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Sermon: Compassionate Mission

Luke 7:11-17

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’[1]. 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.


[1] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p323.

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Sermon: Moses And The Feeding Of The Five Thousand

John 6:1-21

When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, we went out on preaching appointments all over the north west – everywhere from Liverpool to Newcastle under Lyme. If we were in a circuit morning and evening, we had lunch and tea with members of that circuit. I remember the Liverpool couple who were proud they lived just across from the estate where Brookside was filmed – unfortunately, I’ve always been allergic to soaps. I recall the farming couple in Chester who tried to marry me off to their daughter. I remember visiting a former superintendent of mine from home who was then in Newcastle under Lyme.

Less happy are my memories of a trip to a Methodist church in Swinton, Greater Manchester. Apart from my college principal turning up unannounced to assess my service, I got a frosty welcome in the vestry. The stewards had telephoned for the hymns during the week, and when I walked into the vestry they demanded I change two of them. “We don’t know this one and we don’t like that one.” I refused. I told them they could learn the unfamiliar one, and they could put up with the hymn they didn’t like, because it fitted my theme.

What was the hymn they disliked? ‘Moses, I know you’re the man’ (this link is a PowerPoint download). And I mention that this morning, because this famous story about the feeding of the five thousand – the only story to appear in all four Gospels apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus – is full of Moses references. Let me show you what I mean – and how that is relevant to us – not by taking things in the order they appear in this story, but by taking the ‘Moses’ elements of this account and placing them in the order they originally happened in Israel’s history.

Firstly, there is the element of Passover. According to John, this incident happened when ‘the Passover … was near’ (verse 4). You’ll remember that the Passover commemorated the deliverance of God’s people when God judged Egypt for enslaving them. It is a festival of freedom and justice.

And in Jesus’ day, many of God’s people felt the need for something similar. They may have been back in their own land, but they were occupied by the Romans. Even in this reading, the Sea of Galilee is also referred to by its alternative Roman name, the Sea of Tiberias (verse 1). The Jewish people once again needed deliverance. It’s telling that after this miraculous sign, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king (verse 15).

But as we know with hindsight and with faith, the deliverance brought by Jesus was a different kind of freedom. Not that he was or is indifferent to the plight of those who are under the cosh of a powerful enemy, but he knew that everyone also needs a far deeper liberation, not just the freedom from the sins of others but freedom from their own sins.

And that is where Christians celebrate a festival meal of freedom and justice. We call it Holy Communion, where we proclaim that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Yet the moment you try to make that connection with John’s Gospel, you have trouble. John is the only Evangelist not to record the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The nearest he has is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by the conversation later in John 6 where Jesus describes himself as ‘the bread of life’. You also see in this story Jesus not simply saying grace before the bread and fish are distributed, but giving thanks, in language similar to that which he used at the Last Supper. It is no wonder that the nineteenth century Christian F D Maurice, when asked whether this passage was about the Lord’s Supper, said no, but that equally, there was no better place in the Scriptures to learn about Holy Communion than here.

I have always had a problem with the way we give such small amounts of bread and wine to worshippers at Holy Communion. But perhaps God intends us to expect a feeding miracle at the sacrament. As we receive small morsels of bread and take tiny sips of wine, God multiplies them in our hearts, as he makes himself real to us by his grace through our faith.

So we might wonder, especially in a well-fed western society what the feeding of the five thousand means for us, but we can immediately see one application. It helps us come to the Lord’s table with expectant faith that he will work in us.

Secondly, we have the Mountain. The disciples go up a mountain with Jesus (verse 3) after he has healed many sick people (verse 2), just as Moses went up the mountain to be with God, after God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. Moses receives the Ten Commandments.

Now before we note what the Jesus equivalent here to the Moses parallel might be, we do well for a moment to think about the Ten Commandments. Sometimes we think these are rules for a healthy society, and everyone should follow them. Well – yes, they reflect God’s standards. But we are mistaken if we think we can commend them to others or command others to follow them and all will be well. As a young Local Preacher, I remember an elderly lady saying to me after a service, “If we could just get our country to follow the Ten Commandments again, everything would be all right.”

