Discipleship is more than evangelicalism

When Peter Greste, Al Jazeera journalist, was released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison I heard a comment made following his interview, without any tone of anger, resentment, or malice, ‘There is a man at peace with the world.’  I can’t remember who it was in connection with Peter Greste; they made a comment that during this time of incarceration Peter Greste kept himself physically and spiritually fit.  The latter through meditation.

I don’t know where Peter Greste is in terms of faith, or what kind of meditation or the object of meditation.  However, it reminded me of the same state of mind and heart we have witnessed previously in Terry Waite, a Christian and Envoy of Robert Runcie then Archbishop of Canterbury, who in 1991 was released after 5 years of torture and captivity in Lebanon while trying to secure the release of four hostages.

Both these reflect something of the words of Isaiah,

The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:28-31

Where does this peace come from?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Isaiah 40:28

Certainly for Terry Waite, such peace comes from knowing the LORD, the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.  This is the stuff of being a true believer, of being a true disciple of Jesus.  God does not grow tired in his desire to reveal himself to us, but knowing and hearing does not come passively.  We need to make an effort to have this understanding that has been from the beginning, from the foundations of the earth.

I have always felt a tension between what I know from experience as a disciple and Jesus words, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you.’ (John 15.16) and we hear today, ‘Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”’ (Mark 1:36)  Hunted and searching.

The Revd Angela Tilby, Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford, wrote in 2015,

“DISCIPLESHIP” is the new C-of-E-speak. The assumption is that clergy and laity now need to think of themselves primarily as sharing a vocation as missionary disciples, to halt declining church numbers.

To me, it reflects the peculiarly sectarian vocabulary that has taken over the Church in recent years, and shows the influence of American-derived Evangelicalism on the Church’s current leadership.

To those who use such language, it is second nature; they have no idea of how odd it sounds to those Anglicans for whom “discipleship” conjures up images of Galilean fishermen with tea towels on their heads rather than a calling with which they can identify. But, more worryingly, using the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.[1]

Needless to say, I disagree with her in her assumption about the definition of disciple as purely an evangelical missionary role and, consequently, that it does not stand up to scriptural scrutiny.  Rev’d Tilby (isn’t that the name of the Clergyman in Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey?) later acknowledges that new believers are described in Acts as disciples but dismisses this in preference to the references in Acts to ‘”followers of the Way” (first called Christians in Antioch)’,[2] and argues

Life in the Spirit or life in Christ are obvious alternatives, bridging the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline letters, both of which are concerned with the Church’s life in present time rather than with the earthly history of Jesus (where the language of discipleship really belongs).[3]

The question here is how can you be a follower in the way, how can you have life in the Spirit or life in Christ if you do not know who they are.  The premise of discipleship is not primarily missionary but of learning – growing in knowledge and love of God and this becomes the impetus for our mission in word and action.

We have for too long neglected true discipleship within the Anglican tradition and this has led to our weakness.  We should not ditch discipleship as being something that belongs to history but reclaim it and define it as it is biblically defined rather than allowing it to continue to be usurped by an American-derived Evangelicalism; and I have never heard it used within the secular sphere.

And here in our gospel reading we have an example of discipleship,

In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Mark 1:35-37

Hunted for Jesus and others searching for him.

Hunted: this is the only place in the New Testament that this word appears.  Simply, and inadequately translated ‘followed’ (KJB) and ‘looked for’ (NIV), these lack the urgency of this strong verb describing the zealous seeking out of Jesus.  It leaves us with the image of a starving person tracking a source of food. In the negative sense it speaks of persecution and its root is used to describe St Paul, before his so-called conversion, hunting down those who believed in Jesus to take them back to Jerusalem.  So, Simon who was later to be given the name Peter, the first among the disciples, with is companions hunted Jesus down.  As disciples we hunger to know Jesus and learn from him.

When Simon and the other disciples had found Jesus, they became advocates for others saying, “Everyone is searching for you.”   Searching, not as strong as ‘hunted’, has an intentionality and effort about it.  This searching expresses a desire, an endeavour, to enquire.  Those who had heard about Jesus’ healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law brought others to the house so Jesus could heal them and cast out and display power over demons were seeking him out.  This is probably their motive for them seeking him.  It stands in contrast to the urgent hunting of Jesus by the disciples.

Jesus seems to confirm this misplaced motive for seeking him out as his immediate response is to leave that place and go preaching the good news elsewhere.

Discipleship, then, can be clearly seen as an intentional seeking to grow in the knowledge and love of God through his son Jesus the Christ.  Any other motive for seeking him is a distraction from true discipleship which is primarily about learning not about evangelism.  However, in growing in our knowledge and love of Jesus we will find ourselves more able and ready to speak about him to others when we have the opportunity.  And, in that knowledge and love of God we will find our true peace in the face of the difficulties that will come.

[1] http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/30-january/comment/columnists/dissing-the-d-word

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

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