‘We Know More Than Our Pastors’. That was the title of an article written ten years ago by a former pastor who argued that Christian participants in the emerging world of social media on the Internet (at that time, largely confined to blogging) had a greater reach and a greater access to knowledge than the typical church minister.
Actually, ‘we know more than our pastors’ isn’t a recent phenomenon. There have been many occasions in church history when new vision has come not from the centre but the margins of the Christian community.
And we have one such example in today’s reading. We have spent the last few weeks caught up in the apostle Peter’s agonies over taking the Gospel beyond the Jewish community to Cornelius the Gentile Roman centurion. But today we discover that some anonymous disciples had shared the Good News of Jesus with Gentiles before he had!
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Verses 19-21, italics mine)
Stephen is killed in chapter seven, and the persecution breaks out in chapter eight – all before Peter is challenged to visit Cornelius. So-called ‘ordinary Christians’ are miles ahead of the apostle here.
When that happens in our religious institutions today, the common instinct is to come up with a set of rules, many of which are about prohibitions to make sure such messy and disorderly behaviour doesn’t occur again. But thankfully, the reaction of the early church was positive. It recognised a work of God. And rather than trap people with regulations and tie them up with red tape, the dominant tone of our reading is encouragement.
And encouragement is a vital quality when it comes to Christian mission. Which makes this an appropriate reading for a service I am sharing with the church Mission Team. I think it’s fair to say that most of what our Mission Team doesn’t so much involve us in direct mission, but in encouraging others who are involved in mission. That isn’t to say we should use that as a cover for not engaging in mission ourselves, but it is to say we need to draw attention to the importance of encouragement in the sustaining of Christian mission.
So if we’re talking about encouragement, then step forward Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of encouragement’, and who has lived up to his name earlier in Acts. How does encouragement work in relation to Christian mission in this passage? Here are three ways:
Firstly, encouragement is needed in the teaching of new disciples:
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Verses 22-24)
The missionary task of bringing people to faith by evangelism isn’t enough. Any church that is serious about mission will also be serious about teaching the faith to the congregation, old and new. It won’t usually be in some detached, theoretical, academic style. It will be teaching with a specific purpose. And that purpose is one of discipleship. It will be teaching how to live in the ways of Jesus. After all, that’s how Barnabas encouraged the people here: he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (verse 23). Christian teaching that merely tickles an intellectual fancy is a waste of time. (Which is not to deny that we should think hard about our faith.)
After all, what are we about as a church if we are not about making new disciples of Jesus Christ and growing in our discipleship? It’s why the teaching ministry is so vital – whether from the pulpit, in the home group, or one on one as mature individual Christians teach newer Christians how to walk closely with Christ. This teaching ministry takes precedence over institutional requirements, administration, socialising, and all sorts of other areas. If our church is doing too many things to squeeze this in, then we need to look at our priorities.
Furthermore, it needs to be a priority among ordinary Christians. Each one of us ought to be able to answer questions such as these: what have I done in the last twelve months in order to be more like Jesus? How have I changed? (Granted, that one might better be answered by those who know us well.) What am I doing in my life right now that is an intentional step in learning the way of Christ? If this is so important and I am not doing it, what will I give up in order to focus on being more Christ-like? What trade-off will I accept? What sacrifice will I make? Have I filled my mind with too much trivia?
In terms of the wider mission of God’s church, this is why we release church leaders such as ministers to go to areas of the country and of the world where there are new disciples of Jesus. Help is needed to establish new converts in the faith. It’s something we can support when we give to World Mission or Mission In Britain, and when we pray for it.
Secondly, encouragement is needed in the development of new leaders.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Verses 25-26)
Saul still isn’t Paul. He may have begun preaching soon after his conversion, but he isn’t the hotshot apostle yet. He is someone of whom the early church leaders were understandably suspicious. But just as Barnabas vouched for him in the early days, now he encourages him again by giving him a chance to spread his wings and develop as a leader in God’s mission. Barnabas sees that potential in Saul, and recruits him. It looks like he is spot on, given both the year that the two men spend teaching in Antioch, and of course subsequent history when Saul became Paul.
