Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’

Who’s the greatest?

September 20, 2015

Who is the greatest?

The church in the Western world for the last – let’s say four hundred and fifty years – has considered itself the greatest; a top level power – a player in the global community. Think about why this was the case; Christian religion, for better or worse, opened new territories to white, European development.  The Church (as an institution) helped monarchs make rules, then governments, then empires.  From the earliest days of Christian Europe, the institutional church filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of Roman Imperialism, and until the middle of the Twentieth Century, Christianity maintained the illusion of power in most of the countries and colonies of Western Europe – and of course, in North America.  The greatest – though not always the best – but surely the (Institutional) Church had achieved a certain status in the world that Jesus disciples could not have imagined.

But since we are a product of the “great age” of Christian thought, we are not sure why Jesus would need to redefine ‘greatness’ when it becomes the subject of discussion among his disciples.

Greatness, in this context, is about power.  You might want to imagine that the disciples were comparing their own relative successes on their recently completed mission trip, or trying to decide whom Jesus’ successor may (eventually) be in their tiny travelling theology school (Jesus has just suggested that the Son of Man would be killed – and raised; a statement that the disciples did not understand…), but the word used in Mark’s gospel means greatest in the ‘Mohammed Ali’ sense of the word.  The best; the top; none better – most magnificent, powerful etc etc etc.

The followers of Jesus needed only look to the world around them and notice how greatness was achieved; through power.  The greatest among them (in society) had influence, positions of authority, and wealth.

These guys – walking along dusty roads, living on the hospitality of strangers, challenged at every turn by the religious authorities (and the civil authority) are the opposite of what society considers “great”- and when they imagine greatness, they are not dreaming of some heavenly reward; they were thinking about power.  So this sudden call to a new reality; a divine reality – whoever wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all – must have been difficult to hear, and harder still to imagine. So to help them, Jesus takes a child, places it in their midst; the universal symbol of helplessness – of non-power – and Jesus tells them their needs must take a back seat.  They are to welcome those who are powerless – to interact with people in ways that won’t necessarily increase the disciples own influence.  The truly stunning revelation is not that there are people who are ‘worse off ‘ – Jesus invites them to honour God by honouring the least of these – that is the revolutionary idea

It was counter-intuitive then; it is still an unusual perspective. The disciples may have been astonished by the notion that there were people in the neighbourhood (or in society) who had less power than themselves, or those whose measure of greatness was something as ordinary as a small band of students trailing after an unlikely teacher. Jesus’ object lesson ought to stand as a reminder to us that power – greatness –  is not where we think it is; and that true greatness – greatness in the promised Kingdom of God – involves a different kind of power.

Our attitudes toward greatness are still wrapped up in money, fame, influence and power, but we also imagine that it is possible for people to achieve these things through determination and a good work ethic.  You could argue that greatness has become a cultural expectation – so we don’t ask the question for ourselves as the disciples did; today in the church, the quiet debate is not “who (among us) is the greatest?” – it is, rather, “whose need is greatest, and how can we help?”  Imagining our own power to be sufficient – and our own needs relatively small – we cast about for places where we may do the most good (and so make a name for ourselves in the name of God.)  –  It’s a subtle difference and it is still the wrong question.

While it is good that the church is willing and able to respond to disasters both sudden and slow-moving, our focus tends to get dragged to the big events – the grand scale of wreckage and despair that is now made known to us almost as soon as it happens – can leave us numb; but then we can make a donation, or host an event, or attend a vigil, and feel like we have contributed, in some small way, to a great relief effort.  That is how we work, (and it is not a bad approach, given the scope of the misery we are asked to consider) but our habit of lurching from disaster to disaster must surely seem (to some) as though we have no clear sense of direction.

