When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he found that he was asked to let go of his possessions and take up his cross. He thought that he was rich, but in fact his possessions possessed him. He was a slave to them. He thought he had everything life could offer. But in fact he had not yet really begun to live at all. How was he to find this life? The Lord Jesus told him plainly. It is by taking up our cross, the sign of our own death. Not as if this was the end of ourselves. On the contrary, it is only in putting our self-centredness to death and living for God that we can ever become truly alive.
Orthodox Christianity presents a wonderful paradox as Good News. When we deliberately put ourselves to death, not in a physical way of course, but by putting our self-centredness to death, we have the possibility of experiencing life in union with God, an abundant life, an authentic human life. When it seems that we are abandoning everything that everyone else has and wants, we discover that we are given freely more than we could have ever imagined from God himself.
The Lord Jesus taught saying,
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25
This is what discipleship always means. When we simply set out to improve ourselves, when we insist on determining the direction of our lives, then we are not able to imagine losing our life, giving up our own authority over all that we plan and do. But when we think we have everything under control we are not really able to learn anything or become anyone more than we already are.
We can think about this in an ordinary human way and see that it is the truth. If I want to learn to play the piano it is no use at all approaching a teacher and insisting that I will decide what lessons are taught, and that I will decide how the lessons are conducted. If I cannot play the piano then I must allow the teacher to guide me, and I must learn to be obedient and to try and to put into practice whatever I am instructed, even if it does not immediately make sense to me. At the beginning of learning a musical instrument it is necessary to play the same scales, the same musical notes, over and over again until they become habitual. We can easily become bored or frustated that we are not yet able to play a complicated piece of music by Mozart or another famous composer. But it would be a great mistake to give up too soon. All of this obedience in simple things is necessary to learning the piano, or any other musical instrument. We have to abandon our own sense of importance, and our own desire to control our destiny, when we want to learn something from someone else, otherwise we will never be able to learn at all.
This is the Christian path of Discipleship. We desire to come alive in union with God. We desire to learn how to truly live an authentic human life in the power and grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit. But this requires teaching and learning. It requires putting all of our own insistence that we have everything sorted out already to death. It requires us to listen, to be obedient, to be satisfied with simple and humble beginnings. There is no short cut in the journey of Discipleship. Though this course is intended to be followed over three months, this can only ever be a necessary beginning of a journey that must occupy our whole life.
Why three months then? It is because as human beings we do not do well with open ended commitments. That already presupposes a maturity that we might not possess. Three months is long enough for us to learn something valuable, but not so long a commitment that we become overwhelmed by the thought of it. It is possible to ask that you will do your best to listen, to be obedient, to be satisfied with these simple and humble beginnings for three months. This is the intention of this course. That you will make a beginning, or a renewed commitment, to the life and path of Discipleship in Christ. Perhaps, especially at the beginning, it will seem that nothing much is happening. Perhaps it will seem that the simple requirements are not so wonderful or transforming. But if we put self to death, then we are willing to be patient and see what will happen when we give our whole self to God and to this journey of discovery.
Had the rich young man been willing to give up his life for Christ he would have been changed for ever. Not so much in any outward manifestation. He would have looked just the same. But he would no longer have lived for himself. He would no longer have been possessed by his possessions. He would not even have known what might happen the next day as he followed Jesus, as he ate with Jesus, as he listened and learned from Jesus, instead of telling others what to do. When we give ourselves up to Christ and to become a Disciple this is our experience, if we want it. But all the while we are sure that we have the answers, all the while we are sure that we are in control, we cannot become a Disciple.
To give up control can be scary. But we are not giving ourselves up to nothing, but to the Word of God, who became man, Jesus the Christ, while remaining God, with the intention that we should enter into this life of Discipleship, this life of shared experience with him. He says to us that he has come to give us life, abundant life, but we can only receive this new life, this heavenly life, as we let go, give up, put to death, all of the selfish pride and self-righteousness which makes us think that we have already become all that we need to be. He says to us all, as he said to his own Disciples, come follow me, and leaving everything behind they did just that.
