Martyn Payne writes:
Gleanings from a quiet morning on Luke 7:1-10 with the Storykeepers team, April 2021
‘When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised…’
The Messy Church Storykeepers team comes together online from time to time for a quiet morning of reflection around a Bible passage. Because discipleship is a Messy Church focus at the moment, this was chosen as the theme for our next sessions.
Two major strands emerged from our thoughts together from Luke 7, where Jesus met the centurion who showed remarkable faith. The first was around the thought-provoking idea that Jesus seems to learn from some situations and so was not only a teacher but a disciple too. The second was the even more challenging observation that this discipleship learning came through encountering difference and that the experience of difference is vital for our growth as disciples of Jesus Christ.
This incident comes straight after the sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel, and we noted that the teaching he had shared there is now being worked out in practice for his disciples to see, particularly ‘love your enemies’, ‘don’t judge’, ‘give to everyone’ and ‘be merciful’. On the recommendation of the Jewish leaders, Jesus agrees to meet with this Gentile representative of the occupying forces. Clearly Jesus recognised something genuine and praiseworthy in the way this centurion cared about his slave – not something normally true in Roman society.
Jesus is showing us how discipleship is worked out in practice rather than in the classroom, and that it involves stepping out across boundaries, taking risks and being countercultural. As one of the team observed, we grow as disciples not through courses, conferences and books in the main, but by doing things that require us to trust God in challenging circumstances. Maybe there’s been more discipleship going on during this pandemic year than ever before?
Turning again to Jesus’ sayings in the sermon that proceeds this story, we read there his statement that ‘a disciple is not above his teacher’. Maybe this story is also showing us how this is worked out. Of course, the fact that the Son of God should have things to learn while being the son of man is a hard idea to get our heads around… but if nothing else, Jesus is surely modelling to us what discipleship is. It seems that Jesus was in a permanent state of expectation about seeing God’s kingdom wherever he looked, and that includes in the life and attitudes of someone from a very different background. This sort of discipleship is reminiscent of the sense of discovery and expectation we see in young children. Like children turning up stones, Jesus enters situations expecting to find God there and is curious to know what it will look like; and he is then delighted when it takes him by surprise.
Messy Church is by its very nature is a melting pot of difference – different ages, stages of faith and attitudes to church, varieties of spiritual experiences and cultural expectations. There is often very little that is homogenous about this intergenerational mix, and yet it is this very Smorgasbord of difference that offers the exciting possibility of learning from each other, arguably more than we could ever learn in a more siloed approach to church. Maybe this is the surprise discipleship that we all, like Jesus, need to experience? No wonder that Messy Church is calling into question some of the traditional models of discipleship, simply because it is working alongside people who come from backgrounds with very little faith experience or none.
The dynamic between discipleship and difference set us off thinking about our own particular situations and our own discipleship journeys. If we are being changed as disciples – in other words, becoming ‘different’ because of our encounter with Christ – then discipleship and difference certainly do belong together. This story reminds us that we can learn about discipleship even from those who aren’t disciples and that faith lessons often come outside normal church contexts. Like the work of the Spirit, which blows where it wills, discipleship lessons aren’t tidy, linear and controllable either. As one member of the group observed, based on a recent experience, discipleship growth is like a wild flower garden where we are often taken by surprise and delighted by what ‘chooses’ to come up!
Our time together was rich, particularly as it prompted stories of our own experiences of God at work in surprising people and in unexpected ways. But then again, why are we surprised? This is clearly the way God works!