A poem about discipleship
'Our Master' is the title of a poem with 38 verses, written in the nineteenth century, parts of which have since been adopted as a hymn. 'Our Master' is also, and more importantly, the way we think of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose happy and tragic life on earth inspires us. His disciples, who called Him 'Master', had a problem when He left them, although He had been raised from the dead. He told them, "Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world" (Matt.28.20). He had promised them that the Holy Spirit would be with them to be their teacher and remind them of all the Father's words that He had taught them. So they faced the paradox that their master was in some way lost to them; but in another way He would be with them. We have the same Master.
The writer of the poem considers what Jesus being our Master means, against a background of ordinary religious life as lived 1800 years A.D. We are aware that it is possible for Christian life to be merely nominal— perhaps we slip into this ourselves. Is our faith more than just words? Do we go off at a tangent about points that seem vital to us? Can we see something beyond disagreements and disputes? Have we lost the hope of His Coming? Does death seem like a blank end? Does our faith consist only of doctrines, stories and half-forgotten facts? Can the love for God which we profess lead us to hatred and fear of some sections of the human race? Are we too concerned about following the right procedures— how a service or a study should be conducted perhaps— or do we attend certain meetings because it is the expected thing?
The poem touches on all these negatives, but its thrust is that our Master is real to us, now. We share in some way the experience of the first disciples when He was with them. Peter experienced His loving rebuke, John His loving smile. Some were healed, some were comforted. They all looked to Him and trusted Him. In Galilee or on the Mount of Olives they shared their lives with Him. These experiences are not merely stories, or historical facts to be taken note of, but experiences to be replicated— 'warm, sweet, tender, even yet' He is a present help. Our prayers continue through life, from childhood to death.
How this can be the case in our twenty-first century world is perhaps difficult to grasp. We are part of so vast a universe. How can Jesus be personal to us? We may look at modern analogies, but they fail. Prayer is more than using a heavenly call centre, for we believe that when we pray we are personally known and instantly heard. Guidance is more than being connected to a heavenly transmitter, to which we must be correctly tuned, and switched on. In Whittier's poem there is a different analogy— he pictures an ocean of love, freely flowing for ever, always full, always shared, never going away like the tide, but changelessly present. And he changes the metaphor, to a wind which blows away the mists of our ignorance, or a light that shines on the true path. Such love meets with a response from the love in us, gives us the joy of inward peace which is intermingled with the pain of becoming aware of our secret sins. It is love that 'clings like air' - as universal as the atmosphere around us.
The thoughts expressed in a poem are of course the writer's personal view, which we may test by scripture. The 38 verses (which we can view on the internet) are not all of equal appeal, and compilers who have made a selection for their hymnbook in the hymn 'Immortal love for ever full' have not always chosen the same few verses. With 38 to choose from, where do you stop? Interestingly, different hymnbooks have a different choice of final verse.
For example, one choice is the thought of disunited Christians finding their unity in obeying one Master:
O Lord and Master
of us all!
Another choice is to confess the weakness of our understanding, and humbly look to our Master to show us what is the truth:
We faintly hear, we
Or should the conclusion be to put aside differences, rules and complications, coming to Him in simple obedience?
Our Friend, our
Brother and our Lord,
Which would be your
choice for a final verse?