Reflections on Discipleship – Joy, not Duty

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’m reading a fascinating if somewhat esoteric book at the moment[1], but I was struck by the point made by the author that the greatest calling for Christians is to live with joy. After all, he explains, the gospel begins and ends with joy. ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ and ‘They worshipped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 2:10 and 24:52). Joy goes around the whole thing like a huge pair of brackets. Celebration invites us to life our heads above the flood of things to do and breathe in God’s Spirit. It gives us the excuse to climb the mountain and see the big picture. And of course to give thanks to God for all he is doing is the right thing to do, our duty and our joy.

Schmemann notes that ‘Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy’.[2]

Baby love.jpg

Disciples, followers of Jesus, are part of this story of joy. We are given it; we are called to live in it, and we are called to shine it out into a miserable world. We are to be spreaders of joy, and we are to know as joyful people.

Note also that the Bible calls us to joy even when life is not joyful by human standards. ‘Consider it pure joy’, says James (1:2) ‘whenever you face trials of many kinds.’ Rejoicing in sufferings is commended throughout the New Testament. It has been said that he who smiles to himself has a secret. Disciples have! We know that whatever this world throws at us, its power to harm us has been taken away. As a friend put it ‘God will never allow you to come to any harm. You might die, but you will never come to any harm’. Disciples have a different take, a different perspective, which will simply not allow us to be grumpy. We are not of this world, just as Jesus wasn’t. Disciples know where they’re headed, and the prospect of that fills us with unutterable joy, even if there are no parking spaces or the printer has crashed again.

A miserable disciple is a contradiction in terms. Not a sad one, note. Life is sad. At times it’s excruciatingly sad. But disciples are not robbed of their joy by mere sadness. We have the gift of joy, and we can’t help but share it with others.

Image: “Baby love” by Gilberto Filho from Salvador, Brasil – baby love. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

[1] Schmemann, A For the Life of the World (New York: St Vladimir, 1973) in case you’re interested

[2] P 24

OT Lectionary May 4th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14 – 20

Zephaniah 1:1 tells us that this prophecy dates from the reign of King Josiah, which would place it in the early 600s BC, and therefore before the Babylonian exile. This certainly fits with the earlier chapters of the book, which are full of dire warnings to the Israelites of the coming judgement when God the Mighty Warrior will turn on them and give them the come-uppance they so richly deserve for their opulent and profane lifestyles. But then at 3:14 there is an abrupt change of tone: suddenly the people are called to rejoice and celebrate because God has commuted their punishment, defeated their oppressors and purified their nation.

As with the book of Isaiah, which we have looked at previously in this blog, it does seem likely that the final paragraphs are later additions, the happy ending written much later towards the end of or after the judgement and purification of the exile. It would rather seem to undermine the prophet’s message of warning if he went on to tell the people that it was all going to end up fine. Neither, as history clearly tells us, was it the case that the restoration happened before the punishment, or instead of it. It was only through the experience of abandonment and punishment that Israel could learn her lesson and step back into God’s favour.

As a post-Easter reading this seems to speak to us of cheap grace. The salvation of the human race, whilst it had always been God’s plan, didn’t happen without judgement or punishment. It was only through the cross that we could be restored to our inheritance as God’s people. I have often said to different congregations, whilst talking about that greatest of post-modern virtues ‘tolerance’, that God is not tolerant; he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two concepts.

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But once we have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, just look at the scenario which Zephaniah paints for us! Once the Mighty Warrior is for you rather than against you, there is no need for fear, no room for oppression, no call for dishonour or shame. When the one who was fighting against you because you were living against him starts singing songs of joy over you as a beloved daughter, you know something dramatic has happened. In the past it took a generation or more of exile: in Christ it took three days. Hallelujah – what a Saviour!

So often when we come to worship we see ourselves as in some way putting on a performance which we hope God will enjoy. This passage helps us to see things differently. In a most un-Anglican way God is seen singing, shouting, delighting, rejoicing. He may even have put his arms in the air like a good charismatic: who knows? The really good news is that we are invited to join in. He is not in the audience holding up cards with numbers on to assess our attempts at worship: he is partying with all he’s got, and inviting us to the party too.