BEN: On p. 153 you say that discipleship is in the end about who or what we love most dearly? I thought it was about taking up our cross and following Jesus, which I don’t imagine most of us think of that as something we love most dearly. Bonhoeffer famously said when Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. Again, that doesn’t sound like something we would be enraptured about. Even Jesus said, if it be possible let this cup pass. Perhaps what you meant was that the one we love most dearly is the one we are the disciple or follower of? Explain.
PATRICK: I’m zoning in on Jesus’ words demanding that disciples love him before any other commitment, even family. This echoes God’s command to Israel to love him with heart, soul and strength (which has Christological implications but that’s another story). Love in this sense is wholehearted allegiance. This is costly love – it’s going to mean self-sacrifice, serving others, being willing to endure persecution. No other ‘gods’ are to get in the way. This is why I argue that discipleship is first and foremost a matter of the heart – which is why I’m sometimes dismayed by ‘cookie cutter’ discipleship programs that seem to be mostly about about information and techniques but assume that our hearts are already rightly orientated. That’s a big assumption, especially in a Western consumer culture.
BEN: There seems to be a clear tension in Jesus’ teaching between the physical or birth family and the family of faith, with the latter getting priority in Jesus’ teaching. Honestly, I don’t know of many churches who really teach or practice life that way. Instead, the church is all about nurturing the nuclear family rather than BEING a family. Where have we gone wrong, and what’s the remedy, do you think?
PATRICK: Jesus is deliberately shocking to his listeners:
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).
Contrary to Messianic expectations his ‘sword’ will divide families. Disciples are to love Jesus first, before even our deepest other loves.
This is perhaps one of his hardest sayings, especially in a Western culture that tends to idolize the family as the source of fulfillment and happiness. We invest immense significance in finding the ‘right’ person, and children are a source of ultimate significance to parents. I know I’m generalizing, but I agree with you that the church has bought pretty uncritically into this narrative. The family is seen as the goal, those who don’t fit in are marginalized in a hundred different ways.
A remedy first requires a diagnosis. Once the issue is recognized (and it’s often not) then it’s a question of leadership to teach and model a different narrative within the church family. One that celebrates singleness as much as marriage. One that teaches about marriage NOT as a private relationship between autonomous individuals ‘in love’ who construct their private nuclear family, but a porous relationship that is orientated outwards for the good of others in hospitality, service and friendship.
Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.
Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.
I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!
In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.
First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.
I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.
As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)
Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.
In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.
I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.
It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah
… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)
Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?
I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.
As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.
But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.
And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.
CELEBRATING A MILESTONE
The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.
Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.
I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.
The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.
In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.
Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.
The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.
It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.
The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.
The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …
The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.
As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.
Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.
Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.
As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.
Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.
The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with“ would mean in practice.
So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:
– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect
– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.
This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.
The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.
Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.
Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,
Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.
Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.
How we are living them and who we are living them for?
If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.
And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.
Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”
I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.
It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.
In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.
The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.
He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.
He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.
And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.
Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.
In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.
Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.
So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’
I’m doing some reading and writing on Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:17-49). A couple of excerpts from Luke:
Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. (6:20-22)
‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (6:27-36)
What might you call the theology behind Jesus’ call to discipleship in the Sermon on the Plain?
An anti-success theology?
You are going to be poor, hungry, weeping and hated. This in contrast to being rich, comfortable, well-fed and well-respected (vv. 24-26). This is just slightly incompatible with the capitalist pursuit of wealth and happiness in the here and now.
A guarantee of suffering theology?
Enemies may, and probably will, do their very worst to you. Be ready for it.
A very-delayed gratification theology?
Blessings are promised now but are guaranteed only in the next life. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.‘ (vs. 23) In the meantime in your suffering continue to have faith and trust in a future day of justice for you ain’t going to see it in this life.
A blessing of opposition theology?
To be persecuted for the name of the Son of Man is a privilege not a disaster. Don’t complain, embrace it.
A willingness to be hated and taken-advantage theology?
Love enemies in a way the boggles the mind of them and anyone else watching. It is going to be personally extremely costly – emotionally and financially.
A self-sacrifical costly love theology?
There is zero self-interest in this life to Jesus’ calls to love enemies. Love for the sake of it. Love because God is like that. Love as God loves whatever the cost.
Jesus the terrible salesman
Jesus is simply a terrible salesman.
