All posts by Nigel Carter

About Nigel Carter

Husband, dad, vicar, IT geek, semi-reluctant gardener, apprentice cook, music lover, enjoy Renaissance and 18th Century art & sculpture, and modern Grahic Design and Typography; fascinated by theology, history, science and technology, and architecture; very amateur photographer, part-time cyclist - but love my old Rover 45.

The Urgent Message

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

(Mark 16:6-7 NRSV)

 

The Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and the earliest of the stories of the Life of Jesus in the Bible. It has often been referred to as an “extended passion narrative,” meaning that the author has devoted a good portion of the gospel to reflection on the events leading up to that first Easter. By contrast he seems to have very little to say about what happened after Jesus rose.

Matthew’s Gospel completes the story of Jesus’ earthly mission by sending out his disciples to carry on his work – to teach, to baptise and to make new disciples in every nation. And the Gospels of Luke and John both have considerable details of the risen Lord and his encounter with the disciples – Luke’s account continuing into the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of Paul.

But Mark’s gospel leaves us in a strange place, and this is partly because we don’t know if verses 9 to 20 of the last chapter of the gospel were written by the author, or added later as a summary by someone else.

The reason we don’t know is that these 12 verses do not appear in some of the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel. They are completely missing. For some Biblical scholars, they have all the appearance of a summary added by someone else to tidy up Mark’s messy ending.

That’s why many translations of the Bible put those verses in brackets or as a footnote to the Gospel. We don’t know their provenance for certain; you must decide for yourself.

What we do know and what really matters is that the resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed without any ambiguity and uncertainly – Jesus is risen and that, given the somewhat terse writing style of the author, may be all he wants his readers to grasp.

Christ is risen, Mark tells us. Christ is risen, Matthew, Luke and John tell us. Christ is risen, proclaims Paul to all who will listen – and that is what really matters.

Two things follow from the acceptance of this truth. Firstly, we are directed to the identity of Jesus: The Messiah, the Son of God, the Word incarnate – the very presence of all that God is, in human form.

Secondly, we who call ourselves Christians are both challenged and commissioned. We are challenged to do our utmost to live our lives according to the teachings of Jesus – specifically to live lives of love for God and love for those around us. We are called to explore the scriptures to learn and discern God’s purposes for our lives, in Christ. And we are commissioned to share what we know with others, and to encourage, others by our best example, to see the importance of Christ for their lives, too.

To put it simply: Mark’s Gospel proclaims the risen Christ. His proclamation is urgent and brief with the clear intention to encourage others to do the same.

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Consumed

Are we really better off, Lord?

I mean, we have more than we can possibly need,

but we want more, and our consumption destroys your world.

And while we consume, a million babies die on a dollar a day.

 

Consumption is all, it seems.

We’re never satisfied;

and envy poisons our souls so that we consume each other:

the doctor who tries to heal us,

the police officer who protects us,

the employer, the banker, the politician, the celebrity, the worker . . . our neighbour.

We clothe ourselves so easily with the victim’s apparel,

the better to consume with pure hearts,

while the real victims wear the mantle of invisibility.

 

And still we’re not satisfied, so we fight:

we fight for land, we fight for supremacy, we fight for ideologies;

we fight to ignore the refugee

in case she comes with her children and consumes what we think is ours.

 

What we can’t consume we seek to control.

That which might serve to curb our rapacity is pushed aside.

Where once we would seek to protect the innocent in public places;

now from cinema to TV we consume our violence, sex and foul speech,

allowing our children to emulate us,

whilst your prayer is ridiculed, discarded or banned.

 

Your prayer,

which speaks of your holiness;

of your blessed kingdom of love, justice and peace;

of forgiveness;

of our need of your protection – if only from ourselves.

 

But then, you can’t consume a prayer, can you?

And there is a danger that it may make us think twice;

think about you;

so its best to ban it in public, in case it causes offence.

