“We mustn’t do x because it would upset all our longstanding faithful worshippers.”
How often do we make decisions like that in the church? Missional thinker Eric Bryant suggests that’s all wrong. He says,
As church leaders, we need to make decisions based on who is not here yet, rather than on who has been here the longest.
He takes the principle from business, although he wants us to avoid the dangers of consumerism. Essentially, the challenge is this: will we make our decisions based on mission or on maintenance?
What do you think? What is your experience?
It sounds counter-intuitive to many Christians, that listening is a key to mission. Isn’t mission about proclamation, about us speaking? Watch this superb video of Mike Frost on adopting a posture of listening:
He contrasts listening with prepackaged, prefabricated approaches to mission. Our culture likes to buy a package off the shelf to solve a problem, and the church is no exception when it comes to solving our problems of mission, of decline, of making worship more interesting …
Yet one of my churches is currently doing one of these very prefabricated mission packages, Alpha. However, we didn’t adopt it, because we were desperate to stimulate church growth. We ended up doing it as a result of listening. We had made a specific attempt to listen to our community at last summer’s village fair. We offered a lucky dip and asked adults who called at our stall to answer one question about what they thought the church should do in the community. We had about thirty responses, almost all of them positive. Our Leadership Team debated the replies, but didn’t come up with anything concrete.
Alpha came up a few months later. We had a moving and powerful memorial service for a much loved church member. It prompted spiritual questions. From some of those people came the request for Alpha, not us. It wasn’t on our agenda.
I love the way the Frost video ends with the appeal to listen to your community, because it is telling you how to evangelise it. How are you doing that?
When one of my church members gives up a church job because they are called to be a witness in the world through their work, I am not worried about filling their job, I am delighted. Shane Claiborne explains more:
On 24th May 1988, two hundred and fifty years after John Wesley’s conversion, I was exploring my call by being a Methodist independent student at an Anglican theological college in Bristol. Some months prior to that big anniversary, I had nabbed the Vice-Principal, who was also the lecturer in Church History, and asked if we could mark the anniversary at college. He readily agreed. We had a display in a corridor, and I led an evening in chapel.
One memory I have of the celebrations is the debates that raged in Methodism over the conversion. Was Wesley’s experience of his ‘heart strangely warmed’ a conversion, or just the assurance of faith? Well, you can make your own mind up on that one. I’m not going to touch on that this morning.
But another debate was whether we should only celebrate 24th May 1738, or whether we should also remember 1st April 1739. Why? Because that was the day John Wesley was finally persuaded by George Whitefield to preach the gospel in the open air to the miners at Kingswood. Up until then, Wesley said he would have regarded preaching outside a church building as a sin, but from that date he noted that he ‘submitted to be more vile’ by taking the Gospel outside the doors of the church.
And I think it must be in that light that Luke 10 is the Lectionary Gospel reading for Aldersgate Sunday. Today, I propose that we learn from Wesley and from Jesus how we might ‘submit to be more vile’. After all, if we have warmed hearts but just stay within the safe walls of the church building, what good is the experience, apart from it being a private religious bless-up?
Firstly, we have here a mixture of prayer and action. Jesus kicks off with prayer: ‘ask the Lord of the harvest’, but the people who are to pray are also the people who are sent out with the message. How wrong we are to divorce prayer from action, support from mission.
Wesley’s own life was marked by an extensive commitment to prayer, but also to mission. If there is one area where we do not reflect our founder in contemporary Methodism, it may be this. When the subject of mission comes up in the local church, often all that means is us raising money for other people to engage in mission. I’m not about to decry the fact that when we raise money, various organisations can achieve certain things on a large scale that are beyond us, but I do question the assumption that all we do locally is act as support services.
