Thursday, 23 August 2018

God's Beloved

I have just finished reading “God’s Beloved”, Michael O’Laughlin’s moving and inspiring biography of Henri Nouwen. O’Laughlin sub-titles the book ‘a spiritual biography of Henri Nouwen’, a suitably descriptive comment. The book carefully explores Nouwen and his spirituality and, in so doing, offers a range of insights about the spiritual life.

O’Laughlin spends quite a bit of time exploring Nouwen’s weaknesses in a way that seems supremely appropriate. I can’t imagine that Nouwen would have objected. It seems to me that Nouwen recognised the value of vulnerability, a part of his life especially discovered and emphasised through his involvement in L’Arche. As O’Laughlin comments: “Henri teaches us that we grow in holiness by becoming more completely ourselves and acknowledging our authentic feelings and failures.” (p. 85)

Another important element of Nouwen’s thinking emphasised by O’Laughlin is his engaging with people in a way that reflects Jesus doing precisely the same. O’Laughlin: “Jesus scandalized others when he healed on the Sabbath, and he then explained that human beings were more important than the days of the week. Henri many times went right around the rules as well, as long as a greater truth was served.” (p. 120)

In a similar vein, O’Laughlin separately writes: “The world that Henri saw around him was full of people. Their humanity attracted him, and their need for light and inspiration called out to him, but that was not what made him write so creatively or love so many of them. Instead, Henri Nouwen’s considerable contribution to Christian spirituality was based on a decision, renewed again and again, to be true to himself.” (p. 162)

In short, Nouwen felt himself called to a ministry of care and concern. He simply wanted to share and express God’s love in practical ways. In so doing, he provides a helpful, but challenging, model.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Jonah's Journey

I have recently been doing a bit of reading around Jonah and enjoyed Denis McBride's Journeying With Jonah. I like the way in which McBride relates the story to the things in which we might well be engaged.

So, for example, he uses the story to remind us that God doesn't discard just because we turn our backs on God's way.

“As Jonah sets his personal compass for distance from God, that same God turns towards Jonah, refusing to abandon his prophet.  God does not allow Jonah’s rebellion to have the last word.  The chase is on, not to condemn Jonah for his desertion but to summon him back to his original calling – an image of hope for all who travel a similar route.”

He reminds us of the value of what he calls 'coming to ourselves'. We are pretty good at pursuing our reckless way and we, too, need that thing that causes us to pause and reflect.

“Not unlike the Prodigal Son who, after a long journey in flight from where he belonged, ended up in a Gentile’s pig-pen where “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17), the prophet Jonah will come to himself in an even more unlikely place as he ends up in the belly of the great fish.  Often we do not choose the place where, after detours and deviations, we come home to ourselves: one day we just end up in an unexpected place – where we might feel imprisoned – and the experience forces or invites us to look at ourselves again.”

I also like McBride's challenge to see a bigger picture that goes way beyond ourselves. I fear that, too often, we model ourselves on Jonah and miss that bigger thing that represents God's Kingdom values.

"We are all questioned by God’s insistent and abiding mercy: “And should I not be concerned about …?”  God invites us to go beyond our prejudices and allow a larger perspective to hold.  “And should I not be concerned about …?”  We fill in the rest of the sentence, if we dare, naming our favourite enemies, the people we would surely reckon to be beyond the reach of mercy or understanding.  We pause at the names, or the races, or the religions.  Whoever.  Can we allow God to be the kind of God he chooses to be, scandalising us with his mercy to those people?”

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Looking to Mark

I have been reflecting on Mark this afternoon with the help of Rowan Williams’ “Meeting God in Mark”, a great, and enjoyable, introduction to Mark’s Gospel.

Williams point out that Mark’s concern is not to give a carefully constructed diary, but rather to introduce the reader to a person – “He doesn’t give you anything much like a connected story ….  here is the anointed Jesus doing this, doing that …. and as you work through this collection of apparently disconnected anecdotes, you begin to see what sort of person he is.” Mark’s concern is to help us to meet Jesus.

Williams goes on to emphasise the message as the important element. Jesus does perform some miracles, and Mark reports these, but they are always there to make things right for someone, and never as a demonstration of power on the part of Jesus. “It’s being taken for granted that Jesus is indeed a healer and an exorcist and that the miracles he performs are real. But what Jesus himself refuses to do is to base his authority on ‘signs and wonders’.”

The task of Mark is to point people towards Jesus and, in so doing, to recognise the depths of God’s love.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on the Place of the Church

In the final segment of his book "The Cost of Discipleship", Bonhoeffer outlines his doctrine of the church.  Discipleship happens within the context of the church. 

Bonhoeffer stresses that we are the Body of Christ.  That is the essential statement about the church:

Christ’s place on earth has been taken by his Body, the Church. The Church is the real presence of Christ. Once we have realized this truth we are well on the way to recovering an aspect of the Church’s being which has been sadly neglected in the past. We should think of the Church not as an institution, but as a person, though of course a person in a unique sense.”

He recognises the place of the word though that on its own, he suggests, is not enough.  We also need the sacraments:

The word of preaching is insufficient to make us members of Christ’s Body; the sacraments also have to be added. Baptism incorporates us into the unity of the Body of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper fosters and sustains our fellowship and communion (κοινωνíα) in that Body.”