 

But let your prayer remind us of who we are,

and of who we might be.

Let it be a doorway into your realm.

Let it be a song of praise from Earth to Heaven.

Let it be a comfort when days are dark.

Let it speak volumes when all our words fail us.

Let it be a gift to remind us that all our consumption

will never satisfy our spiritual hunger or thirst:

 

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.


Give us today our daily bread.


Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.


Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.

Amen.

“Assisted” Dying

At the time of writing our representatives in Parliament are debating the issue of what has become known as “Assisted Dying”. It is an emotive subject, no less for Christians than for those who speak from a humanist perspective.

None of us can bear the thought of watching the suffering of a loved one or friend when illness has overcome the power of medication, and death approaches.

It is a profound aspect of our human nature to want to alleviate the suffering of others, and those who would support the concept of “assisted dying” would argue that the logical extension of this compassion would be to allow an individual (within certain legal constraints) to be able, in his or her final days or weeks of life, to determine the time of departure.

However, this is a flawed argument and a dangerous path to follow. What, today, might be considered compassionate in the most exceptional circumstances, will almost inevitably become tomorrow’s norm. In an ageing population this will strike fear into many hearts. For others, the cost of care or the lure of inheritance will bring additional pressures to bear on the sick and vulnerable.

Life is too sacred a gift to cross this ultimately dehumanising line. However much anguish we may experience at the suffering of a loved one, my faith demands that we protect and care for the lives of vulnerable people to the very last breath.

Nigel

Holidays and Holy Days

If you have been away on holiday over the past few weeks, I hope you had an enjoyable time. If you’ve been holidaying in the UK, I certainly hope you have been able to make the best of our somewhat strange August weather!

In our family, though we all enjoy a good dose of sunshine and warmth, we have always taken the view that the unpredictability of our island weather will never spoil our holiday.

For me, especially, a change of scenery, the ability to lay responsibilities aside for a few days and perhaps take the opportunity to explore somewhere new, or even to walk along a windswept beach by a lively sea shore; these are some of the holiday gifts which refresh and rejuvenate me.

Such things are important for all of us, perhaps especially in the times in which we live.

We inhabit a 24/7 world where we don’t get the natural sabbatical time which our forebears often took for granted. Time to pause for breath, gather our thoughts, re-evaluate our priorities and reflect on the purpose of our lives; time for God; time to just enjoy being human again, and to remember that this life is God’s gift to us: these are the things which get squeezed out of our lives in the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Let’s remember that our holidays derive mostly from the ancient feast days and Holy Days of the Church, that days off should not be filled with frenetic activity from morning to night, and that spending time with God in the depths of our being can be the most inspiring of pastimes.

So I hope you enjoyed and were refreshed by your summer days. Perhaps this is a good time to decide to make that space for yourself and your Creator much more regularly in the weeks and months ahead. After all, it’s nearly Christmas!

Nigel

Discipleship: Serving and Searching

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:7 NRSVA)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSVA)

In this, the last of our short series of reflections on the theme of Discipleship I want to change direction a little and think about consequences.

In our first reflection we thought about the need to be a part of a loving, worshipping community to enable our faith to grow and our discipleship to be nurtured. We reflected upon the idea that being a disciple is rather like being an apprentice, except that instead of being apprenticed to a master craftsman, we are apprenticed to the Master himself – Jesus Christ.

We later noted that we are not especially called to an observance of a particular set of religious rules and practices, but rather to a living relationship with Jesus Christ through our worship, prayer and study of the Scriptures.

And as we grow in our discipleship, we also grow in God’s grace through his amazing spiritual gifts, the greatest of which is, of course, the gift of love. As we grow as disciples, we learn to love a little with Christ’s self-giving, self-emptying love.

And in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, a little of which is quoted above, St Paul identifies some of those other Spiritual gifts which can be found amongst the members of every church community.