But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, and who follow Jesus, we cannot stop there. Whatever the benefits of contributing to large scale projects, we have no justification under the Lordship of Jesus for stopping there. We are called to pray and to support – but Jesus also calls us to be part of the answers to our prayers. Those of us who walk in the ways of Jesus are junior partners in his kingdom. Jesus calls us not only to enjoy the benefits of his kingdom, but to let it overflow to others. It isn’t just the leaders, the Twelve – Jesus does that one chapter earlier. He calls ‘seventy others’ – people from his wider circle both to pray and to engage. I think that implies all of us.
Now I am aware that in saying this, I can easily load a burden of guilt on people. If preachers tell congregations they need to share their faith, so let me put it like this. This is not about obligation. It is not a series of ‘oughts’. It is about overflow.
Put it this way. Our son enjoys drinking milk. He particularly likes it gently warmed in the microwave. Forty seconds – or fifty seconds during winter. The other day, he went to collect a full mug of milk from the microwave. But as he came out of the utility room and into the kitchen, he tripped up on a step between the rooms. So what happened? Spilt milk.
Similarly, our faith will spill out into the world when we are full, and someone or something trips us up. If we want to have a missionary effect upon the world, then it starts by becoming filled up with God – which will probably happen in prayer – and then overflowing when we get tripped up. So – prayer and action contribute to an overflow of God’s love to the world.
A second strand of Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus would be simplicity. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road,” says Jesus (verse 4).
Whenever I read that verse, I always think of a friend of mine who works for an Anglican evangelistic organisation. When they hold missions in an area, they have a rule of simplicity for those on the mission team. It involves taking no accoutrements with them like mobile phones, and only an allowance of £2 per day. They rely on the hospitality of the local church. Usually this works out quite well – despite the restrictions and all the physical effort of the mission, many participants return home, having put on weight!
However, what would it be if there is a general pattern that Jesus sets here of simplicity in our lifestyles? Not that every Christian does without everything pleasant in life, but that we resist the pattern of our culture to acquire more and more ‘things’, to think that buying the latest fashionable object will somehow make our lives complete. As well as making income available for others in need – ‘Live simply that others might simply live’ is the old slogan – there is also the fact that living in a way that says we do not have to lust after all the latest consumer items is itself a testimony to the fulfilment that can only come through Jesus Christ.
Is it surprising, then, that in some quarters of the church, not least among some young adults, there is a movement that has been called ‘new monasticism’? People are seeking to live by a rule of life that involves self-denial, not cloistered away behind abbey walls but in the midst of communities. Others put a big stress on hospitality – not simply in terms of inviting your friends for a meal, but in sharing food and care with strangers.
Now I say all this as someone who tomorrow morning is having the so-called ‘superfast’ fibre broadband installed at the manse! I am far from opposed to us enjoying good things in life. As Paul puts it:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
But we have a society that is drunk on consumer goods. And Christian testimony needs to stand in contrast to the false values embraced by many. It isn’t enough to preach the Gospel with our words, it must be lived with our actions and our attitudes, too.
A third element of this ‘submitting to be more vile’, this Wesleyan mission in the spirit of Jesus, would be what Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’, or what regular people call God going ahead of us to work before we get there. We see this in the part of the passage where Jesus tells his followers to go into a home saying, “Peace to this house!”, and waiting to see whether ‘anyone who shares in peace’ is there (verses 5-6).
Fruitful mission, in other words, is not where we take the initiative, where we force the pace, but where God has already gone ahead of us and is at work in people’s lives through the Holy Spirit to prepare them for the good news of his love.
It’s exactly how Jesus himself shared in the mission of the Father. In John 5:19 he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Even Jesus didn’t take the first step: the Father did.
It’s a principle that – once you know it, you will notice it here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a dramatic form: I have heard stories of people taking the Gospel to a community somewhere in the world that has never heard of Jesus Christ. However, when the Christians begin to tell the stories of Jesus, people say something like this: “Oh, so that’s the person who has been popping up in my dreams!”
