Reflections on Discipleship – A Cold Coming

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 spent Ephiphany, as is my wont, at a residential meeting of the Grove Books Worship Series author group, where we talk generally about liturgy and plan future publications. As well as little Grove Books we are planning a bigger volume on our vision for worship and how some of the weaknesses and gaps in the Common Worship corpus might be improved upon. At one point in our discussions we got onto the lectionary and the paucity of regular Bible reading among the congregations of most Anglican churches. We noted particularly the tendency of the lectionary compliers to go for the nice passages and either omit altogether the more challenging ones or fillet out a few offensive verses. We decided that the C of E was basically nice, practically universalist, and couldn’t manage to do ‘challenge’ at any price.

Also included in our agenda was some worship, and as part of an Epiphany Eucharist we heard, in addition to the story of the Magi from Matthew 2, T S Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, which puts a different slant on the tale and was described to us as a ‘somewhat grumpy’ poem. All this got me thinking about discipleship (indeed I think of little else these days), and I decided that another definition of a disciple might be something like ‘someone who puts themselves out to seek God, even though it gets a bit uncomfortable at times’.

All disciples are called to a journey: unless you believe in a totally static Jesus following him must imply some kind of movement. Whilst at times that journey will be through pleasant ‘green pastures’ there might also be some rocks to strike along the way, some cold comings and goings, at just the worst times, with lack of shelter, through places which are unfriendly or plain hostile. Like Eliot’s Magi we often hear the voices singing in our ears, saying that this is all folly.

The poem is from an old man, who has seen his life’s work of astrology killed off by a new birth. Discipleship is about loss as well as gain, about feeling alienated and uncomfortable in a world order which has changed beyond recognition because of the birth of the Christ-child. It is about unsettledness, discontent and at times regret, but in spite of it all it is an imperative. There is a compulsion about the journey, because having set out it is impossible simply to go back.

There is nothing ‘nice’ about discipleship, at least most of the time. It can be a hard grind for few perceived results, and any church which tells you otherwise is simply lying. Whether we have been sold the idea that following Jesus is coterminous with walking in faith and victory, or that there is no challenge, no threat and no demands in the 21st Century gospel, we have been sold short of the actual grinding, sheer plodding on of much of the journey. The temperate valleys are there, but there is a lot of hard coming before we get to them.

I can remember a time when I was about ready to give up the painful journey of my faith, but I read John 6 where many of Jesus’ followers give up on him, and he asks his closest friends if they’re heading off too. Peter’s reply, in my paraphrase, was ‘Yes, Lord, we would love to, but unfortunately you have the words of eternal life, so there really is nowhere else to go. So we’d better stick around, I suppose.’ It was that text which gave me the strength somehow to keep going. I would do it again, but like the Magi I am under no illusion that the journey is easy. Worth every step, but not easy.

OT Lectionary 26th Jan Epiphany 3 Is 9:1-4

We’re so used to hearing this passage at Christmas time, as a ‘prophecy’ about the Messiah’s birth (see this blog for Christmas http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-2z) that we easily forget that the OT, rather than simply being words which are not going to have any relevance for a few hundred years’ time, addresses real situations which real people are facing. In this case there is imminent threat of invasion from Assyria, and quite understandably the people are beginning to get a bit sweaty, particularly those living in the north of Israel, who are going to be the first hit as the invaders sweep down from the north. So forgetting the Messiah for a moment, what is God saying to the people, and to us, through this passage?

First of all, there is an acknowledgement of the real suffering of the people. Those living in the north had indeed been devastated by the invasion: they really were in distress and gloom. I note with interest that there is no sense of an apology from God. We’d be agonising about why he had allowed such terrible pain, how it wasn’t fair etc etc. We’d be expecting some great theology of suffering, or a profound explanation of why God, in his infinite mercy, had not stopped the invading hoards in their tracks. Instead, all we get is that the northern tribes had been ‘humbled’. Frustrating or what?

Instead, there’s simply a promise. With the change of tenses we have noted before, God promises an end to oppression, light in their darkness, the breaking of their oppressors’ power, and joy to replace their fear and sorrow.

 

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This raises a really important question, one which many suffering Christians have agonised over. Put simply, the question is: ‘Why does God not think that prevention is better than cure?’ Why does he so often promise restoration after suffering, rather than stopping the suffering in the first place? It really does seem to be the case that God sees things differently from us. We’d do everything we could to make it all nice, so of course if we were Almighty God we’d make sure that no-one else ever had anything nasty happen to them. For some reason God doesn’t play that game.

I wonder whether there’s a clue in the word ‘humbled’. The fact is that the Bible is a lot more positive about pain and suffering than we tend to be. Sometimes, according to several passages, it can do us good to hurt a bit. And while this sounds callous, any dentist will understand it: for the good of our health it is important that it hurts for a while. Of course we all try to avoid suffering and causing suffering, but sometimes it is inevitable and for our good. One day we will find out from God what the hard times we have been through have put into us for our good, but in the meantime suffering remains a mystery and a subject for agonised theological debate. Our job is to learn more and more to see things from God’s point of view and consider it joy when we face trials. Not an easy task!

