Tag Archives: discipleship

Threat – and opportunity

The world seems very different from just a couple of weeks ago. The threat of a virus – covid-19 – has changed our lives, causing strain and fear. Can Paul’s words from his letter to Ephesus offer any help? (We read Ephesians 5:8-14)

Christians are just like everyone else in having to respond to the situation, take instructions, and know that many things are changing, and some will never be the same. Paul’s challenge would seem to be that we do this with love, deliberately imitating God.

Yes there is evil in some of what is happening. Fear, insecurity, we could make quite a long list. These things can divide people and strain relationships. Can there be anything good in all this?

“Live as children of light” we are told. No secrets, no selfish advantage, but an open attempt to live generously and well. What does that mean, when we cannot go and meet people, join for worship, offer help? Perhaps it is a helpful challenge. It makes us think again about how we live our faith.

We cannot gather to worship, but we can join in broadcast services, or listen to our leaders and teachers via the internet. We cannot go and see people, but we can be in touch by phone, e-mail, messaging. We have more time spare that we are used to – and can use it well, or badly.

What it will mean to live in the light as Christian disciples? That will vary in detail from person to person. But for all it will be a life sharing with others, probably in new ways, which need exploring. We may self-isolate to avoid the bug, and the problem of others catching it from us, or perhaps having to care for us – but that is physical, not emotional. Don’t lower the portcullis and prepare to resist any who come near!

When we get back to something more like normal, what will the churches have learnt? Will they try for “business as usual”, or will they be glad of having tried new ways of supporting one another, new friends made, new skills learnt? It’s not that the faith has changed, but the times mean that the practice of faith has to adapt. Is the understanding we have gained so far equal to changing, and meeting a new world with the light of Christ?

It’s no joke!

What is both totally absurd, and also very common? Sadly it is not a joke, and the answer is Christian division and disunity. Paul faces it as he writes to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, following on from last week). He responds to reports he has received that the congregation is dividing into groups or cliques, following Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ.

We can only speculate: Paul had founded a church for Jews and Gentiles together. We might guess that the Cephas group (Cephas is the same person as Peter, the apostle) were concerned to keep the Jewish traditions. It may be that the Apollos people liked the smooth educated style and more polished rhetoric of Apollos, and the Christ clique longed for the good old days. . .

How it happened is not the point. Paul insists that it is quite wrong. The message he had preached was about Jesus. His intention was to share his faith – in Jesus. He had deliberately avoided setting up a personality cult, based on his gifts and appeal. He reinforces this with the point about Baptism. Baptism was into Christ, it mattered, but who performed the ceremony was not important.

Sadly, as I suggested, the failures we all share make it very easy for Christian unity to be damaged. We meet “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – but are too quick to add “as decent Anglicans”, or fans of this or that tradition, or denomination. Three things in particular are dangerous.

  • One is the tradition you like – Catholic ceremonial, Evangelical preaching, Charismatic enthusiasm, Anglican moderation . . We all have likes and dislikes, but they must not replace our loyalty to Christ – or they deny our faith!
  • Similarly, we will take to one leader more easily than another: their syle of speech, personality, or simply the fact that they were there for you at a difficult time. That’s very human, but must never endanger your 1st loyalty – to Christ, and other Christians.
  • And of course there is the question of buildings. We know in Britain we have too many – but the answers are not easy! What can be said is that when a church closes, and some choose not to worship anywhere else, the sceptics may rightly ask whether it was the worship of Christ that ended, or some other social gathering.

You might think that is the end of the question. Christian division is unfaithful, you either follow Jesus and are ready to join with any and all others who do so, or your faith is in question. But there are complications. One is the need to worship in different ways. Young and loud; older and more reflective . .

Another, that while Paul will not allow the church to become cliquey, he also needs to give a lead, and have his teaching authority recognised. Any Christian must have a loyalty to Christ, a commitment to follow as a disciple. But we are also called to fellowship – to be part of a group where we learn, and both give and receive support. That means being being loyal and supportive of a leader/s. (It may sometimes be right to leave and join another group, but if you don’t think grumbling and lack of support a sin – read Exodus about those who didn’t like Moses, what God thought, and what happened to them!)

So let’s remember the importance of being together as we follow the Way of Christ. Let’s practice loving the difficult, and quelling any gossip or grumbling with something positive. It’s not easy, but Christian living was never promised to be!

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/ ]