Or it is as simple as having an ordinary conversation with a friend whom you think has no interest in spiritual matters, only for them suddenly to ask a major spiritual question. You think, “Now where did that come from?” Well, maybe it came from God going ahead of you, working to woo that person with love before you ever arrived on the scene.
When I talk about this, I usually tell people this is good news! You see, it takes the pressure off us! We don’t have to force or manipulate situations – and of course we shouldn’t! But we can pray and see how God leads. A common catchphrase is to say that mission is ‘seeing what God is doing and joining in’. Just as Jesus told the seventy to offer peace and see whether anyone else [already] shared in it, so we go blessing people in his name, looking for where he has already started prompting people and we then share in his mission as junior partners.
And that mention of ‘blessing’ leads to the fourth and final aspect I want to share this morning about mission: blessing people is our priority. It’s not only the offer of peace, it’s not merely the preaching of God’s kingdom, the mission includes ‘curing the sick’ (verse 9) and I take that to include not only physical healing but also a mandate to meet all sorts of needs in Christ’s name.
I believe that provides a corrective to the way we often view the relationship between Christians and the world. Too often what we are known for is the way we declaim against the wickedness of the world. I’m not denying a proper place for prophetically speaking against sin in all its forms. But there is something about the way we do that, which has earned us a reputation as self-righteous people who consider themselves above everybody else. Ask many MPs what their image of Christians is, and they will tell you that these are the constituents who write the nastiest letters. Ask a Christian MP about their witness in Parliament, and they may well tell you this is one of the greatest hurdles to their being received sympathetically.
What if we were known as the people who are a blessing to anyone in distress? How would that portray the love of God? What if we were the people always available to the hurting in the neighbourhood? What if each of us took seriously the different networks we move in, and sought to be blessings there? The workplace; the street where we live; the people we mix with socially when we relax. All these are places where we can be a blessing.
Yes, there will be times when we run into conflict with the world, and when what we do or say is not appreciated. There will be seasons where we experience rejection. Then – and only then – do we wipe the dust off our feet in protest and move on elsewhere (verse 11). But I have to tell you, that if I wracked my brain for examples of this, the main one I would come up with wouldn’t be about a parting of the ways with non-Christians, but with church people!
In conclusion, there is so much more I could say about this passage. It is one that has meant a lot to me over the years – so much so that I had to limit what points I wanted to make today. But if it does one thing for us this Aldersgate Sunday, I pray it gets us out of our churches and into the world with the love of God, rather than forever vainly waiting for people to come to us.
John Wesley ‘submitted to be more vile’. What about us?
This morning we have heard a Bible passage for a wedding service – the Emmaus Road.
What – not 1 Corinthians 13? No. The Anglican Rector friend of mine who preached at our wedding nearly ten years ago chose the Emmaus Road story as his text. He relied on an old tradition that Cleopas and his companion on the journey were a married couple, and proceeded to make five points about marriage from the account. I can’t tell you what those five points were, though, because we never did receive the recording of the service that we were promised.
But today we come to this famous Easter story with a more conventional agenda. What does the experience of Cleopas and his companion of the Risen Christ tell us about true faith? Here are three aspects I have noticed:
Firstly, their experience tells us about the importance of revelation. Faith in Christ is not simply about our free will decision: it requires a revelation from God to understand the truth.
If you come into my study, you will find not only my books but my CD collection. Much as I would like it to be in the main family living space, if I put the shelves of CDs in the lounge, there would probably be no room for the three-piece suite.
Among my large assortment of music you will find plenty by U2, led, of course, by Saint Bono. Their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon (not one of their best – known to some as No Tunes On The Album), there is a song called I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.
It contains this line, which is pertinent to the Emmaus Road story:
How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?
That seems to be the predicament Cleopas is in. He and his companion don’t just stand next to the truth, they walk next to the truth and just don’t see it. They are trapped in their old way of thinking that Jesus was supposed to have redeemed Israel (which I take to mean they thought he would overthrow the Romans) and that all those hopes were dashed in the conspiracy to have him executed (verses 19-21).
