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?
This is the first of three farewell sermons (one at each of my churches) to come over the four Sundays of July. First off, a farewell to Broomfield Methodist Church:
Many are the suggestions of themes for a minister’s farewell sermon. You may have heard the story about the disgruntled Anglican curate who had never got on with his vicar. At his final service, he preached on the text, ‘Stay here with the ass while I go yonder’.
You will have nothing like that from me today. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to choose a passage. In the end, the Lectionary came to my rescue. Today’s Gospel reading brings us back to the core theme of my preaching and ministry here, that of mission in the community. So for one last time, you are going to hear me preach on this vital subject.
This is a reading that has been much beloved of mission organisations and evangelists, particularly in recent years. Yet if evangelists and missionaries find this relevant, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a story for the specialists, not for the ‘ordinary’ church member (as if there is such a thing as an ‘ordinary’ church member).
But I don’t believe Jesus is only addressing the specialists here. His ‘specialists’ would be the Twelve. But he sent the twelve apostles out on a similar mission in Luke 9. Here he sends out seventy others (verse 1). This passage is mission for ‘ordinary Christians’. This is an indication of how Jesus views mission for all his followers.
We se this not only in the reference to the seventy rather than the twelve, but in the way Jesus launches them with a call to prayer:
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. (Verse 2)
Why seek more labourers? Mission can’t be limited to specialists. It needs all of us, in some capacity or another. What can we all do? We can all pray. One failing I have in public worship is all too slavishly following standard categories of prayer in the intercessions. Like too many preachers, I have not sufficiently modelled for you the need to put prayer for mission high on our agenda. Yet this is something we all need to do, in public and private prayer. I should have set you a better example.
John Wesley said that God does nothing except in response to prayer, and while I’m not convinced Wesley was completely accurate in that statement, it does bring home to us the prime importance of prayer. We sit around wondering whether this initiative or that project will work, when God is calling us not to be dazzled by the latest hyped-up claims but to commit ourselves to prayer for mission. Prayer, that is, for people to engage in mission. Prayer for God to be at work in people’s hearts preparing them. Prayer first, prayer second and prayer last in mission.
With that foundation, Jesus then says, ‘Go on your way’ (verse 3a). In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in a film called ‘Field of Dreams’. He plays a farmer who is searching for his dreams. One day he hears a voice saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’. ‘They’ turn out to be the famed baseball team the Chicago Black Sox.
‘If you build it, they will come’ is the fallacy under which many churches operate. I even heard those aspirations in some quarters here when I arrived and inherited the refurbishment project. I warned people then that it would not work in those terms, and sadly five years down the line I think we can see that is correct. Renewed buildings brought no newcomers to the congregation.
You know what I’m going to say. Jesus said, ‘Go’. Mission takes place in the world, as we share the love of God in word and deed there. Every one of us has people we know outside our church circles. God sends us to these people and others with his love.
And note there is no distinction between those who pray and those who go. Jesus commands the pray-ers to go and the goers to pray. The idea that some Christians pray for mission (and maybe raise funds, too) while others go is a false distinction to Jesus.
“But I’m nervous,” we say to Jesus, and perhaps the seventy did too, because Jesus seems to acknowledge that sense of vulnerability when he goes on to say, ‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves’ (verse 3b). We may not always be as sophisticated in our approach as we might like to be, we know that some people will mock us for our faith. But Jesus still sends us like lambs among wolves. Why? Because vulnerability and powerlessness are two of the upside-down values on which his kingdom thrives. Jesus does things differently from the rest of the world. His mission is cross-shaped. We are not exempt.
Yet the overall lifestyle of mission to which Jesus calls his followers is open to all of us. Not only cross-shaped, but full of simplicity:
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. (Verse 4)
Some mission organisations take this very literally. A friend of mine works for one organisation that makes it a policy when people serve on their week-long missions that they leave behind their cars and mobile phones, and only bring £2 per day spending money. For the rest of what they need, they depend on local Christian hospitality. And most go back having put on weight!
Most of us, though, do not spend the average week on a dedicated evangelistic mission. For us, this text might be about a general simplicity. Many of us could de-clutter our lives and live more simply as a sign of the kingdom. Many of us could also take heart that Jesus only expects a simple approach to witness. We don’t all have to be cluttered with gizmos and techniques and academic knowledge. What shines through best is a simple devotion to Jesus. Do you have that? If so, you have qualified as one of Jesus’ missionaries.
And as we go simply, walking the way of the Cross, we do so knowing that God has gone ahead of us. We don’t have to engineer situations and we don’t have to force or manipulate people – all of which would be contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Jesus commands the seventy:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (Verses 5-6)
God will have prepared the way for his word. We don’t pray, “God, will you wake up from your slumber and do something in people’s lives?” Rather, we pray, “God, will you show us where you are already at work so that we can join in?” Look for the signs of interest. If there is none, move on, and pray that if you missed the signs, God will show you or someone else. This is what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ – that God’s grace is at work before there is human involvement and response.
If there is manifest resistance or opposition, though, we most definitely walk away. We wipe the dust of the place off our feet (verse 11) – in other words, we reject the contamination of evil. We do not judge but we warn, and we leave the actual sober business of judgement to God (verses 12-16).
But what if we do get a hearing? What kind of things are we to do and say? What will be an advertisement for the kingdom of God? We are to proclaim and share signs that God is remaking his world in accordance with his loving purposes. Jesus gives his disciples a balance of word and deed:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-9)
In fact, the deed comes before the word: ‘cure the sick’ precedes telling people about the kingdom of God. How we act in the name of Jesus will be the sign of the kingdom to people. It has been well said that the only Bible some people will read is the lifestyles of Christians. If we are the kind of people whose presence is healing to others and to communities (and yes, why not risk praying for sick people to be healed?), then that is a witness to the kingdom of God. People will be curious. We then need to explain ourselves.
