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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Worship Roster for February 2018

The Worship Roster for February 2018 can be downloaded here.  If you are unable to fulfill your roster responsibility, please find a replacement.

Readings: 5thafterEpiphany 6th after Pentecost Ash Wednesday Lent1 Lent 2

Prayers: Epiphany5 Epiphany6 AshWednesday Lent1 Lent2

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Baptism – The Call to Ongoing Repentance

I have often queried the biblical translators’ rendering of the response of the wise men as ‘pay homage’ which seems a lesser response than I have believed.  ‘Pay homage’ seems to suggest simply honouring, a show of respect, of a good person rather than ‘worship’.  For your information the word in the Greek is ‘worship’.  It seems clear to me that Matthew in recording this event wanted it to be clear that the wise men were moved to recognise the infant Jesus as divine; they bent their knee and worshipped him.  This is an important point in Matthew’s recounting the event and the translation is disappointing.

I have also spoke about the example of the journey of the wise men from seeing the star in the west to their worship of the infant Jesus and return home by another road as a model for our own discipleship.  As it did for the wise men, our discipleship process begins with an experience we have called kairos, a moment where something challenges our status quo, and we go searching for understanding of what this might mean.  We often get distracted by returning to our expected response and, finding that inadequate, if we allow the journey to continue we discover that we are learning something new.  This kairos is a moment where God is revealing himself to us and, in seeking understanding, we come to new knowledge of God and ourselves.  This new belief transforms us and leads us into new behaviour.

There are arguments within the church about baptism, what it might mean and when it should take place.  Generally these arguments are driven, I think, by a focus on a particular charism of baptism from grace through to repentance of sin into salvation.

Both Mark and Luke, in Acts, describe John’s baptism as one of repentance.  Matthew describes this repentance as the process of making way for the Lord to be revealed, which John the Evangelist supports by recording John the Baptist during one of his days baptising declaring about Jesus, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

Just as an aside, I always found it interesting that ‘sin’ is in the singular; however Mark has ‘sins’ in the plural.  I’ll let you ponder what that might mean for yourself.

So, John’s baptism was one that was calling people to repent in order to prepare for God to be revealed.  I doubt that anybody would have any other understanding of repentance to literally mean changing your mind about something.

Sometimes, however, I think we can make the mistake of connecting repentance with sinfulness alone.  Perhaps it is right that repentance calls us to change our mind about our actions that damage our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.  But if repentance is about changing our minds about our behaviour then we must be open to the possibility that there is a different way of behaving that builds up those relationships.  This, of course, also means that we also need to find another way of defining sin.

In addition to this, and this is a theologically important point that touches on that quandary I posed earlier, that is, ‘it’s interesting that sin is in the singular,’ despite the singular and plural rendering of sin, the repentance of John’s baptism is for preparation to receive the Lord, not to turn away from sin.  The reality is that all of us continue sinning.  The difference is that we have turned to God and trust in the work God has done to overcome the power of sin over us.  The single sin, then, is not turning to God.  The message of John’s baptism is to repent so you are able to receive God’s revelation of himself.

Just as it was for the wise men, so it is for John’s discipleship programme, repentance has more to do with our being able to receive the revelation of God.  To repent certainly means to change your mind, but it also implies that you make yourself open to the possibility that things could be understood differently.

I was reading something on the internet on Thursday titled ‘8 Signs You Might be an Evengelical Reject.’  The first of these was

You are nuanced in your understanding of “heresy” while believing that Jesus Christ is the source of all Truth.

In other words, judging folks who are wrestling with difficult questions about God and the bible, or those who come to different conclusions is off the table. Of course, heresy is a real thing–truth exists–but the honest truth is that we can’t know truth with absolute certainty… we see things like St. Paul: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Cor. 13.12 CEB). Absolute certainty is a myth. Heresy matters, but it shouldn’t be defined by those who have “all the right answers.”[1]

I found myself agreeing with this and thinking, ‘to know the truth with absolute certainty, to have “all the right answers”, is not just a myth, it is sin;’ it does not leave the way open for new possibilities, it does not leave room for God to reveal himself.

The first part of discipleship is repentance.  The primary repentance is when we first turn to God through Jesus Christ, what we commonly call conversion.  The ongoing journey of discipleship is a repentance that is concerned with being open to the possibility that God is continuing to reveal himself to his creation.

This starts with the God moment, in the biblical Greek, kairos.  Kairos, that point when God disturbs our status quo.  Repentance is the process of looking at the facts of what actually took place in the kairos, then reflecting on what this may mean through talking about it with others.  by ‘others’ I include God, in prayer, what the bible has to say about the situation, what Christians down the ages have to say and what your contemporary Christians have to offer.  This is the purpose of our house groups, a group of people who can assist us in our discipleship journey.  Interpretation of revelation for Christians is not done in isolation, is not undertaken without reference and consultation to others.

Note that no actions or changes in behaviour have been decided yet.  Repentance is the process that leads to change.  Matthew makes that quite clear in his account of John’s baptism, ‘Bear fruit that befits repentance.’  Change of behaviour, action, comes out of the new belief we come to because we have been open to the possibility that God is revealing something new to us.  We are not stuck in our tradition, we have not arrived, we are disciples on a journey.  I encourage you to be a part of a group that will provide you with the means to continue on your discipleship journey.

[1] www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2015/01/05/8-signs-reject/#ixzz3OCglvyJI

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