So how do we internalize and begin to really live this concept of God’s unconditional, perfect love? Again, Jesus and the tradition of his time holds the key.
When we read “disciple” or “follower” in our New Testament versions, the Aramaic word behind the English behind the Greek is “talmid” or “talmidim” in the plural. There really is no concept in contemporary Western thinking as an analog for a talmid. We translate it as disciple or follower, but there is no place in our culture for someone who voluntarily seeks to fully identify with his or her master in all areas of life–who dedicates his or her life to becoming like the master in every way. To try to get the idea across, there are the analogies of a trade apprentice who spends years with the master craftsman or the soldier at boot camp whose own identity (along with clothes, hair, and anything else that is personal and individual) is stripped away to be replaced by that of the soldier, but even these fall short. We have cults that force this identity change on their subjects, but this is not a volitional, conscious process on the part of the follower–it’s coerced.
When Jesus tells us to go make disciples–talmidim–of people throughout the world, he is calling us to first dedicate ourselves to the task of living, eating, sleeping, working, playing, loving, suffering, bleeding, and breathing every moment of our lives with God so that his deepest purpose becomes ours, or better, that we become his purpose. Only then can we encourage and show others, all others, to do the same. As we said in the love section, the Aramaic concept for this deepest purpose and desire is called sebyana, and aligning ourselves with God’s sebyana does not come overnight. After years of walking with Jesus as his talmidim, his closest companions still didn’t get it. Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father and that “will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) He didn’t understand that Jesus and the Father were “one.” That Jesus shared his Father’s sebyana. That he (Philip) and we (all of us) could do the same and become one with Jesus and the Father in the Aramaic sense of multiple things functioning as one. Indistinguishable in intent and action.
In many ways, we have become “contractual Christians.” We’ve made the mistake of thinking that evangelism is limited to simply converting people to a certain system of belief. Jesus’ Gospel is a dynamic call to a way of life, and not simply a contract that we sign in which we agree to believe a certain creed in return for which God agrees not to send us to hell–and after which all that remains is not to breach the contract before we die. The Way of life Jesus’ Gospel is calling us toward is nothing less than the practice of the presence of God in our lives. This is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven–the awareness of Immanuel, of God-with-us as discussed in the next article on kingdom.
This talmid, this person of the Way is so fully identified with the Father as to now think and act like him. Like thinking in a second language, where you automatically form the sentences correctly without having to translate first mentally, Jesus was fully identified with the Father. This was beautifully demonstrated in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries and is what Jesus means when he says that when you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. Seeing Jesus is functionally the same as seeing the Father, because they are one. And Jesus said we could do this too, and greater things than these. (John 14:12)
This is the process. Unlike the perfect love and unconditional acceptance of God which is free for the taking (what we call salvation) this process and life of the talmid (what we call sanctification–making “holy” or setting apart for God) is hard work. It’s especially painful at first, when the process of “dying” to yourself is taking place, that is, like the soldier at boot camp, letting fall your clothing, hair, habits, thought patterns, and everything else that you think makes you, you. But it only hurts for awhile, and really only as much as you resist the process. Like learning to play a musical instrument, the technical process of learning to train muscles, fingers, air-flow; to learn the concept of scales and harmony can be rigorous. But once these are mastered, internalized, they can be forgotten, (actually they’re now unconsciously present as part of you) as you simply make beautiful vibrations in the air. And in the process of making the music, you realize you never gave up anything of value in the first place.
We need to see Gospel in this way in order to understand what Jesus means when he says he is the Way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but through him. This is the Way of Jesus. The Way to the Father, through Jesus, of becoming one with him, identified with him, as Jesus prayed for us (John 17), is this Way of the talmidim. It’s much more than our two-dimensional concept of mere salvation from hell, and it’s no wonder Jesus’ first talmidim called themselves Followers of the Way (talmidey orha in Aramaic). It’s not just a mental belief in him, but a belief that leads to faith that leads to trust that leads to a way of living in which each moment is characterized by the presence of God. It’s not identity theft, but identity gift. We give our identity to God, and he gives his to us. A good trade.