Learning the Pilgrimage of the Cross: An International Church Vision

We are all time-travellers. But how to tell such a story? From birth to death, how do the multiple experiences of my life, or yours, fit together? Furthermore, we are all space-travellers though some travel far more than others. Space and time are realities in which all live everyday. “Global Nomads” is often the way the internationals of our international churches are described. However, Nomadic existence may often simply be circular: a regular returning to some place we have already been. Or perhaps just bouncing round like the balls in a pin-ball machine.

What holds any story together? Is my life or yours simply a collection of events and relationships? Or is there a plot, a direction, or a theme that integrates the portrayal of a life? And what of the story of a community?

Three major authors have produced collections of short stories that describe such life-stories. Each portrayal searches for a primary integrating theme for each life. Love, sorrow, a memory, a dream, emptiness, fear, music, a vision: these and many other themes generate meaning though the meaning may turn out to be empty.

In A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks[1] tells the stories of five people with very different lives though each in one way or another carries through life a particular burden. Kazuo Ishiguro[2] tells the stories of five musicians in Nocturnes, Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. The 1982 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez,[3] writes of 12 life stories in Strange Pilgrims. The stories touch on the theme of dislocation and the strangeness of life in a foreign land. Whether just a brief encounter, or years in which something in particular shapes a life, each captures something of the life-journey experience.

Some years ago I walked a 200 kilometre section of the St James Pilgrimage across the Massive Central Mountains of Southern France. Traditionally, from all across Europe, pilgrims have travelled well established routes that converged in the Pyrenees Mountains for the final stretch across the North of Spain to the Cathedral in Santiago. For me the walk was a journey of reflecting on pilgrimage. Not the pilgrimage to see relics and places of history (“He is not here, He is Risen!”) but the life-journey towards the goal of all discipleship. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” (Psalm 84:5 NIV) The pilgrimage of the Old Testament era was to Zion (see Psalms 120-134) but the New Testament shifts the focus from place to person: the person of Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2, 18-24). Christian pilgrimage is a long journey shaped by one particular Jesus-centred resolve.

Our hope, in the international church, is to play our part in God’s work of transforming global nomads into pilgrims. Pilgrimage always has direction and a purpose that over-rules all other concerns. Christian pilgrimage lives towards the vision of Christ-likeness, the presence of Christ in the new heaven and new earth, and the transforming hope of the Kingdom completed across all the spheres of life.

Pilgrimage for followers of Christ is the journey of discipleship towards this vision. And here is the problem. Too readily, discipleship is shaped in the image of our culture and across the history of the church the examples of this are numerous. Two practices are essential if we are to understand discipleship: a serious exploration of what Jesus understands by discipleship and a serious and prophetic critique of the culture that we take for granted. This culture critique is not just of the general values and assumptions of our society (personal, ethical, socio-economic, political, ethnic) but also the dehumanising hyper-spirituality that is too common across the Christian world.

A disciple is an apprentice. More than just a student, an apprentice learns the master’s trade as well as the master’s values and character that are essential to that trade. Our Master’s trade is the self-sacrificial work of the Kingdom. Matthew 28:18 is the fundamental truth and reference point by which is determined all life, work and lifestyle for the followers of Christ. “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” Making disciples is the task of recruiting others to live by this truth: more precisely, recruiting others to be students of Christ learning the work and values of the Kingdom from Him.

Discipleship requires self-emptying (Philippians 2:5-8), sacrifice of all facets of our lives to Christ (Romans 12:1-2), and the call to put aside self-centred ambition (Luke 9:24). To focus on the heart of discipleship, Jesus stated that disciples are those who “Deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him.” The cross here represents the sacrifice of everything that might stand in the way of following Jesus; even life itself. And when Jesus talked of following Him, He was preoccupied with the work of the Kingdom. This work was the Father’s will, and required the ultimate sacrifice from Him. It was also a work that embraced the full range of hopes expressed by the prophets for the transformation of all things. Here is a self-emptying so as to be free to live and serve with grace and justice, truth and compassion, peace and hope.

Discipleship presumes that we serve a God who is totally trustworthy: that He will never abandon us nor cease to fill us with His Spirit, and always most willingly extend grace and mercy for all disciples even as sin and weakness remain daily struggles. As we sacrifice life, He grants us Kingdom life.

How best might international church leaders be God’s agents in such a transformation of those who believe? None arrive in our churches already perfect in discipleship. All arrive with so much more still needed in learning the ways of discipleship. It was so for Paul (Philippians 3:10-16), and it is so for all global nomads. Spirituality is too often a self-indulgence as if true spirituality simply generates a feel-good intimacy between us and Christ. True spirituality is that of the cross, the self-emptying needed to become a true servant of God, of others, and the Kingdom agenda of God. True spirituality of the cross enables us to be God’s servants in His work to “reconcile all things to Himself through the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).

Our call as international church leaders is to be God’s agents in His work of transforming global nomads into pilgrims in discipleship; followers of Christ particularly characterised by self-sacrifice for the sake of serving. Such pilgrims walk forward into the unknown with a deepening security in the faithfulness of God to always travel with them. International church leaders have a dual responsibility: urge people to take up the cross and increasingly understand what this means, and enable people to know God well enough to be able to trust Him even when life is at its worst.

And we need to get out of the habits of promoting false expectations of Christian life in which God only works to make our lives wonderful (usually measured by cultural values). There is much joy in serving our God and in being human. There is the joy of walking in the footsteps of Christ towards the fulfilment to come when He returns. There is joy in the blessings of the Kingdom and these have already begun but this is not an alternative to the sorrows of the cross.

One story of such a pilgrimage in discipleship is in Learning from the Least: Reflections on a Journey with Palestinian Christians by Andrew Bush. This is his travel story through space and time. He describes how his international experience in a context of crisis and great suffering caused him to see how much the power and triumphalism of much evangelical (including Pentecostal) spirituality (in which he was formed) contrasted with the self-emptying and powerlessness of the cross (to which we are called). He describes the need for such self-emptying so that God’s people can respond to others with compassion and forgiveness, to serve others regardless of political or religious perspectives, and to demonstrate the love of Christ for all.

Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian, teaches at the Bethlehem Bible College. In a sermon at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, he applied the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the tendency in us all to categorize people into “one of us or one of them” and then to treat them accordingly. The self-emptying of the cross requires us to put aside such categorizations. These after all are the cultural products of sin and fear. Such categorizations are the antithesis of mission practice and the grace of the Gospel to all equally. Munther Isaac is one of those from whom Andrew Bush discovered a whole new pilgrimage: the cross rather than evangelical culture and habit. Or as Paul expresses it in 2 Corinthians, weakness rather than power and strength. To take up the cross is to take up a pilgrimage of radical transformation.

For all in the international church, we have this call from God. We are to be His agents as His Spirit works to transform global nomads into cross-shaped pilgrims – and so write a different story.

Graham Chipps

January 2015.

[1] Amongst others, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. The former is now an exceptionally good TV mini-series and the latter an equally good movie.

[2] Most well known for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both of which were produced as award winning movies.

[3] One Hundred Years of Solitude is his most popular work.

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