Tag Archives: discipleship

Is God growing on you?

{There is also a 3 part Dialogue Sketch on Mark 4:26-34, available on the Dialogue Sketches section of this website – click here, or go to http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/dialogue-sketches/index-of-dialogue-sketches/mark-426-34-parables-of-the-kingdom/ }

How much space is there in your life for God?  You’re reading – a good start. But is this a secret interest, or does God get taken home, to work, to leisure activities, to everything?

When Jesus talked about a seed growing, and then about the mustard seed, (Mark 4:26-34) he probably needed to reassure his hearers: the way to make an impact was not revolution (regularly unsuccessful then, as often since), but planting the seed of the Kingdom of God. You must be joking! some would say, yet in his disciples, being entertained moved on to tolerance, and then to commitment, and that became something to change the world.

In  the first century, the faith of just 120 became something to rock Roman empire, survive it, and become largest religion now on earth. Jesus was right (we shouldn’t be surprised!) that seed does grow. But I was asking how much space there is in your life for God. I don’t mean “church” activity should elbow out everything else.  There are churches that do that, that fill your life so that you never meet anyone outside, have time for any other interests, and don’t get much chance to meet the wrong people. It’s not a good way of organising Christian life, because it doesn’t produce mature Christians, but hothouse plants who always need protecting. (That’s why I didn’t ask how much time you had for God, but how much space.)

The thing I wanted to point out was that the seed grows. You may remember this happening. Something started you, but since then, it’s grown. You can stop it – like a plant uprooted, deprived of light or water – but you don’t have to understand how it happens. Given space, faith will grow. As it grows, it is more than “Church on Sunday”, it begins to affect family, work, the way you spend free time, the way you think about things, and about yourself. You can stop it, refuse it some places, or let it grow.

Given time and good conditions the tiny seed of the kingdom grows until birds nest in the mustard shrub. Perhaps that’s just a comment about the size or security of the tree. Or perhaps Jesus is saying that we get to a point where our whole life – everything about us – is lived in faith and for God. It doesn’t mean we get terribly “religious”, obsessed by “churchiness” – after all, Jesus wasn’t like that. It does mean nothing is out of bounds to God. And if you think that means you never have a laugh, get time off, or anything to enjoy, look again at Jesus.

Now, I started by asking how much space there is in your life for God. Perhaps I ought to sharpen up that question and ask, not how much space, but “Are you letting God grow on you?”

A branch with connections?

What did Jesus mean by saying, “I am the true vine”? (John 15:1-8). It’s a saying that comes on the night of the foot-washing and (though John does not record the institution of the eucharist) the Last Supper. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus says “Rise, let us be on our way.”, but there are still 2 chapters of discourse and the prayer of chapter 17 before (beginning in chapter18) they go out across the valley to the garden of Gethsemane.

We can’t be sure, but interesting idea that, leaving the house at end chapter 14, they went to the temple, and saw the gates with their vine decoration. Psalm 80, as well as Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, had pictured Israel as a vine – thus the symbolism of the decoration. It would add force to this saying, if they were looking at the gates. Jesus would be making the point that from that time on, to belong to God’s people would be to be his – Jesus’ – followers, and not members of a nation. He had already replaced the 12 tribes, with 12 disciples.

What is so distinctive about a vine?  Although the stem is woody, and lasts, the shoots are sappy, and need support. When pruned, the shoots removed can be removed without secateurs or knife, and wither to almost nothing. It’s not flattering to be told that as branches of Jesus we have no strength, no backbone of our own. Not flattering – but we need to know.

And it might seem less than comforting to hear that God will not only remove unfruitful branches, but also prune those that do fruit! We might wince at the thought of pruning, or we might see it as explaining why difficult things happen, even to good people. Do you feel that Christians have had a hard time in the last few years? In western society generally, a move away from Christian ideas and practice – about honesty, care for weak and needy,  life and death as well as morality and family. Is some of this God pruning? Asking us to live distinctively, to show a better way because we belong to him?