He talks about apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, teachers; but his list is not an exhaustive one, nor do I think it was intended to be. We might add to the list the gifts of musicians, singers, preachers, servers, administrators, treasurers, stewards, wardens, welcomers, group leaders, visitors, carers, cleaners, caterers, gardeners, maintenance workers, those who give of a generous heart, and many more.

But his point is that these gifts are God-given not just for our own edification, or to make us feel worthy or even important. God’s gracious gifts are given to us for the building up of the Church as the Body of Christ, and to continue his ministry and mission in the places where we find ourselves.

Once again we discover that it’s not all about us. We, individually or collectively, are not the centre of the Christian universe. That role falls to Jesus Christ. The purpose of our discipleship is not so that we can amass skills or job titles for ourselves.

Again, as we saw previously, the purpose of our discipleship is to enable us to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ and richly bear fruit for the kingdom of God.

In short we are called, as disciples, to serve and to search.

We are called to serve God by serving each other, both in the church and way beyond the walls of the church.

And we are called to search: to search for those who need to know of God’s love for them; who need to know of God’s love surrounding them, either in their joy or their sadness.

That little passage, above, from the New Testament contains the words which have become known over the centuries as The Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Jesus is sending his followers out to continue his work – to teach, to baptize and to nurture new disciples in the name of the Trinity; and they did just that – which is how the followers of Jesus Christ have grown in number from the ragged bunch of eleven disciples (after the death of Judas Iscariot) of the Gospels into the 2.3 billion people we know of around the world today.

At least a part of the purpose of our discipleship must be to help to nurture new disciples. Think about those people who cared enough about you to help you to explore your faith, or who are helping you now. Where would you be without them? God called them, as disciples, to help you onto or along the path of discipleship, in however small a way.

We are not all called to be teachers, preachers, prophets and leaders, etc, but we are all called to help nurture the precious faith of others.

The important thing is to see yourself in the same light as those early disciples. You have that opportunity to demonstrate the truth of what your faith means to you. You don’t need to be an erudite speaker; you just have to have enough confidence in your faith to live it, with all its highs and lows – warts and all, and with all your foibles and failings. In fact, the less-than-perfect aspects of your personality are probably more useful in this calling than are your skills and successes, because through them you may be better able to identify and empathise with others.

You may be able to help someone to begin to focus on their personal relationship with the Christ who loves them dearly. You may even have the grace to be able to spot their spiritual gifts and help to nurture them for the building up of the Kingdom.

And you may be able to help someone begin to reach out with their faith, to reach others with the Gospel message of faith, hope and profound love.

It is no accident that Jesus’ call to serve and to search is known as the Great Commission. It is, ultimately, the greatest of commissions, for through it lives are transformed.

NJC

Words of Life

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. (Ephesians 6:19 NRSV)

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:68 NRSV)

I have occasionally been told that I have something of a mischievous sense of humour. I suspect that people are usually being polite when they say that and what they really mean is something much less complementary.

I don’t mean that I’m a practical joker or anything like that, because I think that most practical jokes are usually not very funny, and can even be a form of bullying. But I do have a slightly oddball sense of humour, based on a significant number of years observing life in all its “richness”. I’m a bit of a people watcher.

So, for example, when someone comes up to me and says, rather sternly, “I’d like a word with you vicar,” whilst I try to maintain a calm and collected countenance, occasionally one part of my brain is saying, “Put the kettle on. This is going to be a long job,” another part of me is mentally checking my insurance policies whilst a third part is thinking, “Any particular word you would like?”

In the same way, I’m not much of a fan of certain types of modern comedy, which I often find to be crude, vulgar and demeaning or so politically correct that you have to be told when to laugh. Alternatively it looks down its nose at those people it considers to be “uncool”.

I’m sure this is partly a facet of my generation, but I quite like the humour of an earlier age which was often based on word-play or innuendo.

But words do matter; and the way we use words matters, too.