Now you know and I know that they were wrong. We know with hindsight and with faith that the reality was different. But what changed it for them? It comes with the response of Jesus:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verses 25-27)
They needed a word from the Lord. They needed revelation. An encounter with the Risen Christ brings that.
And we need revelation, too. Whatever our human skills and talents, whatever decisions we are capable of making, the life of faith does not start with us. It begins with God revealing himself to us. In our context, with Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand, that means the work of the Holy Spirit.
What implications are there here for us? It reminds us that for anyone to find faith in Christ, there must be revelation from God. Christian witness cannot be reduced just to us saying the right words or doing the right things so that people will come to faith. Think of John Wesley having his ‘heart strangely warmed’. Or hear this testimony from the former pop star Yazz, famous for The Only Way Is Up:
Her life and career had fallen apart after her two or three big hit singles. What was going to heal her life? She says this:
At that point, I’d tried everything to fill this ache inside except Christianity. One evening I asked Mum for a Bible. I didn’t understand what I read, but as I laid the book down next to me I was filled with something that felt like warm peace flowing through me.
So in our witness we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ and God’s love to people.
But it isn’t purely about the call to conversion. It’s about every aspect of the Christian life. Always we need the revelation of God. However much I study a Bible passage, I need the Holy Spirit. We all do.
Secondly, Cleopas and his companion discover the importance of a Christ-centred interpretation of Scripture. If there is one thing that non-Christians perceive about Christianity and the Bible, it’s the thought that you can make it mean whatever you want, by picking the bits that suit you. So, for example, the broadcaster Jon Snow, who is the son of an Anglican clergyman, when asked in an interview, ‘Is there anything in the Bible that has particularly resonated with all you have been witness to?’, replied:
‘Yeah, I think treating your neighbour as you would have them treat you is a pretty good idea. I think that turning the other cheek is a pretty good idea. I think there’s a fair amount on conflict resolution in the Bible. But the problem with the Bible, as is well illustrated in Middle America, is that it’s very open to a pick’n’mix approach.’
I’m not about to suggest that I can solve all those problems in one fell swoop, nor resolve all the differences between Christians of various persuasions both presently and throughout history, but the experience of Cleopas does show us one vital, central approach to interpreting the Bible: it all centres on Jesus. It all revolves around Jesus. He is the centre of the Bible, he is the aim of the Bible, he is the key to interpreting it because he is the ultimate focus of it. Hence Luke says,
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verse 27)
Is it any wonder, then, that our High Church friends often stand for the reading from the Gospels in a communion service, and in some traditions also parade the Gospel into the middle of the congregation before the reading? They are proclaiming in a liturgical way their belief that Jesus is at the centre of the Scriptures.
What will it mean for us to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Jesus at the centre? It’s rather more than might be popularly imagined. You will remember that only a few years ago one Christian fashion accessory (how did we get ourselves in such a state?) was a bracelet with the initials ‘WWJD’ – What Would Jesus Do? That’s a good question, but even that is not enough for what I am suggesting here.
Rather than just woodenly thinking of an appropriate Bible text from the life of Jesus, we do something bigger: we ask, how does this fit in God’s great plan of things? How does something fit in God’ grand scheme of salvation in history? Most specifically, how does it read in relation to the story of God taking on human flesh, living among us, dying for our sins, being raised to new life, ascending to the Father’s right hand in glory, sending the Holy Spirit and promising to appear again? How does the Scripture we are wrestling with point to this great narrative of divine blessing?
True, there have been some fanciful Christian approaches to this over the centuries, wanting to see the minutiae of salvation in the prescribed details of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness, and so on. But we are less about the minutiae and more about the big picture. And front and centre of our picture as we read the Bible is Jesus, because he is alive.
Thirdly, Cleopas and his companion discover Jesus in the midst of everyday life. He comes alongside them on the road (verse 15), he accepts their offer of hospitality at their home and he eats a meal with them (verses 29-30).