Jesus picture is not complicated. A vine, perhaps many years old, with roots drawing water from six metres down, for the benefit of the frail branches. Without the plant, they are nothing. Only firmly connected to the knarled trunk can they fulfill their purpose and bear fruit. But the fruit is wonderful in itself, and can be made into wine, to keep its goodness and bring cheerfulness and energy for time to come.

Let’s take Jesus parable and put it into practice. We are already cleansed, or pruned, by Jesus words – as Christians, we have come to terms with our frailty, and our shared status as sinners. Let’s also make sure that we are well connected to be fruitful, for the harvest of the Kingdom.

What do you (really) want?

What do you want – really, really want? I can guess some answers:

  • sun, even a holiday in it
  • Money – a lottery / Premium bond prize
  • a Ferrari, / gadget / status symbol

But I seem to remember a few stories which centre around 3 wishes. All too often the first two are disasters, and the third has to be used to put things right. Reality breaks in, even to fairy tales!  There are lots of things we want, without the consequences. Human nature always has eyes bigger than its stomach, and a desire that forgets the dangers of selfishness.

Today’s gospel (Mark 8:31-38) is very revealing about what Jesus really wants. We have just passed the high points: first, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (the promised great King), then Jesus was Transfigured.  And Jesus takes that cue to tell them about his coming suffering. Peter had probably been dreaming of success – perhaps Prime Minister in Jesus government of Religious Restoration, a comfortable and honoured position. And Jesus says, “Get away from me, Satan, Your thoughts don’t come from God but from human nature!”

Jesus didn’t want to suffer; he wanted all the usual things – home, family, to be loved, accepted and respected. He was fully human, tempted as we are. But what did he want most? He knew that what he wanted above everything was to do what only he could do, and bring humanity back to God. He wanted to finish his ministry successfully.

He wanted the disciples to understand. Here, in chapter 8, twice in 9, and again in 10, he tries to make them face up to reality. But they can’t; only later do they remember, and understand.

“Have a cross”. “Expect a hard time as a Christian”. “Only those ready to die should apply”. As advertising slogans, these lack something important.  Or do they?  Jesus wanted all the usual things, but when it came down to it, he really wanted to serve God, no matter what. And he did. The disciples couldn’t get their heads around it, and went on arguing about who was most important, and other “key issues”. But when they saw how it played out in Jesus life and death, they knew what they really wanted, and they offered their service and their lives.

So what about us? What do you really want? Will you settle for Sunday lunch, a bit of TV or social media time, and life as usual? – or have you caught a glimpse of something worth so much, a vision of what God might do, that is enough to put you to service, no matter what?

Yes, the stakes are high, and the warnings on the tin of Christian life are scary and blunt. But can all the Christians be mad – or is it all the others?

Starting – and then

(There is a short dialogue sketch on this gospel, John 1:43-51, which you can find here.)

Do you find it hard to get started? In this Epiphany season we are talking about how Jesus got started, and others started with him. Clearly today we are talking about disciples. (John 1:43-51).  Already Andrew and Simon (John 1:35-42), and presumably James and John (Mark 1:16-20) have been called. Andrew at least was a disciple of John the Baptist, and had to face leaving the old master, good though he was, for a new. The others seem to have been fishermen, and faced issues of leaving their jobs and families, at least for a time. It can be difficult to get started on discipleship.

Then Jesus calls Phillip, and there is a quick response as he goes and finds Nathanael, and speaks of Jesus in glowing terms. The rest of the reading is about Nathanael (who is probably the same person as Bartholomew – which is a “surname”, used by the other gospel writers).

Nathanael is not impressed by someone from Nazareth. It is not that it was a  specially bad place, but [non-starter] – it never even gets a mention in the Old Testament! Prejudice if you like; it could stop him even starting. But Phillip is a quick learner, though. He doesn’t argue, just says “Come and see!”, – and Nathanael does.