So the old adage that allegedly (but probably wrongly) comes from Francis of Assisi – ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary’ – is slightly wrong. We preach in all sorts of ways as we seek to bless all and sundry – and yes, including those we don’t like. But a lifestyle of blessing provokes questions, and we need to be ready with our answers and our explanations. They don’t need to be academic in the way that someone like me would enjoy. We simply need to explain our hope in Jesus and his coming kingdom.
All Christian mission will have its joys and sorrows. At times, we shall be elated when we see signs that the kingdom of God is advancing, just as the disciples did here, when they returned to Jesus and exclaimed, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Verse 17) On other occasions, we shall be frustrated and disappointed. Much of the time, we shall just be plugging away without anything extraordinary or dreadful happening.
In all this, we must not allow the mood of the season to dictate our spiritual well-being. We need to keep anchored in Christ and in the security of God’s love for us. That is why Jesus responds to the delight of the seventy by saying,
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Verses 18-20)
We can’t base our security on our achievements, because then we shall rate ourselves less valuable in the day of small things, or we shall describe ourselves as not being useful to God when our physical strength begins to fail. I knew a Local Preacher who became frail and confused, and we had to stop her preaching. She still had enough touch with reality to be angry about it. Her whole sense of self-esteem was based on her preaching.
But we believe in a faith that responds to grace. By the grace of God, our ‘names are written in heaven’. By the grace of God, we are loved with an everlasting love. God’s grace and love are for us, whether we are able or not, and whether we achieve great things or not. We are loved because … we are loved.
Nothing else will give us a firm foundation in life.
And nothing else is worth sharing as Gospel.
And because we believe in a God who loves like that – even to the Cross – we have something to take to the world. We are all his missionaries.
 See, for example, Mike Breen on the ‘man of peace’; Through Faith Missions on simplicity during their ‘Walk Missions’, and Ed Silvoso in That None Should Perish for a strange take on ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’.
 Or seventy-two, depending on your translation; manuscripts vary.
We had all returned to college after the summer vacation, and were comparing experiences from our summer placements.
“I had a strange experience,” said Tom. “Someone in the parish died, but some members of the church were convinced God wanted to raise this man from the dead. They persuaded the staff in the hospital mortuary to let them pray over the dead body.”
Secretly glad that none of us had had to offer advice in that circumstance, we asked Tom what happened.
“Well, don’t you think you would have heard in the national media if he’d been raised from the dead?”
How we wish we might witness in our day the kind of miracles Jesus did, such as the one here. Like this story, perhaps we especially long for such supernatural turn of events when a young person dies. When an elderly person passes away, we often say it was their time and they ‘had a good innings’. But no parent wants to bury their own child, like the widow at Nain did. You will all know of people who died ‘before their time’, and sense something of the pain and injustice that surrounds such deaths.
Some Christians would say that we can receive more of the astounding power that Jesus exhibited in his ministry, and if we would only be more open to the Holy Spirit, we might see more miracles. Others (perhaps infected the disappointments of the years) would rather explain these things away.
I have no doubt we should be more open to the Holy Spirit’s power, and if we do, then we shall certainly see more amazing things than we presently do. Yet even then, we shall still have our disappointments and our questions. So I want to reflect on this story to ask some basic questions along these lines: how does the mission of Jesus in the world as seen here shape the mission he calls us to in the world?
Firstly, I want to draw attention to Jesus’ feelings. Luke tells us ‘he had compassion for her’ (verse 13). The miracle will be for her, not her son, because he gives the young man back to her afterwards (verse 15).
How critical it is that in mission our actions are driven by compassion for others. How easy it is to reach out to others for different reasons. When outreach becomes based on the thought that ‘We need to bring in more people if our church is to continue’, then we are no longer acting with compassion. In those cases, we are simply trying to preserve ourselves. Our feelings are far from those of Jesus.
He knew that the widow was in desperate need. Not only was she mourning the loss of her son – and we know instinctively it is not right for parents to have to bury their own children – he knows she will be in desperate economic straits. Her husband, who would have provided for her material needs, is dead. Now her son, who would have taken over his father’s rôle as the breadwinner, is also dead. There is no pension or other social security provision to act as a safety net for her. She is now potentially destitute.
So this isn’t an indiscriminate miracle. This is Jesus identifying a clear social and economic need, and then responding with the love of God and the power of the Spirit. He calls us to do the same. Who are the people we know in the community who have great needs or who are in pain? He sends us to those people, not to save the skin of our church, but because he has compassion for them. They are people who need the love of God.
Very well, then: how can I share Jesus’ compassion for lost and broken people? There is a simple prayer that any one of us can pray. ‘Lord, give me your heart for those who need your compassion.’
It’s a simple prayer, but it’s a dangerous one. For if we truly want God to share his compassion for people with us, then we may find he breaks our hearts. He will break our hearts with the things that break his heart. Yet if we are to be bearers of his love in the world, we shall need to embrace this simple but dangerous prayer.
An illustration from some of my novel-writing friends might help here. They tell me that when they want to put a point across in a story, the classic motto of the novelist is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ That is, they get the character to show their beliefs by their actions, rather than putting a long speech into their mouths. Clearly for the Christian it can’t be as simple as ‘Show, don’t tell’, because at some point we have to proclaim or explain the love of God in Christ to people. But if we have the compassion of Jesus, it may be something like this: ‘Show before you tell.’ As General Booth once said, “If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it’s the wrapping around a sandwich.”
Secondly, I’d like us to observe Jesus’ actions. His compassion leads to action. What is that action? ‘[H]e … touched the bier’ (verse 14). In those four words are some enormous implications.
This action ‘is a silent appeal for the funeral procession to be stopped’. Now who is ever popular for interrupting or delaying a funeral? You may remember the kerfuffle here two years ago at Effie Downs’ funeral when an irate playgroup mother castigated me for allowing Pennack’s undertakers in the church car park when she wanted to pick up her little girl, and who then protested by gunning her engine as the funeral procession approached the church doors. If you recall that incident, you will have some idea of the disruption Jesus threatens to cause here at such a delicate time. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Jesus was aggressive and hostile as that woman was, but the mourners must have feared for what was coming next.
Not only that, you will probably have heard preachers tell you before that for the pious Jew, touching a dead body (even if all Jesus effectively did here amounted to touching the wooden plank on which the wrapped body was laid) made you ceremonially unclean. Jesus goes outside the boundaries of the Jewish Law in order to make his point.
Put these two insights together and you see that by touching the bier, Jesus risked offending social and religious customs in order to get on with what he needed to do. Jesus will take risks in order to act on the compassion he feels for the widow. He is not deterred by the thought that some people might not like him or approve of him. Staying within the boundaries of social niceties is no priority for him.
This is something that goes deep in the Methodist tradition. In remembering John Wesley, we rightly dwell much on his ‘conversion’ of 24th May 1738, when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ and he was assured that he trusted in Christ alone for salvation. However, we ought also to dwell on 1st April 1739, when he gave into George Whitefield’s badgering to preach in the open air to the colliers at Kingswood, near Bristol. Wesley said that he ‘submitted to be more vile’, because he had previously considered it a sin to preach anywhere other than inside a church building. That was when the revival began.
For Jesus, the love of God meant disregarding the rules of respectable society. For Wesley, it was the same. What about the Church today? Take the way some churches talk about young people. They agree they want to reach them, but are not willing to take social risks. So they will not let them use parts of their premises for fear of vandalism. Or they refuse to give food and drink to some who do not know proper etiquette.
Jesus would ask us how many social boundaries we are willing to cross in order to bring his compassion to people. The American church planter Neil Cole has a provocative – to me, at least – way of putting it. He says we must be willing to ‘sit in the smoking section’. As someone who detests tobacco smoke in all its forms, those are challenging words to me. Jesus would tell us that if you want to share divine compassion in a hurting world, you’ve got to touch the bier.
Thirdly and finally, let us reflect on Jesus’ words. Yes, the words come last. He shows before he tells. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Verse 14) Rise up. A literal rising up may not happen as routinely as the people my friend Tom encountered hoped for, but the Gospel leads us into other situations where the message is ‘Rise up.’
One of my very first baptismal services involved the baptism of twin girls born to a church couple. When I visited them to plan the service, the husband told me that his brother and family would be present. He wanted me to know, because – to his bafflement – his brother was part of a strict church where the entire message was about doom, gloom and sin.
“I just don’t get that,” said Steve. “To me, God is about the word ‘welcome’.”
I believe the one Gospel needs couching in many forms, according to different people’s circumstances and needs. For the proud, a message of sin and repentance may need to take the headlines. They need bringing low before they can be raised up. (Although of course, we all must heed the call to repentance.)
For others, though, the message may well be what Steve called ‘welcome’. It will be a message that says “Young man, I say to you, rise!” For the poor and downtrodden, for those damaged by the demeaning or violent actions of others, for those whose self-esteem is lower than ground level, Jesus may well want to say, “Rise up!” The love of God brings new dignity to people, the dignity of being made and being remade in the image of God, the dignity of knowing you are loved by the God of the universe. As the Psalmist puts it:
But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high. (Psalm 3:3)
God ‘lifts my head high’ – he is ‘the lifter of my head’, as the Authorised Version puts it. Being loved by a God who gave up his only begotten Son to the Cross lifts our heads high. And because God does that for us, a key way in which we share his message is by raising people’s dignity. Why? Because they are ‘loved with an everlasting love’, just as we are.
Where to begin? Here’s a thought. When the New Testament talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we read that they are for ‘edification’. That’s an interesting word, edification. It has to do with an edifice, a building. Spiritual gifts are therefore to ‘build people up’. It’s time to start practising building people up, because that is key to the work of the Holy Spirit. We may find it easiest to begin with our church family and then look for opportunities in the community.
We can be sure of one thing: we live in a culture that enjoys raising people up, only to tear them down. Which footballers will be subjected to that in the next few weeks during the World Cup? The Christian Church is called to be different. Our call to mission involves building up the lowly and downcast, saying to them, “Rise up! You are loved by God.” That becomes part of our witness as we seek to introduce people to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Each week, the Essex Chronicle carries a ‘Remember When’ section. It looks back at news it covered in previous decades. Thursday’s edition contained a small piece from 1980 about a Catholic nun from Danbury called Mother Teresa (‘not the famous one’, as they said) who had put a shade at the top of her car’s windscreen with the words, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you.’ She commented how people would come up to her and tell her that it had made their day.
Of course, it will take more than a car sticker to do Christian mission. It will take godly compassion, a willingness to cross social barriers and a thorough commitment to build people up rather than run them down. That is what the example of Jesus shows us. May we have the heart to follow the example he sets, and may we seek the Holy Spirit’s power in order to do so.
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p323.
Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.
Our children are growing up in a twenty-four hour society. Twenty-four hour shop opening, the decline of the traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five job, and twenty-four hour entertainment. If I were to tell them about the days when television finished late in the evening, it would be outside their experience. Well, unless the energy crisis means a modern version of the three day week.