The work develops – don’t just assume it’s a note of historical detail when Luke says, ‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ (verse 26). They take on a new name and a new identity. This is probably a group of Jesus followers who are a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles – remember that those who came to share the Gospel there spoke not ‘to Greeks’ but ‘to Greeks also’ (verse 20, italics mine). No longer is this merely a Jewish sect, but a group of Jews and Gentiles who, though previously enemies, have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ. As such, they are a new entity, and they take on a new identity with a new name: ‘Christians’.
It is a rôle of Christian leaders to help disciples grow into their new identity as Christ’s followers. It is a calling, if you will, to help people ‘become who they are’ – that is, to become who they are in Christ. Jesus Christ gives us a new identity when we turn our lives over to him. We become children of God, and this is not only a new individual identity, it is also a new identity as a member of God’s pilgrim people.
It is not a rôle of Christian leaders to baptise every new and existing idea in the congregation. It is not part of the job description to turn up like Young Mister Grace in ‘Are You Being Served?’ saying, “You’ve all done very well” at any and every social function. It is not the rôle of church leaders to be managers of a building, but leaders of a movement. Nor is it the place of Christian leaders to be the ones who do all the witnessing and evangelising, as if that lets everyone else off the hook. It doesn’t.
What, then, are the practical implications for church members here? Allow (and encourage!) your leaders to concentrate on the essential tasks of leading God’s people. Let them have resources to develop themselves and so develop others – time for reading, time to go to training courses and conferences, time for sabbaticals and retreats. Support fund-raising for world mission so that leaders can be nurtured and supplied in developing churches around the globe. Support the Methodist Fund for Training in this country to provide good quality training for ministers, Local Preachers and others.
And most of all, pray for those in leadership. During my ministry, I have known of four people who have committed to pray for me every day. There may well be more than the four who have privately identified themselves to me over the years. However, two of them are now dead. Could you take it on board to pray regularly for people you know in Christian leadership? I can’t tell you what a morale-booster it is to hear that people are doing this for you.
Thirdly and finally, we move from Barnabas to Agabus. The third and final encouragement is the provision for the suffering.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Verses 27-30)
Agabus will turn up in one more incident later in Acts. He will have another prophetic message, when he warns Paul that suffering and imprisonment is awaiting him if he takes a particular proposed decision. He is proved right, and he is shown to be right here. We have other New Testament references to a collection for those suffering the effects of a famine, especially those in Judea. Paul’s teaching on Christian giving in 2 Corinthians 9 has this particular tragedy as its backdrop.
Of course, giving to disaster relief is one expression of Christian mission with which we are sadly too familiar. We have just had plates out in recent weeks for Christian Aid’s Iraq appeal. We are used to televised appeals from the Disasters Emergency Committee. But millions of others do the same, who do not claim the name of Christ, so what could be explicitly Christian about our acts of giving for the relief of suffering?
I guess there has to be a Christian dimension to the giving and a Christian dimension to the people using the gift. The Christian dimension to the giving is perhaps something we shall only know in our hearts. It is the concern to bring things in this world in alignment with heaven – ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.
The Christian dimension expressed by the people using the gift means, I think, that we are talking about giving to organisations that act in the name of Christ. It may be those that simply are Christians who engage in disaster relief (and, perhaps, some political campaigning), such as Christian Aid. To do so may bring a visible sign of encouragement to the downtrodden.
Or it may be an organisation that sees all Christian mission as a whole, and integrates disaster relief with uniting the churches in a particular area of the world and proclaiming a gospel message that calls people there to find hope in Jesus Christ and follow him. Here I am thinking of outfits such as TEAR Fund. And what better word of encouragement is there to someone than Christ? We just need to remember the words of William Booth: ‘If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it is the wrapping on a sandwich.’
So – in conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning. I began with that slogan, ‘We know better than our pastors.’ I rather feel that what I have presented to you this morning constitutes only some very basic ideas about the place of encouragement in the development of Christian mission. Giving, supporting, encouraging, praying – there is nothing new or unusual in the applications I have suggested.
Now if that’s the case, I think you can prove the virtue of ‘We know better than our pastors.’ Because you can do all of these things. And with baptised imaginations, you can dream, think, and do so much more. We haven’t even mentioned prayer, nor even the possibility of answering a call to mission ourselves.
