Reflections on Discipleship – Purify my Heart

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’ve been reading 1 Peter recently, and I was struck by the logic of the few verses overlapping chapters 1 and 2, which I think give the lie to a lot of thinking about discipleship. Many Christians have picked up the idea that it is all about hard work, trying, striving to be more holy, and so on, and I honestly think this puts some people off even trying to think about being better disciples. Peter (or whoever) is clearly writing to newish Christians – elsewhere the NT urges people to leave off the milk and get onto meat instead, but here it is milk which is commended – but his starting point isn’t about how they should try harder. He begins by telling them an objective fact about their status in Christ: ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’.

They have become Christians: ‘You have been born again’ he tells them in the next verse. The quote from Isaiah 40 demonstrates that they have stepped out of the merely human cycle of birth, life and death because the Word in which they have put their trust is an eternal Word. They will almost certainly ‘go the way of all flesh’ sooner or later, but for them that won’t be the end, but rather a new beginning. So he clearly establishes the fact that they have crossed the line and have become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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Then comes that fateful word ‘Therefore’ in 2:1, a word so often used in the Epistles as a transition from what is true, what has happened, and what they must now do about it. It’s a little word, but it has vital implications. What the author is saying is basically ‘You have changed your status before God – now learn to live that out’. You have been ‘born again’: now get rid of the baggage that you don’t need any more. It’s a similar argument to that used in Hebrews 12 about throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us. The picture there is of a Roman soldier getting rid of his voluminous cloak ready for action. Stuff like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander simply don’t belong to the changed life you now live, so fling them off, as you would a restricting garment. This can , of course, be hard work, since old habits die hard. But what he doesn’t say, and this is where we get it oh so wrong, is that you have to behave differently in order to live in a new relationship with Christ. So we get back to that age-old heresy of salvation by works: I live the right way in order to get right with God, not because I am right with God. I’ve been purified, so now impurities are simply no longer appropriate in my life.

When we really know who we are in Christ we are filled with the desire to live up to that calling: when we believe that we have to work that hard so that Christ will accept us, it’s easy to see how we can believe we’re onto a loser from the start and stop bothering. After all, being a mere ‘churchgoer’ feels like a lot less hard work.

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 1st Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

I’ve gone for the Candlemas theme for this week, on the assumption that it is likely to be celebrated a day early in many churches, and also because it is an occasion I enjoy. The familiar words of Malachi, mediated via the gift of Handel’s Messiah, raise an interesting question for us.

This week I have been involved in a long facebook conversation which came out of a friend’s blog. Somehow we got onto the subject of ‘niceness’. We started off on why men hate going to church, but we soon arrived at the suggestion that church was too ‘nice’ for most blokes. I put the word safely inside inverted commas so you’ll know what I mean, but it was suggested that being nice is fine: kindness, gentleness and so on are good Christian qualities. But to me the problem is when we’re only ever allowed to be ‘nice’; when the harsher realities of life, and church life, are brushed under the carpet because they’re not ‘nice’. Stuff like conflict, reality, death – you know the kinds of thing.

Candlemas is basically a nice festival. You’ve got some all-age worship as an elderly pair of people encounter a little baby, you’ve got the beautiful words of what the Church has called the  

Nunc dimittis, and some lovely prophecies about Jesus’ life and ministry. But the OT reading, and indeed even some of the Gospel story, give us a different picture. This sweet baby comes bringing judgement. Many are going to fall because of him, Mary herself will know the pain of a pierced heart, and her son will naturally enough stir up great hostility. The truth is, he is not being born into a ‘nice’ system. Malachi, writing after the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple, is telling people not to get too up themselves just because a building project is complete. If the God in whose honour this building was raised were actually to come among the people some things would be anything but ‘nice’. The images of launderers’ soap and refiners’ fire are violent images, and the testifying against various categories of naughty people sounds scary for those people. They must surely reflect some of what was currently going on, and the images of  occultism, adultery, lying, injustice and oppression are not a pretty sight. In the same way Jesus’ ministry was going to be one of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, as many of those around the Temple were to find out. Following him was no easy option, and he never told anyone it would be.

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On a larger scale Candlemas is about a change of direction: we face away from Christmas, and all the lovely birth narrative stuff with its shepherds, little lambs and the like, and turn towards Lent and Passiontide; away from birth towards death. This too is a turn away from ‘niceness’ in the direction of something far less comfortable and far more demanding.

To follow Jesus is to be challenged, judged and purified until the offering of our lives are ‘offerings in righteousness’ (v 3) Purification is not ‘nice’, but it is essential, and the end results are much nicer without the inverted commas.