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.

Old Testament Lectionary Jan 25th Conversion of St Paul Jeremiah 1:4-10

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of my quibbles with small-c catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on the ‘Saints’, is that for ordinary Christians like you and me it can seem very de-skilling. Often based on a mediaeval and unbiblical distinction between ‘saints’ and ‘souls’, the language is usually that of emulating and being inspired by the great heroes of faith. But the reality is that actually I have never had a baby through virgin birth, I’ve not done much at all in terms of miracles, and I hope to goodness that I never get martyred. So I’m just an ordinary Christian, as opposed to the saintly super-heroes of the faith. I know my place.

However other bits of the church can be just as guilty, even when their heroes and heroines are found within the pages of Scripture. The calls of both Jeremiah and Paul are often preached as ‘types’ of calling for all Christians. Fortunately we have moved away from believing that if you couldn’t time and date your conversion experience you probably haven’t had a genuine one (although some people still can, and they need to be recognised as valid too). Jeremiah’s call is often held up as a good paradigm for present-day Christians, although the experience of most of us is a lot less dramatic. Nevertheless, there are some elements of this call to which we maybe do need to listen carefully.

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First of all we note that looking at these two stories together, conversion equals call. In both cases the call of God is a call to action. Jeremiah’s is specific, Paul is merely told to go to Damascus where he will receive further instructions, but both incidents imply a call to ministry. Too often today we concentrate on conversion as encountering Christ, and surrendering to him for the first time, as stage one, and we may or may not get round to stage two, our call to serve Christ, at some later point. Leave it too long, and we have actually allowed new converts to relax into ‘passenger’ rather than ‘crew’ mode, and it will be all the more difficult to recruit them into action.

Secondly, we see in many biblical call narratives (although not, interestingly, in Paul’s story) the motif of reluctance. This lack in Acts 9 may be the result of God having had, as it were, to hit Paul so hard that he was too stunned to object. But when we sense some kind of a call from God, there are two things to learn: a) if we feel nervous we are in good company, and b) our reluctance cuts no ice at all with God, so get over it!

Thirdly, I am interested, because of my particular personality type, in the negativity of Jeremiah’s calling. There are four negative tasks for him (uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow) and only half as many positive ones (build, plant). Again, in Acts we do not get details of Paul’s specific calling, other than to stop destroying and overthrowing, but as we see his career panning out there is a certain amount of confrontation and resistance to the old ways of Judaism in which he was schooled and zealous. But I wonder how much of the uprooting and tearing down had to happen within himself, as the encounter with the living Christ turned his life, and his beliefs upside down.

Calling people to turn to Christ, which is surely the most important ministry the Church has, must, I believe, involve a good, clear account of just what it is we are calling them from, and what we are calling them to.