Here is a text where I have changed my mind about its meaning in recent years. I remember preaching on this as a young Local Preacher and making the point that Jesus’ rôle at the meal table in Emmaus foreshadowed Holy Communion. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and began to give it to them (verse 30). The taking, blessing, breaking and giving were the same four actions as he performed at the Last Supper. Therefore the Emmaus Road story prepares us not only for remembering Jesus at the Lord’s Table, but for recognising his presence there, too.
It’s a popular interpretation. It’s one we sing, when we use the communion hymn,
Be known to us in breaking bread,
But do not then depart (James Montgomery)
But it’s wrong. We too easily ‘churchify’ our interpretations. Those four actions – taking, blessing, breaking and giving – were the four actions that were performed at any standard Jewish meal two thousand years ago. This is a normal family meal at Emmaus.
What we celebrate here is that the Risen Christ joins us everywhere in life. We meet him as much in everyday life as in church. Indeed, much of his public ministry was not conducted in the synagogues but in homes and outdoors – rather like the meal table and the walk in this story.
I am not saying that gathering together in church and in fellowship is unimportant – this is not a variation on the ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’ nonsense. Many of the ways in which we encourage one another and strengthen each other can only be done by coming together physically.
But I am saying this: we should be open to meeting Jesus in the world, and this has huge implications. It means that our daily working life is important to him. We can do it to his glory, and we can expect to find him there, helping us. I know churches who put a segment into their Sunday services called ‘This Time Tomorrow’, where congregation members talk about what they will be doing not on Sunday morning at 11, but on Monday morning at 11. They then receive prayer – because it’s daft to think that the only people we pray for are ministers, preachers, Sunday School teachers, and doctors and nurses. Jesus is with each one of us in our daily tasks.
It means also that just as Jesus took the initiative to come alongside Cleopas and his companion to explain the Gospel to them and lead them into truth, so he is also coming alongside people to do that today. In other words, it’s a question of how we understand mission. In seeking to take the love of God to people in word and deed, in evangelism and social action, it doesn’t all depend on us. Jesus goes ahead of us and accompanies people. Our job is to join him where he has already been at work in people’s lives before we got there.
So don’t just proclaim – listen to people’s stories. You will find spiritual yearnings, religious questions and even experiences of God in their lives, because Jesus is going ahead on the road to meet them, speak to them and work in their lives in order to draw them to him. He then calls us in as his junior assistants to be the ones who are used by his Spirit to bring people to a point of saving faith in Christ.
In conclusion, then, Cleopas finds the meeting with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus completely transforming. It requires revelation. It leads to seeing the Scriptures in the light of Christ. And it involves expecting to meet Christ everywhere in daily life.
The experience led to a revolution in the life of Cleopas and his companion. May we too meet the Risen Christ and have our lives turned upside-down.
I began Good Friday today with a united walk of witness here in Knaphill. Beginning at the Catholic church, we walked to the King’s House Coffee Shop, then to the Methodist premises, followed by the Baptist church, and finally to Holy Trinity C of E. At each stop someone read a portion of the Passion story. Different people volunteered to carry the big cross on each leg of the journey.
Most moving for me was the final leg, when a man with learning difficulties asked to carry the cross. Nothing like as physically big as his predecessors in the task, he struggled in places and had to be helped by two other men. It was a small glimpse of Jesus falling down and needing help from Simon of Cyrene.
As the one co-ordinating the walk, I found myself at each stop standing on one side of the person with the cross, while on the other side was the reader for that particular episode from the story. In a tiny way, it was like being one of the two thieves either side of Jesus.
In these two ways, I found myself entering into the Passion story in new and unexpected ways this year. The sadness was in having to leave the following united service at Holy Trinity fifteen minutes in to get to the tail end of a united service at my other church, Addlestone Methodist. I arrived at that, just as they were singing the closing hymn. Having to flit between the two communities felt like it undermined a sense of belonging. Can you belong in more than one community at once? If missional Christianity includes earthing ourselves in a particular place by incarnational ministry, does this militate against it?
