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On Discipleship

Below are the readings and the address from the service I led at Oldham Unitarian Chapel, this Sunday just gone (24th August 2014). It was an honour to be invited and I have Bob Pounder, the minister at Oldham, to thank for providing the opportunity, support and guidance that got me to the point of leading a service. I also have Sue Woolley to thank, having participated in the Unitarian Worship Leaders course this spring and summer, which she delivered expertly.


First Reading

Matthew 13:31 – 32: Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed

 13 Later that same day Jesus left the house and sat beside the lake. 2 A large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat there and taught as the people stood on the shore. 3 He told many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:

“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. 4 As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. 5 Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! 9 Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

Second Reading

An Extract from ‘Likeness to God’, by William Ellery Channing

It is plain, too, that likeness to God is the true and only preparation for the enjoyment of the universe. In proportion as we approach and resemble the mind of God, we are brought into harmony with the creation; for, in that proportion, we possess the principles from which the universe sprung; we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind. It is possible, that the brevity of these hints may expose to the charge of mysticism, what seems to me the calmest and clearest truth. I think, however, that every reflecting man will feel, that likeness to God must be a principle of sympathy or accordance with his creation; for the creation is a birth and shining forth of the Divine Mind, a work through which his spirit breathes. In proportion as we receive this spirit, we possess within ourselves the explanation of what we see. We discern more and more of God in every thing, from the frail flower to the everlasting stars. Even in evil, that dark cloud which hangs over the creation, we discern rays of light and hope, and gradually come to see, in suffering and temptation, proofs and instruments of the sublimest purposes of Wisdom and Love.


Today I would like us to come together and reflect on the idea of discipleship. 

• What does it mean to be a disciple? 
• How do we pursue a path of discipleship? 
• Where might such a path take us?

During this past week I read a fascinating news article reporting on the story of Simon Lewis. Simon Lewis was one of the producers behind the 1989 comedy film, ‘Look Who’s Talking’ which followed the life – and inner thoughts – of baby Mikey as his single mother Mollie engages in a romance with a man called James, played by John Travolta.

With a variety of other films under his belt, you could say the stock of Simon Lewis was rising fast as the 90s arrived. And then disaster struck. In March 1994, his car was hit side on by a van travelling at 75mph. His young wife was killed and the extent of his injuries, including a major head injury, left him in a coma with medical professionals predicting little prospect of survival and no prospect of a substantial recovery. The news article carried the rather sensational title, “The Man with the Missing Brain” – reflecting the fact a third of the right hemisphere of Simon Lewis’s brain was destroyed in the accident.

The good news is Simon Lewis survived. The miracle is, twenty years later, he has recovered to the point he can walk, talk, drive a car – and has even become a published author.

The article about Simon Lewis’s recovery draws attention to the incredible power of the human brain to rewire and rework itself according to changes in environment, in experience - and as a response to injury. This adaptability is what scientists call ‘neuroplasticity’. In the past, ‘neuroplasticity’ was viewed as ending around 20 years of age, though recent research has found it to be a feature of all human brains, young and old.

Of course, not every brain injury results in such a miracle recovery, and this can be for a variety of reasons. However, what was noted in Simon Lewis’s article was scientists believe his positive mindset – his sheer will - is ultimately what has fuelled his road back to life. The message we can draw from this – aside from perhaps feeling fortunate not to have faced such disaster – is that ultimately we are all in control of our potential; we can each become who we want to be - albeit, if we can adopt, what the Buddhists call, the ‘right intent’.

Religion, if we think about it, is at its most authentic a vehicle for just this – it is a decision to try actively become something better, through attaching ourselves to a body of wisdom and practice of ‘right intent’.

We observe this if we scan across the names used for adherents of the world’s various major religions. For example, the followers of the religion Islam take on the Arabic-rooted term ‘Muslim’. Although this has entered the common vernacular in the West as a descriptive term, it is in fact aspirational. The term is said to originally mean ‘submit to’ and ‘give obedience to’, as in submitting and giving obedience to God – there are other interpretations which include ‘to be whole’, ‘to be intact’.