Words do more than merely share conversation. Words are amazingly powerful. For Christians, words are part of the way in which we share God’s love with each other, and they are certainly the means by which we communicate a major part of our Good News. In fact one whole gospel is dedicated to the one who is described as “the Word.” Take a look at the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verses 1 to 14.

Words really do matter, and so does the way that we use them.

St Paul was quite a wordsmith when he wanted to be, but he was also deeply concerned that God would give him the words to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ – which are nothing less than the words of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and salvation.

He asked his friends: “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” That should certainly be our prayer, too. It is most definitely mine.

Just imagine, for a moment, that our words were not idle gossip, not words of judgement or criticism of another person, not words of complaint or envy – but words of eternal life: words which flow from our relationship with our Lord; words not based on our shopping list of demands of God, but on the intimacy of our prayerful relationship with him.

What kind of words would they be?

What would be their effect?

Who would they comfort?

Who would they build up or inspire?

Who would they release from bondage?

Whose eyes would be lifted over the horizon?

With whom would they join us in a relationship of love?

The words of eternal life are spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels. We should study them very carefully, for they are intended for us, too.

St Paul asked his friends to pray that he would be able to proclaim that gospel. And there’s our cue; because the prayer of St Paul should be our prayer too: that God will give us the right words, to use with the right people, in the right season.

NJC

In Praise of the Do-Gooders

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:16 NRSV)

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16 NRSV)

I was listening to the radio a couple of days ago and I heard a wonderful quote attributed to the author, Iris Murdoch, in which she said, “You can tell someone who lives for others by the haunted look of the others.”

Now, whilst there are a few people about spend so much time trying to organise other people’s lives that they put the fear of God into them, such people are not as common as might be suggested. (However, many years ago I did know a lady who spent so much time going all over the place looking after neighbours and friends that her own family were often abandoned to their own devices).

But one of the cruellest jibes you sometimes hear is when a caring person gets branded as a “Do-Gooder”.

Its cruel because it is a put-down and a way of dismissing the actions of that other person as inconsequential or even somehow ethically questionable. We hear it in connection with all kinds of topics, but it is an especially important topic for Christians because “doing good” is both a characteristic and a command of our Lord, and of people like St Paul and the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Doing Good is our Christian vocation, and it forms the basis of the sense of Christian justice upon which our way of life and our ancient laws are founded.

To be sure, most people perform acts of charity and kindness for all kinds of mixed motives, but what matters is that Good is done – because doing good is the way of the Kingdom and is the direct challenge to the evil in our world.

So to be called a “Do-Gooder” should be a term of the highest praise, not a way of dismissing another person as irrelevant.

For Jesus, doing good was so important that he ranked it much higher than the observation of particular religious practices. The religious leaders were incensed that Jesus had broken the man-made religious laws of the day to carry out an act of pure compassion – to give a crippled woman her life back; but Jesus called out their hypocrisy, pointing out that this child of God’s chosen people deserved to be released from her bondage.

Our own culture prevents many acts of simple goodness taking place by treating them as what another author, Douglas Adams, described brilliantly and insightfully as an S.E.P.

An SEP is something which you can only see out of the corner of your eye. If you try to look straight at an SEP it disappears, only to reappear again as you begin to avert your gaze.

Oh, and the letters SEP stand for “Somebody Else’s Problem.”

So many of life’s problems, which could be significantly healed if we only decided to do some good are dismissed as “not my problem,” or “not our problem”.

Perhaps something topical might illustrate the point.

All this year (2015) people have been commemorating and celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2.

At the end of that war there were millions of homeless, stateless dispossessed refugees from all over Europe and beyond.

Realising the dire need of so many people, governments (most of whom presided over nations whose economies were shattered by years of total warfare) and charities, including Christian Charities, strove to offer new hope to these broken people – new homes, new places to live, new communities. Despite the dreadful nature of a conflict in which so many died, basic goodness helped millions of survivors to rebuild their lives.

Scroll forward 70 years and we find several million more people fleeing from conflict or displaced from their communities because their faces don’t fit. But, we must ask, is there the same determination to help people who are so desperate that they will risk their lives to find safe havens for themselves and their families?

These are the forgotten people; the people nobody wants – because the prosperous nations of Europe, including our nation, have lost the political will to do good for its own sake. Could it be that we have forgotten what our predecessors stood for in that dreadful global conflict?

Whether it be personally or corporately, the words of the writer to the Hebrews should stimulate our thought, our prayer and our action: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Doing good is not about doing acts of charity to make us feel better about ourselves.

Doing lasting good may often require sacrifice of some form or another; for the wellbeing of others, for the healing of God’s world.

NJC

Discipleship: Growing in Grace

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NRSV)

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:8 NRSV)

Not long after we moved into our current home, my wife Denise was looking through a few shrubs and things that were being sold off at a garden centre, and she picked up a couple of English grape vine cuttings for a few pounds.

We put them in patio pots, not expecting much to happen, partly because they had been sold off at the end of season and didn’t look to be particularly healthy specimens. In addition, the latitude at which we live is not especially famous for generating the kind of climate in which grapes are known to flourish. Even though southern England now has some successful vineyards, we’re just a bit too far north.

Sure enough, within a few months one of the vines had died off, but the other had grown a few shoots so, for a bit of fun, next spring we planted it in a sunny spot which was also sheltered from the wind.

Well, it did survive and began to flourish. About three years ago it produced a few tiny grapes. The next year, however, our vine went almost rampant. It took over one wall of the house and started climbing towards the roof. It produced many bunches of grapes hanging from it ready to be harvested.

They are still not the huge bunches that grow in France, Spain and Italy, but at last, after about 8 years, our vine is starting to bear real fruit. It has taken time, a bit of patience and some pruning, but the results are there to be seen.

In the first of these little reflections on the theme of Discipleship (here) we thought about the importance of “belonging” to a loving church family as an aid to our growth as disciples. In our second reflection (here), we considered that the practice of religion – doing and saying all the right things, following all the rules – might well be important, but it was of far less significance than growing in our relationship with God and each other.

We also saw that being a disciple was very much like being an apprentice – we are learning on the job, learning to become the people God created us to be, learning to be God’s people.

We are on a journey of growth, and we might say that we are on a journey of growing in God’s Grace.

But what is Grace, and why do we need to grow in it?

Grace is one of those words to which we attach all kinds of meanings, and which we use in a variety of situations.

It has become popular again as a child’s name at baptisms; we talk about people being graceful, when often we mean elegant; we speak of someone’s graciousness, thinking about their kindness and generosity of heart. Sometimes we use it to mean humility: we say “he had the grace to apologise.”

And, of course, the correct way to address an archbishop (the next time you find yourself in such elevated company) is, “Your Grace.”

But “Grace” in Christian terms has a very specific and technical meaning.

Grace is that which is a free, and completely undeserved, gift from God.

And so for Paul in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, love, the love he proclaims to the Corinthians, is the greatest of all God’s gifts of Grace.

Sadly, over the years I have seen some ungracious things going on in churches, and I have to confess that, on occasions, I have been a part of them. I have seen Anglo Catholics stamping their feet because somebody hasn’t been called “Father” or some particular ritual hasn’t been carried out properly. Equally, I have seen Evangelicals insisting that others are not Christians because they don’t sign up to a specific ideology.

I have seen liberal intellectuals dismiss with contempt the humble faith of ordinary people; and I have seen Pentecostals who hang signs over their church doors telling people that you can’t be a member of their church unless you speak in tongues.

Name the denomination, name the church, and we’ve all done it – to our collective shame; God forgive us.

For none of this, nor many of the antics and attitudes which can affect the life of any church – none of it has anything whatsoever to do with discipleship.

Because discipleship is about growing in Grace.