So why not get dreaming? After all, you know more than me.
Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.
A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”
In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!
But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.
The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).
Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?
One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.
Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.
We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.
Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.
Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).
Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.
And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.
But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.
Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.
Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.
The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.
It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.
But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.
I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.
I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.
And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.
As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.
This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.
I am sure you will recall the hymn,
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne;
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.
One Methodist minister of a previous generation used to twist those last two lines to describe certain preachers:
Ten thousand thousand are their texts,
But all their sermons one.
You will know the sort of preacher who always seems to harp on about the same subject, whatever the Bible passage. You know these preachers are obsessed with one thing. You wonder whether they will ever broaden out and cover what the Apostle Paul called ‘the whole counsel of God’.
There is, however, one theme that keeps recurring in my preaching in recent years. But it can’t be avoided in today’s Lectionary Gospel, because it is front and centre: mission.
And if I do speak often about mission, it’s for this reason: a key element of my vision for the churches I serve is that we give mission priority in our lives. And when something is central to your vision, you can’t mention it enough. I can’t afford to allow us to forget that mission has to dominate our vision. Some people say that the church is here to worship, but we are also here for mission. Indeed, the two are connected. As one preacher put it: ‘Mission exists because worship doesn’t.’
And when you have a vision, you have to keep restating it. It’s surprising how you can certain things from the front of a church, and then discover people haven’t heard what you said. So vision has to be repeated, even if it sounds like you have a one-track mind. And I intend continuing to emphasise mission here.
So we come to this passage – one of my favourites on the subject, and actually the first passage I ever preached on as a Local Preacher On Note. Mission is a theme that makes many Christians nervous for a variety of reasons, but I like this reading, because it reminds us that Jesus uses ordinary disciples in his mission. He has sent out the Twelve in the previous chapter, but this time we read that he appoints ‘seventy others’ and sends them out (verse 1). We don’t know their names. They are the regular disciples without a high profile who are put to work by Jesus.
Not only does it remind us that he uses ordinary followers, there are themes here that address some of our fears.
Firstly, Jesus here shows us that mission has a simple approach. Think of how we have often conceived of mission. If it is evangelism, it has been along the lines that we need a lot of churches to pull together, raise a lot of money and stage evangelistic meetings in large venues such as theatres of football stadia with a big name preacher. They take a lot of organisation, and many things can only be done by experts.
Now I have nothing against the big event. I have been involved in a few, and there are occasions in the Gospels when Jesus speaks to a ‘multitude’. But we do not have that approach here. Instead, Jesus sends out the seventy – the ‘ordinary disciples’, as I have said – and they go without purse, bag or sandals (verse 4). There isn’t a big budget here. There is no importation of a big name celebrity preacher. The only big name person in this story is the One who sends these people out on their mission!
Why is this? Because at heart, all you need for mission is ordinary Christians telling other ordinary people what they have discovered in Jesus and how he has changed them. You don’t need fund-raising or an advertising campaign for that. You just need people who love Jesus.
So it doesn’t matter here that we are a small church. It doesn’t even matter that a lot of us are elderly, and that many of us have health problems. Because none of that need get in the way of us simply telling the story of our faith in Jesus at the right time to our friends, families and neighbours. Do not worry that we lack the energetic young people that some other churches in Addlestone. Do not be disheartened when you see some of the larger churches spending bigger sums of money on various projects. None of these things is a barrier to us getting on with the mission of God. All that mission takes is a bunch of people who love Jesus and who are therefore prepared to tell their story. It doesn’t require big bucks, it doesn’t mean Bible-bashing, it simply requires those who are prepared to tell a love story. And we have such people here – don’t we?
Secondly, Jesus shows us that mission has a simple principle. Again, we don’t always think mission is simple like this, do we? We think that for mission to happen and to be successful, it all depends on us. We must learn techniques, we must deploy them properly, if we are asked questions by non-Christians we must have the right answers up our sleeves … that’s a huge burden to bear, isn’t it? So much effort to expend. So many things we must ensure go right. What a responsibility!
But again, Jesus shows us that mission is rather different from that picture. Yes, there is the general need to be obedient to the call, but mission never did depend on us getting all the mechanics right. Ultimately, it doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God.