I wasn’t the only minister facing this issue: the Methodist deacon left at the end of the service to go to his other church, and two of the New Frontiers church leaders came over from Chertsey, where they used to be based and still share with other Christians.
Unlike in Knaphill, there had been no united walk of witness in Addlestone. Some of the people in Addlestone said how much they missed it. A discussion on why we think the procession of witness on Good Friday is important would be interesting. As I’ve said, it hit home for me today in unexpected ways. On other occasions, I’ve watched passers-by as Christians walk behind a cross on this day of the year, and wondered whether they felt we were doing it as a reproach against them. I don’t suppose most Christians do have that attitude, but I’m curious to know how it’s perceived, if at all. A judgement? An anachronism? Other reactions?
In contrast, my wife and children didn’t come with me on any of these events or services. They needed something more child-friendly. Happily, the nearby church of Holy Trinity, West End Village had a suitable act of worship for children for Good Friday. Too often we are so caught up with the solemnity of the day that we exclude children by the tone of what we offer. Holy Trinity West End knew better. They provided a service called ‘Paradox’. It included two songs, a very short talk by the Rector, and plenty of crafts. Rebekah had her photo taken with her cross on which she had chosen to write, ‘Jesus died for me.’ If Christ died for all creation, then he died for the children – don’t we owe it to them also to find a way of including them in on this most holy of days? I’m glad Holy Trinity did.
I’ll be interested to know your thoughts on our experiences. But I’ll stop typing there and go back to finishing preparations for Easter Day.
You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!
The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.
So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.
So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.
The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)
He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.
And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’
It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.
But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.
In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.
So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.
The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Verse 8 )
Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.
In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.
No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?
Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.
So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.
If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.
At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.
The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Verses 10-11)
This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.
Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.
Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.
Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.
What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.
Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.
Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?
Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.
It has famously been said that women can’t read maps and men won’t ask for directions. Which means that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we’re all going to have trouble getting home!
Maps and directions: geography. I don’t know whether the word ‘geography’ brings bad memories back to you, in the way that ‘Maths’ or ‘PE’ do to some. I was OK at Geography, and got my O-Level, but I never really shone at it. Sadly, most of what I remember from school Geography lessons consists of the cruel tricks played by pupils on our teacher, who was blind.
On the other hand, Mark [our four-year-old] is already fascinated. He writes his own little books at home, which are full of references to the River Nile, the longest river in the world. I think I just need a sat-nav!
So why am I wittering on about Geography? Because it is important in the Gospels, and it has a particular rôle to play in this story. I’m going to use some geographical features of the reading to structure these thoughts. I think they’ll show this story has a slightly different meaning from the one we often take it to mean.
The Other Side
‘Let us go across to the other side,’ says Jesus (verse 35). Where is the other side? At this point, Jesus and his followers are on the western side of Lake Galilee, among villages where the people are good faithful Jews. ‘The other side’ is very different. You can get an idea if you know where Jesus and the disciples land in the story that immediately follows this one. They encounter the Gerasene demoniac, who lives among people who are pig farmers. Not exactly kosher Jews! Not only is the demoniac unclean, so are the general population. This whole area to the east of Galilee was one where Jewish people generally mixed and compromised their faith with alien influences from Greek culture.
Jesus is saying to his friends, “We can’t just stay among the people like us, those with whom we feel comfortable. We must move into other territory to advance the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus says the same to his twenty-first century friends. We too cannot stay just among the people we are comfortable with, because they are like us. We cannot spend all our time in church activities. If we are the community formed by God’s kingdom, then we have to leave our familiar places and go to our ‘other side’, wherever that may be. Insulation is not guaranteed in the life of faith.