Nothing about material comfort, security, the right to happiness, social standing. Not a word about how much we are loved by God. Not a mention of unconditional grace.
But instead a whole bunch of well-on-nigh impossible exhortations that are guaranteed to seriously inconvenience disciples’ lives.
Surely this sermon needs to be sent back to the marketing department for a serious re-write.
Last weekend I had the privilege of being the speaker at a Christian Universities of Ireland (CUI) weekend down in Castledaly Manor, near Athlone. A great bunch to work with – thanks Louise, Peter, Helen, Neus and Grace and the rest of the team – and students!
The theme was ‘Fools Talk’ and there were 4 talks:
God’s Foolish Choices
God’s Foolish Method
The foolishness of the Christian Life
The foolishness of Christian Hope.
Preparing and delivering these talks was hugely enjoyable – and in doing so it hit afresh just how ‘other’ and unexpectedly strange the story of the Christian faith is.
Put another way, the shift from OT to NT, from old covenant to new covenant, from John the Baptist and the preceding OT prophetic tradition to Jesus the crucified Messiah represents a profound and radical disruption within the biblical narrative.
Or yet another way – there are a variety of helpful diagrams that outline the entire biblical narrative. Take this one, adapted from Tim Chester’s little book Creation to New Creation:
I developed my own diagram of Paul’s narrative thought in a chapter within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. It tried to capture both continuity and discontinuity between Saul and Paul, between Judaism and Christianity.
Such diagrams are great at showing how there is one unfolding, coherent narrative – and how crucial it is for any authentically Christian theology and Christian ethics to work out from that overarching narrative.
But here’s the thing that struck me with new force last weekend. They make it appear that the narrative is ‘easy’ and obvious, flowing in one smooth direction – the story unfolding in a logical sequence that participants would have recognised.
Far from it.
At just about EVERY point, the disruption or ‘plot twist’ caused by Jesus is so unexpected and radical, that the story takes an almost unrecognizable new direction. It is only with a lot of re-reading of the original narrative (OT) that you can begin to see the links. They are there, but it took extraordinary events for the first Christians to have their eyes opened to those links (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 for example).
In saying this, I am shifting from a strong emphasis on ‘one unfolding narrative’ to at least somewhat towards a more apocalyptic reading of the NT as a shocking divine incursion into human history.
For example, just consider the depth of the disjunctures below:
However, you understand the reconfiguring of ISRAEL, the inclusion of Gentile sinners is no small plot development in the story; it is a paradigm shift of mind-numbing proportions.
So too is the relativisation of the TEMPLE in the NT to where Jew & Gentile believers form the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.
As is the fulfilment of the TORAH through life in the Spirit and the irrelevance of covenant markers like circumcision.
All this even before we begin considering the deepest disjunctures in the story so far – a theology of atonement centered on a CRUCIFIED MESSIAH.
And, most remarkable of all, the story now brings into focus a new understanding of GOD himself – the eternal Son of God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the risen Lord who takes on YHWH’s titles and roles; and the Spirit of God now given as a gift to all who have faith in the Son.
What other major disjunctures would you add?
Here are some more.
LAND – the story of the promised land hits another radical disjuncture in the NT. Most Christians see the narrative trajectory of land coming to an end with the global constitution of the people of God by the Spirit.
Then there is the small matter of the RESURRECTION of the Messiah – an utterly unexpected event, on top of his utterly unexpected crucifixion.
And to this we could add ESCHATOLOGY – the surprise new ending to the narrative of the parousia of the Messiah and Lord, who will act as judge and dwell with God in the new creation (Rev 21-22).
And then you have completely foolish stuff like loving your enemies and following Jesus AND Paul’sgospel of non-violence.
It is no wonder, is it not, that one of Paul’s favourite words for what God had done in Christ was MYSTERY that had been hidden from everyone? Consider these verses:
… we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Cor 2: 7)
All this raises a challenge for being Christian today does it not?:
– if Christianity is pervasively and shockingly ‘Other’
– if the gospel is a Mystery that was completely hidden from view
– if God is the author of that mystery who does things no-one sees coming
Then how is it that so much of our Western Christianity seems well – so unmysterious? Unsurprising? Un-shocking?
Where much church life is pretty conventional, predictable, ‘normal’ and fairly easily adapted to 21st Western culture?
Where ‘being Christian’ tends not to involve that radical a disjuncture with the dominant values of the Western world?
