Reflections on Discipleship – No Pressure!

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 …

 

During a long and boring but accident-prone print run this morning I happened to pick up a book helpfully left on the windowsill in our print room, a book of devotional thoughts from that great preacher C H Spurgeon. The book happened to fall open at July 3rd (today), which either means that someone else had just been devotional with it or God wanted to speak to me particularly. The verse for the day was, unpromisingly, Genesis 41:4:

 

‘And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.’

 

Spurgeon went on to explain this verse in terms of the fact that times of spiritual gauntness quickly ate up the spiritually more healthy times. When he stayed close to God he made great strides forward, but the odd off-day quickly undid all the good that the good days had achieved, and set him back on his quest for true Christlikeness. His aim, he explained, was to make sure that every day was a spiritual high, and not to let any bad days or seasons undo all that he had achieved so far.

 

You can kind of see what he means, but even reading the passage made me feel exhausted! I am still pondering whether or not a) he is right, and b) whether this is a helpful kind of approach to discipleship to preach and teach around the Diocese. To me, it comes dangerously close to salvation by works, something which I would have thought that Spurgeon of all people would want to avoid teaching. It makes discipleship hard work, which on one level it is, but on another it shouldn’t be, since the Jesus whom we follow has a burden which is light. It also seems to negate those times when, according to the Bible, suffering does us good. I have grown as much, if not more, through times of spiritual aridity than I have through the good years.

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In any case, the definition of a disciple is someone who fails – you can see that again and again in the gospels. I’m not convinced that failure makes us slide back down the snake to square one: rather I think it can send us forward sadder but wiser. My God of infinite forgiveness doesn’t like to watch me fall, but when I do he is quick to restore, forgive and reinstate. So no pressure!

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Nahum

It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good. Imagine, in the middle of world War II, a prophet standing up and announcing God’s judgement on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bad news for the Nazis, but a great relief for France, Poland, the UK and the rest of Europe. That’s what Nahum is doing as he predicts the destruction of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians. The nations who had suffered at the hands of Assyria’s legendary brutality and cruelty would be cheering this prophet, whose name means ‘Consolation’.

All we know about the guy is that he came from Elkosh (1:1), but since we have no idea where Elkosh is that doesn’t help much. It has been identified with what became Capernaum (literally ‘the village of Nahum’)  but we just don’t know. We can, however, date this book fairly accurately, since we know that Nineveh was in fact destroyed in 612 BC. We also know that the destruction of Thebes, to which he likens Nineveh’s downfall (3:8-11), took place in 633 BC, so we have a fairly narrow window. His message is one of unremitting judgement on the city, for its violence, described graphically in 3:1-4, and in particular for its attacks on Israel.

What is interesting about this book, though, is the comparison with Jonah, which probably dates from 150 or so years earlier. We saw that Jonah was called to preach to a city even then legendary for its evil, and that when he was obedient to this call (eventually), the city repented and turned to God. Yet within a few generations the Assyrians are up to their old tricks again, and this time there is neither repentance nor, according to Nahum, any chance of it. Whilst Jonah preached God’s mercy, Nahum preaches only destruction.

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So this book raises all kinds of questions about God’s judgement and mercy, the permanence or otherwise of repentance, and ultimately the famous ‘Once saved always saved’ controversy in the Christian church. History shows us that in spite of her earlier repentance after Jonah’s ministry Nineveh had again become renowned for her brutality, and that the averted destruction did happen in the end. What we don’t know is whether the people’s earlier repentance was genuine or not, although God seemed to think so at the time. So Nahum’s message reminds us that each generation has to choose afresh whether or not it is going to serve God, and that repentance on behalf of our children is not possible. It also reflects the reality that sometimes people do lose the plot and slide back from an earlier commitment to God. It may also be that the reference to ‘witchcraft’ in 3:4, which is not developed any further by Nahum, points to some spiritual disease in the land which, without healing, simply causes the behaviour to manifest itself again in future generations. We can see this dynamic at work in all sorts of ways, for example in churches which repeat patterns of sinful behaviour keep occurring, although manifested by a new set of people. Deep repentance and healing, of the kind advocated by people like Russ Parker[1] is necessary to break sinful cycles.

Fortunately we live the other side of the cross from Nahum, so there is never, in this life, a point where judgement completely rules out the offer of mercy. We still have the responsibility of making sure that our repentance sticks, but even when it doesn’t we have a God to whom we can return, again and again.

[1] Notably in his Healing Wounded History (London: SPCK, 2012)

Image: “Adad gate exterior entrance north3” by Fredarch – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_north3.JPG. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons