Tag Archives: Worship

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

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A Friend on the Journey

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
(Luke 24:30-31 NRSV)

I must admit that my favourite story about Jesus, from the time after he had risen, is the account of the “Walk to Emmaus” from Luke’s Gospel.

It is Easter Day and two of Jesus’ bewildered disciples are taking the afternoon walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus when a stranger joins them. Luke informs the reader that the stranger is the risen Jesus, but his friends don’t recognise him.

As he walks with them he lifts their hearts with his explanation of why all these things had taken place. When they get to their destination it is dusk so they invite the stranger in to eat with them.

As they recognise him in the blessing and breaking of bread, they are astonished but, even as he disappears from them, they suddenly understand the depth of meaning in their encounter. Hearts ablaze with joy and enthusiasm, they ignore the dangers of a night-time journey and rush back to Jerusalem to tell their friends.

Jesus’ friends had thought that it had all gone horribly wrong for them; that all in which they had put their hope and trust had turned to dust; had been an illusion. Even as reports of Jesus’ resurrection began to emerge some of them (quite understandably!) struggled to take it in.

The encounter with the risen Christ changed that.

We have the benefit of the New Testament to explain this to us, and many have encountered the risen Christ starting with a tentative exploration of the Gospels.

But Luke, in his vivid account, gives us another clue. It was in the breaking of bread that his friends recognised Jesus with them; and for twenty centuries countless worshippers have discovered the same.

There are several names for it and numerous ways to understand it, but it remains true that many continue to find strength, inner healing, peace, forgiveness, renewal, enthusiasm, commitment and a deep sense of relationship with Jesus through worship which includes the breaking of bread.

Jesus,
Set my heart ablaze with love for you
and my neighbour.
Guide me to your truth
and enthuse me by your Spirit.
Amen.

Faith and Doubt

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(John 20:24-25 NRSV)

Poor old Thomas. Though he was one of Jesus’ closest followers he is often castigated as the doubter, perhaps a little unfairly. “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas” we are told when we are unsure of something which is assented to by others.

Here is Thomas: grief-stricken that his friend and master had been brutally executed just a few days earlier, being asked to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. His doubt is not unreasonable, to say the least!

Sadly, faith is often described as an “in or out” thing, or perhaps as a “yes or no” decision. For some people that will be valid. However, I would wager that you could look around the vast majority of church communities and see a variety of understandings of faith.

As a Christian minister, my role is not to persuade everyone to think like me and believe everything I believe about God. Rather, my role is to encourage people to see that they are deeply loved by God, and to help that discovery to nurture and shape their lives – to help them feel that they belong to the community of faith (in all its diversity), and to believe that they are precious children of God, so that we can all better learn to love God and each other.

That is why I think that the best worshipping fellowship – church community – has boundaries which are so nebulous that members of the wider community will feel “safe” to come and explore what faith might mean to them, without feeling that they are being “signed up”.

Faith and doubt are not incompatible.

Faith can often be there in the presence of doubt. There is no necessary conflict between rational and spiritual thought. We can grow in faith through our questioning.

Growing in faith is like learning to be more fully human; and that can be a lifetime’s project.

Jesus,
Accompany me
on this lifetime journey of exploration;
help me to grow
in my understanding of God’s love
so that it may shape my life
and deepen my faith.
Amen.

Using the Same Measure

He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
(Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer, in its different versions and many languages is surely amongst the most commonly used of all Christian prayers. If you can’t think what to pray then the Lord’s Prayer will certainly do.

It is not, in fact, a “religious” prayer in a sectarian or denominational sense. Anyone and everyone can pray it.

But the words do indicate the radical and subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching. It is a prayer of praise and adoration, an acknowledgement of God’s providence, a prayer for protection, a prayer of healing and reconciliation: and a prayer for justice.

“Forgive us our debts (or sins or trespasses)” is a part of the prayer which many of us might offer at times when our consciences trouble us; but the prayer also offers a caveat of pragmatism – “for we ourselves forgive . . .”

Do we? Do we forgive others to the same extent that we expect God (and people) to forgive us?

Do we ask God to use the same measure with us, as we do with our neighbours? Because that is what the prayer means: “Judge me with same level of justice that I judge others.”

