Reflections on Discipleship – Taking up our Cross

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 …

 

‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?

Madero de Tormento.jpg

First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.

Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.

That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.

“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg

Reflections on Discipleship – No longer my own

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 …

This week, in Methodist churches everywhere, Christians will be using the start of the New Year to renew their covenant with God, a kind of spiritual new year’s resolution. A wonderfully powerful prayer will be used, and I’m glad that the compilers of the Anglican Common Worship texts were able to nick it and make it part of our corpus too. You can see the text of the prayer here, but I want to reflect on just one line:

I am no longer my own, but yours …

Right there you’ve got a pretty good definition of discipleship: a disciple is someone who is no longer their own master or mistress, who belongs to someone else, and who therefore has surrendered the rights to their own lives, and living them their own way. The prayer continues:

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will …

Like slaves we have no rights of our own: we belong to a master who has full rights over us. Of course slavery is only a helpful metaphor if it is a redeemed one. We have not been stolen by a cruel trader who only wants to use us; he will not beat us up, mistreat us or overwork us to the point of death; we are not commodities to be bought and sold. But we have willingly surrendered our lives to the one whose yoke is well-fitting and whose burden is light, whose service is perfect freedom, and who employs us so that we can become all we have potential for within us. So slavery, yes, but not as we know it Jim. To this kind of ‘slavery’ disciples gladly submit, joyfully counting it the greatest privilege.

But there is another thought which comes out of this prayer. In fact it comes less out of the text of the prayer and more out of its use. The slavery picture again breaks down, because this covenant is one which needs renewing. I would guess that it was pretty rare to hear slaves revowing themselves to their masters once a year, as I suspect it is today to hear young girls trafficked for the sex trade pleading annual submission to their masters. The whole point is that once you’re in, you’re in. It’s getting out which is the issue, not deciding to stay in. But our heavenly master, whose service, we said, is perfect freedom, invites us to think about it and deliberately decide to stay. Our master does not captivate us against our wills: the door is always open, and has been ever since Jesus asked his disciples ‘You don’t want to leave too, do you?’ (John 6:67). Sadly many do take the long walk, so this time of year might be a good one to remind ourselves that only in Jesus are the words of eternal life to be found, and to commit ourselves to another year of following him, learning from him, and going in his name.

Reflections on Discipleship – Galatians 4:19

We’re looking at some key biblical texts on discipleship, and this time we come to a crie de coeur from St Paul as he writes to those troubled Galatians who had got it all so badly wrong. We have already mentioned Paul’s emphasis on knowing as the way to right living, but here he takes a slightly different tack, which as a church leader I find most challenging.

My dear children, … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.

Recently I had a conversation with a good friend about how we might define discipleship. He was quite right in saying that those called to be disciples at the beginning of the gospels were sent out to make disciples at the end, a theme I shall return to sooner or later. You can tell when you have got a disciple, because he or she is making other disciples.

Whilst you can’t disagree with this model, I suggested that there might be a bit more to it than this. From Titus we discovered that discipleship is about the kind of knowing which leads to right living; from Matthew we discover that disciples are disciple-makers, but here Paul goes deeper than either of these: a disciple is someone in whom Christ is formed. This isn’t about knowledge, nor about skills. This is character, Christlikeness. A disciple is someone whose life looks increasingly like Jesus. This shows in who we are, how we treat others, what passions we have, how we cope when the chips are down, what choices we make: all these kinds of things.

I don’t suppose that is very controversial, but a bit of me is less interested in the disciples than in the Paul who writes about them. Look at the strength of the language here. Any woman who has actually had a baby, or any man who has stood there terrified watching, will know the picture only too well. Not only has Paul had to go through the hard work of birthing them as Christians when they were first evangelised, but now he is having to do it all over again as he tries to free them from error and make sure that their lives reflect Christ. In a weird twisting of the image Paul becomes the midwife, vicariously bearing the pain until Christ is formed in them, as a foetus is formed inside a mother, until his character shows itself out into the outside world.

File:US Navy 100128-N-4995K-008 Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Matthew Blake holds a newborn baby aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20).jpg

Although he has to tell them off quite severely in this letter, he never lets go of the fact that they are his ‘dear children’. Yet he feels personally the anguish of their immaturity, and longs for nothing more nor less than complete Christlikeness for them.

I recently ran a training day for our diocese on how we know when we’ve completed something, a prize all too rare for busy church leaders who are indeed ‘facing a task unfinished’. Paul knew: he had done his job satisfactorily when the people under his care looked like Jesus. Until he had achieved that, he was in pain. That challenges me as someone involved in the promotion of discipleship: how much is it hurting me? It should be!