But it’s important to remember something about the timing of the Ten Commandments. God gave them to Israel after he delivered them from Egypt. In other words, keeping the Ten Commandments was never going to earn salvation for Israel. Rather, keeping the Ten Commandments was a grateful response to God’s faithful covenant love in delivering them. They were to keep the commandments as a sign of gratitude.

Now when Jesus invites the disciples up the mountain in this story and he is then joined by the large crowd (verse 5), what is the Son of God looking for? He looks for a response to his saving acts. The crowd know he has been healing people and the disciples know he has been performing wonders such as turning water into wine (2:1ff) and has been referring to himself as ‘the living water’ (4:10), relying on food from his Father (4:33). In other words, they know some amazing acts and statements of deliverance from him. Do you not think that he too looks for some grateful obedient faith?

And just as Moses didn’t get a great response from the Israelites – you’ll recall that a golden calf was involved – neither does Jesus. When he tests the disciples with the question of what to do about the problem (verses 5-6), Philip responds that six months’ wages would not be enough to feed everyone (verse 7).

Andrew does a little better, though.  Just as in an earlier chapter he brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, now he brings a small boy. ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ (Verse 9) He doesn’t sound full of hope. Just a boy in a grown-up world. Just five loaves – and barley loaves at that, the food of the poor. Not only that, but the two fish are not fresh fish but dried or pickled fish – again, elements of a poor family’s diet. There’s not much, and it’s not of great quality.

Yet that is what Jesus uses. It may not be much and it may not be good, but he performs the miraculous sign with it. Just as Andrew’s faith was not much. Just as our faith may not be much.

What is God looking for? He is searching for grateful obedient faith in response to all he has done for us in Christ. We may not think we have anything much to give, but the challenge then is not to reject God like the Israelites, nor to be faithless like Philip, but to offer even the meagre faith of an Andrew. Even a response like that is enough. It puts us in God’s hands, at God’s disposal. That’s what we need to do.

Thirdly and finally, this all happens in a withdrawn place (verse 3 cf. verse 15). There may have been ‘a great deal of grass’ on which to sit down (verse 10), but it was clearly remote. It was the equivalent of the Wilderness. This story is about food being provided in a wilderness. So not only does it resonate with the Passover, it also makes connections with the provision of the manna.

You’ll remember that when God supplied the manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness, he did so after a bout of complaining. They were missing the home comforts of Egypt – a rich claim from a group of people who had been forced to make bricks without straw, but they were fed up with the plainness and simplicity of their desert life. They hardly had the best of motives. Yet God provided for them.

And here, you could say that the crowd didn’t entirely have the best of motives. I’m sure there was a certain amount of genuine human need mixed in as they followed the Healer to his mountain hideaway, but there was a clear element of going for what was in it for them – hence they label Jesus as the prophet they had expected (verse 14) and try to make him king by force (verse 15) to serve their purposes.

Yet just as in the wilderness where God provided for an unworthy bunch, so he did the same in Christ here. That may be revolutionary to us in a society where our welfare state is based on the idea of the ‘deserving poor’, but grace doesn’t simply give to the deserving. It wouldn’t be grace then. God in grace gives blessings to the undeserving.

Before I studied Theology and then trained for the ministry, I was a civil servant, working in what was then known as the Department of Health and Social Security (or the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, as some frustrated wags called it). I remember being on a Christian holiday one year, where a rather Hyacinth Bucket type woman asked me what my work was. Replying that I worked for the DHSS, she said, “Well at least you are on the right side of the counter.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t understand grace.