And you will remember from that time the way a TV station closed down with ‘The Epilogue’. Overly sincere clergymen, looking and sounding woefully out of place, delivered five minutes of holy thoughts before you went to bed. Much lampooned – I have a vague memory of Clement Freud satirising it – it went the way of all flesh.
John 21 Is an epilogue, but it isn’t one we should discard. John seems to end his Gospel at the end of chapter twenty, and that would make sense: Jesus has risen from the dead, he has convinced the hesitant among his disciples and he has either promised or actually given them the Holy Spirit as they prepare to continue his mission. Not only that, we learn that the Gospel has been written for people to find or grow in faith.
But then we get this chapter. Yet whether it’s an afterthought added by the original author or an appendix contributed by someone else, it’s an important epilogue. It’s not just that someone has remembered another resurrection appearance to cram in – the chapter ends with a confession that you would never get all Jesus said and did into a book.
No, this epilogue, this final resurrection appearance is one that fills out the identity of the Christian community. It’s a story that tells us the purposes of the church. We see it in the two occupations that characterise Simon Peter in the reading: the fisherman and the shepherd. Both of these rôles are critical in the life of the church.
Firstly, the fisherman. Here’s why I just emphasised that both of these jobs are to be seen positively in the life of the church. There’s a tradition in some church circles of judging Simon Peter’s decision to go fishing negatively. They say, in the last chapter he’s just met the risen Lord, been commissioned for mission and and either promised or given the Holy Spirit. How can he go back to his old job? It’s seen as some kind of retrograde step, and it devalues the fishing in comparison with the later conversation with Jesus where he is called to ‘feed [the] sheep’.
But there is no hint in the story that going fishing is a bad thing to do here. For one thing, does that mean we see all occupations outside of church leadership as inferior? Aren’t jobs in the world a primary vehicle of Christian mission, as Christians do their work in Christlike ways and seek to earn the right to speak about Jesus? Downgrading Peter’s fishing expedition is a way of saying that the only thing which really counts in the church is pastoral care, and the mission side is just for the enthusiasts. It’s a disastrous and wrong-headed conclusion.
For the way the fishing trip ends is so positive. The only negatives are not about the fact of going fishing, but the way the seven disciples go about it. The fishing here clearly has a deeper layer of meaning, and that is about how the church gathers more people (‘fish’) into the net.
If there’s a problem about the fishing, it’s the way the disciples set out. That may seem a strange thing to say, given that they do all the right things. They draw on their professional experience on the Sea of Tiberias and they go out at night (verse 3). That was acknowledged to be best practice if you wanted to have a successful expedition: the fish came closer to the surface at night and were thus easier to catch.
What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t work. They catch nothing by daybreak (verses 4-5). And if this is meant to symbolise the missionary call of the church, then I think this alerts us to the way in which we habitually do what we’ve always done. We repeat what we’ve learned ‘works’. We default to old habits, to tried and trusted traditions that worked in the past. Worst of all, we don’t even think about it, we barely discuss it, I might even suggest we probably don’t seriously pray about it. No: we just assume. And then we fail.
If there’s a fishing lesson here for mission, it’s a surprising one: the disciples only make their net-busting catch of fish when they listen to the voice from the shore, the voice of Jesus. It’s bizarre that he ought to be able to instruct them in successful fishing. It wasn’t his trade. He tells them to do something against their experience. And besides, how can he see from the shore that there are fish just beneath the surface of the water on the right side of the lake (verse 6)? But he must know something, because when the disciples reach him, he has already got fish that he is barbecuing on a charcoal fire (verse 9).
The simple lesson about mission in this story is that we have to listen to Jesus. it isn’t good enough to keep on doing the old things, however honourable they are and whatever great track record they have. Jesus knows where fish are waiting to be caught. Mission is a deeply spiritual exercise rather than a technical or strategic one. Only with prayerful listening and obedience following what we have heard will mission bring a catch ashore to Jesus.
So if we are serious about bringing people to Jesus (and that must be our motive – not saving our own necks) then it isn’t enough just to pull a technique down from the shelf and implement it here. It requires taking the time to tune into the voice on the shore, to listen carefully and when we are sure we have heard him, we then obey what he says – even if it goes against all our past experience.
Secondly, the shepherd. After breakfast, we get the beautiful story of Jesus restoring Peter. We know how Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, as if to overwrite the three denials. And just in case we don’t see that, he does it by a charcoal fire – just as Peter denied him around a charcoal fire. These two stories are the only places where one is mentioned in the New Testament.
So we come to this story with warm, encouraging feelings. Jesus has a way back for those who have failed him. It’s a message of hope for all of us who are keenly aware of our frailties and sins. If Jesus restored Peter and gave him a second chance, he offers the same to us.
If we understand the story that way – that it’s about Jesus pastorally caring for Peter – that’s true as far as it goes, but it misses a lot. In particular, it misses why Jesus engages in pastoral care for him. We sometimes think that pastoral care is about helping someone through a difficult situation, but no more. I have been guilty of this short-sightedness on numerous occasions.
However, Jesus has a reason for restoring Peter. “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “Feed my sheep” (verses 15-17). Jesus pastorally cares for Peter so that he can get him back on track in his calling. In fact, Peter is to share in the pastoral calling himself – “Feed my sheep”. Remember that the word ‘pastor’ is related to ‘pasture’. As Jesus has strengthened Peter, so Peter will strengthen others. Perhaps his own experience of brokenness and restoration will be important to him. As is said of Harry Potter early in the first novel in that series, “Scars can be useful.” As the early church faces pressures and persecution, Peter will know the way to bring wounded disciples back into the front line.
So when we are aware that someone in the church is facing troubles, it’s right and good that we help them through their problem, whether it be sickness, a family crisis or something else. However, it’s better if we get alongside them so that once they are over their obstacle, they can get stuck into Christian service again. If we are any kind of hospital as a church, we are like a field hospital that helps soldiers recover and return to the action if possible.
But the pastoral aspect of the church isn’t limited to crises. It’s something Jesus intends us to practise all the time. It’s not just like the times when we book a doctor’s appointment because we know something is wrong. It’s also the regular stuff we do for good health, like the discipline of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, or seeing a doctor for a general health check.
How do we do that? I believe this is where we need to get specific about the words, “Feed my sheep.” A shepherd leads the flock to the place where it will find good grass to graze on. But he doesn’t stuff the grass into the sheep’s mouth. There may be times when those who care for sheep need not only to show the sheep where their food is but actually feed it to them, but that is more likely to be if you are on a farm and giving milk to a young lamb. More often, feeding the sheep does not mean the shepherd putting the food in the animal’s mouth, but taking them to good pasture and leaving them to feed. This would especially be how Middle Eastern shepherds viewed feeding the flock, because they see sheep as intelligent beings (whereas we, perhaps, don’t).
What does this have to do with pastoral care in the church? It is not so much about an educated minister with a dumb congregation who simply open their mouths to have wisdom tucked inside. The pastoral task is to lead people to good pasture, where they feed themselves.
What feeds us spiritually? I guess the short answer is that we feed on Jesus himself, who said he was the Bread of Life. What does that mean? Again, a shorter rather than longer answer would be, word and sacrament. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Every way in which we listen for his word – and then put it into practice – is a way of being built up spiritually. Primarily we hear his word in the Scriptures, but there are supplementary ways in which he speaks to us too.
Similarly, his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, so it is incumbent upon us to take the sacrament in obedient faith that he might strengthen us there, too.
And therefore any neglect of regular listening to the word of God or of coming to the Lord’s Table is the spiritual equivalent of starving ourselves. We should not be surprised when churches that put a low premium on engaging with Jesus in word or sacrament struggle.
And so if the church is truly to function in pastoral mode, she will urge her people to find good pasture in the word and sacrament. It may be that part of that involves specialists, who, say, help unpack the word of God, but the sheep are intelligent too, and can also feed themselves. Hence it is fitting for a minister to preach and teach the word, and to lead the congregation at the Lord’s Supper, but it is not essential, not unless you treat the people of God as dumb sheep.
To conclude, then, John 21 shows us the external and internal dimensions of church life. The external is mission, where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ as Proverbs says, but listen to the voice of Jesus from the shore, and follow his instructions. The internal is pastoral care, where the flock are encouraged to feed on Christ in word and sacrament, but not sit back and have it all done for them.
It is clear that both mission and pastoral care are basic to the church. Unfortunately, we have structured our churches as if pastoral care were mandatory and mission were an optional extra. We even see that in the ‘job description’ of a minister: it is ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral charge. It’s all internal. Isn’t it time – especially given the missionary rôle we must surely now have as a minority in our culture – to be fishermen every bit as much as shepherds?
‘It was like the preacher was speaking just to me.’
Have you ever had that experience? A sermon is preached to a congregation, but somehow you feel singled out. The message is for you.
I think Simon Peter is a little like that in this reading. In the midst of Jesus teaching the crowds, he has a separate, personal conversation with him. This is not his first encounter with Jesus, he has already been tagging along. But now Jesus clarifies why he has called him.
Again, isn’t that like us? We may have been ‘tagging along’ with Jesus for years before our purpose becomes clear. That has certainly been my experience.
Hence, I agree with the writer who says this is not the story of calling the fishermen, but rather an occasion where Jesus announces to Simon what he has had in mind for him all along. So perhaps we can read this famous story to hear more about the qualities Jesus seeks in his disciples.
The first is this. Every Friday morning, on my day off, I go into our children’s school and spend twenty minutes helping a group of pupils in Rebekah’s class with their reading. This means being in there for registration, and as I check over the book and notes assigned to the group, I observe how the teacher goes about her job. I wonder how she would feel if I – as someone with no training in teaching and who wouldn’t fancy the job in the slightest – proceeded to tell her how she could do her work better? Much as teachers are probably used to getting flak from parents, I don’t think she’d be impressed. Thankfully, Rebekah’s teacher is a marvel and usually I sit there astonished at her ability!
However, look at what happens here. A carpenter tells a group of fishermen how to do their job!
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Verse 4)
At first, you can hear the frustration in Simon’s voice:
“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” (Verse 5a)
And that makes sense of Simon’s occupation. Galilean fishermen knew their best results came at night. This carpenter is so ignorant he’s telling them to go fishing in daylight hours! What does he know? If they can’t catch any fish at night, they have even less chance in the day.
Yet Simon doesn’t stop there. He says,
“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Verse 5b)
This first quality, then, is obedience. It makes no sense, but Simon will follow Jesus’ instructions. Just as for us, many of the things Jesus calls his followers to do make no sense, because they clash with the received wisdom of the world – yet he calls for obedience. His commands contradict the way we’ve always done things – but the call is still to obedience. No-one can be a disciple without a commitment to obedience, because that’s what a disciple does.
So if there is something challenging, or outside our experience that Jesus is talking to us about, we know that sooner or later – preferably sooner – we need to heed his voice. Like Simon, our attitude must be founded on those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Not only that, Simon doesn’t even know Jesus’ full identity at this stage. So far as he is concerned, he is a rabbi. He doesn’t yet know he is the Messiah, let alone the Son of God, but he still obeys. Therefore, obedience to Jesus cannot be delayed by saying we don’t know enough about him yet. It’s no good saying, “I don’t know as much as other people about my faith,” because Simon shows us that even a minimal knowledge of Jesus is enough to get on with some basic obedience. Maybe the real issue is that some of us don’t want to commit to those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Let us remember that without the obedience of Simon and his friends, they would not have had the blessing of the bulging nets full of fish.