John has been pointing out how Jesus knew people. Not in the “networking” sense, but in being able to weigh up their character and motives. As Nathanael comes, he comments, here is a man with no hidden agenda, no deceit! Nathanael is surprised; how is he known? Jesus says, “I saw you when you were under the fig tree before Philip called you”, and we don’t know why that is so important. Did Nathanael offer a prayer there, or was some question nagging his mind which Jesus has shown he knows about? At any rate, Jesus is right – Nathanael has no hesitation in changing his tune, and is loud in his acceptance of Jesus. (He has now gone beyond Phillip’s recommendation to his own evaluation).

That’s not all. Jesus doesn’t comment on the titles Nathanael has used, but continues the reference to Jacob – the sly, deceitful son of Isaac, who eventually became Israel, father of the nation (his story is told in Genesis, from chapter 25). Jacob had a vision, as he ran from the danger of death at home (Genesis 28:10-28). He saw a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down. When he woke, he made a promise to God – the beginning of his change. Jesus says to Nathanael, do you believe because I told you that? You will see a way opened to heaven, not with a ladder, but with the Son of Man (the title he preferred to use for himself). Nathanael has started his discipleship with Jesus.

It is quite an opening. John tells us how Jesus ministry started, with ordinary people, but special happenings and promises. I think he is also telling us about how our discipleship, or the next stage of it, must start. We may have to leave behind some old things, even good ones, like the ministry of John the Baptist. You can’t do everything, and compared to the best, even the good is a distraction.

We may have to deal with prejudice. “I can’t learn anything from someone like that!”,  “I don’t want my religion to be like this”, or “my life to be like that . .” To be a disciple is to learn, and learning often means change.

These new disciples are just starting. (next week we come to John 2:11, “and his disciples believed in him”). But for now, the importance of Jesus, and of following him, is what they need.

Bible

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” says Jesus as part of the Bible Sunday gospel (Matthew 24:30-35).  But what is the significance of that? Context is important. You may remember that the Bible says “There is no God” – but you do need to look at where, and what it means.  The whole quote is better ‘Fools say to themselves, “There is no God!” ‘ Psalm 14:1, and 53:1

So what is the context here? This text comes from a chapter about persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the final judgement. Each of the first three gospels has a similar section, and in each it is difficult to separate the parts about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD from the parts about the final judgement at the end of time.

This text is important to both: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”. Christians needed to know in the first century, when everything was falling apart in their world, that God was faithful and reliable. In the twenty-first century we also need to know that.

But we might ask, which words matter? Three things come from scripture:

  • We need to know a simple statement of gospel: Because of God’s love and Jesus’ death, there is life, forgiveness and hope for any and all who will admit their failure and need, and turn to Jesus’ Way. (its not the precise words that matter, but the message)
  • Secondly, the words which describe what it means to live as a disciple ( / follower / student) of Jesus. The stories which tell us what he is working at, and how we need to learn, obey, and relate to one another . . Words to guide us in Christian life are valuable.
  • And particularly from this passage, we might add as part of that, words of support for hard times and tight corners. Jesus insists that God will “gather his chosen people” 24:31 at the end. Or you might think of promises about not being alone, of your prayer being heard, or of not being tested beyond the possibility of resistance. These are important words of scripture, but they need to be known and understood. Exaggeration will lead to disappointment and disillusion; ignorance to despair; right hearing will equip and encourage us for life.

Again, you may remember that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (Old Testament scripture) to the devil in the wilderness – and the devil also quotes or rather misquotes scripture – context and meaning matter!

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” says Jesus Matthew 24.35. We must understand, from the context and comparison of text with text, what is meant. Then we are equipped.

Who’s in Charge?

“Who’s in Charge?”  We ask it of politicians, of community leaders – of all sorts of people.  In today’s gospel, (Matthew 21:23-32)  Jesus authority is questioned. We might guess that the authorities are offended by his lack of authorisation — he was not a rabbi, in the sense of having been recognised and ordained. So, finding him teaching in the Temple, they ask “How dare you!” – or rather “What right have you?”

