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 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?’


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.