It is about gradually shedding those attitudes and activities which cut us off from God and our neighbours, and growing in the self-giving love which is God’s most gracious gift to each of us.

And God knows we can’t do it all at once: that it might take the rest of our lives. That’s why being a disciple is not about being part of a holy club, nor a religious sect, but about being part of loving fellowship seeking a life-transforming relationship with God.

And in order to grow in love, and in those other gracious gifts which God showers upon us, we need to remain united to Jesus Christ, in worship, in fellowship and in the service of his kingdom.

So the analogy of the vine is a very helpful one. (Read John, Ch 15, verses 1 – 8) It is through our relationship with Christ: through our worship, prayer, study of the scriptures and acts of service and forgiveness – that we grow in grace to become more like the people God created us to be.

But, as has been explained so well by Rick Warren, its not all about us.

Being a disciple, growing in grace, is not a lifestyle choice as in following the latest social trend. It is about allowing the life of Jesus, the true vine, to flow through us to nurture and invigorate us. Therefore the analogy of being a part of the true vine takes us further still, because the purpose of our discipleship is to bear fruit as people and for God’s Kingdom.

Many years ago now, as I was anxiously exploring my vocation to ministry, a wise priest said to a group of us, “God does not call you to be successful; but he does call you to be fruitful.”

Our discipleship will not guarantee us success, but it will help us to bear fruit – for the benefit of others: in our homes, in our church family, in our neighbourhood, for future generations of Christians – for the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the abused, the forgotten – those for whom Jesus demonstrated his divine and gracious love.

The purpose of discipleship, the purpose of growing in grace through our relationship with Jesus Christ is not just so that we can feel better about ourselves – though it may do that. Nor is it so that we can be more holy, or more correct in our religious observances – though those things may well happen as a side-effect.

No, the real purpose of our discipleship is to share in the life of the Kingdom, with God and with each other, to grow into the people God created us to be, and to bear fruit for the Kingdom – fruit that will last, fruit that will hopefully outlast us.

Because that is how God is glorified.

NJC

Discipleship: Relationship not Religion

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12 NRSV)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
(Luke 10:25-27 NRSV)

In the first of this short series of thoughts (here) on the theme of discipleship, I reflected on the tensions between belonging and believing. I argued that, for most people, the biggest part of their Christian belief grows over a period of time, as a consequence of being welcomed into a caring Christian community – a church family.

I would like to pick up that theme and continue to explore what it might mean to be a disciple in our own time; and I would like to suggest that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are primarily called to a relationship not a religion.

Christ calls us into a living relationship with him far more than he does to a set of rules which we must adhere to, or a theological construct which we must support. I am convinced that God weeps at our childish tribalism of churchmanship or denomination.

In a church where I once worshipped, (a generation ago now!), on one occasion as I was coming into the evening service I was followed in by a man who I didn’t recognise as a regular Church member.

He quite tentatively came through the door and approached a long-standing member of the church with a simple question. “I’m looking for the Catholic Church,” he said. “Is this the Catholic church?”

The person to whom the question had been addressed immediately spun on his heels and exclaimed in quite a loud voice, “You mean the Roman Catholic church. This is the Church of England Parish Church and we are part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. The church you want is around the corner and up the hill.”

And as he was saying this he was ushering the poor man out of the church door.

Sure, he directed the man to where he could find his church, but he couldn’t do it without making a point, he had to rub it in. He just had to play religious one-upmanship.

The Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of the Exodus, speaks of what we call the Ten Commandments which codified some of the founding principles of the laws of God’s Chosen People, Israel.

But the crucial point is that the people didn’t have to live by those rules in order to be God’s people. They were already chosen by God and the commandments (along with the other laws) were given to help them to live God’s way.

But God had already entered into a relationship with his people long before they received the commandments: he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and now he was the God of Moses and the people of Israel. The relationship was paramount.