Jesus answers with a question – a common thing at the time. “What authority did John the Baptist have?” It seems a simple question, but verses 25 & 26 show their problem, and they answer “We do not know”. (Perhaps meaning “We think he was a fraud, but haven’t the courage to say so”).

It is not just a debating trick. If the questioners cannot tell the difference between a man of God and a trickster, then they have shown that they are incompetent. If they are not prepared to tell the people what they think is the truth, they cannot lead. So they are not capable of judging Jesus.  Jesus has the authority of God himself, shown by his words and actions. The chief priests and elders, by their inability to recognise John the Baptist, have shown they have no spiritual discernment, no real authority.

It’s tempting to stop there, to say that Jesus has shown the opposition to be rubbish, and won his way out of a difficult situation.  That might miss the point. How many of us are still asking “Who’s in Charge?”.  The answer is not the legitimacy of some official, but our obedience to God, our discipleship.  The inner child is always ready to protest “You can’t make me, it’s my life, I’ll do, or not do, what I want”. What has authority over us – over me? Ambition, desire, selfishness, laziness, pride,.. or is my life a Christian life, where Jesus not only has the right to tell me what to do (and how, and when), but that right is accepted, signed up to, and even celebrated?

We went on the the parable of the two sons. One says yes, and does nothing. The other thinks better of his refusal, and goes and does the work his father has directed him to.  Who’s in charge? Who tells me what to do? Who has the right? There is a theoretical answer – Jesus who created me and gave his life to gain my freedom – but it is not a matter of getting the words right. It means doing the work, using the energy, sorting out the pride, giving the money, sharing the possessions, and not stopping.

Jesus is a hard act to follow.

He asks a great deal.

He has the right.

Must Jesus suffer?

As you read this post, do you count yourself as a Christian?  If so, “What do you do as a Christian?” only because you are a Christian, and would give up if you no longer claimed that faith?  You might need time to think about this – but if you cannot identify anything, does that throw doubt on your faith?  [If you do not describe yourself in this way, do you understand that to claim Christian faith should mean a real difference in ordinary life?].

A second question: “How do you do it?”.  Unwillingly, with a long face, or can you manage a positive sense of the privilege of discipleship, and the honour of service?

Today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21) says “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”.
He must.  It is clear in all 4 gospels, and the New Testament generally. The story works up to the cross. But Peter doesn’t get it – like many today. He sees Jesus as Messiah – King, and is looking forward (perhaps with some doubts) to celebrity, glory, winning. But God has very different ways, and the Messiah will win through suffering. Jesus tone makes it clear that is not negotiable, not a detail to be skimmed over.

I think we might all have some sympathy for Peter, and find it hard to keep in focus this strange way God chooses to work. Why does Jesus have to die? What good does it do?  Evangelical Christians will say firmly that He pays the price for our sin, and it is only by his death that we are free. That’s true, and if you haven’t come to terms with being in debt for your life, you need to do some thinking about it with God, and perhaps with 1 Peter 2 esp v24.

But be aware, too, that Jesus is unique, and all descriptions are metaphors which help us understand, but eventually no one picture covers all the angles. The New Testament does not give just one picture to explain, but many, to build up our understanding. So:

  • Jesus changes places with us 1 Peter 2 (esp v24)
  • Jesus is the sacrifice, the “Lamb of God” John 1
  • Jesus is the High Priest who offers a unique and effective sacrifice Hebrews 7, Hebrews 9
  • also the Pioneer Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 12:2
  • and Jesus is Teacher (Matthew’s gospel has 5 collections of teaching, “new Law”, like a new Moses (see Deuteronomy 18).
  • this isn’t a full list, you can go on finding other pictures describing Jesus, his work and importance.

That is in danger of being confusing! Let’s summarise and say: It was no accident that Jesus suffered, died, and rose – it was all central to God’s plan to save us in love. The New Testament reflects on something very strange to our culture, assumptions, and ways of understanding, and offers a number of comparisons and pictures in explanation.