Jesus calls us, then, not to spend every second of our lives on church matters. He calls us to mix with people not like us at all, with the intention of sharing God’s love in word and deed. They may not dress like us. They may have strange haircuts. They may hold beliefs we find dreadful. Their moral and ethical values may be far from ours, perhaps quite contrary. But Jesus died for each and every one of these people. We cannot stay in a church castle, protected by a moat and with the drawbridge up.
For Debbie and me, while we enjoy the company of those we mix with in the children’s primary school community, and while the great majority of the parents care deeply for their children and want only the best for them and others, we are also aware at other times that our values and beliefs are very different. We only know of one other Christian family represented in Rebekah’s class, and to date we know of none in Mark’s. But that’s good: it means we are in a missional context! It means we mix with people who don’t share our values about sexuality, with mothers whose children are all by different fathers. It means having to do with people who are heavily involved with questionable New Age and occult practices.
So while we share some things in common as fellow parents, obviously there are certain things that mark us out as different and leave us decidedly uneasy about the lifestyles of these friends. Yet this is our ‘other side’ at times. It is where God has led us and placed us as ‘the church dispersed’.
I believe each of us needs to know the ‘other side’ to which we are called. If we know our ‘other side’, all well and good. If not, then we need to listen, because Jesus is calling us into the boat with him and taking us somewhere beyond our usual boundaries on mission with him.
Here’s the next geographical feature, the storm on the lake. One commentator says:
The Sea of Galilee, surrounded by high mountains, is like a basin. Sudden violent storms on the sea are well known. Violent winds from the southwest enter the basin from the southern cleft and create a situation in which storm and calm succeed one another rapidly. Since the wind is nearly always stronger in the afternoon than in the morning or evening, fishing was done at night. But when a storm arises in the evening, it is all the more dangerous.
The storm was a natural, unsurprising event, yet a terrifying and life-threatening one. So it is that when we head for our ‘other side’ storms will blow up against us. The other day I was talking to a minister friend in another denomination. He said he had been at his church eight years, and was dedicated to seeing it transformed from a private religious club to a missionary agency. But he said that process was a painful one. Some people just didn’t want to be thrust out of their comfort zones and stirred up opposition.
Similarly, it’s not surprising when the Church moves into the public arena, that atheists and secularists complain, especially if we happen to be moving onto some of their cherished territory. They say that religion should be kept as a private matter. Some even try to use laws against Christians. Some Christians believe we’re seeing signs of that in some legislation in our nation today.
And it’s interesting to see how Jesus responds to the storm when he is woken from his peaceful slumber. Listen to the language of verse 39:
‘He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’
Does rebuking the wind and telling the sea to be still sound familiar? Jesus is addressing this storm, this natural event, as if it were demonic. Rebukes and commands to be quiet are the language he used when expelling demons.
We should not be surprised if storms whip up in our lives, often consisting of natural but frightening events, when we decide to cross with Jesus to our ‘other side’ and engage in mission. We are joining battle against an enemy when we do so. He will not take it lying down. He will use church people, non-Christians and social events in attempts to discourage and intimidate us. To paraphrase the late John Wimber, our boat is not a cruise liner; it is a battleship. We can expect storms of opposition. But we must not cower in their face.
The storm is a natural event, as I said, but the language Jesus uses to still it (the stilling of such storms also being known as natural events in those days) suggests this natural event has been whipped up by demonic forces opposed to his mission with the disciples to a region of compromised allegiance to God.
Jesus stills such a storm. He commands it to be calm. Jesus acts with the cosmic authority that is his. This is a kingdom of God action. He brings the storm under the reign and purposes of God. The kingdom is at work here, not simply to make the disciples’ lives easier, but so that the kingdom may advance when Jesus and the disciples land on ‘the other side’.
Jesus has himself been calm,
sleeping in the stern upon the pillow that was customarily kept under the coxswain’s seat for those who were not involved in the actual sailing or fishing.