Look at that well known story which we call the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10: v25 – 37)

In Jesus’ story, the religious people come off very poorly indeed. Why, because when they see a man dying at the side of the road they put their religious observance before their common humanity. If either of the religious characters in this parable had touched this man they ran the risk of being declared ritually unclean and would not have been able to carry out their duties in the temple.

And Jesus is quite canny in his telling of the parable, because the person who shows the wounded man care and concern is a member of an utterly despised group of people: The Samaritans.

He was one of them: those who were not talked about in polite company, those who you didn’t invite to dinner – even though you were distantly related to them.

But it was the Samaritan who was the injured man’s neighbour; who showed him God’s love; who went more than the extra mile; who broke all the social conventions and entered into a relationship with him.

And why is this important? Because Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of a question about rules. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” asked the lawyer who wanted to trick Jesus.

Jesus tells his questioner that there really are only two rules: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself. God quite simply wants us to love him and to love the people around us – whoever they are.

Why? Well, as St John says in his letter and in his Gospel, because God loves us, God loves you, God loves me – and he loved us before we had ever heard of him.

He wants us to live in a loving relationship with him and with each other. You might say that relationship is cross-shaped: the vertical is our loving relationship with God, and the horizontal is our loving relationship with each other.

Jesus’ point was that you can’t earn your way into heaven.

You can’t keep a list of the Ten Commandments or various other rules and say, “Yes, I’ve done this, that and that. I’ve refrained from this and that. I’ve ticked all the boxes, I’ve followed all the rules. God must approve of me now. I’m going to heaven.”

It doesn’t work like that.

We may, and should, keep all those rules, but not so that we can pat ourselves on the back and say what good religious people we are, and compare ourselves to others in a favourable light.

Rather, we seek to follow them out of gratitude for the immense love which God has already shown to us by sending his Son to help us to live in relationship with him and with each other. We keep God’s commandments because we are aware of his love for us and want to show that love in return: to God, and to others.

But God knows that we are not very good at doing what we ought to if we don’t perceive a particular reward or punishment, and so he has given us the church so that we can help and support each other along the way; so that we can love and encourage each other.

But the primary aspect of a Church is that it should be a relational community, a loving community – expressed chiefly in our relationship with God in worship and prayer; and in our relationship with each other and with the wider community in which we are set. To put it simply: we don’t go to Church; we are the Church.

“If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4: v12)

Or to put it another way “God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4: v16)

We find that we need a few rules because we are less than perfect human beings and we need a framework. But to live our faith as if the rules were all that matters – well, that’s religion.

However, to behave in certain ways out of thanksgiving for all the love which God has shown to us, especially in relationship with our fellow Christians – now that’s discipleship.

NJC

Discipleship: Belonging and Believing

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10 NRSV)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.(John 3:16 NRSV)

 

What is a disciple? Well, the answer seems obvious.

A Disciple? A follower of Jesus Christ, someone who believes in God, or perhaps one of the twelve men who followed Jesus about on his travels.

And very often, when we talk about discipleship we focus on belief. A disciple is someone who believes in Jesus Christ. Fair enough, so long as we realise that what we truly believe shapes who we are. If we believe in Jesus that should tell others a great deal about us.

But I want to suggest that the whole notion of discipleship is a little more complex than just the notion of belief. And it is just because it is a little more complex that we often fail when we try to help people to become disciples, remembering that the whole point about disciples is that each one of us should be one.

But we haven’t really defined what a disciple is yet. Bear with me.

The fundamental problem with a lot of Christian evangelism is that it seeks to make converts, not disciples.

Present the facts, show people what’s on offer, talk about the alternatives (remembering to add in a few implied eternal consequences of a scary nature), tell them the rules and the sensible ones will be converted. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Ok, it’s a bit of a caricature, but that’s the underlying thinking behind a lot of evangelism. It does work, sometimes. But I think a certain combination of factors has to come together for it to be truly fruitful – because the emphasis is on making converts, not disciples. It assumes that people will believe first, and then join a church community.