If you read another of today’s lessons (Romans 12:9-21), you will find the life described is reformed around Jesus – finding hope, patience, and love for enemies. This is the life which brings hope to Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan today. It is the same life which must characterise our learning to work together. I am sure there are those sitting at home today saying things like, “I don’t like going changing my habits, why can’t I have it the way I want it?” I think Peter would have had an answer, for the Christian must follow Christ and become like him. I think Jeremiah would have sympathised – he had a hard time (Jeremiah 15:15-21) – but also knew the discipline of obedience.

We follow a Lord whose Kingship was shown in the suffering of the Cross. We begin to see how God wins, in situations like yours and mine, in a way totally different to anything Hollywood, or the Islamic State, or Westminster can get their heads around. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” Peter, and the others who followed then and later (even now!), would have to learn Jesus way of winning, and see in it the glory of God’s love.

Surfing for fun?

Matthew 14:22-33 might be a Victor Meldrew story – “I don’t believe it!”, if it wasn’t for the fact that some of those who were there and told it were experienced fishermen.  Jesus walking on the waters of Lake Galilee made a big impact on a group, some of whom had worked it for years.

In telling the story, Matthew is making clear the power Jesus has, even over “natural forces”.  It reinforces the same point from the Feeding of the 5,000 (last week’s reading, if we hadn’t replaced it with the Transfiguration for 6th August).  Both raise questions for the modern reader – but the ancient reader must also have wondered “How?”.  Not having a clear answer should not lead us to the mistake of saying, “That can’t happen!”.  I have the same response to some modern physics, which I also don’t understand clearly.

So we are invited to reflect, in a culture where Jesus is often seen as a “good man” or a “teacher of spirituality”, on Jesus in Charge, Jesus with the creator’s power over creation.  The power Jesus holds is difficult for us to get our heads round.  He refuses to coerce people, even to ensure his own comfort or survival, yet is able to do awesome things.

But that isn’t the only significance of this story.  Peter goes for a walk.  Not for long – but long enough to discover that with Jesus’ permission he can walk on water, but that he frightens easily and needs help.  (He gets help, and everything is all right).

It is not just about Peter.  Discipleship is learning.  One part is to know something about how special and important Jesus is, because that is basic to our understanding, and also our motivation to live as Christians.  The other part is to learn how we are going to do what Jesus does. [compare Mark 16:17-18].  We may not be as good at it.  We need confidence, but confidence in Jesus and not in our own ability.  But as disciples we are learners, both of theory (about Jesus) and practice (“walking on water” – whatever form that may take for us).

With a story like that, why is it so easy to be sure there is nothing we need to do, or even nothing we can do?

 

[There is also a dialogue sketch on this passage – see http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/dialogue-sketches/index-of-dialogue-sketches/matthew-1422-33/ ]

Pleasing – some!

Selective deafness is wonderful! Do you know anyone who can hear “I want some help with the washing up!” as clearly as “Dinner’s ready!”?  In Matthew 11:16-30 Jesus is getting opposition, people won’t hear, and he summarises their attitude. John the Baptist came, and they didn’t like his attitude and lifestyle, – too severe, too harsh; then Jesus, but the parties, the doubtful friends – they didn’t like him either. The fact was – and still is – that both challenged the people to change, and they found it easier to complain than to listen.

OK says Jesus, so you won’t listen. Well, look instead!  He thinks of the towns and villages around the Lake of Galilee where he had performed so many healings and miracles, and he denounces them. Why didn’t they look, and see, and react? They had so much more chance than other places that were judged, and will bear the consequences.  (For some reason, the Lectionary leaves out these verses 20-24!)

Of course, Jesus had both the talk and the walk – he explained it and he demonstrated it. We need the same, if we are going to be real disciples, and if we are going to win any other lives for Christ.  But there’s more attraction than that. (v25-27) Jesus reminds us that it isn’t the scholarly and those who spend many hours in study who know God, but the ones he reveals himself to. Scholarship can bring arrogance – the enemy of discipleship.