No – the grace of a God who blesses the undeserving in the wilderness looks very different. It may be something apparently trivial, like the story of Steve Chalke who first went to church because that was where the pretty girls were, only to find himself bowled over by Jesus Christ. It may be someone who tries to strike a bargain with God – “If you do this for me, I will follow you.” It may be somebody in desperate straits that are partly or completely their own fault. In a book I recently read, Neil Cole said that you can ask the non-Christians in a street who most needs the Gospel, and they will usually be right. They will point you to the person in the most terrible situation. You can visit that person, and often they will be open to the Gospel. It may even be a heinous sinner who has become a social outcast, the modern equivalent of a Zaccheus. Whoever it is, the gracious God who in Christ blessed undeserving people in the wilderness wants to do the same today, through his Son who went to the wilderness of the Cross on our behalf. It is our privilege to be his ambassadors, introducing this reckless and extravagant love to a suspicious world.

And that means we too shall need to learn the habits of recklessness and extravagance if we are to model that grace. May God lead us willingly to the undeserving. For we were – and still are – ourselves among their ranks.

Sermon: Begone, Unbelief

Mark 6:1-13

Many years ago, I was listening to the radio late at night, when a song came on that I’d never heard before and I’ve never heard since. Not only that, I can’t find any trace of it on the Internet, despite all sorts of searching. It was by an American soul singer (now deceased) called Lou Rawls, and it was called, ‘You can never go back home’. I’ve found one or two other songs of the same title, but not the one he recorded. [UPDATE: the song is called ‘You can’t go home’, it’s a duet with George Benson, and is on the At Last album. Thanks to my sister!]

‘You can never go back home’ could have been a song for Jesus in this reading. It was all looking so good. Having returned from the eastern side of Galilee where the people had begged him to depart after he ruined the pig farming industry (how we could have done with that at a multinational’s pig farm in Mexico not so long ago), he has arrived back on the west to be greeted by crowds, and he has healed the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter. The woman and Jairus were great examples of faith (as we saw last week).

So – a homecoming to Nazareth should top everything, shouldn’t it? This should be the climax, the triumphant homecoming.

Except – as we know with hindsight – it isn’t.

“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” (Verses 2-3)

‘The carpenter, the son of Mary’ is a derogatory expression. Jesus is just a common worker with his hands, like everyone else. He’s not special. He has no particular status[1]. In fact, he’s of low status: that’s indicated by ‘son of Mary’:

“It was contrary to Jewish usage to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when she was a widow, except in insulting terms. Rumo[u]rs to the effect that Jesus was illegitimate appear to have been circulated in his own lifetime and may lie behind this reference as well.”[2]

Familarity breeds contempt, we say. The congregation at the Nazareth synagogue thought they knew Jesus. They knew his family. Yet in a critical way they didn’t know him. Jesus labels himself as a prophet without honour at home (verse 4). He can only heal a few people (verse 5) and is ‘amazed at their unbelief’ (verse 6). Jesus was no less powerful, but his power has to be received. And instead of finding the open hands of faith to receive what he has to give, he encounters only clenched fists.

It would be different if Jesus visited us, wouldn’t it? We believe in him. We trust in him. We affirm our faith every Sunday and say words like those in the creeds. He wouldn’t find unbelief here, would he? A few doubts maybe, but surely not unbelief?

Or would he? Do we slip into unbelief at times? I think we do. I’m sure I do. For like the Nazareth congregation, it’s all too easy to think we know Jesus when in some important way we don’t. We tame him as ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, when he vigorously confronted evil. Rarely do we express the contempt his fellow Nazarenes had for him (although I have come across occasional cynicism), but I do suspect that for us familiarity may breed complacency. We think we know him, yet he can’t do many miracles among us, either. Have we got so used to Jesus that we have forgotten his raw power? Is this why C S Lewis wrote that wonderful line in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where he said, ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’? And is it why the American spiritual writer A W Tozer said, ‘Most Christians live like practical atheists’?

Of course, Jesus does visit us. He is present by his Spirit. Yet where is the daring faith in many churches? Our problem with faith may not be the cynicism of Nazareth but the unwillingness to take risks. Many years ago, I heard the Anglican vicar and evangelist Eric Delve say how typical it was of British people to say goodbye to someone with the words, ‘Take care’. What kind of words are they, he asked? Watch out, everything around you is dangerous, keep safe and hide away!