In other words, Jesus commands the storm to be calm as he himself is calm. He brings the storm into line with his own person and character. That is what it means to bring something or someone under the kingdom of God. Jesus brings people and circumstances into his orbit, influence and likeness.
And when you put it like that, you see why his rebuke doesn’t stop with the storm. It extends to the disciples:
He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Verse 40)
As the calm Jesus makes the storm calm, so he seeks calm in his disciples. Prior to this incident they have sat as privileged insiders with Jesus. He has told parable after parable, leaving them as enigmatic stories for the crowds, but he has explained them to this inner circle.
Yet they still don’t get it.
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ they ask in verse 41.
And as Jesus sovereignly deals with the storms that oppose our early sorties into mission, so he commands calm in our lives. For he calls us to understand more of who he is in the face of the forces arrayed against us, and thus trust him.
My problem is I’m all to like those first disciples. In a difficult situation, faith tells me Jesus is in control and reason tells me my worst fears won’t materialise. But my body doesn’t listen. My pulse and blood pressure increase. I end up getting value for money from the National Health Service.
Like those earliest followers, I am on a long journey to the calm Jesus wants me to have. Maybe it’s not enough simply to have accepted intellectually that God is in control of events. I need to feed my mind with that truth. I need to meditate upon it. I need to share with other people of faith.
In short, I need to ensure I am on a journey of increasing faith. Jesus is calling me – and all of us – over to another side where we shall be his witnesses. Getting there will mean negotiating the storms of opposition, and for that we would do well to have the serenity that comes from trusting that Christ is ruling over all that happens, whether good or bad.
One of the early Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. You can see ancient drawings where the Church is represented as a boat. That idea is taken from this passage. When the Early Church set out on her task of Christian witness, she frequently encountered the storms of persecution for her faith. But they knew Jesus was asleep in the stern with them, and all would be under his sovereign care.
And perhaps you see now why I said at the beginning that we might end up with a slightly different application of this story from normal. We have often taken this story as an example of how Jesus will calm all sorts of storms in our lives, and I don’t want to deny he does that. Yet the primary application in the passage seems to be connected with mission. Jesus has a specific interest in conquering the fierce opposition to his church’s engagement with mission, and in calming his followers through a growing faith.
Knowing that, are we ready to venture across to our ‘other side’?
 William L Lane, The Gospel Of Mark, p 175.
 Ibid., p 175f.
Radio 1′s loud-mouth breakfast DJ Chris Moyles is not the sort of person you would expect to be extolling the virtues of the church. But, this YouTube clip is doing the rounds of Christian blogs, and understandably so:
I nerver thought I’d type these words: you can only applaud Moyles for his honesty.
But it’s true. He’s frank about how his Catholic upbringing led him to expect that church would be boring. He’s honest about how blown away he was by the service from Kingsgate Community Church in Peterborough.
I’ve only seen the YouTube clip, not the rest of the broadcast. I know nothing about the church, apart from a quick surf around their website. One thing that struck me – and didn’t surprise me from the TV clip – was that they clearly have megachurch aspirations. They speak
of building a church that impacts the city, region and beyond
- sounds megachurch to me. And interesting for an outfit that calls itself a community church.
But my point is this. Many of us in the missional church movement are nervous about some expressions of megachurch. (In saying that, I’m not assuming insincerity or anything like that: I know good people in megachurches, including godly leaders.) But for those of us who have certain reservations, we have to listen carefully to why Chris Moyles found the experience so attractive. What came over to me time and time again in his comments was how much the sheer joy right across the congregation impressed him.
We are right to say there is more to biblical worship than celebration – it also includes lament. But I hear what Moyles says about the faces on some Songs of Praise worshippers and I hear a kind of longing. I’m good at the misery stuff due to my temperament and personality. But however serious we are about a rounded, compassionate Christianity that empathises with the suffering, let’s not throw out the baby of joy with the bathwater of hype.