If we look to Sikhism, we see the same occurrence with the term ‘Sikh’ meaning ‘student’ – again, although this is used descriptively, beneath it lies the aspirational aspect with followers of this religion seeking transformation through the teachings and practices of a succession of ten teachers known as ‘gurus’, culminating in the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book.

Looking to our own tradition, most of us here today would call ourselves ‘Christian’, meaning ‘Follower of Christ’. There is a case that there is an aspirational aspect to being a follower, a desire to be near to Christ, but again its use is commonly descriptive.

If we look more closely at the New Testament stories, we see that the very early followers of Jesus were not referred to as Christians – there were a number of other names variously used, including ‘Apostle’ which means ‘Ambassador’, ‘Brethren’, ‘The Called’, ‘Disciple’, ‘Saint’, ‘Friend’, ‘Witness’ and 'Follower of The Way'.

Out of these various terms, ‘Disciple’ is said to be used 261 times in the New Testament, more so than any other term.

• But what does it mean to be a ‘disciple’?
• What did it mean then?
• What might it mean now?

We can start by simply looking at the word and its roots. The word ‘disciple’ has its roots in Greek and the original meaning is that of student of a specific teacher, or apprentice to a master craftsman.

If we take this further back to Jesus’s time, the term used – loosely translated by a non-Hebrew speaker such as myself – would have been ‘talmid’. In turn, Jesus is likely to have been referred to as ‘rabbi’ by his disciples which, before its later formalisation as a clerical title within Judaism, was used as both a term of respect and endearment, meaning ‘my master’. We can see from this that to be a disciple does not simply mean to be a learner but to be in an ongoing relationship with a source of wisdom higher than ourselves.

Looking further to Biblical history, we must also note this kind of relationship was not pioneered by Jesus; we can find instances of it in the Old Testament, a notable example being Elijah and Elisha in the book of Kings. We may even speculate as to whether Jesus, before he entered into his own ministry, was the disciple of John the Baptist.

Nor is this relationship particular to Christianity. We have already touched upon Sikhism - and we also see a similar process within the Zen Buddhist tradition, with practitioners following a specific ‘dharma teacher’ who, at least in theory, can trace their lineage of ‘transmission’ back to the Buddha himself.

Now if we were to close our eyes for a moment and imagine what discipleship looked like in ancient Judea – how it was done - we might tend towards imagining Jesus sat amongst his disciples teaching – storytelling, explaining, critiquing and so on. This is not necessarily an inaccurate image but if this is our only picture, we might limit our answers to the how of discipleship to little more than attending a series of lectures.

So how was discipleship done in Jesus’s day?

It is worth emphasising that discipleship, as found in the Gospel stories, is portrayed as a collective process rather than one-to-one relationship. Jesus famously had twelve core disciples, all men, but there is substantial evidence to suggest his group was in fact larger, most likely including prominent females such as Mary Magdalene, Martha of Bethany, Joanne, Susanna, Salome and not forgetting his own mother, Mary. They formed a tight-knit community, likely spending all or most of their time together – some would have had to move villages, leave their families and give up their jobs in order to do this. This may seem radical to us now but this forming of a ‘haverim’, a community for spiritual development, is a continuing practice within Judaism and can be traced back centuries.

In terms of the practicalities of what disciples did together, we can look to the work of church leader Mike Breen – writing in his book ‘The Passionate Life’ - who summarises the life of Jesus’s ‘haverim’ into a triangle of three distinct points. Breen suggests Jesus and his disciples got up, in and out.

• They got up with God; they spent time in prayer and study, most obvious in Jesus’s retreats ‘up the mountain’.

• They got inside each other’s heads and hearts; bonding through discussion, celebration, eating together, bearing one another’s load.