And we see that in the reading. I draw your attention to a part of the passage that seems a touch mysterious to some, but which is one of my favourite parts. Hear verses 5 and 6 again:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
‘If anyone is there who shares in peace’ is an inclusive language way of saying something like this in older language: ‘If a man of peace leaves there.’ Jesus tells his followers to look for men and women of peace. He seems to be telling them to look out for people who show they are receptive to the message, and not to waste their time on those who are scornful.
But here’s the issue for us: how come there are already people who are receptive to the message of Jesus before a disciple of Jesus ever gets to them? What do we make of that? We know it happens. In the book of Acts, the Roman centurion Cornelius is somehow ready for the message that Simon Peter brings, even before he arrives. Missionaries tell stories of going to villages that have never previously been visited by Christians, and encountering people who have had dreams in which Jesus appears to them. What does this all mean?
Basically, it means that God goes ahead of us. That’s why – although we need to be obedience to the call – the success of mission doesn’t depend on us. God shows up in people’s lives before we do, and he prepares them to hear the Good News.
So when we have the courage and love to talk about our faith in Jesus to people, we are looking for signs that God has got there before us. Does something stir in these people? Are there signs of interest? Or are we just being humoured? Worse, are we simply being mocked? It’s worth persisting if God is opening up interest, but if not, then remember what Jesus said about throwing pearls before swine. The fact is, we cannot do the heavy lifting of mission on our own. If God is not lifting the weights for us and enabling our witness to be received, then move on. But if it is being received, stay with it, because God the Holy Spirit is at work and we need to co-operate.
The third and final thought I want to share on this occasion from this passage is that Jesus tells us that mission has a simple message. In the passage, Jesus puts it like this:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-10)
Now perhaps you are thinking, hang on Dave, you said this was a simple message. There’s nothing simple about curing the sick! Give me a chance to expand on this. The message is in the words at the end of that quote: ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ That is the basis for all we do – the message of God’s kingdom. It is a message that God has made Jesus king of creation, despite what the world has done to him. So despite sinful people nailing him to a Cross, God raised him from the dead and vindicated him as his ‘right hand man’, and now people owe him allegiance.
When he reigns, blessings come – and that may include things such as healings. That’s why the Church Council was happy to let a group of Christians from other churches set up outside here each month for an initiative called ‘Healing on the Streets’. You may have seen them recently, and they will start in earnest come September.
We may not all have a healing ministry, but we all have ways of demonstrating the rule of Christ over our life and of others. It may be in being a voice for those suffering injustice. It may be that you can do something practical for those who are poor and in need, as the Food Bank here does. Or perhaps you can get alongside someone who is despised by society, and be an example of Christ’s love to them.
Whatever way it is, the simple message of Christian mission is that God has made Jesus king, and now all are called to bow the knee to him. This is not something we simply speak out, we have to demonstrate it as well. That is why you get the reference in the passage to ‘curing the sick’. It is incumbent upon us not only to call people to follow Jesus as Lord, but to put that into practice in our own lives and give demonstration of the things King Jesus cares about in our world by practical action on our part.
Of course, you may say that the reign of Jesus is a simple message to describe in word and deed, but a challenging one to put into practice, and you would be right. However, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to do this. What is more, the Spirit equips ordinary disciples of Jesus to engage in this mission, and that same Spirit goes ahead to prepare the way in people’s lives.
All in all, Christian mission is much simpler than we have allowed ourselves to believe. So what’s stopping us?
No new sermon this week: I led a communion service this morning, but we had a guest preacher, Patrick Coad from SCAT.
However, let me highlight something else: one of my former members at Knaphill, Ruth Pugh, recently left these shores for some missions work in India with a difference. She is working under the auspices of a bishop in the Church of North India to give music lessons to deprived children. It may not seem the most obvious of missionary causes, but this project will give increased dignity and self-esteem to these children. In the last few days, Ruth wrote to say that she needed three more small violins for younger children, who cannot cope with the full-size instruments. We held a retiring offering after this morning’s service and raised the money for more than two of them. The congregation didn’t know about this before arriving today, so I’m all the more delighted.
You can follow Ruth’s adventures here and sign up for email updates.