The second quality revolves around Simon’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish:
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Verse 8 )
One moment Simon is on his knees in a posture of worship, and you would therefore expect him to be drawing near to God. But in the same breath he asks Jesus to depart from him, because he is a sinner.
What’s common to this apparently contradictory reaction? It’s all about the holiness of God – that explains both the move towards worship and the recognition of personal sinfulness. And if we recognise the presence of God’s holiness, then we see that the second quality exhibited in Simon here is humility.
When I came back from sabbatical last year, I shared at my presentation the work of George Bullard on ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’. He compared the birth, growth, decline and death of some churches with the stages of a human life cycle (not that this should suggest a sense of inevitability). The point at which a church starts to decline, he said, is the stage of ‘maturity’. And that is characterised by an attitude of saying, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ The moment we think we know what we’re doing is the time when we no longer need humble dependence upon God. We can get on with the life of faith all very easily, thank you very much. Remove the need for humble dependence and we cut ourselves off from the power of God. No wonder many of our churches are so lifeless.
However, Simon doesn’t look at the miraculous catch of fish, start a backslapping session with his colleagues and say, ‘I knew it would all work out. After all, we are professional fishermen, and our expertise would win out in the end.’ He can’t say that, because he knows that the amazing result of the surprise expedition is down to trusting what Jesus has said and living in the light of that.
So what if – like the disciples – we’ve failed to catch any ‘fish’? It seems to me that rather than shopping around for some technique we can employ, Jesus calls us to something simpler, yet more demanding. It’s to match the obedience we’ve already spoken about with humble trust. Never mind new programmes or good management – they both feature on the ‘decline’ side of the ‘Life Cycle’ model – it’s about vision and relationships with God and one another. And all that means humble trust. It means saying, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing’ and looking to Christ to give us a challenging way forward.
The third quality is one we are used to observing in this story – discipleship means mission. Just as the holy Jesus won’t depart from sinful Simon, so the disciples of holy Jesus must not stay away from sinners. In fact, quite the opposite:
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Verse 10b)
It’s the famous ‘fishers of men’ line from older translations, of course. But familiar as it is, I learned something about it this week that I don’t ever recall coming across before. It’s to do with the expression ‘catching people’. The word translated ‘catching’ is a compound of two Greek words. One has the general meaning of ‘catching’ or ‘hunting’, and so that describes the basic outlook Jesus expects of Simon and all his disciples: he always intends us to be on the lookout for people who need the Gospel of his love. Mission isn’t an add-on for the enthusiasts in the church, it’s the responsibility of every Christian. We may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. A community of Christians is meant to be fundamentally outward-looking by design. If it is not, there is a serious flaw.
But here’s the other thing I discovered this week, and it tells us something about the way in which we participate in mission. I said the word for ‘catching’ was a compound word, and that one half meant ‘hunting’ or ‘catching’. The other half means ‘alive’. When we put the two halves together it doesn’t so much mean that we ‘capture people alive’ (as opposed to dead), it probably more likely means that we captivate people with life. In catching people for the kingdom of God, we are doing so in order to restore them to life and strength.
Our attempts to catch people for Christ are not attempts to bolster our numbers in order to keep our church going. We do this because people need the life of Christ in them. Therefore our relationships with people we are in contact with must reflect the life of Christ. It’s no good condemning people who have no idea of our ways and our etiquette: if we are to minister life, our dealings with people must be saturated in grace. Anything less is contrary to the Gospel and therefore counter-productive. What I am sure about is this: no church can be complacent about this. Almost any church believes it is welcoming, but not every visitor supports that belief. We need to remember that grace and life are our currency. With them we are rich; without them, we are bankrupt.
There is a fourth and final quality of discipleship I want to highlight. Let me approach it this way. When I was at my Anglican theological college, one student who overlapped with me was a well-known evangelist who had felt called into parish ministry. His name was Eric Delve. He had been a travelling evangelist for nearly twenty years. One thing he told us about those times was that the Christians in every town he visited to conduct a mission always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Over the years, Eric got tired of that attitude. He felt it said more about the Christians than the non-Christians.
What has this got to do with our passage? And isn’t it true that it’s difficult to bring people to faith today? Jesus’ approach seems so different. He sends his disciples to ‘catch people’. For them to do so, they ‘[leave] everything and [follow] him’ (verse 11). Catching people doesn’t require crying a tale of woe about how hard it is for the Gospel today. Rather, it requires ‘leaving everything’. Not, that is, always leaving ‘secular’ employment: ‘left everything’ has a particular nuance here, and it’s about being released or set free. It may be a release from work or from family obligations or possessions or some other personal priorities, but it may also be the need to be released from an attitude of heart: bitterness, pride or a superiority complex.
“The wrong question: What will make our church grow? The right question: What is keeping our church from growing?”
He goes onto say,
“All living things grow — you don’t have to make them grow. It’s the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are healthy. For example, I don’t have to command my three children to grow. They naturally grow. As long as I remove hindrances such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth will be automatic. If my kids don’t grow, something has gone terribly wrong. Lack of growth usually indicates an unhealthy situation, possibly a disease.
“In the same way, since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying.” (p 16)
Now while that might be a bit simplistic – there are all sorts of reasons why churches don’t always grow – nevertheless it behoves us to examine our spiritual health. What is holding us back? What do we need to be released from? It’s a critical question, because we bring a Gospel that claims to set people free in Christ – in the forgiveness of sins, in enabling them to forgive others, in freedom from sinful habits and ultimately the eradication of all sin from God’s creation. If that is our message, it will only make sense if we too are on a journey into greater freedom ourselves.
