Thursday, November 22, 2007

LUBH 12 - the nature of discipleship

Mainly about MacIntyre and Hauerwas.

LUBH 12 - the nature of discipleship

We are going to be exploring today the nature of discipleship, what it means to be disciples. Those of you who came to my talk on Stanley Hauerwas will recognise at least half of it and if you can't remember who Stanley Hauerwas is, he's the one who looks just like Derek. One of my favourite theologians. The nature of discipleship, this is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am sure many of you will recognise him, he wrote an excellent book called the "Cost of Discipleship", which is a sort of background influence to this, but I think he is an example of someone who actually lived differently as a result of his faith, he walked into some very dark places and he preserved the witness, so he is a good example of what I want to talk about. Now on the sheets there are several quotations, they are all from this chap called Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian, and I am currently working through one of his books with the Ministry Team called "Resident Aliens", most of the quotations are from that book, so that is quite readable if any of you want to pick up a copy.

This is a verse, "What sort of community would we have to be in order to be the sort of people who live by our convictions?" and that's really the theme of what I wanted to describe today. Not so much the specific questions of what we do, that's for the next and the last session, we will be going through quite specifically as a sort of conclusion to the whole sequence, the shape of life and the shape of choices that we will need to take in our present context. The real bit of theological background, what sort of thing is it? What sort of community would a church need to be to be the sort of people who live by our convictions?

I want to begin by talking about this chap called Alasdair MacIntyre who wrote a very influential book, came out I think in 1980, called "After Virtue", and he'd tell the story that our understandings of morality and ethics has been profoundly fractured and we still have lots of language - the language of the virtues - but we no longer have a sense of the story within which they make sense. And he tells this parable to explain his perspective, and I am sure many of you will have heard me tell this parable before, but this one is worth retelling. He says imagine a time, one hundred years from now, when there has been a great crisis, perhaps a nuclear war or something like that, and for various reasons the scientific establishment have been taken to be responsible, and so there is this tremendous reaction against the scientific community and all the places of scientific learning are destroyed. The universities are destroyed, the laboratories are destroyed, the companies employing all the scientists are shattered and there is a real repudiation of science within the community.

And then after a generation or two generations the anger against the scientific community passes and you get a community of people who start to think "Well what was all this science about?" and they start to gather together the fragments of scientific learning, and they have some bits from Newton, and they have some bits from Einstein, and they have some bits from Darwin and so on. And they get all these different pieces and they don't know how they fit together and so you have a development of some people who pursue the oxygen theory - which says we can understand our atmosphere by thinking about oxygen, and another group of people who pursue the Phlogiston theory - we think we can understand the atmosphere by talking about Phlogiston. (Phlogiston is the theory which was displaced by the theory of oxygen.) In other words, what you have got here is an evolution from people talking, scientists talking about the theory of Phlogiston to the people talking about oxygen, but once that story, that evolution has been taken away, there is no way of assessing which is the correct way to talk about things.

And what you have are lots of different communities, some people are devotees of oxygen, some people are devotees of Phlogiston, some people are devotees of Newton and absolute space and time, some people are devotees of Einstein and it's all relative, etc, you understand the picture. That because the story, the narrative has gone, there is no longer any way of discerning what's different and what's best between the different alternatives.

Well MacIntyre's argument is that exactly the same thing has happened to our understanding of moral theory - the virtues. And he essentially blames the enlightenment and we won't go hugely into it, but he essentially blames enlightenment which has lost its sense of what it means to be human. We who live in enlightenment era civilisations, we no longer have a sense of what humans are growing towards and so the language, which we did have, which we have inherited from the previous few thousand years of Western civilisation, all of which assumed some aim of what it was to be a flourishing human being, that language no longer makes sense because we no longer have an idea of what it means to be human.