• They got out there into the world; acting to make things better through acts of service, giving and healing.

Reflecting on life together here at Oldham Unitarian Chapel, let us consider would the disciples of yesteryear recognise us today as following a similar pattern, not necessarily in identical form but at least in spirit?

It goes without saying that to engage in discipleship is to commit. And this commitment to being disciples together does not come without cost – the early Christians weren’t by any means mainstream or fashionable, and with the decline of Christianity as a state-backed institution in this country, we are arguably returning to a similar positon on the fringes.

An explanation of this phenomenon is found in the book ‘Resident Aliens’ by theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon who argue the following:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression… our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.”

The conclusion they draw is that, by bringing ourselves under a coherent, defining wisdom story such as that of the Gospels – by becoming what Hauerwas calls a ‘community of character’ – we are setting ourselves apart from the prevailing culture and this will create struggle.

Furthermore, they note that the content of the story, in particular the Sermon of the Mount, is so different to Western society’s normal way of working that modern-day Disciples of the Mount will find themselves frequently at direct odds with the political and social zeitgeist.

For instance… 

• Capitalist society seeks peace through personal profit; the Sermon on the Mount seeks peace through personal sacrifice.

• Capitalist society seeks justice through a transaction of conviction, punishment and compensation; the Sermon on the Mount seeks peace through forgiveness and reconciliation.

• Capitalist society seeks dominion through a scramble for bigger, faster weaponry of various kinds; the Sermon on the Mount seeks dominion through humble, patient and diligent faithfulness.

Clearly, by adopting this position today we must be ready to bear the cost – not at the level that many of our forebears endured – but a cost nonetheless.

By reflecting on the commitment and the cost of the practice of discipleship, we in turn can drill down into the very core of what it means and where it might take us – for as we must surely already know, Christianity is more than simply a matter of adopting outer forms that appear strange to the onlooker. Christian discipleship is ultimately an inner journey, the uprooting of the mind – and heart – and replanting it somewhere else.

This is how we can read the Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed. It is also how we can read Luke 14:25-35 where Jesus famously instructs his disciples to hate their mother and father, their wife and children, their brothers and sisters - even their own life. "Hate" is used figuratively and suggests a priority of relationship. The point of the list is that no other relationship is first for a disciple. Jesus offers discipleship as a decisive act, to make his truth ‘master’, not anyone or anything else. He recognises that such a commitment will lead to a cost, ahead lies a troubled road – the disciple will face crossroad after crossroad, their loyalty tested at every step, their internal landscape deconstructed and reconstructed at every milestone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who resisted the Nazi regime and was eventually put to death, understood this commitment all too well - for all the outer struggles in which he and his compatriots were engaged, the focus of his writing is primarily on the mystical, transformative experience of the disciple. Writing in the ‘Cost of Discipleship’, he reflects:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life.”

This of course is a daunting proposition, one we might well be forgiven for shying away from. Yet it has beckoned forth billions, so where does the taking up of Christian kind of discipleship lead us?

Jesus’s bid to come and die is what other churches often call being ‘born again’. Unfortunately, because churches have long emphasised human beings as sinners, the invite to a path of discipleship is reduced to little more than an escape route from sin and the possibility of a fiery pit in the afterlife.

Great Unitarian preachers like William Ellery Channing speak of sin, yes, but as we heard from the second reading, the focus is more on discipleship unlocking our God-given potentiality in this life.

So, for the Unitarian and those of similar roots in the radical reformation, the bid to come and die is a call to prune back the withered branches, to return to the fertile soil, to embark on recovery and growth - so that we can ultimately become trees of great fruit – pouring out our love joyfully onto others – our family, friends, and neighbours in the name of Christ.

And in doing so we arrive at a term said to have been eventually used by Jesus towards his disciples – ‘Friends’ - we move towards becoming full participators, co-creators even, in God’s plan. As Jesus is reported to have said to his disciples in John 15:15 - 16, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I call you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”


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