Quite a difference this week. Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a Baptist church and was given half an hour for the sermon. You may have noticed the sermon was longer than usual. Tomorrow it’s an Anglican church where a friend is the priest in charge, and my limit is fifteen minutes.
When my sister left home for college, she went to study in York. It wasn’t very long before her North London accent gained a North Yorkshire twang. We seem to have a knack for picking up other people’s accents in our family.
Then one summer she went on placement to Ipswich. One Saturday afternoon I took a phone call. There was a strange-sounding young woman on the other line. It took me a minute or two to realise this was my sister. London plus Yorkshire plus East Anglia made for a confusing accent, further magnified by the telephone line. Perhaps my sister above all exemplifies this family trait of picking up accents.
As Christians, we are called to pick up an accent, too – the accent of Jesus. Not that I mean we should speak in a first century Palestinian dialect – as if we could know what that sounded like anyway. But rather, our calling as disciples is to pick up the accent of his life. The New Testament says we are to imitate him.
So I want to take today’s Gospel reading and ask about the ways in which we might imitate Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He has come out of the wilderness temptations and the first thing we hear is that ‘filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee’ and that created a stir (verse 14). When he enters the Nazareth synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins reading from what we call chapter 61, with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18).
And if you’ve been reading Luke not in little chunks like we do on Sundays, but from cover to cover, you’ll get this message even more clearly. Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t get away from Luke telling us an important point: whatever Jesus’ special divine status, he conducts his entire ministry dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.
And if he does, how much more do we need to do the same. If the Son of God needed to live this way on earth, what price us?
But what does this mean for us? After all, the Spirit of God dwells within each of us from the time our faith in Christ begins. We cannot allow that fact to lull us into complacency. Too many churches and Christians work on auto-pilot. So much of what we do and how we behave is little different from any other organisations or individuals.
So certainly we should all make it a matter of prayer that God would fill us with his Spirit, again and again. None of us can trade on past glories. As has often been said, the church is always just one generation from extinction.
Yet also we cannot sit around simply waiting for a powerful spiritual experience before doing anything for the kingdom of God. What strikes me about Jesus and the Spirit in this passage (and generally in Luke) is that, having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gets on with what the Father wants him to do. There is no bargaining. He knows he has received the Spirit, and he sets to work. Perhaps some of us know perfectly well what God has called us to do, but we keep employing delaying tactics. Yet if we have received the Spirit when we found Christ, why are we doing that? Truly Spirit-filled people make a difference for the kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus has a message of freedom. It seems to me that ‘freedom’ is a major theme of the verses Jesus reads from Isaiah. The obvious examples are ‘release to the captives’ and ‘to let the oppressed go free’, but ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ are kinds of freedom, too. (Verse 18)
We know that Jesus put this manifesto into action. He dignified the poor by proclaiming the good news to those beyond the pale. He set the captives and oppressed free when he commanded demons to go. He healed the blind and the sick. His was a wide-ranging message of freedom that was proclaimed in word and deed. He evangelised. He healed and delivered. And while he wasn’t directly political, the implications for social justice are present in his ministry.
Our imitation of Christ, then, is to be bearers of a message of freedom. It comes in the gospel theme of forgiveness. The Greek word translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘set free’, and that is what forgiveness is. When we forgive somebody, we set them free from the obligations they are under to us. They are no longer bound to us. Not only that, when we forgive, we set ourselves free. For the alternative is bitterness, and that binds us tightly.
We bring freedom to others when our hearts are moved with the compassion of Christ for their plight. For some, that may involve the ‘miraculous’. For others, it may mean trailblazing a way forward in care for those in need. Why do we have hospitals today? Because Christians of earlier generations invented the infirmary. Why does Karen, your priest, conduct funerals for all and sundry in the parish? It isn’t simply because the Church of England is the Established Church in this country. It’s also because in the earliest days of Christianity, disciples of Jesus took pity on those who could not give their loved ones a proper burial.
Or what about this? The other day, our six-year-old daughter discovered that some of her friends wouldn’t play with another girl, because she was black. Our daughter set out to be the black girl’s friend. Even at six, she knows racism is wrong in the sight of God. Now if a six-year-old can do something in Christ’s name for justice, what about us? Ours is the precious message of freedom, as we imitate Christ and anticipate God’s new creation by showing glimpses of God’s kingdom.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus brings the fulfilment of God’s promises. In just over six months’ time, we shall be leaving Chelmsford for a new appointment. The profile of the appointment is very close to what I feel I can offer as a minister. My wife can see where she can get involved on behalf of the church in the community. The schools look quite promising. The manse (which being translated to Anglicans is ‘vicarage’) is more suitable than the one we live in here.
So there’s a level of excitement I feel – but we have to wait until early August when we move!
The Jewish people had been waiting, not for six months, but for centuries, for the promised Deliverer, the Messiah. Now Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). You don’t have to wait any longer, he says.
We imitate Jesus by bringing a message of fulfilment, too. All around our communities and across the world are people waiting for something or someone that will give them hope. They may be damaged by the hurtful actions of loved ones. They – or someone they love – may be bound by dreadful illness or bereavement. They may be victims of injustice. There may just be an aching emptiness in their hearts, because they have believed our society and bought one possession after another in pursuit of happiness, only to find they might as well be chasing the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And we have the privilege to say to such people, you don’t have to wait any longer. Your emptiness, your pain or your brokenness can be healed, because there is a God who loves you. He loves you enough to give up his only Son for you.
Now that is exactly why we hear calls to be a ‘Mission Shaped Church’ – because unless the church is about mission, she is not truly the church. It is why our two denominations – and now also joined by the United Reformed Church – co-operate on the Fresh Expressions project to reach out to people within their own cultures. It’s why although not every Christian is an evangelist, every Christian is a witness. Each one of us can speak about our experience of Christ.