Remember the Tsunami of 2005?  The Haitian earthquake?  Bosnia?  Bangladesh?  The Vietnamese ‘boat people’?  Headline makers, every one;  but when was the last time we thought about Haiti?  Or Indonesia?  or the plight of minorities in the Asian sub-continent?  Has the need been eliminated, or merely eclipsed by more recent news…

Whose need is greatest, we say in our board meetings and our prayers – imagining that the success of the institution might somehow serve the Kingdom of God.  So we acknowledge the crisis appeals, and continue to pour money into buildings and programs in the vain hope (and fervent desire) that we may yet be a power (for good) in our culture.   And then Jesus, having confronted us with the grim reality of his own greatness with a blunt announcement of his inevitable death and glorious resurrection, puts a child in his arms and says this is what need looks like; consider the multitudes who are truly powerless – acknowledge these – identify with these – serve these and put their needs and comforts ahead of your own.

Not just the children, of course – the child in Jesus’ arms is a symbol of all human helplessness, and the urgent need of all Creation for the redemptive love of God.  And we are invited to be agents of that redemption, by opening our hearts – our homes – our lives to this wonderfully simple and beautiful idea that to be first is to ignore power; that to be great is to seek the companionship of those whom society ignores.  That to follow Jesus is to love what seems (to us) unloveable.  The scale of our outreach must be both small – person to person as well as grand – nation to nation.  Jesus invites us to overcome personal prejudice and  serve those whom God has called children.  It is not the sort of greatness we might have imagined for ourselves – but it such basic acts of love are the service to which we are called.

Who is the greatest?  To those who honour God in humility – who seek justice, and love kindness, the question is irrelevant.  For in such service, God’s greatness and glory are revealed, and that is all that matters.


Who do you say I am? (Mark 8: 27-38)

September 13, 2015

Who do you say that I am?  With this simple question, Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet – asked them to be bold with an opinion – and oh, the result!  The common talk around town is that Jesus is showing signs of greatness – just like the good old days.  Perhaps there’s a prophet in their midst…John the Baptist, or even (could it be) Elijah…returned!  Someone to demonstrate the presence of God among this godless occupying force; someone to lead God’s people to freedom…there’s been lots of talk, of course.

But the disciples – those closest to Jesus have been strangely silent.  In Mark’s gospel, it seems intentional – after all, Jesus has often enough ‘forbidden them to speak’ after they’ve witnessed miracle after miracle- small wonder they are hesitant to offer an opinion…

But when pressed, we can count on Peter.  Peter, whose brain can’t keep up with his enthusiastic mouth – “You’re Messiah!” – a term so heavily laden with meaning even in Jesus time that it needs some unpacking

Messiah is from the Hebrew word for anointed – an action that marked a man as king or priest or (sometimes) prophet.  An actual anointing – pouring oil over the head of the person whom God has singled out – so that person (David, Saul, Solomon, for example) can assume the responsibilities of leadership.  Anointing was the sacrament of leadership in ancient Israel.  But after the Kingdom fell and the people were scattered and exiled, the promise of Messiah – an anointed one – takes on almost mythic proportions.  There will be one anointed, Isaiah promises, a king like no other; a servant king – Messiah – who will serve as God’s ultimate rescue plan.  One who will honour God and restore the people to their rightful place among the nations; a saviour of all that Israel considered sacred.  A hero, in short with divine qualities and human sensibility – the best of both worlds.  An Peter saw such a one standing beside him in Jesus.

So Jesus congratulates Peter,  because here is a statement that can be explained.  To talk of the reincarnation of ancient heroes of the faith is foolish at best – but to invoke the promise of salvation, that is a divine revelation.  Peter must be on to something, because Jesus orders them to silence.  That kind of talk is revolutionary, after all – you don’t dare raise up a king for yourselves while under Roman occupation.  And then he tells them what it means to be God’s chosen – to be Messiah.

It’s not pretty – it is nasty, brutish and short, according to Jesus – so horrible that Peter can’t believe it.  and I wonder if we really believe it, even now…?