Scripture – Matthew 3
1 In those days, John the Baptiser came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make the way of the Lord ready! Make his paths straight!” 4 Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6 They were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.
11 “I indeed baptise you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you in the Holy Spirit. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan† to John, to be baptised by him. 14 But John would have hindered him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and you come to me?” 15 But Jesus, answering, said to him, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. 16 Jesus, when he was baptised, went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him. 17 Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
From the Fathers
Hilary of Poitiers (310-367 A.D.)
In Jesus Christ we behold a complete man. Thus in obedience to the Holy Spirit the body he assumed fulfilled in him every sacrament of our salvation. He came therefore to John, born of a woman, bound to the law and made flesh through the Word. Therefore there was no need for him to be baptized, because it was said of him: “He committed no sin.” And where there is no sin, the remission of it is superfluous. It was not because Christ had a need that he took a body and a name from our creation. He had no need for baptism. Rather, through him the cleansing act was sanctified to become the waters of our immersion.
Origen (184-253 A.D.)
Christ was baptized for our sake, in order to sanctify the waters. The Spirit descended in the form of a dove, since wherever there is reconciliation with God there is a dove, as in the case of Noah’s ark … announcing God’s mercy to the world and at the same time making clear that what is spiritual should be meek and without wickedness, simple and without guile
[Who is this who is baptised? It is Jesus, who is God the Word made truly man without ceasing to be God. And he is baptised as a man, as if needing renewal in the life with God, but actually without any sin. There is no need in him at all to be baptised with others as if repenting of sin. But he chooses to be baptised with us, and for us, to sanctify the waters of baptism for us and for our salvation. In everything, it is God who makes the way for us. Wherever God acts there is the Holy Spirit by whom he acts, in mercy and compassion towards us. In this journey of Discipleship as much as in baptism, it is God who provides the path and calls us to follow him upon it.]
The second phrase of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that our Father is of Heaven. Our Father, who art in Heaven. This should have a dual effect on us. In the first place, if our Father is in Heaven then he is all good, all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. We need not be afraid of life if we have such a Father and are children of such a mighty God. When we pray to our Father in Heaven our heart and mind should be lifted upwards to where he is.
When there are heavy rains and the landscape is flooded it is the high ground which remains dry and safe. Very often, in video of floods in Britain, the ancient villages can be seen secure above the waters where they were wisely constructed, while modern housing, built on the flood plain, is inundated. In just the same way the Lord Jesus told a parable about those who built their lives on a rock and those who built their lives on sand. Those who relied on the rock were saved even in the worst of storms, while those who built on sand were swept away.
When we pray, our Father, who art in Heaven, we are reminding ourselves that the Father we pray to lifts us above our trials and tribulations. Not that we escape them, and avoid any difficulties. But he strengthens us so that we are not overwhelmed when we live with God. He is a rock because he is our Father in Heaven, and it is his desire that we experience this heavenly life ourself.
Which is why the second aspect of this phrase is that when we pray we are called to live as if we were truly children of a Heavenly Father. We are to become spiritual sons and daughters of God. Whatever our circumstances it is possible for us to find strength from our Father to live, to think, to act in a way that represents this family relationship with God.
1. Continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening with warmth and attention. Especially pay attention to these first phrases. One of the necessary aspect of discipleship is the development of spiritual habits. It is always best to begin very simply and establish a practice before adding further requirements to our daily rule.
2. Pray again for all the members of your family on your list of intercessions. Add several other people outside of your immediate family circle and begin to pray for them also as a necessary spiritual service.
3. Read the Gospel again, slowly and prayerfully, Write down in your journal the reflection that comes to you. What do you find the Holy Spirit bringing alive to you?
4. Find one thing today in which you can say NO to self and selfish desires, and YES to God. It might be in serving someone, in exercising self-discipline in some way, or in giving way to someone else. But find one way to say NO to self and YES to God.