And does that reflect in our churches? Sadly, it often does. Like the one-talent man who buried what he was given in the ground, we opt for playing safe rather than the adventure of faith. In the words of one writer (was it Neil Cole?), we need to be in places where we are done for unless Jesus intervenes. Only then are we living by faith in Christ.

That’s why when I gave my sabbatical presentation last Sunday afternoon, I referred to that challenging document ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’ by George Bullard. Those of you who were present heard me describe an eight-step process from birth to death (not that death is inevitable) for churches. There were four cycles in the ascent, and four in the descent to death. I’ll just re-read two sentences from my notes:

“The movement happens as soon as the repeat of good practice is desired. Comfort zone instead of risk-taking.”

The moment we say, ‘We know what we’re doing’, we are in danger of leaving the life of faith. It means we don’t need to trust Jesus any more. We can get by on our own, thank you very much. I now see danger flags waving every time I hear Christians say they know what they’re doing. It’s why I know that one thing I need to do is leave behind my old cautious attitude of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and instead make my maxim, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it’.

What does Jesus do when he doesn’t find faith? Faithlessness makes him unwelcome. He does the same as he did at Nazareth: he leaves. Remember how in the Book of Revelation he addressed seven churches. Often he warned them that if they did not live faithfully, he would ‘remove [his] lampstand’ from them – that is, he would remove his presence. Jesus is quite willing to leave churches that don’t have faith in him. It breaks his heart, but he is prepared to move on. Let us ensure we give him no reason to do that, by being people of daring faith.

So where does he go? The simple and startling answer is, he goes here, there and everywhere, all at the same time. How can that be? Because he authorises the Twelve to go out in pairs in his name (verse 7). They are an extension of his mission. In Jewish law, “the sent one is as the man who commissioned him.”[3]

And if the members of the Nazareth congregation fail to exercise daring faith in Jesus, one thing you can’t miss in the instructions to the Twelve is that Jesus expects them to have utter dependence upon God in their mission. They go in the clothes they are wearing, along with a staff and sandals. They get to take no food, no money and not even a second tunic to keep them warm at night (verses 8-9).

Is this a model we all should follow? I know one evangelistic organisation which takes the equivalent passage to this in Luke 10 as a principle for all the participants in its ‘Walk of a Thousand Men’ missions. To quote from their website:

“Team members come without cars, mobile phones or credit cards, only bringing £2 per day to engage in pub evangelism.

– They trust in God for provision of food and other necessities

– Teams of Walkers take this simplicity a stage further, carrying their own packs and sleeping on hall floors.”

In embracing simplicity, they encourage team members to exercise faith at the same time as they call people to faith. Having hosted a couple of their teams in the ‘Walk Kent’ mission ten years ago, I can tell you the faith is rewarded: most team members put on weight, thanks to generous hospitality!

It’s not that the precise instructions Jesus gave the Twelve for their mission should always be followed to the letter, but it is that the underlying principle of faith needs to be embraced. We can’t call people to faith unless we display faith ourselves. It’s what Jesus himself did. Making the community of faith something safe and predictable, both internally and in how we face the world, is far from the example of Jesus.

Full of faith, the Twelve are like Jesus. But also like Jesus, they may face rejection. In which case, they “shake off the dust that is on [their] feet” (verse 11), just as Jews did when they returned from alien lands. It was a sign that the place where they had been was pagan and polluted. And sometimes you just have to distance yourself from unbelief – it has a polluting effect on your own faith. Maybe those ancient Jews knew something. Jesus walked away from unbelief in his home synagogue. The Twelve were to do the same. If our faith is being sucked dry by people who won’t respond positively to Jesus, we might consider the same.

Yet at the same time, for all the warnings this passage contains about unbelief, it isn’t an unremittingly bleak reading. In the middle of Jesus’ call to the Twelve, he gives them a vision for the success of faith-filled mission. “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place” (verse 10). You will be welcomed. Don’t believe the old lie that your locality is too tough and hardened to receive the Gospel, because there will be some places where you and your message are welcomed.