And does ‘renewal’ then involve recapturing something of the ‘Otherness’ and surprising power of the Christian story in a way that disrupts comfortable assumptions?
Any suggestions or resources for going about this welcome!
Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:
1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.
The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.
This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.
It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.
Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!
THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.
Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.
Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem
We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.
Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.
That fundamental problem is theological
We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).
For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.
The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)
What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?
These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?
Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:
“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”
“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’
“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”
Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.
In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:
Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
Faith tends to be set against works
Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:
Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it
No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?
Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.
If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.
In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.
In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty
Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.
Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
Confession of loyalty to the risen King
Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom
John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.
He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.
This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.
How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship
How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.
However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.
How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …
What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?
You might read this question and think several things:
You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.
And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.
You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)
I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.
You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.
Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.
So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.
One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’ – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)
One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)
Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.
Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)
There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).
Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.
After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.
Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.
I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).
And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.
And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.
This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance, a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.
In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.
If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.
There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.
Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.
He may be right. He also says this:
In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.
They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.
Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.
And Prof Stackhouse adds
Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.
They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.
Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.
I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.
It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.
John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might – show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.
What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.
The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.
I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.
So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.
Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.
But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.
And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.
That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.
The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.
This is the final post on Jamie Smith’s sparklingly written You Are What You Love (YAWYL for short).
I say sparkling since it shines with elegant prose that simultaneously delivers original, creative and often dazzling insights.
And he’s on top form when it comes to teaching for formation.
Smith talks about his becoming a heretic regarding teaching at higher level. He was coming at it from post-graduate study, implictly assuming that his 18 year old students were “graduate-students-in-waiting.” As a teacher his was never to impose on their independence (and culturally accepted goal “to become prodigious consumers”)
Smith’s ‘conversion’ was to realise that his approach to teaching these young people was inimical to formation. They were not remotely ready suddently to be who he had assumed they were. His ‘heresy’ was to come to the point where he saw teaching as having “a sense of what the students ought to be.”
Smith does not reference Stanley Hauerwas here, but he has much to say on this theme (as with many others – and that’s meant at a compliment!).
“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”
But this of course is a whole new ball game compared to most higher education for it immediately involves the teacher in a much higher and demanding goal – the formation of people of virtue.
Since education is a formative project, aimed at the Good, the True and the Beautiful, then the teacher is a steward of transcendence who needs not only to know the Good but also to teach from that conviction. (159)
And yet most teachers have gone through their own formation process – an intensive secular “novitate”. One that assumes education is ‘for’ very specific things:
implicit in the dominant models of education is a modern, secuarlist narrative that prizes autonomy as the ultimate good. Thus the goal of education is reduced to “critical thinking,” which only turns out to be an empty, vacuous way of saying that education will simply enable young people to choose whatever “good” they see fit. In this picture, “freedom” requires the loss of a telos, since any stipulation of “the Good” impinges on the autonomy of the individual. In other words, such a model of education actually precludes virtue. (159)
This is of direct and urgent relevance into the UK and Irish university sector, just as much as in the USA. Pragmatism, employability, value for money, and raising as much income from students (and their families) as possible is what education is in danger (or has already) of becoming all about. An instrumental vision of education as purely a means to an end.
These depressing programmes (no longer available online) on ‘Queen’s: A University Challenged’ were broadcast on the BBC on the decline of Queen’s University of Belfast. A combination of a lack of Govt funding and ruthlessly pragmatic educrats who value education only by its monetary worth are eviserating the original vision of a once fine University.
Rather than academic life being valued by how much funding the teacher can attract, what if the primary task of the teacher is to be a former of people? And if this is the case, teachers first need be formed themselves. In other words, says Smith, educational reform begins with the teachers.
Smith offers some practical suggestions for (Christian) faculty development:
be committed to communities of formative Christian worship
build communal (team) practices
live life together – rejoice and grieve and walk with one another.
think and read together (It’s actually this one that is the most difficult. Business is ever demanding – there is rarely time to share ideas, discuss and learn what each member of the teaching team has been learning and reading and writing, visit each other’s classes to hear another teacher’s heart and passion (not just teaching ability).
Serve students – lead by example. Show hospitality. Pray for them and with them.
I’m very glad to be part of a team and work in a College that does much of this – that students and observers continually notice the depth of community and warmth of relationships at work. Smith would say (rightly) that such a context does not happen by accident – it is a habit that takes practice (and can’t be taken for granted).