Remembering the old quote attributed to Emil Brunner that ‘the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’, it is sobering to read ‘10 Warning Signs Of An Inwardly Obsessed Church‘ by Thom Rainer. Some of Dr Rainer’s ten signs sound not only familiar but widespread to me.
What do you think of his list? Would you add any? Would you challenge any?
Whatever you think, the tenor of the article underlines even more for me the importance of churches being mission-focussed. (By which, I don’t simply mean, ‘raising funds for others to do mission’.) Stuff about the priority of worship often deteriorates into narcissistic arguments about personal taste and aesthetics. I agree that ‘mission exists because worship doesn’t’, but that is all the more reason to have mission-minded churches.
I’m reminded of the words of Ian Brown, former lead vocalist of the Stone Roses, who talked about his own spiritual quest in an interview in Q Magazine in November 2007:
My spiritual quest is for me to understand God. I’ve gotta educate myself, cos the church isn’t going to show me God. They put themselves next to God so that you’ve got to go through them to get to God. I don’t believe that.
It’s time we stopped getting in the way and being part of the solution for people like Brown.
I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.
It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.
Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”
It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”
I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.
The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?
But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.
In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.
What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.
If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.
These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.
Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture. One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.
I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.
Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.
Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.
We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.
The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.
You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.
Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.
“We talk in our day about ‘mission-shaped Church’. But mission has to be shaped by what in the trade we call eschatology. In other words, what you believe about what God has promised to do eventually, must shape the way you do mission.”
Similar thoughts to follow in this weekend’s sermon.
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
One of the joys I have in my new appointment is the presence of an Iranian congregation. They meet on Sunday afternoons on the premises of one of my churches. I have been asked to develop closer links with them. This was already beginning under my predecessor, who worshipped with them nearly every week. The Iranian congregation’s lay pastor is in the early stages of Methodist Local Preacher training.
I go as often as I can, and it’s a fascinating experience. There are only a dozen or so who attend each week, and they are warm and friendly. Not only do I experience their warmth, I notice how they treat one other visitor. There are a number of people in our area with serious mental health issues, and some of them regularly visit our services. One chap in particular often comes to the Iranian service. They sit him down with a coffee and do their best to chat with him. Frequently, Michael will leave early during the worship, and they are not offended. They understand, and give him a quiet, but cheerful farewell.
Worshipping at their service is difficult for someone like me who cannot speak or read Farsi. (Although one or our two musicians who attend to help with the worship is learning!) The young woman who leads worship has a beautiful singing voice, and I can appreciate that. However, I haven’t the foggiest what they are singing, except on the rare occasions when they seem to be singing a translation of a worship song originally written in English. The other week, the tune was unmistakably ‘You Are Beautiful Beyond Description’.
When the pastor preaches (or when he talks in other parts of the service), his wife provides a basic translation into English for the musicians and me. The very first week I went, she was unable to come, so that was fun! However, the pastor indicated which Bible passages they were reading, and gave a one or two-sentence summary of his sermon.
My early reaction to this experience was to think, “Whom will they reach? Their likely clientele will be very small, and some of the existing congregation travels several miles to be at this service every week. So how will they grow?”
However, I then realised they were not so different from many established English-speaking congregations. Effectively, we already have thousands of ‘niche churches’ in this country. Our language, practice and culture are so beyond the understanding of many unchurched people that they would struggle to integrate into them. And some of our folk travel several miles to attend worship at the church they love.
More positively, there is a certain case for niche churches in a diverse and fragmented culture. (Thinkers like Michael Moynagh have advocated them.) They will inevitably be small, and they must still express Christian unity with disciples from other backgrounds, otherwise the human reconciliation aspect of the Gospel will not be expressed.
Moving back to the negative, one danger of a niche church is that it becomes a private chaplaincy. I have seen churches for expatriate English speakers abroad function like this. They become like little embassies – where the territory is that of home, not the disturbing country, and the congenial company is a shelter against reality. Come to think of that, plenty of regular churches are like that. It needs regular and persistent challenging.
My Iranian friends have a special opportunity to reach out into their community. We have our unique opportunities, too. Within our diversity, we need to celebrate our unity in Christ as a sign of hope to the world that reconciliation is possible.