For justice is not only about restitution; and it is certainly not about revenge. Justice will ultimately involve painful reconciliation and healing; and that will also involve a degree of forgiveness.

Some will find this shocking; but without forgiveness there can be little chance of reconciliation. Those who forgive bear the cost, the pain, the insult of the offence. It can be the most difficult thing; but it is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Our Father in Heaven,
may you be praised and honoured above all.
may your Kingdom of justice, mercy and love come;
may your will be done on Earth as in Heaven.
Give us today the food we need.
Forgive us the harm we have caused
to the same extent that we forgive those who have caused us harm.
Do not lead us to the time of hard testing, but protect us from evil.
Amen

Come, Share My Life

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
(Matthew 26:26-28 NRSV)

Sharing a meal together can be a very special experience. Even in this busy world where so many of us grab something to eat in passing, I love the opportunity to sit down and eat with family and friends, especially if I have been able to help with the preparation of the meal. At its best, sharing a meal is one of the holiest of experiences because in the offering and receiving, the sharing and sometimes the discussion, the laughter and banter around the table, we can catch a glimpse of the people we are meant to be.

Jesus shared this very special meal with his friends on the night before his own body was broken on the cross.

Even without entering into the theological disputes about the nature of this “Last Supper,” of the words and the meaning of the elements of bread and wine, we can see something significant.

In sharing this meal, in this way, Jesus is creating a bond between himself and his disciples. Those who share this meal, and those who come after them, have a share in the life of Jesus, the incarnate God.

We don’t worship a distant God who is unconcerned about our daily struggles, but who demands our utter devotion. Rather, we have a share in the life of the God who took our flesh and blood, who lived among us, and who knows our humanity.

We don’t have to go looking for God; God has come to us.

Jesus,
in the supper of your betrayal
uou declared your unity with your friends.
May I be your friend,
at one with you.
Amen

Love God

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 10:27 NRSV)

One of the great misconceptions of the Christian faith is that it is founded on a whole set of rules which begin with the phrase, “Thou shalt not . . .” Sadly, over the years there have been many church communities whose lack of joy and sense of cold charity have allowed this myth to flourish.

But, honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament we certainly hear Jesus offering a range of advice and teaching to cover all kinds of situation; but they all boil down to one word: Love.

Jesus came to show God’s overwhelming love to all people (not just religious people) and he lived that love in his daily life. And he taught that love is at the very heart of God who loves his creation and wants to receive love in return.

And so Jesus offers just two commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Everything else springs from the simple act of love.

But Jesus’ love is not sentimental. It is a tough and costly love.

To love God is to love the one whom we cannot fully understand; the mighty force behind the creation of the cosmos, but whose nature we may catch a glimpse of when we read about Jesus.

To love God is to live grateful and optimistic lives, thankful for the beauty of the world around us, and with hearts full of praise for the God whose image we bear in our souls.

To love God is also, ultimately, to love his people . . .

Jesus,
You teach us that love is at the very heart of God;
Help me to grow in that love,
for God and my neighbour.
Amen

Rivers of Justice

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV)

We enjoy our worship, Lord,
and we try to do it well; its important to do it well.
If only you would let us.

We try to be reverent,
to pray the right words;
but you wander off, healing the madmen,
bored with our piety.

We try to praise,
to lift you high with all our hearts;
(and to lift our hearts as well)
but you point to those we ignore –
you thrust them in our faces!

We try to be holy,
asking you to bless this, and that, and the blessèd other.
We want it to be right for you,
(and for us);
but you shout from the mountain top,
“Stop your words, stop your noise, stop your holy silences,
stop looking east and up!”

“Turn and face the world!”, you tell us,
“Let justice flow like a stream and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.
Take my love, MY LOVE, out of your cosy temples,
and into the streets and homes where my people live.
Don’t dare to keep my love for yourselves – give it away!”

“Then you will understand,
then you will be emptied of you
and filled with me.
Then you will hurt like you have never hurt before
and know joy like you’ve never known before.”
“Then your sacrifices, your praise, your worship, your prayers and petitions
will rise from your hearts and souls like a great cloud
of sweet smelling incense.”

