss the point and the mark if we try to have our own direct relationship and discipleship with God. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No man cometh unto the Father except by me.”
So what do we learn from Christ’s own discipleship? What is there about Christ’s own discipleship of His Father that informs our discipleship of Christ?
First and foremost, Christ’s only driver was to do the will of His Father. He did nothing for or of himself; He was never motivated by self-aggrandizement; He had no hidden agenda. Now this doesn’t mean that He stood passively by and waited for His Father to tell Him everything that He should do. He first sought to understand the will of His Father concerning His, Jesus’s mission and purpose on the earth, and then did everything in His power to fulfill that mission.
So if we are to follow a similar regimen, if we want to be disciplined disciples of Christ, then we must seek to understand the will of the Father—but only through understanding the will of the Son. Rather than asking “what would Jesus do?” which is the question of a follower and could lead to mere conformity or even complacency, we need to ask “what would Christ have me do?” which is the question of a disciple willing to actively do whatever Christ asks him or her to do.
That willingness extends to doing something that may be completely different from anything Christ has ever asked anyone else to do. Because Christ understood the will of His Father, He was able to stand alone, when those around Him did not understand what He was doing and saying. Similarly, when we understand Christ’s will for us, it may mean that we need to boldly yet humbly stand out from the crowd. But it may also mean, because His will is individualized for each of us, that when most of those around us are standing too boldly or holding too firmly to the law, that His will for us is that we need to step back and quietly transcend the behaviors of the crowd. Just as Christ knew what the Father expected of Him in each moment, we too, as disciples of Christ, need to understand Christ’s will for us in each moment.
With that knowledge of God’s will for Him, Jesus was able to chart new courses. He understood and adhered to the law, but he did not allow it to limit Him or be a stumbling block for Him. Likewise, when we know Christ’s will for us, we can chart a new course for our lives, all the while remaining grounded in the law and doctrine of His kingdom. His will may call us to face an unknown, to confront an enemy, or to challenge the familiar. His will may be to shake up our complacency; and as His disciples, we need to be ready to go where he leads us.
Even though it was the will of the Father, Christ took responsibility for his actions. He never blamed God; neither did he ever feel victimized by his situation. The security of knowing that He was following the will of His Father gave Him the security to take responsibility for everything he did, but not in a way that he took credit for anything He did. So what does it mean for us in our own discipleship to take responsibility but not take credit? First, it means that we acknowledge Christ as the Master of all things in our lives. We also acknowledge that He is the source of any power or ability that we have that allows us to accomplish His will and perform our duty.
Christ’s own journey of discipleship taught Him to recognize, understand and focus on the important things of life. He did not seek for riches, fame, power or even recognition. In our own discipleship, are we seeking for and finding the important things of life? Do we have our sights fixed properly? Can we, like the poet Robert Frost, ponder
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
As steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here,
It asks of us a certain height.
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
As Jesus kept his focus on the Father and was able to stand solidly and secure, are we as true disciples of Christ able to also stand solidly and secure when either praise or blame comes our way?
Just as there is an element of indirection in our goal of becoming like our Father that has us focus on becoming disciples of Christ, I have come to learn that there is another element of indirection in our goal of learning about and becoming like Christ. Just like the way to understand and become like God the Father is through Christ, the way to understand and become like Christ is through other people. The implication of such a proposition is that though I may learn about Christ directly through the scriptures, through prayer and through the spirit, the only way I can really understand Christ from an experiential level—the only way I can understand Christ as a disciple—is through my interactions with other people, through my relationships and dealings with them. It’s one thing for me to say that I understand Christ’s love for me and that I am trying to love as Christ did, i.e. become his disciple; but the one way for me to really experience that love directly is the love I feel from and for other people.
Remember the distinction made between a follower/adherent and a disciple? The behaviors of both are similar, but the disciple, through disciplined practice and assimilation, becomes more and more like the master. And the only way we have for putting into real practice those Christ-like behaviors and attitudes are with and through other people.
So what are some of those disciplined practices that are exhibited in my interactions with others that make me a disciple of Christ, that move me along my journey of discipleship?
First, do I believe in other people the same way Christ believes in them? Do I not only see but accept their potential as sons and daughters of God? Just as Christ creates opportunities for me to grow, do I create opportunities for others to be successful? Just as I pray for strength from God to perform my labors, do I provide strength to others to perform theirs? When their performance disappoints me as I am sure mine often does Christ, do I, like Christ, never cease to love and never love in a diminished way? Am I able to disagree with the decisions of others yet respect them as agents with the right and responsibility of making their own decisions? Do I seek out those who need, those who stand outside or on the edges of the group, who do not feel integrated even though that feeling of disconnection is their own choice, and do I include them in such a way that they can respond with integrity and not feel pressured or uncomfortable? Am I able to not only listen to what someone says, but understand deeply what may be a tenuous position so that I can lovingly but not manipulatively challenge them to look to higher heights, to reach further and see beyond what they thought they could? Do I humbly accept and acknowledge when I have misunderstood or unwittingly tried to control and even possibly redirect or correct someone when I should have done no more than love and encourage? Do I invite others into my life, allowing them to serve me and become a part of my life? Do I allow them to have an impact on me even when I may not have considered them to have been one who could have such an impact?
This notion of coming to Christ only through other people gives new meaning to King Benjamin’s injunction in the Book of Mormon that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” Is he not saying that the only way to serve God is to serve others, that the only way to test and prove our discipleship is through other people?
Christ’s own journey of discipleship involved His participation in and fulfillment of the Atonement so that we might enjoy and experience salvation and exaltation—for which we are all grateful. Fortunately, we do not have to go through the same experience. But beyond appreciating it, we can learn from Christ’s experience and we can apply those learnings to our own journey of discipleship in a vicarious manner. When Obadiah in the Old Testament envisions saviors on Mount Zion, and we today in the modern church are encouraged to be those very saviors, it does not mean that we think of ourselves as taking the place of Christ. What it does mean is that just as we go through Christ in order to get to the Father, through our service and being served, we are able to bring each other to Christ in order to enjoy the fruits and blessings of the atonement in each other’s lives.
Ultimately, our discipleship of Christ is not a private affair. It is not something I do alone, by myself. Yes, there are very private elements of that practice. My commitment to discipleship is private: I must make it on my own. But by its very nature, discipleship of Christ calls me out of myself, into the communities of people around me. I work out my salvation in those communities. I find Christ in those communities. I serve and am served in those communities.
That we are such a community for each other is an incredible blessing. As you look around, do you realize the awesome opportunity you have to serve and be served? There are limitless possibilities in this room and each one of us can play a part in fulfilling each other’s stories of discipleship.
May we be saviors on Mount Zion to each other, may we make progress in our journey of discipleship in Christ, may be become more like our Father as we become more like Christ, our true Savior, and may we become more like Christ as we serve and save each other is my prayer.