Discipleship and discipline
It does often seem that whenever there is an ordination, or a celebration of ministry in the Church then we try to take the clergy down a peg or two! I say this slightly tongue in cheek, but today’s readings and the readings used in the Cathedral yesterday, and the readings we use on Maundy Thursday every year at the renewal of Ordination vows all have something of a hard edge to them, as if we don’t want the Clergy to become too carried away with their status!
And in many ways this is quite appropriate. For years us Clergy enjoyed a certain status and, indeed, power, which led to arrogance and a certain amnesia about the message we are called to proclaim, one of humility, servanthood and the need to rely on God’s grace alone. Today’s readings bring this home in a rather stark way.
There’s so much it would be possible to say about today’s readings. There is a depth and a richness to what is on offer from Scripture for today that I could quite easily spend a number of hours going through today’s readings and simply talking about what is in there – without any extras or interpretations…
But I won’t.
Spend hours that is. But I do want to look closely at the Bible readings we have for today because I believe that there is a thread that holds them all together – an issue that links them, and about which we get a developing perspective as me move through our readings. That theme is one of discipleship.
Now discipleship is not a popular term these days – because it comes from the same root as the word discipline – and in a world where people do pretty much what they want, when they want and where they want (or at least see the freedom to meet their own wants as an ideal) then the idea of discipline does not sit well with a ‘I want’ lifestyle.
But as Christians Ministers, and all of us as followers of Jesus, we are disciples, those who are subject to the discipline of Christ. Those who have promised to follow. So lets look a little more at that theme and start with the story of Elisha and Elijah from the second book of Kings…
Elisha is a tenacious individual. Elijah keeps telling him to wait and Elisha keeps saying no. Good trait for a disciple I think, tenacity, sticking power, the will to do what’s right whatever – but that’s beside the point.
Elisha’s one wish is to inherit a double portion of God’s Spirit from his mentor Elijah. This is a man who has seen what Elijah – the most important prophet in the history of Israel – has done with God’s blessing. Elijah is such an important part of the Jewish faith that when Jesus is joined by tow figures on the mount of transfiguration they are Moses who represents the law, the torah, the commandments and Elijah who represents all of the prophets. Elijah who, faithful to God proclaims God’s truth in a way that the Jewish faith still honours to this day.
But to return to Elisha, here is a man completely dedicated to the work of God in the kingdom of Israel – a man who is willing to give his entire life to the work of God and to the building up of a kingdom of justice and righteousness, as his master had preached.
Already we have a challenge – if we were offered whatever we wanted would it be a double portion of God’s spirit? Or would we look for something more comfortable, something easier.
Elijah is blunt – you have asked a hard thing. I don’t think that he was saying that this was just difficult to achieve, but that this kind of blessing from God comes with great responsibility. That being willing to work in partnership with the Spirit is being willing to go where we are called, where we are led, being willing to make sacrifices, being willing to take the way that is not necessarily the easy way – but being willing to take the hard way, whatever the cost.
But Elisha’s wish is granted and we are shown a measure of the power that comes with this responsibility as he calls upon the name of the Lord to part the waters of the Jordan and they part before him.
That’s what we are seeing here today, that our new Pries, Paul, is taking responsibility, and even ‘asking a hard thing’ with regards to his calling to ministry. It is not always easy to seek to follow Christ, for any of us, and for those in the public eye who offer themselves to the service of Christ and the Church the pressure can sometimes seem constant.
We remember though that God’s Spirit, though he compels us to follow, though the Spirit makes demands on us, is also the comforter – the one who consoles and strengthens and blesses us. And as ministers, indeed for all of us as Christians, we are called to rely more and more on God’s Spirit as we grow in faith.
And it is that trust in God’s provision, above all else, that makes a good priest, but remembering that all of us (in the words of 1 Peter 2v9
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.It is the calling of all of us to be discipled, to accept the discipline and guidance of the Spirit, along with the promise of grace and comfort that comes with it.
In the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard a few minutes ago we see a number of people who are either challenged to follow Jesus or promise to follow him. And Jesus spells out what this will entail.
First of all it may involve a life with hardship ‘foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Next it may involve being willing to cut off from anything that distracts us from the work of the disciple.. Jesus, employing that exaggeration, that hyperbole that he uses to make a point tells one potential follower (we are told) to ‘let the dead bury their own dead, as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ There is an urgency about that command, suffering no distractions.
Next, being a disciple involves absolute focus. No one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) to the kingdom of God. When ploughing with oxen, I am told, it is imperative to look at a point at the end of the field and head straight forward, if you look to the side, or even worse to the rear then your furrows will soon end up zig-zagging across the field, and then the sowing and reaping are impossible.
Jesus highlights the absolute dedication needed to be a disciple. A dedication we see in Elijah, Elisha and Jesus followers, as well as so many others in scripture. But in pointing out all of these things we are left with a challenge. A challenge relevant both to Paul whose ministry we celebrate today and a challenge for every Christian -
How are we at being disciples?