Who do we say Jesus is today?  He is Messiah – Lord – Christ – all fitting titles; he is counsellor, co-pilot and friend (according to popular music and culture) but what do we imagine that any of these really mean?  Are we prepared for the harsh reality of Jesus’ role in our faith and our lives?  I suspect not.

I don’t dismiss the gentle, loving, serene aspects of Jesus influence on the Christian faith – love your neighbour, by all means – and pray for your enemies too; but when it comes down to how the faithful propose to ‘order the world’ on Jesus’ behalf, I’m more than a little suspicious – in fact, I’m disappointed.

We seem to think that by virtue of the titles we bestow on Jesus, he has become our heavenly yes-man; the one whose words (and work) might be used to justify everything we do in his name.  Jesus has been represented as being on almost every side of nearly every argument in modern political, social and ethical circles.  Jesus is praised from pulpits and prison cells (or more recently, the front door of the county jail…).  His vote is courted by multiple shades of the political spectrum.  Jesus opinions are treasured by those who “love life” and those who seek “death with dignity” assure us that they too want what Jesus offers – a pathway to the presence of God.   But in truth, Jesus is not to be manipulated by our expectations.  Jesus urges us to make brave decisions in the name of justice; Jesus points us toward acts of unselfishness for the sake of love; Jesus calls us to set our minds, not on the human things but on divine things – things that defy explanation and resist reason – and most of the time, we just can’t do it.

We are trying to win the world using Jesus as a formula for our behaviour, and it turns out, that’s the wrong goal.  Christians (on every side of every argument) are working in what they call good faith to create a world fashioned after Christ as they imagine he should be – but Jesus says the world is already won; God has emerged as the victor, and nothing we say or do can change that.

So we can’t pretend that Messiah’s task was easy – nothing as simple as ruling the world in the place of our hapless leaders – The salvation of the world was both an immense burden and an enormous privilege.

The cost was both the dignity and the very life of God; the reward is the redemption of Creation for all time.  And no political argument, or social change is capable of that.

That doesn’t mean we can sit back and do nothing, however.  We are invited to imagine a world redeemed – to live in such a way that others can imagine it too – to love others as God loves us; to “take up our cross and follow” is a difficult and dangerous transaction.

“Right”, faithful decisions will cost us plenty, if we are truly seeking to follow Christ.  We will need to admit past mistakes (and recognize present mistakes) in ways that will not show us (or the Christian faith) in the best light. It is both difficult and (occasionally) dangerous to suggest that death is not the end – that the last should be first – that those who have nothing are actually favoured by God – that the privileges that we create for ourselves, whether of race, or religion, or relationships, are nothing but smoke and mirrors, and there is no difference in God’s eyes between one human and another.

Who do you say that Jesus is?  He may be your friend – your confidant – your source of strength or your ‘personal saviour’ – but the truth is more beautiful and more complicated than that.  Thanks be to God, He is Messiah; meant to suffer, to die and to be raised by the power of God – not so we could rule the world, but so the world might know who truly rules.  Amen.

Reluctant apostles. (that’s YOU)

February 9, 2014

Disciples or apostles – which best describes us?  They are very different descriptions, sometimes used interchangeably, but the difference should be noted.  Disciple means follower; learner; student.  A disciple could be anyone who chose to fashion their life according to the principles of a certain teacher – Moses had disciples – Elijah – many of the prophets.  We still think of people who have influenced our thought in more recent times as having disciples; Gandhi, MLK Jr, Karl Marx, etc…

An apostle is sent as a messenger “to convey the substance of things taught…” 

Luke (and Mark) use the word translated “apostle” for those twelve commonly named men (they are always and only men) who share Jesus final meal, and later become the focus of his several sightings in Jerusalem after the tomb has been found empty – and Matthew tells us that Jesus the sent out these twelve to “proclaim the good news” (Mt 10:7) which helps widen the gap between “the followers” and “those who proclaim”

If we had our way, disciples would be our choice.  To follow is hard enough – to be expected to share – we’d rather not, thanks.  But something about the way of Christ – something in our system of faith – has the effect of turning every disciple into an apostle.