And what are they going to find, those who accept Jesus direction? A yoke is a way of carrying a load – often a piece of wood that fits across the shoulders, to carry two buckets or loads without having to hold them in the hands, and make it easier and more comfortable. Sometimes in the OT the yoke is a symbol of oppression, a heavy burden.  Jesus doesn’t say that discipleship is always easy, what he does say is that he is easy to learn from because we relate to someone gentle and humble – much easier to accept, learn from, and work for than an arrogant and harsh master.

And, yes, he does say the load is light. We take that with other sayings like taking up our cross, and perhaps remember that we should only carry what we are given. We don’t have to sort out the world, not even our family, just the life we are given.  We don’t have to solve everything, just take the opportunities we are given and use them well.

Jesus’ contemporaries wouldn’t take note of his teaching – it was too challenging, and they preferred what they knew. They wouldn’t learn from what they saw – it might mean they had to do something. And so they missed out, and made themselves liable for judgement.

We have the warning, and the opportunity. Jesus way is lighter than the burden of Old testament commandments and regulations, yet it needs to be heard, and responded to. A tennis player can be on court for hours, and still run, and think, and fight back – training and practise have made it, well, not always easy, but possible, and sometimes fun. A light yoke!

Still Learning

Last week’s gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:8) told of Jesus ministry of teaching and healing extended as all 12 of his disciples became apostles – the learners were “sent” to act in Jesus name. I reflected that this was not what we might have expected, but it nevertheless is what is expected of us.  This week the Old Testament lesson (from the “related” sequence) is Jeremiah 20:7-13, and might warn us that prophets and others faithful to God can have a hard time.

Reading Matthew 10:24-39, we learn more of what discipleship means, for the twelve and for us. 10:24 is important: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”.  Matthew quotes that apparently to warn the Christians of his church that they are likely to be abused and persecuted, as Jesus was. But he may also have been aware of the dangers to be faced as disciples got used to being Christians, and no longer found their mission such an adventure.

Historically, Anglicans have relied on Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  Scripture is of vital importance as God’s main way of communicating with us, (our services are full of the Bible in different forms). Tradition helps us to understand and apply it – you may not immediately remember why we don’t publicly stone people to death for certain offences described in the Old Testament, but tradition might help you pause long enough to remember that some parts of the Old are changed by the New Testament. Reason is something we believe God gave us, to be used alongside his other gifts.

But “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. We remain learners, and need to be aware of some of the ways of getting it wrong!

  • Scripture can be read out of context, or interpreted without setting it alongside the rest of the Bible. “There is no God” -the words are found in scripture, but the full quote of Psalm 14:1 reads “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.””
  • Tradition shows us how Christians lived in the past, but (even assuming they got it right) does not always meet a new situation. When society changes, the same answer may be the wrong answer.
  • Reason is a great help – if we remember that we are always blind to our own weaknesses. I can think of a million excuses and reasons why my favourite sins are OK for me, – and all the excuses are rubbish.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. As the twelve disciples went out that first time, there probably wasn’t much temptation to “improve” on Jesus teaching, or healing technique. As time went on, that temptation grew.

  • It grew because of the temptation to think of ourselves as clever, and not dependant on a Master
  • it grew, because we like to avoid facing up to being wrong
  • it grew, because life was easier for Christians if they didn’t admit to their faith in some difficult situations

For us, the temptation to re-write Christian faith in a version that suits us is enormous, and it’s wrong. – to be a disciple is to accept, learn from and follow the teaching of Jesus. I don’t mean that we can just sign up to some fundamentalist interpretation. We still have to do the work: interpreting scripture, reviewing the tradition, thinking hard. It’s just that we know that fallen humanity – everybody in this imperfect and bent world – doesn’t think quite straight. The bend is most visible when we are letting ourselves off the hook!

To be a twenty-first century disciple of Jesus is wonderful, most important – and involves some hard work.