Tag Archives: Discipleship

Ambassadors

James Tissot: The exhortation to the apostles. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

James Tissot: The exhortation to the Apostles
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11: 26) but it was Jesus who called them disciples. In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. Jesus also called them apostles. Luke in the third gospel says “Jesus called his disciples to him and chose twelve whom he named apostles” (6: 13). In the New Testament, one of the qualifications for becoming an apostle was that the person had witnessed the resurrection. In time, however, every follower of Jesus was equally recognised as an apostle and the New Testament word for apostle refers to an envoy, an ambassador.

A young boy received a lesson about the disciples of Jesus in Sunday School. When he got home he told his mother the lesson was about Jesus’ samples! He may not have got the word right but he was as close to the truth as anyone could be. An apostle, an ambassador, represents Jesus; he or she – Christ’s samples. And the world’s opinion of Jesus may be influenced by the kind of sample we are. There is one feature of the life of an ambassador we ought to note. An ambassador can be an alien in a foreign land. When an ambassador comes to Britain to represent an African country, or the USA or Russia, he or she brings with them a different tradition, a different way of life and often a different language. They may be resident in this country but the UK is not their home and they will continue to follow their native life-styles. If they eat their dinner in a restaurant without using a knife – well, what is to stop them? They are probably American and not conditioned to our cultural code which insists by way of good manners on us eating with knife and fork!

It is a bit like that for the Christian. The environment in which we operate falls short of the picture the New Testament gives of the Kingdom of God. It is a world in which we may feel out-of-place and ill at ease as we take our stand for Christian values. There is much that gives rise to anger within us because it is contrary to the biblical concept of justice, of right and wrong. Christianity is fast becoming a minority in this country and what we stand for is increasingly opposed and challenged. If we are honest and bold enough to confess it, there are times when the grass looks greener on the other side and there is the temptation to have the best of both worlds; the temptation to compromise. Sometimes in our kind of world (not all will agree) compromise may be inevitable. It is naïve and an illusion to imagine the possibility of all and everything ever being absolutely crystal clear. Possibly the only way to avoid the conflict is to escape to the seclusion of the closed monastic life. If all of us went for that, who would work for God’s kingdom on earth? It would not be enough even if the pattern of life was to be one of intensive and consistent prayer. But an apostle is more than one who is sent as an envoy; the apostle is commissioned for a special task. And however great or humble the task we are given, it is for us personally to do something special in the interests of the kingdom of God. If we are Christ’s representatives we are commissioned to save the world from wreck and ruin. To be recognised as one of those Christ people, because our life carries with it the authority of the one who calls us and sends us to represent Him in our day-to-day life, work and witness and to be counted with the apostles…..is an honour and a privilege.

Christ has many services to be done;

Some are easy, others difficult,

Some bring honour others bring reproach

Some are suitable to our natural interests,

Others are contrary to both;

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;

In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves,

Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ,

Who strengthens us.

Extracts from the Methodist Covenant service

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First in Antioch

 

Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis. Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis
Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Acts 11: 26.

I have referred more than once to my early ministry on the Moray Firth. One of my first discoveries: menfolk are better known by their nickname than by their Christian name. I was told that the community in which I lived was known for miles around for its ingenious way of giving boys “tee-names” by which they were known to their dying day. A tradition that could never surpass that of another place with a fondness for nicknames. The city of Antioch in the days of the early church enjoyed the reputation of being rather clever in the way they doled them out. And it was at Antioch that the disciples first received the name of Christian. A name that was used in contemptuous ridicule. Literally, it means these Christ-people. But to appreciate the impact of it we have to imagine it spat out, venomously, as the words were spoken, “these Christ-people! “ A name we are proud to own today, often maligned but transformed by the lives and witness of Christians – from contempt to respect.

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch, but it was Jesus who named them Disciples! In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. He said, “whoever does not come after me cannot be my disciple”, and to be a disciple is to be a Learner. Jesus called them to follow Him and named them disciples; learners. We are followers, not hangers-on…Jesus leads us on a pilgrimage like the one on which Abram the Old Testament patriarch embarked when, at God’s call, he left home not knowing where or how the journey would end, but ever pressing onward, constantly looking for new directions. If that is the road we take, it requires in us a humility and obedience which accepts that until the journey’s end we may not have all the answers and so we can never stop learning. It does not mean there are no circumstances in which we can be certain. We are close to heresy if, for example, we relegate the teaching of Jesus to mere speculation, or stumbling and faltering guesswork. Jesus prefaced his teaching with the words, “truly I say to you” and those who heard were amazed and overwhelmed by the marvellous assurance of it. “The people,” says Matthew, “were astonished because he spoke with such authority.” No point in following if we are not prepared to believe what Jesus says about life, about love, about God, aye, about sin! But it does require in us a respect and tolerance (a scarce commodity in some circles) to accept that sometimes, because discipleship is an ongoing learning experience, we have to acknowledge that some of our fellow travellers with a different understanding may be right and we may be wrong! Blind dogmatism is too often mistaken for assurance and certainty. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch,” but it was Jesus who called them disciples = learners. Living with him every day, watching how he handled all sorts of situations, listening to his private conversations and his public utterances, being privy to his dreams and aspirations, witnessing his tears and marvelling at his love for his heavenly father, those disciples would come to know and understand to what they were committed and what was expected of them to become like him, true men of God.