I began my life in the church as neither a disciple nor apostle.  I was eager and curious, but I wasn’t yet ready to pattern my life after the example of Jesus; I had too many questions.  So I got involved; I listened, I sang, I served in the kitchen and on the board of managers.  I threw myself into the community of faith hoping for some answers.  Along the way, I learned the importance of questions in the life of a disciple – the answers were not always forthcoming.

Eventually, I decided that I could call myself a disciple; I made a public profession of faith, and accepted that from that point on, my journey would be changed by my decision – I’m not sure I was ready for the extent of that change, nor could I have imagined that it would be a never-ending cycle of changes.

Somewhere on the way to becoming a disciple of Jesus, something happened to me.

I began reading Scripture more intentionally – I reacted to current events in different ways – my long established ideas about the world started to seem inadequate;

I was forced (by my newly developing world view) to change my mind about things that had once seemed iron-clad.  I could no longer keep silent in the face of injustice.  I felt a desperate need to tell others about the wonderful possibilities of a life of discipleship – my encounter with the Christian community helped make a disciple of me, but my exploration of the gospel (and all that I discover there) turned me into an apostle – a messenger.

This change is still happening in me.  For I came to the church thinking faith was a personal moral exercise – a way of defining right and wrong; but I learned that faith is not just about me; it offers a new way to see the world / and a new way to respond to the world.

The first disciples discovered this before Jesus was arrested – it was confirmed when he was raised.  This teacher of theirs asked them to reinterpret everything!  Relationships to God and their fellow citizens – their approach to justice – even their attitude toward their Roman conquerors.

This is “following” that is much more than getting the steps right; following Jesus opens us up to a new reality.  It is dangerous business, seeking light in darkness; questioning ‘the way things are’  It puts us in the minority, and it sets us against powerful opposition, but the community that draws us in, and the gospel that guides us – these things are no less powerful.  Scripture tells a story that invites questions and begs to be explored.  This particular account of God’s revelation to humanity has endured, not because we can confirm every detail, but because it demands a response once we have heard it.

You may think that you are able to hear, trust and obey, and carefully, anonymously follow in the way of peace described by Jesus.  But once you have encountered the news of his resurrection, it is nearly impossible to refrain from sharing the story / telling the tale.  We are all made messengers (apostles) by the magnificence of the story.

It is quite likely that, if you are here and listening, you already know this.  You have lived lives made full by your response to the gospel of Christ; well done, good and faithful servants, but the job is far from finished.  Our task as the church is to always find ways to turn “following” into “proclamation” – to make disciples, and help them become apostles.

You see, we are the ‘other’ secret to the endurance of the gospel.  The Christian church, with all its failings, for all its humanity, has made room for the creation of disciples, and their transformation into apostles;

by allowing people to seek God, and encouraging those who would follow, we proclaim the truth revealed in Jesus; of a world made better by the love of God embodied and shared and proclaimed…

Reluctant apostles, perhaps – but apostles you are.  Accept the challenge – bear the gift – praise God.  Amen

disciples “ex nihilo”

January 21, 2012

Mark tells Jesus’ story with urgency.

There are not too many frills; no smooth transitions from one moment to the next,

and there is danger in that for us.

There is danger whenever the hard work – the background story – is assumed.

Sure, Mark’s audience knew some of the background,

and the purpose of the gospel is to get us to the main event,

but let’s consider how that urgency affects us, all these years later.

We read; “Jesus called…” and the response is instant. “

At once (Immediately) they left their nets…”

They seem to us “Instant Disciples”,

and our terror increases when it seems as though we too are called to disciple-making

This sense of urgency messes with our theology,

and we lose sight of the nature of discipleship.