And what MacIntyre does is develop a theory which has become extremely influential which resets all our language of the virtues and so forth within a Christian context. And he was an atheist, he was a Marxist, I think he has still got lots of Marxist sympathies, but he has been received back into the Roman Catholic church, he is now one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians and the conclusion of his book "After Virtue", is that we are looking for a new St Benedict. And it is documented that this is a big influence on Cardinal Ratzinger and his choice of name as a new Pope. So this is a very, very influential book. It's one I have lots and lots of sympathy with.
Anyhow, that's the bit of background context. He talks about practices. He says that we don't know what the language does, what this language of virtue - so courage, honour, integrity, honesty - these are virtue descriptions. We don't know what these words do without this sense of what human beings are moving towards and also without some sense of what they mean in practice. OK? That we are actually taught what these words mean in the context of certain ways of living, certain ways of behaving.

And so he says what the church in particular needs to do is to focus on these ways of life and he gives an example of bricklaying. And the way in which the practice of bricklaying is taught and is very much there is a master bricklayer and there is an apprentice and for the apprentice to learn how to lay bricks the apprentice has to do what the master says and listen and pay attention. Imagine that the apprentice comes in and says, "I know how to lay bricks already", the actual - the practice of learning how to lay bricks doesn't get up off the ground. There is an already existing tradition of laying bricks within which the master bricklayer has been trained and brought up and it involves all the language of laying bricks, I'm not a bricklayer but if there are people here who have done this, there must be ways of describing how you lay on the cement with your trowel, or how you set the bricks straight and all this sort of thing. There are ways of laying bricks which work, which are good, which make it a good practice, which make for a good strong wall that you have made with your bricks. And if the apprentice comes in a says "I already know how to do this, why don't we do it a bit like this, this looks good", then it is ignoring the whole tradition and the shaping of the language and the practice which has gone before, which has been proved and tested.

And he says this is really what the church is about. The church is like this community of master bricklayers, the church is there to shape those people coming into it so that they become qualified and able to carry on the discipline of laying the bricks, or being disciples, which is what we are going to get on to. That's all background really.

Now this is an image you can see that the civilisation has been collapsing and we are living two hundred years really after the civilisation, what has shaped the values of the West has started to rot and we are living amidst the fragments. Any "Lord of the Rings" fans? I know there are some, did you watch the film? One of the ways in which the film was quite faithful to the book and it worked, because you often saw these monuments within the film that were never explained, they were just evidence of a prior culture that was clearly quite glorious and had gone, and all you had were the ruins. And this was Tolkien's way of, if you like, portraying twentieth century, western civilisation, that it is living in the midst of the ruins. And it doesn't quite realise all the glories that have gone before. And really our civilisation is in the same position. We are living in the midst of the ruins. And he is representing one of the monks, because of course, a monastery is a very good example is where disciples are formed, because you have a structure within which people come and within which people shape their lives around certain practices. Prayer and labour and hospitality and so forth, which shape them as disciples. I think, if you like, this is an image of where the church is called to go, to found something monastic.

Now the question of Christian character is a way in which MacIntyre talks about it. When someone has learnt the trade and the skill of laying bricks then they have changed, they have acquired traits of character. And in the same way, within the church once someone has been trained in the habits of Christian life their character has changed, they become the sort of people who don't take offence at certain things, who are concerned about other things more, who display the fruits of the spirit. The love the joy, the gentleness, the peace and so on. That these are the virtues of Christian character and so the purpose of the church is to form people in precisely this Christian character. We are to set our minds on the things that are above. We are to be formed not by worldly values and worldly patterns, but by the light that is coming in from outside as it were, the sunlight.

Remember very early on I used the image where I had taken the dog for a walk and I saw these people in very early dawn light, before the sun had actually risen and they were digging for bait I think. So the light is coming, is coming up, we can see what it is to be a Christian, we can see certain things are now possible, whereas most people are still living in darkness; it is to live according to the light which is coming in, and that is what churches are called to do, to train people to live according to this light which is dawning.

So the key, the core point for the church is precisely this formation of character, what we can call the making of disciples. Because we are not actually in the business of converting people. We are not in the business of saving souls. Does that seem surprising? Jesus says, "Go and make disciples." He doesn't say, "Go and work out who is saved and who isn't" He says, "Go and make disciples." The salvation of someone's soul is something which is utterly unknowable to us. We cannot know who is saved and who isn't. What we can do and what we are commanded to do is make disciples. That is the business of the church. The salvation of someone's soul is something belonging to God. We are not in that business, we are in a very related and closely attached business, but it is different. Make sense?

It's the making of disciples that we are to be concerned with. Another quotation from Hauerwas, "We would like a church that again asserts that God is in charge of the world, that actually acts as if that's true, that the boundaries of God's kingdom are more important that Caesar's, and that the task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly what discipleship is. This is the task of the church: to form disciples, to train people to live differently.

Now Hauerwas has this wonderful description, he says, "A church is precisely a community of character. This is where we learn what it means to be a Christian." If you can't learn how to love your enemies when you are in church, where will you ever be able to do that. Because here is the place where you come and you are gathered in the name of someone who is much bigger than our own concerns and squabbles. It is not that all Christians already enjoy each other's company and get along perfectly, but here what it is to be a Christian is to sign up to something and say this is bigger than my own preferences, this is bigger than my own desires and choices and consequently, here I will learn to love someone with whom I have violent disagreements, because I believe the one who says to me, "Love each other as I have loved you." And here I want to learn how to do it. It's not like I come in already qualified to do it, here I want to learn what it is to love one another in that way, to not judge, to live without judging someone else, to live without being shocked by someone else. To say "I am a sinner, we are all sinners, let's all gather together and hope for mercy." Which is really what we do on a Sunday morning.

One of the aspects of this is that the practice, the actual living out of Christian faith, comes before the proclamation. And I will say a bit more about this as we go on, but the practice, the actual living out of the faith is foundational. Because that is what gives the words their weight. And so the practice is something which changes us on the inside and radiates out into our wider lives. And it is about being serious about our faith, taking the faith seriously, not paying lip service to it. Jesus saying, quoting, "This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." I will say a bit more about the importance of the heart a little bit later on. But it's not about what we say, it's about what we do, it's the choices, it's how we live.

And importantly, it involves obedience. Coming back to this question of the bricklayer. If the apprentice doesn't obey the master bricklayer, he is unable to learn. If you have this community, doesn't have to be bricklaying, it can be anything really, a community which embodies a certain way of living, certain practices, certain ways of doing things, and it says, "These are the things that we function by, these are the things which determine us, this is what we do," and someone comes in and says, "Actually I don't want to do any of those things, because I am not prepared to submit, then really that person coming in hasn't joined the group at all. That doesn't mean to say that they completely lose their ability to act on conscience or anything like that, but it is to say that within the practice of the community, without obedience there is no learning. Without some level of obedience there is no discipleship. And there is lots of stuff in the New Testament to support that.

Another quotation from Hauerwas, "That Christianity is unintelligible without witnesses." Without the saints, the saints are the people who are exemplary in putting the faith into practice. The saints are the ones who show us what a Christian life looks like. Hence Mother Teresa. People whose practices exhibit their committed assent, you know people who live out what they believe. You can't actually have the church without saints. Without the apostles, without those who were initially formed by Jesus whose main task was of course precisely gathering a handful of people together and training them as disciples.
It's about doing. This is not a point that undermines the priority of grace, which is the great reformation level argument which has caused such havoc, which isn't to say it wasn't justified that Luther for example wasn't right in protesting. To protest for the gospel is of course the imperative. But to emphasise this thing about doing, it is not to undermine the priority of grace. The wonderful prayers, the collects in the Book of Common Prayer, about "Go before us with your grace that all our works might be begun, continued and ended in you." Grace precedes activity and anything which we do which is of God and displays God we are able to do by grace alone. So I am not arguing against the priority of grace at all. What I am saying is the strand which comes in through people like James and some of the Johannine letters, that unless we exhibit in our behaviour, something different, then grace is not having a purchase on our lives. It is about doing.

