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.