For if they are to be disciples of Jesus, mindful of the kingdom of God,

then the making of disciples is properly an act of God.

So what does it take to make a disciple?

It seems like fundamental question,

since we are called to be disciples.

There is no more fooling ourselves about imagined perfection –

Jesus’ original choices were hardly perfect specimens.

And this is true of any of God’s choices that Scripture reveal to us…

our understanding of what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus

or to live as a people touched by God’s redeeming grace

is shaded by the way Scripture describes the transactions between God and humanity.

Yes, there are missed opportunities,

and countless re-starts where obedience (and ‘righteousness’) is concerned,

but the stories that we hold up as formative are instant, dramatic,

and somehow magical in the telling,

and that has become problematic.

Mark’s urgent gospel aside (for the moment)

let us consider the tale of transformation that is the book of Jonah.

The cast includes one who considers himself a child of God

(or at least, one of God’s chosen children)

and an entire city that are not worthy of God’s consideration –

(at least, that is Jonah’s assumption)

There could be no disciples in Nineveh, only enemies – the “unworthy” –

They are not worthy of Jonah’s time, nor of God’s merciful warning

(so goes the understanding of God’s people, at least),

which makes their eventual transformation and God’s merciful tendency all the more troubling.

In Jonah’s theology, what makes a disciple is first and foremost the proper kind of people –

and Jonah believes that the burden is his to see that the wrong people are somehow made right.

What we don’t see – in Jonah, (or in the gospels for that matter)

is the work that prepares the people of Nineveh (or Galillee, or Ephesus…)

to become disciples…

Disciple making is the work of the Spirit –

always going on behind the scenes, under the cover of darkness.

Disciple making – in Jonah’s time, or in our time –

takes place as people face realities that make no sense,

and wrestle with powers that work against God’s goodness

that goodness, so (Genesis/Scripture) tells us, is part of every created thing.

God makes disciples in Nineveh the hard way – out of absolutely nothing;

no faith – no experience – no knowledge of God – nor even the desire to know.

Yet Jonah’s visit – grudging as it was –

finds in the city a people ready to believe that they are made for something better.

Our lesson in this is clear – though the call of the gospels to “make disciples”

puts us in an uncomfortable position.

This call has led the church to make members – to make congregations –

and to make tradition and statistics the measure of success –

it is an accident of the Spirit that the church still manages to make disciples of Jesus.

That is the good news – that God is still in the disciple making business,

and it is God’s work we are called to participate in – as the church and as individuals.

Our job (as disciples) is to offer our witness – willing or not –

to the power of God in the world and in us

and to let that witness waken the power of God in others.

That’s what it takes.

No programs – no catechism – no test –

nothing we can invent or imagine will make better disciples.

We cannot compel people to discipleship –

we can only offer our own hesitant attempts to live according to Jesus pattern –

confident in the power of God’s love, believing God is capable of anything.

That is the trick that (eventually) captured Jonah –

his realization that God was capable of anything,

let him grudgingly accept the miracle of transformation that overcame the citizens of Nineveh.

That is the trick that Mark’s gospel recognizes with such urgency –

that the invitation of Jesus – and Jesus complete confidence in the power of God –

is able to evoke what seems like an instant response of faith from such unlikely people.

Such discipleship on our part allows God to do the background work –

admits that the burden does not fall on us –

and allows that such sudden transformations are sudden only when seen from a distance.

Disciples we are, if we are able to allow God’s Spirit

to do the hard work – the heavy lifting of transformation and reconciliation.

True disciples of Christ are we who recognize that “sudden transformation”

is really just sudden evidence of the gradual, grinding power of God at work.

Blessed are we who have trusted in God’s disciple-making power

and chosen to leave our nets and follow the call of Christ –

to live as though we believed nothing was impossible with God

Whatever that looks like for you – for us –

may be all the evidence one person needs to turn and trust in God. 

Thorburn- Sutherland’s River – Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012