Over dessert at BBQ with the Bishop last week, Bishop Martins offered us a short teaching on discipleship. Really it was a picture, in seven snapshots, of his vision of what someone who has become a disciple of Christ looks like – characteristics you can expect to see in someone who has let God form and shape them, rather than mostly getting shaped by the surrounding culture.
Now different people might include different things on a list like that. There was one item, though, that I think you might see on any such list no matter who made it, and that was the very first description of what a well-formed disciple looks like: we are talking about someone who has a secure awareness of a relationship with God in Christ, in the company of the Church. A secure awareness of a relationship with God in Christ, in the company of the Church. In expanding on this state of being off the cuff, the Bishop used the word “Bedrock.” Our knowing God in Christ – not knowing things about God, but knowing God – is so basic a part of who we are that it is the bedrock in our lives. There is nothing deeper or more essential about us than that. For someone who is formed as a disciple, your relationship with God is your bedrock.
Today is informally called Good Shepherd Sunday, and while that can set us to imagining pretty pastures and sweet little lambs, I think if we look a bit closer at the image we’ll see that it, too, is really about bedrock. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John today: “I know my sheep, and they follow me, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” You see how it’s that same image of knowledge, here even mutual knowledge, to know and be known by God. And when that mutual knowledge is in place, we get spiritual bedrock – God as our deepest source of identity and purpose and meaning that cannot be snatched away, no matter what else changes.
One of the best examples of this truth I’ve ever seen happened just after Easter, when something unprecedented occurred in the Anglican world. If you follow church news or British news, you will have seen coverage of it. What happened was that at age 60, the leader of the Anglican Communion, our Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, discovered that the man he had known as his father, Gavin Welby, was not his father at all. This also meant that he discovered that he was conceived out of wedlock in pretty unsavory circumstances, and that because of that irregular parentage he might have been ineligible to be a bishop in the first place, much less made Archbishop of Canterbury. (Just to avoid a cliffhanger, it has turned out that the English law about that was quietly changed in the 50s.)
Surely one of the more destabilizing losses that could happen in a human life, to have your entire image of where you came from ripped away, and via ugly revelations about your mother, and to undergo this in the public eye as a spiritual leader. Well, I want to read at some length to you from the statement Archbishop Justin issued, because I think it is one of the most extraordinary documents I’ve ever seen from someone in a position like his undergoing a loss like this. After setting out the bare facts, he explains their context and meaning as follows:
My mother (Jane Williams) and father (Gavin Welby) were both alcoholics. ...As a result of my parents’ addictions my early life was messy, although I had the blessing and gift of a wonderful education, and was cared for deeply by my grandmother, my mother once she was in recovery, and Gavin Welby as far as he was able [before he died of his addictions]. …By the grace of God, found in Christian faith, through the NHS, through Alcoholics Anonymous and through her own very remarkable determination and effort, my mother has lived [48 years sober], has a very happy marriage, and has contributed greatly to society....
My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one's father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal. This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but … I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes…
Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy…, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being. At the [beginning] of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed? Nothing!
You know, those are not the words of a team of legal advisors doing damage control. Those are the words of a Christian man. I’m so inspired by Archbishop Justin’s absolute freedom to be frank and open, the lack of any need to paper over family secrets, the unstinting realism about suffering and the difficulties of life, the complete lack of any poor-me attitude or resentment, the refusal to fall for the lie that in the Church we need to appear nice and respectable, and above all the utter calm certainty of a much deeper, realer, truer identity than family or social standing can possibly provide. The last line of that letter! “What has changed? Nothing.”
So why is he able to speak this way? What are we really seeing here? We’re seeing bedrock. We’re seeing someone whose knowledge of Christ, and therefore of who he is in Christ, is so unshakeable, that he has been set free to understand the rest of his life only in the light of that bedrock identity given in Jesus Christ. “I know my sheep, and they follow me, and no one can snatch them out of my hand,” said Jesus. Justin Welby says the same thing, from the sheep’s point of view: “I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
If we wanted to try and get at his meaning a bit more individually, I think any one of us could make a number of substitutions for the word “genetics” there, because there are so many other things people draw on in our search for identity, in the quest to construct our own sense of who we are. Could we say what Justin Welby says if the wording were a bit different?
If I were going to give a presentation over dessert this week on the habits of well-formed Christian disciples, I might just hand out that letter from Justin Welby. Because that’s what it looks like to be a disciple. To have, at the level of bedrock in your life, the truth that you find who you really are in Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about agreeing that ideally we should believe that, or approving of it in an abstract way, as a nice inspirational idea. I mean for it to be your real de facto daily bedrock. Jesus knows his sheep, and his sheep follow him, not any other source of identity. And no one, no loss, nothing, nobody can snatch us out of his hand.
See, you can have so much else snatched away. Everything is, eventually. All the other stuff we look to, all those lesser candidates for identity, can be lost -- job, family, romance, prestige. All those things can be lost, just as the image you’ve had for 60 years of who your dad is can be lost. But no one can snatch you from the hands of the Good Shepherd.
And when you know that at the level of bedrock, because you know God at the level of bedrock, when those lesser candidates for identity and the good things they’ve brought you slip away – because they will: you will have losses, you will have disappointments, you will falter and eventually die. But when you know that your real identity is given in Jesus Christ, even when those losses come, you just may find that you can say with Justin Welby – not as a front, not as a pious cliche, but out of your bedrock relationship with God – what has changed? Nothing. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.