But for many people faith works the other way round.

Because the best alternative word for “discipleship” is “apprenticeship”. As disciples we are apprentices to Jesus.

Now, an apprentice is someone who is on a journey, someone who is hopefully gaining in knowledge, skill and confidence as he or she spends time in their chosen vocation. Jesus’ first disciples were apprentices, as they travelled with him and learned from him.

We live in a time when it can no longer be assumed that people understand either the theology or even the vocabulary of the Christian faith. We now have generations of people, many of whom have no personal contact with any kind of Christian faith, except at the odd Christening, Wedding or Funeral.

And because of that, for most, the journey of discipleship begins not at some point of conversion, having heard some great evangelistic message. Rather, it may well begin when we cautiously and bravely find ourselves stepping over the threshold into a church, wondering what kind of a reception we are going to receive. (In truth, to get just that far, God’s Holy Spirit has been quietly working away within us for quite some time).

Discipleship begins to grow, as we find ourselves welcomed into a community, when we find that we don’t have to conform to a set of strict rules and regulations, and when we discover with a huge sigh of relief that we don’t have to switch off our brains when we come through the door.

In other words, most of us begin to grow as disciples when we find ourselves in the midst of a friendly, welcoming, supportive community where people understand our hesitation and, like Jesus, accept us for who we are.

The “belonging” comes before the believing.

That is why it is so vitally important for a local church family, to go to great lengths to meet people where they are.

That is also why developing networks of small groups is so necessary, because people feel more free to explore matters of faith in a safe, friendly environment amongst a few people they have grown to trust; and it is why the informal group discussion structure of outreach courses such as Alpha is so important.

And, I firmly believe, that is why churches need to offer a diversity of worship which engages people of different backgrounds, different personality types and different stages of life. It is not about “pick-and-mix” religion: it is about being courteous and hospitable to all who are exploring their relationship with God.

If we want people to become disciples, if we want them to know and understand God’s amazing love for them, we need to do what Jesus himself did: meet people where they are, and gently encourage them to follow.

So the starting point is belonging. For many people, it is only when they actually feel part of a community which cares about them, and understand why that community cares about them that they will start to grow in love and trust for the one who is the very reason that community exists: Jesus Christ.

In other words, belonging helps to encourage believing, and then believing has consequences of its own and which, in a virtuous cycle, can and should lead to further invitations to belong.

We are disciples because we are on a journey of growth as we learn the ways of Christ and His Kingdom. And part of that growth entails learning about sharing God’s love with others and helping them to belong to God’s family and believe in him whom he sent.

But if we approach that making of disciples with an agenda:

If we say that we must get more people in to ensure the church’s future;

If we say that we must get more people in so that we can afford to pay the parish bills;

If we say that we must get more people in so that we can still have a vicar when this one finally falls (or is pushed) off his perch;

If we say that we must get people in because we’re tired of doing all these jobs and we need some new blood;

If we say that we must get more people in so that we can preserve this service or that service, or this or that musical tradition or worship style;

If we approach the making and nurturing of disciples with our own agenda . . .

. . . then we will fail.

But if we can provide an environment where people feel able to belong, a nurturing environment where the truth is proclaimed, where people feel accepted, and their joys and pains are accepted too, then we might be able to help someone on the path of discipleship.

There is no sure-fire programme to follow in order to make disciples. But what we can do is live our lives as examples of Christian disciples – as best we can in our own human frailty.

We can be determined to grow in our own discipleship, for we meet as those who have received God’s mercy and we want others to know of that mercy, too.

We can invite people to come along and experience the life of our church family. We can follow Jesus’ example and try to meet people where they are.

And most importantly we can approach others, not with our own agenda, but with something of the deep and painful love which God has for each one of them – and for us, too.

We can help people to belong – so that they may also believe.

NJC