Reflections on Discipleship – Not Joining In

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 …

You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.  They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4)

Really? As we enter the penitential season of Lent this reading invited me to reflect on my own lifestyle, and my blog challenges you to do the same. My first reflection  is to ask myself just what it is that I don’t join in with that my pagan friends abuse me for. Um … not a lot, if I’m honest. It isn’t that I do join in with my chums’ wild drug-fuelled orgies, drive-by shooting sprees or credit card fraud. I just don’t have those sorts of friends. And, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t think I have spent enough time in the past being naughty in the kinds of ways Peter says I have. On a really bad day I think not nearly enough.

This passage highlights the difference between becoming a Christian out of a godless and pagan culture in the first century and being brought up as one in a nice twentieth century middle-class stable family. Of course our culture is every bit as godless and sensual as the first century Greek one is portrayed as being in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time we do tend to be godless and sensual nicely. Many in the church today simply have not had much spectacular sin in our backgrounds, so coming to Christ and following him as a disciple didn’t, if we’re honest, make that much of the radical difference it might make to an ex-addict or a serial killer who has seen the light.

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That’s all good, of course. I’m not suggesting that a bit of serious debauchery lurking somewhere in our backgrounds makes us better Christians. But I think it does mean that we have to work a bit harder at seeing just what following Jesus as his disciples means, or what a radical difference it should be making. I’m aware that only around 35% of us have ‘Damascus Road’ conversion experiences nowadays, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the church has stopped expecting people to make a radical decision and change of lifestyle and so has stopped preaching it. The message of Jesus and of Lent that we begin this journey with repentance has got a bit lost over the years: instead we expect people to slip gently and painlessly into the kingdom. So it is not surprising that it isn’t always easy to see how we’re that different as a result.

So I wonder whether a good Lenten meditation for us might be to look harder and discover some of those things with which we don’t join  in, because there will be some. Call me a dinosaur, but my family still refuses flatly to go shopping on a Sunday. My kids never did their homework either: Sunday was a day where we were set free from the concerns of the rest of the week to enjoy ourselves. I try not to do office gossip or politics – not always an easy job. I try to praise people behind their backs instead of slagging them off. Little things, but as I think about them I’m encouraged to realise that I might just, after all, be a little bit different.

Reflections on Discipleship – Purify my Heart

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 …

I’ve been reading 1 Peter recently, and I was struck by the logic of the few verses overlapping chapters 1 and 2, which I think give the lie to a lot of thinking about discipleship. Many Christians have picked up the idea that it is all about hard work, trying, striving to be more holy, and so on, and I honestly think this puts some people off even trying to think about being better disciples. Peter (or whoever) is clearly writing to newish Christians – elsewhere the NT urges people to leave off the milk and get onto meat instead, but here it is milk which is commended – but his starting point isn’t about how they should try harder. He begins by telling them an objective fact about their status in Christ: ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’.

They have become Christians: ‘You have been born again’ he tells them in the next verse. The quote from Isaiah 40 demonstrates that they have stepped out of the merely human cycle of birth, life and death because the Word in which they have put their trust is an eternal Word. They will almost certainly ‘go the way of all flesh’ sooner or later, but for them that won’t be the end, but rather a new beginning. So he clearly establishes the fact that they have crossed the line and have become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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Then comes that fateful word ‘Therefore’ in 2:1, a word so often used in the Epistles as a transition from what is true, what has happened, and what they must now do about it. It’s a little word, but it has vital implications. What the author is saying is basically ‘You have changed your status before God – now learn to live that out’. You have been ‘born again’: now get rid of the baggage that you don’t need any more. It’s a similar argument to that used in Hebrews 12 about throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us. The picture there is of a Roman soldier getting rid of his voluminous cloak ready for action. Stuff like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander simply don’t belong to the changed life you now live, so fling them off, as you would a restricting garment. This can , of course, be hard work, since old habits die hard. But what he doesn’t say, and this is where we get it oh so wrong, is that you have to behave differently in order to live in a new relationship with Christ. So we get back to that age-old heresy of salvation by works: I live the right way in order to get right with God, not because I am right with God. I’ve been purified, so now impurities are simply no longer appropriate in my life.

When we really know who we are in Christ we are filled with the desire to live up to that calling: when we believe that we have to work that hard so that Christ will accept us, it’s easy to see how we can believe we’re onto a loser from the start and stop bothering. After all, being a mere ‘churchgoer’ feels like a lot less hard work.