And that last point isn’t meant to be an idle theological platitude. Our six-year-old son Mark is aware that Iran as a nation doesn’t like the UK. He was worried at first that I was going to share fellowship with Iranians, because he thought I was going to share with some enemies. I had to explain to him that these Iranians were different from the government in their native land, and that Jesus made us one. Given the levels of racial prejudice I have sometimes found in churches as well as in our society generally, this call to express Christian unity across racial and cultural boundaries – and especially across such a boundary as this one – is vital for Gospel witness.
Recently, for her bedtime stories, Rebekah has asked me to read some episodes from a children’s Bible that was written by the well-known Christian author Jennifer Rees Larcombe. We have been going through some Old Testament stories, and in particular she couldn’t wait to hear how Queen Jezebel came to a grisly end. For Rebekah, there was a real sense of justice in seeing a wicked person get her comeuppance.
However, when we got to Jonah and the part of the story where the Ninevites repented and God withdrew his threat of judgment, my beloved daughter was outraged. It just wasn’t right that God loved wicked people, in her estimation.
Just like Jonah himself in chapter 4.
So we come to this chapter today at the end of this short series, and we do so on Harvest Festival weekend. That is quite deliberate, because the Book of Jonah is about God’s desire for a spiritual harvest – for many more people to know his love and follow Jesus. That is, of course, often the theme of the Gospels where Jesus uses a harvest story in his parables.
This chapter could be conceived as being about the barriers to the spiritual harvest, and our first barrier is at hand here, in the way Rebekah echoed Jonah’s self-righteous anger.
I ended last Sunday morning’s sermon on Jonah 3 with these words:
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
I could tell from many people’s body language that they agreed. It would be absurd to resent other people finding the love of God. But I ended that sermon that way deliberately, so that we could build up to the shock of finding that Jonah actually is a resentful, angry, self-righteous man. (Apart from that, he’s quite nice!) In the first three verses of chapter 4, he complains to God about his mercy towards the heathen sinners of Nineveh.
But self-righteousness is dangerously common among religious people, and Jonah is a warning to us. It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see the way the concern for a righteous life loses its bearings and becomes judgmental. Jonah forgot that he was a sinner who had been rescued by the grace of God through the merciful sending of the big fish who saved him from drowning. He forgets he is a rescued sinner. He reverts to type. He says to himself, “I am one of the chosen ones. I am righteous. These Ninevites are wicked sinners. I enjoy the love of God. They should not.”
I’ve seen it time and again in Christian circles. You will know if you read my life story in the church magazine that when my life went awry due to a neck problem at 18, I took a job in the Civil Service. I worked in Social Security. (No, please come back! Please talk to me!) I recall being on holiday one year where a Christian woman asked me what my work was. On replying that I worked in Social Security, she said: “At least you’re the right side of the counter.” Clearly to her, every benefit claimant in the country was a despicable scrounger. Hardly the attitude of heart needed for reaching out with the Gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Or I think of a church coffee morning Debbie and I attended once. The doors were open in the hope that passers-by would drop in and meet the church members, in the hope that eventually they would come to church. But as we listened to the ordinary conversation, with its routine criticism of anything young people liked, or – and this was the deal-breaker for me – their disdain for gadgets (!), we knew that church would need a lot of prayer for it to connect meaningfully with the world.
Contrast that with the man I met once when he and I were both in-patients on a hospital ward together for several days. Before we were discharged, he gave me his business card so that we could stay in touch. After his name were the initials ‘SSBG’. I couldn’t fathom what academic or professional qualification that might be, so I asked him. SSBG, he told me, stood for ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’.
That is where we all have to begin if we desire a spiritual harvest. Unlike Jonah, we need to remember that we have been rescued by God. That needs to engender humility in our lives. The great Sri Lankan Christian D T Niles once said that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. In the economy of God, it is the spiritual beggars who see the harvest. He calls us to humility.
We can notice the second barrier to a spiritual harvest in Jonah when we come to verse 5. After God asks him in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we read,
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
In other words, Jonah left the city. The harvest had come when he had been in the city. Now he was outside, whingeing. Often the religious believer stays outside the places that need the Gospel and fires darts of criticism from a safe distance. Isn’t it better to be cocooned warmly with other Christians, enjoying fellowship?
