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!

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.