There was an interview with a Lutheran priest on the radio this morning from the cathedral in Oslo. He spoke of how he had preached the peace of Christ every week… and then described the dreadful shock of learning that the bombing and killings had been carried out not by radical Islamists, as everyone had immediately assumed, but by a blond Norwegian who claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, among the many thousands who were flocking to the cathedral to light candles and pray were a significant number of Muslims—refugees from countless, distant, bloody conflicts. One young Iraqi was thankful that the church was open for prayer to all who believed in God.
I know it’s too early to “learn lessons” from these appalling events, but two rather hurried, but I hope not in appropriate, thoughts struck me.
First, we tend to treat discipleship as a rather banal, routine and aimless business—a process of formation that is somehow meant to make us, broadly speaking, better Christians. In the New Testament, however, Christian formation has in view an impending day of crisis for which the churches must be adequately equipped if they are to survive with integrity. Discipleship is framed apocalyptically.
This is apparent in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: churches must be constructed on the foundation of the one who overcame death and from non-flammable materials if they are to survive the coming fire of persecution. The parenesis of Romans 12-13 is intended as preparation for a rapidly approaching day when it will be necessary for believers to put on the “armour of light” (Rom. 13:12) in order to overcome the forces of evil that will seek to destroy them. Similarly, the practical teaching of Ephesians 4-6 culminates in the exhortation to “take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13). This is discipleship for a critical purpose, for a day of crisis.
So the Lutheran priest preaches the peace of Christ every week to a more or less complacent, probably dwindling congregation, patiently reinforcing a culture of peace and tolerance and openness in this exceptional country. And now that long slow routine process of inculcation has been put to the test on this day of fire. Much of the media comment on tragedy has emphasized the fact that it poses a severe challenge to some of the core values of Norwegian society.
But I think that, as the post-Christendom church, we have to confront the question on a broader basis. What exactly are we discipling—training, forming, teaching, equipping—people for? Evangelical churches tend to work with a generic, standardized, largely theoretical, thoroughly modern model of personal discipleship that, frankly, carries little conviction and makes little impact. What we should learn both from the New Testament and—illustratively, at least—from Norway’s experience is that discipleship needs to be driven by a sense of corporate identity and purpose shaped by a prophetic awareness of historical context. What is our coming day of fire? What crises lie on our horizon? What threatens our existence? What sort of communities do we need to be in order to survive with integrity?
Secondly, I think it is absolutely right that the cathedral in Oslo should be seen as a house of prayer for all nations and for all faiths. The church is not called to be a place of exclusive salvation, in competition with the surrounding ideological and religious empires. We have been “saved” in order to be a committed, self-sacrificing priesthood for the nations.
Jesus is the great high priest who delivered the people of God from self-destruction, from the debilitating, devastating consequences of its bondage to sin, so that his priestly people might minister to the world. We are a community of priests, pastors, chaplains, intercessors, evangelists (in a certain sense), counsellors, teachers, prophets for the sake of the world. We are mediators of the goodness and compassion and justice of God to the world, not least at times of extreme crisis.