Well, OK, there’s not much fellowship in Jonah chapter 4, but I hope you take my point. We do all our relating to people who do not share our faith, whether positive or negative in tone, from the outside. We even see that in the typical language we use about wanting more people in our congregations. We say things like, ‘How can we attract more people to come to us?’ Yet note those words ‘attract’ and ‘come’: our assumption is that we are here, and people need to move in order to be part of us.
In one previous circuit, I knew a group of Christians who left the United Reformed Church in the town, because they said they believed God was calling them to reach out with the Gospel to a needy housing estate in what was otherwise a generally prosperous town. They hired the St John Ambulance hall, and began weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. They also ran the Alpha Course. There was only one problem. None of them ever moved onto the estate.
We cannot expect a spiritual harvest if we ‘leave the city’, if we don’t get involved in the middle of people’s lives rather than staying at arm’s length and expecting them to come running gratefully to us. Those of you who were at the welcome service three weeks ago may recall I made reference in my short speech to John’s Gospel. In John 20, the risen Jesus says to the disciples, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore, I said, to know how Jesus sends us, we have to know how the Father sent him. And for that we go back to John 1, where we read, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus’ approach to mission was very largely ‘go’. It was to live among the people he wanted to reach.
So if we desire to see a spiritual harvest of people finding faith in Christ and following him, we need to abandon the ideas that a church needs to put together an attractive programme so that we can invite people to enticing events. It is less important to build programmes than to build people.
You will hear more from me on this particular theme as we get to know each other. Do not ‘leave the city’. Be part of the city. Bless the people who do not yet know the love of Christ. Make your lives the kind that provoke questions. And then be ready to answer them.
The third barrier to a spiritual harvest that Jonah demonstrates comes in his attitude to the mysterious Jack and the Beanstalk-type plant (maybe a gourd, maybe a castor-oil plant) that God causes to grow and then wither (verses 6-8). Jonah enjoys the shade it provides, but starts moaning again when it has gone. God brings him up short in the final three verses of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In other words, the barrier here is that Jonah has a consumer’s attitude to God. Jonah is happy when God does something for him. But when God doesn’t, or when he requires him to do something unappealing, he wants out.
It’s the same attitude we see in Christians who frequently move church, because no church ever satisfies them. Their assumption is that they are consumers, and they should be satisfied by what is provided. So you hear Christians saying, “We left that church because we weren’t being fed.” Well, what happened to feeding yourselves? Mature Christians should have cultivated ways in which they take on board spiritual nurture for themselves! Any idea that it should all be spoon-fed to them is quite outrageous! The job of the pastor – the shepherd – is not to feed the sheep, but to show them where they can feed themselves.
Faith is not simply about what we can get out of God. If you remember the famous words of John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” could be translated into spiritual terms. “Ask not what your God can do for you – ask what you can do for your God.”
Now don’t misunderstand me. Of course we should rejoice and seek the many things God does for us and wants to do for us. But when we simply turn the spiritual life into ‘what I can get out of it’, we have missed the demands of discipleship, and especially the call for discipleship to be practised in a missional way in the world. Those who think that Jesus and the church are here simply to provide for their spiritual preferences are the very people who are usually a barrier to church growth. They so absorb the time of others and distract good Christians from better purposes that they wring the life out of Christ’s church.
All of which rolls us round quite neatly to the theme of harvest. Today, we celebrate what – by the grace of God – we can give, so that others may flourish. Commonly, we think of that in physical and material terms. We give food, money or other items so that the needy may receive what they need.
But there is a spiritual parallel. As we seek not be spiritual consumers but spiritual givers, people who are keen to see what we can do in the service of God’s mission, then other people will receive their spiritual needs. They will find the love of God in Christ for the first time and commit their lives to being disciples of Jesus. They will ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God’. They too will become missional disciples.
And if too we have been people who have chosen the path of humility, not self-righteous anger; and if we have been people who have not ‘left the city’ for the Christian ghetto but dwelt in the midst of humankind in all its needs; then might we not indeed begin to see a spiritual harvest, and – unlike Jonah – rejoice in it?