So the followers of Jesus were nicknamed in Antioch. It is a name that has stuck, a name that is honoured in spite of some very clever people’s endeavours to eradicate Christianity (and all other religions) and to establish a secular and humanist society in which the kingdom of God is a mere fairy tale. Why has this nickname, given all those years ago, survived the onslaughts of opposition and persecution? When Ignatius, an early Christian father, was on his way to Rome to be martyred he wrote, “Let me not merely be called a Christian, but be found as one.” The answer to our question, our prayer and promise for today and tomorrow.

Second fiddle

Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist — the A...

Eastern Orthodox icon: John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The picture the New Testament gives of John the Baptist is very much about someone happily accepting the role of Second Fiddle. (Acts of the Apostles 13:25 REB) “I am not the one you think I am. No, after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unfasten”. And the way John the Evangelist tells the story in the 4th Gospel suggests there were probably contemporaries who thought John the Baptist to be mistaken in the role he undertook for himself; avid supporters of the Baptist. Possibly they campaigned to secure a greater prominence in the Jesus “set-up”. And part of the purpose of John, the writer of the Gospel, it would seem, was to ensure that John the Baptist is kept in his rightful place. The Evangelist keeps rubbing it in that John the Baptist is only a witness; he is not the light that shines in the darkness, only a witness to it. (John 1: 6 & 8) The Evangelist tells us more than once that the Baptist makes no claim to be the Christ; that he saw himself simply as a prophet, a voice calling in the desert preparing the way for one still to come, whose shoes he is not worthy to tie! All the time the 4th Gospel is saying, make no mistake the role of John the Baptist is that of Second Fiddle.

From a human standpoint this may not have been easy to accept. Country and people looked forward hopefully and expectantly for Messiah to come and deliver them. And maybe as the Baptist became more aware of a special destiny for himself, and discerned within himself the feeling of being somebody special, he would have wondered if the golden crown was for him. J.B’s message was not a popular one but there were those who warmed to him, gathered to him, elevated him to a position of prominence, people for whom baptism into faith by John was paramount. Luke reports even Jesus submitted to baptism by him. Perhaps there was some greater future for him than making do with clothes made of camel’s hair. But if he held any such notion, it was not to be.

It would have been easy to resent his subordinate role, to rebel against God’s wishes for him. The great thing is – John resisted whatever temptation came his way, to claim for himself more than he was due. For want of anything better to do in a relaxed moment I watched on TV a repeat of Keeping up Appearances – the episode in which Mrs Bucket was upset and furious because she only came second in a Cookery competition. “I will not be outdone by that Mrs So & So” (the one who got 1st prize), she tells her poor long-suffering husband, Richard, and immediately sets about to redress the situation in a most ridiculous way, having Richard drive her around in a borrowed Rolls Royce! Only an entertaining sit-com, yet not entirely unreal. I’m reminded of a boyhood friend – he had a real football and was very popular in the park! But when he was not made captain of the team or allowed to play centre forward (a striker to those younger than I am) he would pick up his ball and go home: “It’s ma baw!” Not so John the Baptist: although Jesus is junior to him in age and in spite of being first on the field, he is more than ready to step aside, listen to the voice of God and respond to it – more than ready to step aside and give Jesus centre stage; even if it is second fiddle, I’m not worthy to untie his shoes.

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does this make of discipleship? Does not submission, subservience, subordination, second fiddle create a situation of Upstairs Downstairs – not just servants but slaves? Who remembers the early 50s? Harry Belafonte’s good looks and silky vocal style helped popularise calypso music. My favourite was Island in the sun. Those attributes and charisma led him to the brink of a major movie. His pleasure at making such a break turned to anger when he realised that as a black man he would be expected for ever to play Second Fiddle to his white co-stars. Times have changed – thank God; the doors of opportunity open to those who in my early days would have found it difficult to rise even to the heights of Second Fiddle. Much as I enjoy following the antics in Downton Abbey, it rankles with me to think that to a lesser degree the attitude of “upstairs” to “downstairs” is bred of discrimination: certainly not First Fiddle; scarcely Second Fiddle. But, hold on! Second Fiddle in an orchestra is no less important than that of the leading violinist. It is crucial for Second Fiddle to play in harmony with the leader of the orchestra, the one enhances the other. To play Second Fiddle to Jesus requires us to be in a close, personal and dependent relationship with Him, reflecting the light that He brings as it shines on us and through us. Alas, sometimes Christians are more concerned with their own image and direct the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus. In the words of Paul, they are the ones who think too highly of themselves. Consigned to playing Second Fiddle is not good enough for them, so they set about lobbying for status and positions of power; their ambition – the mantle of star performer. There was a time when I operated close to a form of ecclesiastical politicking – fortunately I did not have to be part of it. The ambition of discipleship is eloquently summed up by St. Paul when he says, “For me to live is Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Advent is upon us once again and John the Baptist is part of the scene – John the forerunner, committed and content to be Second Fiddle. And it is part of his story that Jesus pays him a tremendous tribute. “I tell you,” He says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” And then He says, “Yet, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)