In the Book of Revelation, as I have quoted before, in the last judgement it says very explicitly, Chapter 20, "The dead will be judged according to their deeds." This doesn't mean that if we do the right thing we will have earned our salvation, it does mean that grace has fruit. And it is the fruits of our lives which we will be assessed on. Or Matthew 7, "Not everyone who calls me Lord, but those who DO the will of my Father." Or from Micah, "What does the Lord require of us, but to DO justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly before our God." And this is where it is worth saying something about the heart and about belief. When St Paul says, "Unless you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you shall not be saved." And because of the enlightenment, western culture is very prone to misunderstand the second part of that, about belief.

Let me give you an example to bring it out. If you talk to a quantum physicist they might tell you that at the subatomic level there are things such as quarks and they are strange particles and there is a Higgs Boson and all this sort of thing, and you might say "I believe you, I believe that this is true," and some more information goes into your head about the way in which physical reality is structured - that at the subatomic level there are quarks and they strange and they have Higgs Bosons and so on and so forth, and it makes absolutely no difference to how you live. In contrast, some beliefs change your heart. And the difference is that the beliefs which change your heart have an impact on how you live your life, your motivations change, and once your motivations change, the way you live out your actual life and your choices change. And it's that latter sense that St Paul is talking about.

If we believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead and established him as our Lord, then we will do what he tells us to do. "If you love me, you will obey my commandments." It's about the transformation of the heart, which cannot but radiate outwards in how we relate to each other. If we experience the grace of being a forgiven sinner, then we will stop judging other sinners, for example. And so if you have someone who is caught up with a desire to judge and condemn and to exclude, I won't name names, but I have someone in mind, not in this country, then that is a pretty clear instance that that heart has not been transformed. At least to that extent.

So this question of Christian ethics, ethos, the doings, our story is set against a different horizon. The world establishes the parameters for what it does and it says these are the things which are important, these are the foundational values - you must fear death, you must accumulate wealth, you must be socially respected - these sorts of things are the values, the foundational values of the world. And we as Christians have a different horizon against which we set the stories of our lives, that we are precisely not afraid of death, that we think that the repute of the world is to be scorned because we are foolish. To be a Christian is to be foolish in the sight of the world, we're weird, we're strange, I'll come onto that. That's something that might be the next one. We are aliens in the world. We don't belong here and there is a profound sense in which we do belong here, we are creatures living within the creation.

But this book of Hauerwas, we are resident aliens, aliens in the sense of immigrants and we actually have our lives shaped by a different civilisation, a different culture one determined by Christ. He is the Lord of our culture, and therefore all the different cultures within the world which might want, seek to shape us are not for us final authorities. And so we are aliens. We have to get used to the fact that the world will see us like this. Hallelujah!

We must be weird for the sake of the gospel, except that we are weird. This is St Francis, just talking about some of the Christian virtues, I won't say too much because of time, but one I really want to emphasise is imagination. That we are called to imagine the world differently to how it is. We have to have our imaginations formed by the Kingdom in order that the Kingdom may come. The chap who I have quoted before, an outstanding Old Testament teacher called Walter Brueggeman wrote a book called The Prophetic Imagination, and one of the core elements in that is he is saying that the Old Testament prophets first of all imagined and taught to the community that the world didn't have to be the way it was, so Moses as the great pioneer of this - his first and most difficult and most important task was to go to the Hebrew slaves and say, "God doesn't want you to be slaves any more. You don't have to be slaves." And this was unthinkable, they were born as slaves, they grew up as slaves, their parents and grandparents had died as slaves, that was the way of the world and the one who had the prophetic ministry went to them and said, "It doesn't have to be like this."

Those of you doing the Lent courses, William Wilberforce, "It doesn't have to be like this." God calls something new into being and if we train our imaginations to be formed by the Christian story, we are opening it up to hearing when God says, "It doesn't have to be like this, I have a different form of life intended for you. One which allows you to be human, to flourish." Another quotation from Hauerwas. When the church fails at this difficult and hard and challenging process of actually making disciples in obedience to our Lord's command, when we stop forming people as Christians, then we are just trying to make people a little bit better. You know, be a bit nicer to each other. You know the Church has been captured by the world, all we are are people applying a little bit of oil to the machinery to stop the squeals when those who are suffering under injustice cry out. We are just trying to make the system run a bit better. And the Pastor becomes the Court Chaplain, presiding over the cult ceremonies or, worse, he becomes, she becomes the cult prostitute, trying to pander to the needs, the anxieties of the upwardly mobile middle-class.