Why? Because God will have gone ahead of you, preparing the way. It isn’t up to us to prepare the soil: God does that. The Holy Spirit is at work preparing people for the Good News before Christians show up. If we go into the community with the love of God then yes, in some places people will mock or ridicule us. But don’t let the possibility of a negative reception paralyse you. There will be many instances where your message will enter and stay.

Jesus said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). That’s why many Christians today say that mission is ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. God is always making the first move. It’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ And if you know your French, the word ‘prevenient’ will make sense: ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘venient’ from ‘venir’, meaning ‘to come’. Prevenient grace is God’s grace coming before any human action.

And that means we go in confident faith, praying that we will know where God has sent the Holy Spirit as the advance party. We don’t always need dramatic experiences to know that God has been at work ahead of us, we simply look for where we encounter a welcome for our message, and we ‘stay’ with such people, giving them our time. The rejections will come, and yes they will be painful, but like Jesus himself we walk away and concentrate on where we might see fruit.

So this has been a story about faith and unbelief. We have seen that unbelief can strike in the unlikeliest of places, maybe even close to our own hearts, if we are not so much ‘not careful’ but too careful, too cautious, too play-safe. ‘Safety first’ is as dangerous to the soul as cynicism. We must guard against both, for we risk losing Jesus.

Instead, Jesus calls us to the wild adventure of faith. Yes, we may be rejected too, but those sailing on the high seas of faith set their sails for the wind of the Spirit that will take them away from the pagan lands of unbelief and follow where God is preparing the way for the Gospel. Those who set out on the voyage of faith will, like the Twelve, see demons cast out and the sick healed (verse 13). Those who would rather stay in their home harbour and those who denounce the sailors of faith will see no such miracles.

So let’s pull up the anchor and take to the seas with Jesus.


[1] William L Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p 202.

[2] Op cit, p 203.

[3] Op cit, p 206f.

Witness At The Family Fun Day

On Saturday, we held our annual church family fun day. A bouncy castle, crafts, treasure hunt, a children’s entertainer and the like – all offered free of charge to the local community. Today, I heard about some of the great conversations that occurred on the day, and it inspired me to write about our witness for the church magazine. What follows picks up on that experience and is heavily influenced by Neil Cole‘s book Organic Church

“Why do you do this?”

No, not a question of despair, but one asked several times by visitors to our recent Family Fun Day. (And let me add to my children’s public thank-you of Dianne for her tremendous organisation of the day.)

Why do you do this? Why do you put on an event free of charge, with no strings attached? They are good questions, just the ones we wanted people to ask. And they are easy to answer if we know the Gospel. We say, God is like this. God gives love unconditionally. He wants people to respond, but he gives in the first place. He gives, whether we give back or not.

Obviously, we hope that as a result people will engage with us more through events like Holiday Club and Messy Church as a result. We hope, too, that we might be known in the community as a group of people whose actions in love provoke regular “Why do you do this?” questions, not just for what we put on together as a church, but from the deeds of our individual lives.

Yes, it’s easy to answer these questions. You don’t need to have studied academic Theology like I have in order to give good answers. All you need is a personal experience of Christ in your life. Because we answer out of our own spiritual experience, and relying on the Holy Spirit. There is a place for intellectually defending our faith, but it’s not everyone’s calling.

Sometimes we’ve made it too hard to be an effective Christian witness. We’ve expected people to jump the hurdles of church committees and study courses before trusting them to say anything in the name of Christ.

What poppycock! Jesus healed people or led them to faith and then sent them out immediately to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. How crazy we are to think we know better than him!

Yes, it’s right to look for maturity, but if we think maturity comes from sitting in a classroom reading a textbook, we are deluded. Maturity comes from experience.

So I want to encourage you all in this simple message this month. What is your experience of Christ? Recount it. Write it down, if it helps.