Because that’s what happens when – like Jesus – we are filled with the Spirit and have a message of freedom. The time is now.
On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.
And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verses 14-15)
At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.
Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.
Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.
When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)
Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.
Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.
Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God.
You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.
Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?
And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.
Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Verse 17)
Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.
I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.
For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way.
Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.
That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.
It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.
So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?
I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.
I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.
I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News.
In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?
So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?
On Friday night, my wife slept outside in the cold. And I am proud.
Am I proud to be a heartless husband who is happy to allow his belovèd to be subjected to the onset of winter? No. I am proud, because she did it as one of sixty or so people participating in a sponsored sleep out for Chelmsford CHESS, a Christian organisation that supports homeless people in our town. Among them were what we used to call Sixth Formers from two local secondary schools.
I have calculated that after the addition of Gift Aid where claimed, she will have raised £684.53 towards the amazing work that Chelmsford CHESS undertakes. They began when the churches of the town used to open their halls on a rota basis as places where the homeless could sleep. Then they bought a property and made it a night shelter. They now also have a day centre which offers job skills and recreation, and another residential property for people they are helping to move on back into ‘normal’ life.
I am proud, too, that I have two of their trustees in my churches. One is the Managing Trustee. He has had a passion to serve the homeless since he took early retirement from the world of banking. The other has only recently become involved when he retired early from business. He plans to run an Alpha Course among the clients. That, to say the least, will be interesting.
Obviously, a sponsored sleep out is meant to simulate – but only to a limited extent – the plight of the homeless. It took place in a churchyard. The night had begun with musical entertainment. There were security patrols. Participants could go into the church and make a coffee if they wanted one. They had access to toilets. At 6:30 am, the sleep out was formally broken by the arrival of bacon sandwiches. None of which is to pretend it was easy – Debbie only slept for about twenty minutes all night – but it is to remember that those who are on the streets have it even tougher.
I’ve never been very good in dealing with homeless people. I’m not streetwise enough to find wise ways of serving them. I have oscillated between naïveté and insensitivity in my responses. But I am glad we can find simple ways of supporting organisations like Chelmsford CHESS.
It’s rather like the attitude my grandmother took to world mission. Inspired by the example of her friend Gladys Aylward, she longed to serve the church in overseas mission. However, health reasons prevented her. Unlike Aylward, who was also initially turned down, she was unable to find another way of going abroad. So my grandmother became a lifelong fundraiser for world mission causes. When it’s not possible to go in the cause of mission, Christians can pray and give.
The other side is that it’s easy for us to default to giving and prayer as a way of not doing mission, however much finances and intercession are needed as key jigsaw pieces in the picture of mission. Sometimes they are what we do as a cop-out, because we’d rather not find vulnerable ways of sharing the Gospel ourselves in word and deed. I have known too many churches where the understanding of mission is limited to fund-raising. A Home Missions or World Church Sunday has meant a visiting speaker and a collection. The congregation has then thought it has shared in mission. Church authorities have colluded in this deceit: just pay us, we are the experts.
But I do know that in Debbie’s case it was different. She had been so moved by hearing a speaker from Chelmsford CHESS at a church midweek meeting that she had to find something she could do as a Christian about this terrible social need – one that will surely only worsen, the longer current financial strictures continue.
So, yes, I am proud of my wife.
I do not get excited about church business meetings. I’ve even arranged my next sabbatical, rather like my last one, so that I miss two Synods. God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee, etc. – that’s my feeling.
But last night I had an encouraging Church Council. We’ve recently had a review of our circuit and all its churches by a small team from our District. I hadn’t expected much from the process. Oh me of little faith, as it turned out.
So our main business yesterday evening was to discuss five recommendations the District team had made for this particular church. They weren’t all appropriate to us, because in some cases the team didn’t have exhaustive information on the church, and their Maths became the ‘two plus two is five’ variety. In other areas, their recommendations needed filing away until a later date.
But … what excited me was the way we riffed on one theme and created something new. We began from talking about how we might have more contact with those who hire our premises, but we got onto the question of children. We have several different ways of connecting with children – Sunday School, Messy Church, Craft Club, Holiday Club, Boys’ Brigade, school assemblies. But we realised that just putting on something for children is aiming at a soft target. (Sorry, that’s a lousy metaphor, but it’s the best I can think of.) However, if we are to be truly family friendly we need to offer resources and outreach for all generations.
So the Council grabbed an idea I’d first floated rather quickly a couple of years ago. We need to operate things like parenting courses to the local community, and do so on neutral territory such as the community centre or a pub function room. In fact, they developed the idea further: not just parenting, but marriage courses and bereavement sessions. We thought we might be able to offer one of these courses a year. It doesn’t matter that we’re a small church: we can work with those whom God has given us, as opposed to pining for those we don’t have.
Hence, I’d be interested if anyone reading this blog has positive or negative experience of particular resources or courses. A quick surf has found the following:
Bereavement Harder to track down Christian courses. The only one I found with a Christian basis was one run at Holy Trinity Brompton, The Bereavement Course, but it isn’t a package you can buy and run yourself. It’s just something they run at HTB.
These are just my initial quick trawl. I’d be delighted to hear whatever comments you have about positive or negative experiences or impressions of different courses
UPDATE, SUNDAY 19TH OCTOBER: I also put this request on the Family Friendly Churches’ Trust email discussion group. Two people have spoken highly of the CARE for the Family courses, and mentioned one or two others of theirs about which I didn’t know. One person has suggested debt counselling or money management courses. I have heard good things about Christians Against Poverty’s CAP Money Course.