Monday, 6 November 2017

A disciple walks in the way of the Lord

Next year marks 50 years since I arrived at the University of Leeds to read Theology and Religious Studies under Professor John Tinsley. He was a somewhat stiff and aloof figure, and few of us warmed to him. But even then I was struck that he invited new students to his house for cheese and wine, clearly wanting to make the effort to be sociable and supportive. The only time that I saw him excited was when he was explaining to us how the mosaics at Ravenna, and the architecture of the basilica, demonstrated better than words the theology of the early church.

In the second and third years, he taught us Christian Doctrine, focusing in one on the Trinity and the Incarnation, and in the other on the Atonement. Much of my preaching and my own Christian reflection is rooted in all that he gave us, and I am deeply indebted to him. I only wish that I had told him so at the time, but students rarely thank their teachers!

He didn't give away much of himself, and when he became Bishop of Bristol, he had to walk with his wife through a traumatic time of illness and premature death from cancer. For some reason, I felt the need to go and see him when we were in North Devon, travelling from Barnstaple to Bristol with Jill. He welcomed us hospitably and gave us lunch at his kitchen table, though he was clearly the only person in our theological past who hadn't seen our marriage coming! "Oh, that came off, did it?" was his reply to our self-identification as fellow students of his.

The thing that I never did was read his book, and I'm making up for that now, 49 years late. "The Imitation of God in Christ" was published by SCM Press in 1960, the only book that he wrote, I think. At last, I'm beginning to get a measure of the man, and his spiritual journey, and it's very moving.

In the first part of the book, he deals with the theme of imitation in the Old Testament, and though I'm not here attempting to summarize what he writes, the key is that to imitate God is to walk in the way of the Lord. In this great 'journey' of faith, Israel is the imitator as it walks behind the Lord, miming and rehearsing all that God has done and is doing, by taking part in those works.

And here we come to the nub of it. Israel's covenantal discipleship is fivefold in structure: to walk after the Lord is first, to obey [to keep the commandments]. Secondly, it is to reverence the Lord [to fear the Lord]. Then comes love [to love the Lord and to cleave to him]; perfection [to be perfect in the Way] and to know the Lord. I love this, and it seems to me a powerful blueprint for Christian discipleship today rather than some intellectual assent to a set of plausible or provable truths or even an emotional and deeply felt passion which waxes and wanes with the ebb and flow of life. It is a covenant. We are called by a God who commits to us. In response we obey, worship, love, grow and know.

I wish I had known John Tinsley better, but this undeservedly forgotten little book is giving me rich insight into his faith and personal journey, and I find myself again giving thanks for one more saint in the unsung calendar of 'ordinary unremarkable but faithful children of God.'

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