Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
When I was working in agriculture, the Managing Director of the company regularly went on management courses. He usually came back with a whole new vocabulary incomprehensible to the rest of us. Most areas of human activity develop their own shorthand and jargon. This is fine for self-contained groups, but not so helpful if you are trying to communicate things to the uninitiated. Having worked on aspects of church strategy for many years I am still smarting from the conversations I had with people in the middle of last year. It became apparent that what I had thought was simple abbreviations of well-trodden concepts, others found to be incomprehensible management speak.
Over the next few weeks I’d like to look at a ‘Christian’ jargon word you’ll probably hear a lot over the next few months, an idea we seem to struggle to ground in everyday experience. That word is discipleship. The developing National Church strategy talks about becoming a church of missionary disciples. We may be unfamiliar with this language, but it’s the centrepiece of Jesus commissioning of his followers at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.” Jesus tells them, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Most diocesan strategies, including our own, mention it. Our diocesan vision statement is ‘Proclaiming Christ, growing disciples’. It succinctly describes part of what we are here for.
But what is a disciple? In Jesus’ day, it was fairly clear. A disciple was someone who attached themselves to a well-known rabbi and spent their life watching and learning in order to be spiritually formed by their teaching. Paul works to a similar pattern when he writes approvingly to the Church in Thessalonica of the way they became imitators of us and of the Lord. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer invites his readers to “consider the outcome of their leader’s way of life and imitate their faith.”
We’ll think a little bit more about the paths to grow as disciples in the next few weeks, but the primary method Jesus commends is to learn and put his teaching into practice. The gospels tell us what those teachings are and the writers of the rest of the New Testament flesh them out in different contexts. In Matthew’s account, this learning and obeying is preceded by baptism. In the first days of the church, this was inevitably ministered to adults who had made a conscious commitment to Christ. It was a radical renunciation of personal autonomy and a decision to allow Christ to direct the way they lived. It was a grateful acceptance of Christ’s work of forgiveness and receipt of the Holy Spirit to transform and empower. In those first centuries, it carried huge risks and personal cost, as indeed it still does in many parts of the world today. Our Anglican baptism and confirmation liturgies convey exactly the same understanding. In the earliest days of the church as Christian families developed it would have been unthinkable for children to have a different faith to their parents and so baptism was offered to believer’s children which they then confirmed when they were old enough to declare the promises for themselves. Baptism and confirmation are not a sort of passing out parade, rite of passage or mark of Englishness. Taken as intended, they are the opportunity to publicly declare allegiance to Jesus Christ and state our intention to be formed by him into his likeness. As someone once said, “The point of Jesus becoming like us is that we become like Him.”
The alternative to having our characters formed by Jesus is not neutral secularism. Everything we do forms us in some way: the adverts we choose to be influenced by, the things we buy, the papers we read, the things we watch on TV, the thoughts we allow to tarry in our heads. We’re either moving away from Christ or towards him. All the choices we make serve to form our character. If we were solely formed by our culture we would tend to become rather self-obsessed and entitled, convinced that happiness comes from the acquisition of stuff and that the world should really revolve around us. Being a disciple is an act of active resistance to that direction of travel. It is something to be lived in our Monday – Saturday life as we learn to become imitators of Jesus so our characters are shaped to do naturally the things Jesus would do if he were us in our context. It’s a lifelong pursuit. I’ve been doing it for 44 years this November and it doesn’t get any easier.
But demanding though it may be, discipleship is life; it’s where we find life in all its fullness. Becoming more like Jesus is the way we commend him to others. Developing on that journey together will be crucial to the life of our diocese in the years to come.