 

 

OT Lectionary Jan 12th The Baptism of Christ Is 42:1-9

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OT Lectionary – a weekly series of devotional thoughts on the OT reading for next Sunday.

 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the time to remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Baptism is one of the most undervalued and misunderstood of the things Jesus left for us: as one brought up in the Baptist Church who only later became an Anglican I have had to do a complete rethink of my theology of baptism. So how can our passage from Isaiah speak to us today?

Chapter 42 is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’ which appear in this section of Isaiah, and just about every theological student has had to write an essay on who exactly the ‘Servant’ was or is. Indeed this was the very question raised by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8. The consensus is that the Servant is the idealised nation of Israel, not weak, beaten down and exiled as she was at the time but renewed, powerful and fulfilling her destiny given by God to be a light to the whole world. The previous chapter of Isaiah talks about this. So this first Servant Song has parallels with the baptism which launched Jesus into public ministry as the one who fulfilled par excellence the role of ‘Servant’.

The passage tells us about the Servant’s ministry, but also about the way that ministry will be carried out, and the basis from which it will be carried out. The first four verses explain the teaching ministry which is about justice and encouragement, and the passage goes on to explain that it will be an international ministry aimed at freedom and illumination for those in darkness.

So what is this freedom fighter’s style? To a nation used to the harsh cries of Babylonian taskmasters (which no doubt echoed in the collective memory with those of Egyptian taskmasters hundreds of years earlier) the prophet explains that the Servant’s ministry will be gentle in style, encouraging in nature and with a bias towards those unable to help themselves. This is not the style of a zealot or rabble-rouser, but rather a leader more interested in winning hearts than battles.

On what basis, then, is this ministry to be carried out? The answer is that it is a divine calling. God, through the prophet, labours his credentials: he is the creator, responsible single-handedly for the world and all its people: he is the God who alone is worthy of all honour, and who, just to prove the point, is the only ‘god’ able to predict the future. So you don’t argue with him, right? Springing from this God is the calling to the Servant, the one whom he has chosen, in whom he delights, and whom he will uphold, giving him his Spirit to empower him.

Jesus at his baptism clearly fulfils this passage, and no doubt had it in his mind. As the Father tears open heaven and declares audibly his love and favour for his Son, Jesus is launched into his public ministry of teaching and salvation for all. But the whole point of this story is that the fulfilment doesn’t end with Jesus: our calling as his church, the ‘Israel of God’, is to be Christ’s body here on earth now, continuing the Servant’s ministry. And just as our calling is the same, so is our style and its basis. Today challenges us to reconsider, and maybe to recommit ourselves to, our own baptism and the calling and ministry to which it signed us up.

OT Lectionary Christmas 2 Isaiah 60:1-6

‘Now what?’

Realistically it may well be that the references to gold, incense, and, to a lesser extent, camels, have led to this passage being set for Epiphany, which no doubt many churches will be celebrating this Sunday. It is easy to see how the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus could be found here. But in its original context this passage is probably addressed to Israel newly returned from exile and asking the question ‘Now what?’

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I’ve spent the Christmas holidays reading David Bosch’s magisterial Transforming Mission, where he traces the paradigm shifts that the church has undergone down the years in its understanding of just what it is supposed to be doing in terms of mission. What became clear to me was that in our changing thinking we have got it wrong far more than we have got it right. This passage is, I believe, a challenge to Israel to think bigger, to rediscover their original calling, and to go for nothing less than world domination!

I’ve never lived in exile, but I guess if you do the one thing which preoccupies you is getting out and getting home. You live, eat, breathe and sleep both hope and disappointment. But if you do finally make it back to where you belong, the question ‘What next?’ must be a huge one. It can’t take long for the novelty to wear off, and the Israel of the time of these final chapters of Isaiah has the feel of a somewhat disillusioned, purposeless and nominal bunch of people. Haggai suggests to us that in the absence of anything more exciting to occupy themselves, people simply turned to DIY and home improvements.

So the prophet brings them what in years to come would be the message of Epiphany, that God is for everyone, and not just ‘PLUs’ (‘people like us’). God chose Israel to be the waiters and waitresses of the eternal banquet to the gentile guests, but so often they had simply been content to sit and eat themselves. This passage calls them to something bigger and better: they must become those to whom all the nations would come, seeking wisdom, seeking light in their darkness, and in turn bringing tribute and praise to their God. When the Magi came to visit the infant Christ this process started as for the first time those outside the Jewish nation brought their worship to Christ.

This is therefore an incredibly challenging passage to a church in a time of marginalisation. It seems crazy to suggest that David Cameron might ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O Man of God, about unemployment, or the recession, or crime or people-trafficking’. My guess is that ++Justin would be pretty near the bottom of his speed-dial list. But what a vision! A church alive with the wisdom of God, receiving tribute from those who had finally come to see how much they needed us. A church winning the respect of those who had previously had no time at all for us.

Is that how it should be? Some would claim that the church is at its best when vulnerable, weak and marginalised. After all, a crucified Messiah isn’t much to write home about. But I believe we have at Epiphany a picture of something which may for now be only a dream, but which is in God’s purposes for his people: a victorious church receiving the tributes of the nations.