Reflections on Discipleship

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 …

 

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness … (Titus 1:1)

 

We so easily skip over the boring introductory bits of the epistles, yet here to begin our thoughts on discipleship is a real nugget of gold. Paul (if you believe that he wrote this letter) is saying ‘Hello’ to his friend, but hidden in here is a whole chunk of truth about how he sees his role as a Christian minister.

File:Andrei Rublev - St Paul. From Deisus Tier - Google Art Project.jpg

 He begins with what he is, and then moves on to why. He is firstly a servant of God. The Greek uses the stronger word, doulos, which means something more like a slave than a gentleman’s butler: he is under compulsion to do what his master commands, and he has no rights of his own to follow his own agenda in life. Then he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, one literally ‘sent’ to go where Jesus tells him and to do what he’s told. These are strong callings, and as a church leader he takes them seriously, as many other passages bear witness.

But even more interesting is what he thinks he is called and sent to do. We usually think of Paul as an evangelist and church-planter, and a pretty driven one at that. The purple passage in Philippians is about his desire to keep on pressing forwards, and in Romans 15 he tells us that having ‘finished’ the eastern end of the Mediterranean he now longs to strike off west towards Spain. Yet there is much more to Paul than an itinerant evangelist, and he goes on to explain to Titus just what is important to him, in terms far more to do with discipleship than with evangelism. His calling has three ingredients: to further the faith of God’s elect, to make sure they know and understand the truth, which, in turn, will lead them to godliness. I don’t think you can have a much clearer model of discipleship than that.

Faith needs furthering: disciple-makers know that simply leading someone to Christ is only the very first tottering step of the journey of faith, and there is a vital ministry, so often neglected in the church, of leading brand-new Christians by the hand through those first bewildering months and years of seeking to follow Christ.

Truth needs teaching: I’m often struck by the number of times Paul, in seeking to correct some kind of dis-ease in one of his churches, exclaims in exasperation ‘Don’t you know…!?’ If only we knew, the implication is, we would be a whole lot less dysfunctional. Disciple-making involves the ministry of skilled teachers to help people know and understand.

Godliness needs living out: again, there are all kinds of condemnations in Scripture for those who say one thing but live an entirely different way. Once we know the truth, we then need help to make it live in us, and burst out of us, 24/7.

So there’s a good starting-point in this trawl through biblical references to discipleship: a disciple is someone who is growing in their faith, who is learning more and more about what it means to follow Jesus, and who is allowing this new knowledge to shape their lifestyle and choices.

 

How are we doing, both as disciples and disciple-makers?

 

 

Through The Bible in Just Over a Year – Intro

 

In my formative 20s I attended a church with a very strong teaching ministry, and one of the series we did took us through every book of the Bible, a week at a time. We were blessed with not one but two sermons, one on the background to each book, and one on its practical application for today (or rather the 70s!). I lapped it up, and owe so much to the teaching I received not just through that series but through all my eight years at that church.

Now that my day job is to work at Diocesan level to promote Christian discipleship I am amazed and frequently appalled at the lack of solid teaching in today’s C of E. I’m not sure how many churches value the teaching ministry, or how many clergy see their primary task as feeding the people of God with both milk and meat as appropriate. I’m struck by how often St Paul, when seeking to correct some error in the life of one of his churches, wrote ‘Don’t you know …?’ Bad or lack of teaching leads to misunderstanding and bad living. So in my small way I have a heart for seeing the teaching ministry restored to the church, so that healthy and mature Christians are produced, Christians able confidently to join in with the mission of God to our communities and nation. Working in the area of discipleship one of my key texts has become Gal 4:19, where Paul tells his ‘dear children’ that he is in ‘the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’. I lament the lack of this kind of passion in many church leaders today, and in this new blog series I want to recreate a kind of overview of the Bible, the primary means through which God reveals himself to us and forms us as disciples. I’m going to take you through the Bible in just over a year.

 

What you won’t get from this blog, obviously,  is in-depth scholarly stuff, loads of Hebrew and Greek, and the latest in academic thought. There are plenty of other places to find that stuff, and frankly I’m not that good at it. But what I do hope to do is to help us to read each book with some understanding of why it is in the Bible, and what it might say to us today. If I gave you a train timetable and a book of metaphysical poetry you would obviously use them very differently, and the books of the Bible are like that: you have to know what each book is trying to do so that you can read it with understanding.

 

I’m also aware that whenever we read Scripture we need the help of the Holy Spirit. People who know me well and have read my books often tell me that they ‘could just hear me speaking as they read. It’s so “you”’. In the same way we read the Bible differently when we know the author well. So there’s a circularity: we get to know God through reading Scripture, and we read Scripture better when we know God better. I hope this blog series might help on both counts.

 

So – next week – Genesis, the book of beginnings.