That's not what the church is here for. We are here for something rather more fundamental than that. We are called to live in the Kingdom and the thing about living in the Kingdom, in Christ's Kingdom is that you come into conflict with the worldly kingdoms. "You cannot serve two masters, you will either love the one and you will hate the other." I think Martin Luther King is a good example. The kingly powers of his time were accepting the injustices of racial segregation and he had the prophetic ministry of saying. "God doesn't approve of this and it doesn't have to be like this. Even if you have been born in this culture and your parents and your grandparents have absorbed all the teachings of this culture, this culture has got it wrong." And God says, "It will be different." God calls us into a different way of life.
And of course, the kingdom of this world killed him.

To claim Christ as King and Lord is inevitably political, it cannot but be political, it involves the way in which a community lives and if a community starts living according to different values, it will clash, there will be conflict with the world. One quotation. "Why did Jesus die? Why was he killed?" He wasn't killed because he said, "Let's be nice to one another, let's be nice, pink and fluffy and love." No-one's going to be offended at that, that's just pouring a bit of oil on the squeaky machinery. He was killed because he was a threat, a mortal threat to the powers that be. The religious authorities who were very comfortable thank you very much, "Yes we are the children we are assured of our salvation, that's it, let's get on and make lots of money." Some contemporary echoes there. And he was killed by the political authorities, it was a political execution, it was the Roman state which killed him, because he challenged the state. This is precisely the way of the cross, that we are called to do. If we don't come into conflict with the world, something is wrong, we are salt that has lost its flavour, worthy only to be trampled underfoot. We are to be different from the world. We are aliens here.

Another wonderful quotation, "Unable through our preaching, baptism and witness to form this visible community of people who are different and thereby by becoming the light to attract people to the light, unable to do that, we just lobby the political leaders to say, "Go on be nice, let's try and reduce our carbon emissions a little bit." It's all displaced activism, it's not that we change and we set up structures within which it is possible to live in this changed fashion, we just go along with the ways of the world. We become the big campaigning group, that actually puts the onus of decisions and changing of life somewhere else. Rather than it being within us, within the church community, it is all displaced, it's elsewhere. Asking the culture to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent.

That's a picture of Taize, it's a place that has had a big influence on me and it's really just to say how the heart to re-emphasise really what I was talking about in the last session, the heart of what the Church is about is worship. Because worship is where we learn to be different. Worship is the primary means of making disciples. This is why worship and getting worship right is so important, because worship is where we come into the presence of God, formatively and we are formed differently. We hear the word, we share the sacrament and then that changes us. This is what worship is for. The Church is not primarily a campaigning group, it's not primarily a social club, it does involve service to the world which is what liturgy originally meant. It's like the public utilities, it's what liturgy came from, public works.

But we are to be accountable to our worship, we are accountable to what we say on a Sunday morning. When we say we repent of our sins and all the things that divide us and all the ways in which we are destroying God's creation, we are accountable to what we say, and if the rest of our week doesn't reflect that, then what we say on a Sunday morning, we will be judged by our own words. Jesus says at one point, "Your own words condemn you." He is quoting the King, "Your own words condemn you." But that's the position. We are here to witness to something different, and that is crucially what is going on in worship, that in worship we are precisely forming ourselves differently. And if we can't see on the Sunday morning that we are being informed about something different, different priorities, we worship a different God to the God's of the culture, then we have lost the point of what we are here for.

