My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
Yesterday I had to celebrate Communion in our local cathedral, and the passage set by the lectionary was from Matthew 7, the bit where Jesus tells us that if we ask, seek and knock we’ll get what we want. There are actually quite a few passages like this in the gospels: I know, because I once had to do an seminar at Spring Harvest about them, and why they are manifestly not true. I don’t know about you, but I’ve prayed for loads of stuff and not got it, even with a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Neither have I ever thrown a mountain into the sea (although to be honest I’ve never tried). So what are we to make of these passages?
As always, we gain comprehension of biblical passages if we take the trouble to understand what the original readers would have understood. There was a strong tradition in Judiasm of the ‘bold holy pray-er’, someone who dared to ask God for the outrageous and because of his boldness got his prayer answered. The archetypal person in this tradition was Elijah, who brought drought and rain at his words, parted a river, and even called down fire from heaven. In the tradition his power came from a life dedicated to God, a life of sacrificial service, and a selfless commitment to God’s will. So when Jesus is commending to us the power of prayer, all this is in the background. It isn’t so much an invitation to getting whatever we want out of God as though he were a slot machine as a calling to Elijah-sized commitment. Then we’ll pray the kind of prayers which change nations, rather than ‘God bless my family and please can I win the lottery?’ prayers.
Neither is there any timescale ever given in these passages, although we tend to read them as meaning ‘immediately’. I have no doubt that Elijah’s bold holy prayers were prayed for years at a time. Recently my son visited Belfast for the first time, a place where his wife had studied at university. He came home having fallen in love with the city, which, although still scarred by the Troubles, has regenerated itself into a buzzing metropolis. He confessed to me that growing up in churches where I was the vicar he had got fed up with intercessions week after week for Northern Ireland, with no discernible results. But now he was able to see that those long-term faithful prayers had indeed been answered.
A friend had a similar experience when Desmond Tutu addressed the clergy of his diocese. ‘Your prayers changed South Africa’ Tutu shouted at them ‘but you don’t believe it! You have no faith!’ Disciples may not be those who go around planting mulberry trees in the sea, but they should be bold holy pray-ers, whose persistent and committed intercession can move metaphorical mountains, if not physical ones. And those prayers should be prayed out of lives of outrageous commitment to God’s world and his will.