The air has become thinner for those who follow the Way, making it feel less like a ramble across the countryside and more like a trek across the mountains.
The famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s was caused in large part by forced collectivisation and it killed millions. It hit Ukrainians most heavily and is considered by independent Ukraine as an act of genocide against their people carried out by a calculating Joseph Stalin. This is part of the history which informs the current conflict there and it also speaks to some of Jesus’ words in John 6. It is impossible to grasp the horror of slow death by starvation and many unspeakable acts are committed at such times.
In spite of the severe need, those who resorted to cannibalism in Ukraine in the early thirties risked the anger of those who could never countenance such an act. To eat a human being is ghoulish, macabre, the act of a wild animal, the stuff of Hannibal Lecter. It has been widely studied by anthropologists but it will always remain a freak show.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them, said Jesus. Until this point, the crowds had swarmed around him; afterwards, many scattered. To be present when Jesus healed people and performed other miracles made people feel part of a moment; to stay by his side after listening to some hard teaching made people part of a movement. In years to come, the Church would pay a heavy price for the accusations of cannibalism that would be levelled at them, and for their trust in the cross, an instrument of terror.
In saying these things, Jesus began to separate the followers from the fashionistas; those who wanted to be part of a movement from those enjoying the moment. It is a challenge every disciple of Christ has faced since. The Church of England has been doing some preparatory work around a renewed emphasis on personal discipleship in its churches. It shares a view held widely in the western Church that we are slowly smoothing off the radical edge of following Christ. There is hesitancy and uncertainty in our walk with him. My experience is that Christian people want to know how to be a disciple in the twenty-first century, but are less sure of what it involves.
The Christian faith was once more thickly in the air in the UK. This point can be over-stated, but even among those who did not profess belief, there was a greater literacy about the faith a generation ago. The prevailing culture was breathably Christian, which made it a little easier for those who walked with Christ. In recent decades the air has become notably thinner and following the Way feels less like a ramble across the countryside and more like a trek across the mountains. Steps are harder than they used to be; we are breathless and stumble. Long books have been written on this question, but here are three ways, among many others, in which the air has become thinner for disciples of Christ today.
Since the 1990s, our culture has become drenched in irony and satire; few things are taken seriously now. It is considered a mark of our collective maturity to take humorous aim at anything valuable or sacred, for without this freedom we fear we will become slaves again to irrationality. Being grown up means striking a pose of cool detachment; keeping a critical distance from the things other people get worked up about; having a smooth answer for those who call on our commitment. This has dented our discipleship, because it isn’t cool to be passionate about causes. There is Jesus, demanding a radical response; here are we, wanting to act but fearful of how it looks to others.
The call to share the good news about Jesus is at the heart of authentic discipleship. This means living in kindly, occasionally sacrificial ways which show the love of God to others. Sometimes it asks us to share our story of faith; that others may learn from it. As the Christian faith recedes from collective memory, this becomes both more necessary and more difficult at the same time. Will people misconstrue me or de-friend me if I do? Where once we would have given less thought to how we express our faith in the public realm, now we have become self-conscious, hearing strange stories about people being disciplined at work for offering to pray for a colleague. On one level, this is an infantilising of our culture, where people cannot be trusted to negotiate their relationships without the risk of causing or taking offence; for disciples of Christ, it can have what lawyers call a chilling effect, where we modify our behaviour to comply with perceived external threats. And where do the public realm and the private realm begin and end anyway?
The third way in which the air has become thinner for those who follow Christ is the way religion is currently being advertised by its most passionate exponents across the world. Religion, unfairly perhaps, but believably, is seen to cause violent harm to others, to spread by force and to have an unhealthy relationship to death. However far removed these impulses may be for us, we know that religion rising up the global agenda puts a spotlight on those who believe the Christian Gospel as well. Can we articulate the Gospel’s own dramatic relationship with death; the call for disciples to live as those who have died with Christ and daily die in following him, in ways that will attract rather than repel others?
There is a form of discipleship which can be radical, authentic and culturally sensitive today. Every generation of the Church has found ways of delivering this, but we have work to do. The Church of England is looking for solutions and most answers in life are found at the grass-roots and in humbly learning from others. The Church in China is experiencing dramatic, nation-altering growth in a climate less amenable than ours. Their story challenges ours in deep ways. When asked why the Church is growing so rapidly, one leader of the Chinese Church had a simple answer recently. There are probably many overlapping reasons why it is experiencing such blessing, but he attributed it largely to one. It is an accepted part of the discipleship of a Chinese Christian to spend half a day a week in prayer.
We can find reasons why we couldn’t manage this or any another discipline which costs us dear but we face a daily, renewable choice: to follow Jesus or to drift away from his demands, like those who fashionably joined him on the road. To help us, we need to be more honest about what this journey looks like in today’s accelerating world and we need to talk a lot more about it.
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