Our aim is precisely to show the light promised to us in the Kingdom, the life of the Kingdom. We are to be the first fruits of God's redemption of the world, we are to show where the world is going to. And we can only do that by being different from the world. Final quotation, one of my favourite bits, "Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to the world". It won't make sense to the world, you can't justify this in terms of what the world values, because the world's values are wrong. We can't justify ourselves to the world and to try to justify ourselves to the world is a mistake. It will lead us into the wrong path. We are called to obey primarily Christ's commands to us. The claim is not that it makes sense, the claim is that it is true. That God really is the one that is revealed in Jesus, that God isn't unlike Jesus, that God shows us who he is, what his purposes are for us. We claim that this is the truth, and we live by that truth. We allow that truth to shape us, to control our choices, and therefore we live differently. Unless we actually live differently we are failing to be Christians. Which sets us up for the next and final session, when I shall try and indicate how differently we are called to live today.

[Q] Are we eventually going to be drowned unless the church goes out and starts trying to pull people in and oiling a few wheels?

I am going to reply to that what might seem obliquely, the story about the Russian church, which was very severely circumscribed under Communism and they basically said, "Look if you allow us to keep our liturgy, we won't say anything else. We won't criticise the politicians." And the politicians thought, "Alright, we'll do that." And therefore, although there was lots of oppression of Christians, the actual practice of worship was maintained. And there is this description of what was going on in the churches in the late eighties where there church buildings were dilapidated and all you had in the church in Russia were half a dozen old ladies keeping things going. And yet twenty years later the churches there are completely transformed and resurrecting in a powerful sense and that's only possible because of that faithful witnesses of those half a dozen old ladies keeping the fire going.

[Q] Wasn't there also the underground church?

Yes. It's interesting though that the underground church goes straight back to the public churches, redoes the public churches, re-engages in the public liturgy. There was an awful amount of underground stuff, but I think the same applies today, there is an awful lot of stuff going on underneath the surface, even if we just look at what is going on on the surface in the Church of England or the other churches, the Methodists have got the hardest task ahead of them that the Church of England is only a little bit behind. There is all sorts of things going on, bubbling on underneath the surface. What I am saying is that we don't need to despair because of what we can see on the tip of the iceberg, because God will not let the gates of hell prevail against the church. Also there is, I think there is an awful lot that we can do. Even, you know, the people gathered here. We start where we are and if we move in the way that God is calling us to move, he will strengthen it, he will support it, he will bless it, if it is of God, it will be blessed. Is that an answer?

[Q] We have just come back from a church in Sevenoaks of 700 people where the average age is 35, so we must try and see the bigger picture.

I think there are lots of very, very successful church groups bringing in young people, Causeway is one. You know Causeway on the Island, lots and lots of teenagers and twenty somethings.

[Q] The interesting thing is that when one of our leaders gets up and speaks, you get well the thing that he goes on about is well I was once a drunk, nothing's changed.

Exactly. That's what I was saying about believing in the heart, it changes the life. That which was seen as of value before is now seen as worthless, and actually the things which give life are actually embraced and the lives are transformed, the result of embracing that which gives life.

[Q] There is a community in Canada who won't have blood transfusions for their children, but the courts came in and made them give a blood transfusion and that is a Christian community and this is the way they want to live, but politicians ...

Sorry which is the Christian community?

The Jehovah's witnesses, the religious community.

[Q] And they said this is how we want our lives to be lived, but their community isn't being allowed to live how they want to, and I have seen it is being played out in our courts as well, I mean there is just this ongoing, it is always going to be there, the battle between the community and what people think should happen. So I don't really know, is it going to be something.

People's choices.

[Q] We're not being allowed to have them.

This goes back to the thing about obedience, especially in North American culture, personal choice is exalted as an idol and if you transgress this idol of personal choice then you must be doing something wrong, but just to come back to that specific example about blood transfusions to give a theological critique if you like, it flows from a particular reading of particular Old Testament passages about the blood being the life and so forth, but it is manifestly something which destroys life in this world, so what you have is a doctrine which is directly destructive of life in this world. Now I am not really convinced that that is what God is intending, but for example, children should be allowed to die when the option for saving a child's life is present. 48.15

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