Nigel Carter

Corpus Christi

Body of Christ, born for me,
you validate my being,
stamp my humanity with your divine presence.
Love of God come down to earth,
incarnate word: you know me, you show me,
you make me who I am.
Keep me in eternal life.

Body of Christ, broken for me,
you weep through my tears,
know my scars and understand my failings.
Son of God, victim King,
innocent lover: you heal me, you build me,
you give me the chance to be.
Keep me in eternal life.

Body of Christ, risen for me,
you make me dance with life,
on the grave of all that would destroy me.
Risen Lord, triumphant God,
conqueror: you renew me, you transform me,
you resurrect my very soul.
Keep me in eternal life.

Body of Christ, ascended for me,
you cause me to fly with you,
despite my earthbound desires.
Glorified Messiah,
Lord of Lords: you take my flesh, all that I am,
before the throne of Grace.
Keep me in eternal life.

Nigel Carter

Arise, Shine

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

(Isaiah 60:1 NRSV)

You call us to arise and shine out Lord;
to shine out in the darkness.
Your glory rested on your people,
and now are we to know that it rests upon us,
has risen upon us?

Your prophets spoke to the generations;
warned of what you require,
what is needed of your people
so that they may shine in the darkness,
so that your glory would rest upon them.

They spoke of unbelief;
of piety up to the armpits.
of people who wade knee-deep in ceremonies;
and, in so doing, hide from you,
the real you.
Have we substituted for the real you
the you we have constructed
in our bid to escape from reality?
If so, we are surely in exile far from Babylon.

When the hungry starve,
the widow receives no justice,
and the battered girl must bear her bruises
for the sake of her children;
or the teenager must sell her body
to feed her habit,
and that of the man who caused it,
when the worker is cheated of his pay,
where the sick are offered no healing or comfort,
where the poor are offered no hope,
and slaves must accept thir brutal lot;
where all turn their back on real reality,
the reality of your eternal love,
and its uncompromising demands;
then the people are already in exile
and thick, thick darkness covers the earth.

Free us from our escapism, Lord;
from investing our lives in a box in the corner of the room,
from pouring all our hope into two weeks in the sun,
or the Christmas that will be much better next time around,
or a supermarket trolley,
or a lottery ticket,
a home or a car,
or the bottom of a glass;
or in Teflon coated self assurance
which masks the brittle eggshell of our soul.
Free us from projecting our failures onto others
and vesting our children with our faults,
like a ball and chain around their ankles.

Show us how to arise and shine, Lord,
Show us the light of Christ
and his kingly rule.
Show us, Lord, the paths we must tread
to be your true servants.
Equip us with the tools to to love, build,
to nurture, to grow:
ourselves, others and your kingdom.

Then your glory might rise upon us
and your light shine out from your people.
Then the darkness may disperse
and we may know you as real.

Nigel Carter

Agapé

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

(1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NRSV)

We share a meal,
at least by symbol.

We gather, we pray, we offer, we receive.

And do we share a love feast,
given from generous hearts and souls full of grace,
recognising our part in each other and our need of God?

Do we consume the divine in consecration,
made holy by holy food?

Or perhaps make solemn remembrance of a gift from a victim lover?

Do we look back with grateful hearts for a kingdom inaugurated in flesh and blood,
spirit and divine humility?

Or are we on the fulcrum of history,
observing the temporal past with the expertise of hindsight
but living always on the precipice of the eternal future,
looking to an even greater feast?

We gather,
and if we think about it at all
we strain to find within ourselves
our excuse to be here.

We pray,
hanging our hopes and fears
on the pegs of someone else’s prayers;
all our thoughts rushing into the open
as if they were escaping from a burning building.
Some don’t make it.

We offer,
the only thing we can:
our selves, who we are, who we can be – with God’s help;
often believing that what we have is not worth the offering;
forgetting our cosmic stardust origins,
and God’s power to heal, build, create.

We receive,
and, sometimes, just for a moment,
we are still.
Just me and God, God and me.
Nothing else matters – just for a moment.

Then, again, in another instant, everything matters:
These people are God’s people,
This place is God’s place;
Whoever, wherever.

And then the feast is over.
There is work to do. Places to Go. People to see.
God’s work. God’s places. God’s people.
There is a new urgency;
A new urge for the Kingdom.

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”

Nigel Carter