The church, for Bonhoeffer, is really important.  It is the means of God’s holiness coming into the world.  He writes:

“The holiness of God means his coming to dwell in the midst of the world and to establish his sanctuary as the place from which he sends forth his judgement and redemption (Ps. 99 etc.). Moreover, it is in this sanctuary that God enters into a relationship with his people by an act of atonement such as can only be effected in the sanctuary (Lev. 16.16 ff). God makes a covenant with his people and separates them from the world as his own possession, and vouches himself for this covenant. ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev. 19.2), and again, ‘I the Lord, which sanctify you, am holy’ (Lev. 21.8). This is the foundation on which the covenant is based. All the subsequent legislation presupposes and is intended to maintain the holiness of God and his people. Like God himself, the Holy One, the people of his sanctuary are also separated from all things profane and from sin. For God has made them the people of his covenant, choosing them for himself, making atonement for them and purifying them in his sanctuary. Now the sanctuary is the temple, and the temple is the Body of Christ. Hence the ultimate purpose of God, which is to establish a holy community, is at last fulfilled in the Body of Christ.”

So, disciples, empowered by God, can really make a difference.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on the Disciple as Messenger

The third segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book "The Cost of Discipleship" considers the task of the disciple as a messenger.  This is, in fact, further commentary on Matthew as Bonhoeffer reflects on a section of the gospel starting near to the end of chapter 9, at verse 35, and running through to the end of chapter 10. 

This very brief section focusses on the role of the disciples, both as individuals and a group and the challenges of the task they face.  They are individuals, and Jesus calls them for who they are.  They are the messengers, and they are Jesus’ choice.  So, Bonhoeffer reminds us:

“Simon the Rock-man, Matthew the publican, Simon the Zealot, the champion of law and justice against the oppression of the Gentiles, John the beloved disciple, who lay on Jesus’ breast, and the others, of whom we know nothing except their names, then lastly Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.  No power in the world could have united these men for a common task, save the call of Jesus.  But that call transcended all their previous divisions.”

There is, then, a question as to the gifts and abilities that we bring to the discipleship task.  Bonhoeffer gives expression to what disciples are called to do which may, or may not, need re-interpreting in our day:

“They are charged to proclaim the advent of the kingdom of heaven, and to confirm their message by performing signs.  They must heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead and drive out devils.  The message becomes an event, and the event confirms the message.”

Friday, 13 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on the Beatitudes

The second major section of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship” explores the Sermon on the Mount and what we can learn of discipleship by considering the three chapters of Matthew, 5, 6 and 7, that contain this ‘sermon’.  Bonhoeffer emphasises the need for disciples to be counter-cultural.  Disciples see things in a different way and challenge the standard world perspective.  So, for example, Bonhoeffer says this of the beatitude which recognises the blessedness of those who mourn:

By ‘mourning’ Jesus, of course, means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men [sic] mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings, ‘Gather ye rose-buds while ye may’, they mourn. They see that for all the jollity on board, the ship is beginning to sink. The world dreams of progress, of power and of the future, but the disciples meditate on the end, the last judgement, and the coming of the kingdom. To such heights the world cannot rise. And so the disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests and disturbers of the peace. No wonder the world rejects them!”

Disciples are to do what Jesus did – and there are two particular points that stand out for me here.  One is about suffering and what Bonhoeffer calls being part of ‘the fellowship of the crucified’.  The other is about visibility.  Properly executed, discipleship needs to be seen.  So, Bonhoeffer writes:

The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call ‘blessed, blessed’. The last beatitude is addressed directly to the disciples, for only they can understand it, ‘Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.’ ‘For my sake’ the disciples are reproached, but because it is for his sake, the reproach falls on him. It is he who bears the guilt.

The followers are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world – otherwise it would not be discipleship. And of course the following is as visible to the world as a light in the darkness or a mountain rising from a plain. Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call.”

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Bonhoeffer on Discipleship and Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ begins with an exploration of the relationship between discipleship and grace but also emphasises the starting point as being recognising the call to discipleship.  Discipleship is not something that we choose to do.  It is not something on which we take the initiative.  It is God’s initiative.  As Bonhoeffer has it:

“Discipleship is not an offer which man [sic] makes to Christ.  It is only the call which creates the situation.”

We often talk about response, and that is valid, vital even – but we need something to which to respond.  Bonhoeffer takes this a little further, pointing out that it is what we do, not what we say, that makes us disciples.  It is not the confession of faith that is the defining mark of a disciple, important though that may be.  It is the act of obedience, though both are needed.  We can’t be disciples without doing the stuff that disciples do.  So, Bonhoeffer says:

“And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphæus, sitting at the place of toll, and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. (Mark 2.14) The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.”

It is, of course, all bound up with the actual cost of discipleship.  Discipleship is about commitment.  What is the level of commitment that we are willing to make, in secular, practical terms, what is the price that we are prepared to pay?  This takes us into the realm of grace and Bonhoeffer’s challenging, yet helpful, concepts of costly and cheap grace.  As he says:

“The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace. But those who try to use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves.”

Discipleship that doesn’t make a difference is not discipleship at all.  The grace is God’s, but it needs to flow through us.  That is something that just happens.  So grace enables discipleship and discipleship responds to grace.