And cultivate that quiet reflectiveness that listens for the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

If we went out into the local community like that, we wouldn’t need fancy programmes, we wouldn’t need massive budgets, we’d have the richest resource of all: the Spirit of Christ.

Remember: we may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. And witnesses simply have to describe what they have seen and experienced. It’s surprisingly powerful, even when engaging the most intellectual of people.

Do you think we can rise to the occasion? I think so.

Sabbatical, Day 79: Exile Or Revival; Ministry Patterns

After dipping into it over a couple of weeks, I’ve finally completed Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare For Exile‘. When it first arrived in the post and I looked at the contents pages, I was disappointed. Ninety pages of history and only fifty of contemporary application: I wanted more of the latter. Further, when I read the final three chapters that concentrate on how we should prepare for exile in the western Church, I thought I was reading little I hadn’t encountered elsewhere or already concluded for myself. Many of the usual authorities are quoted: David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and so on. 

Yet I think this is a significant book. Why?

Firstly, because the history matters. What Whitworth shows in those first ninety pages is just how fundamental the category of exile is to vibrant faith. Not only does he establish it as a much more critical theme of Scripture than we generally acknowledge, he shows from centuries of church history how it is often people and movements who have been forced into a posture of exile that have brought renewal to the church and society.

Secondly, because Whitworth writes as an Anglican. My guess is that being the Established Church has made it harder for the Church of England to come to terms with the thought that the Christian Church is going into exile in this country. For someone like him to write persuasively about a stance of exile is important.

Thirdly, because Whitworth seems to be writing as a charismatic, where one might expect him instead to write a book called ‘Prepare For Revival‘. However, revival gets scant mention in the book. I think its first mention comes only on page 134, where it is admitted as a possibility but Whitworth expects something different:

But if the historical process identified in the central section of the book still has some way to run (although arguably it could be overturned by an extraordinary Christian revival), which I believe it has, the process of secularization may well continue apace.

I don’t want to make it sound like the desire for revival is unworthy. At its best, it is a longing for a society suffused with the Gospel. However, in some charismatic circles, it has degenerated into something else. It is the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue the poor beleaguered church. Worse, it is the fantasy we indulge to prevent us thinking about painful reality.

…………

Next in my reading project for the rest of the sabbatical is to look at some of the stuff on ministry. Not the ministry and personality type stuff yet, for two reasons: firstly, the survey for ministers doesn’t finish until the 30th, and secondly, Waterstone’s still haven’t got my copy of Leslie Francis‘ ‘Faith and Psychology‘ that I need to accompany my thinking. It’s still out of stock at the publisher’s.

At this point, I want to look at whether traditional doctrines of ministry are fit for purpose in a world where, in Whitworth’s expression, we have to prepare for exile. That is, a world where the church needs to be missional. A diverse culture that calls for varied Fresh Expressions as well as some continuing forms of traditional church. That is, the ‘mixed economy’ church of which Rowan Williams has spoken.

In this world, emerging church and missional church thinkers have criticised our inherited understandings of ministry. They say that ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care might make sense if we lived in a true Christendom where all were believers and the task of the church were to call people back to a faith from which they were lapsed, but it is not our situation. So writers like Frost and Hirsch in ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come‘ call for churches (not necessarily individuals, note) to express the fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4: apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic as well as pastoral and teaching.

I want to examine the strength of this critique. If it is valid (my gut feeling is that in some form it probably is), then what does it mean for those of us in the historic churches? To do this, I see the need to look at three key areas.

Firstly, New Testament understandings of ministry and leadership as a foundation. However, that is not necessarily simple. Is there one pattern of New Testament leadership? Many think not. You can pick the ‘fivefold pattern’ out of Ephesians, and you can pick ‘bishops and deacons’ from Philippians. Which (if any) do you choose, and why?

Secondly, I need to look at the tradition. In my case, that means Methodism, with its official stance and varying views – some of it difficult to pin down, because our approach is rather pragmatic.

Thirdly, it means looking again at the missional literature and practice. Neil Cole‘s ‘Organic Church‘ and (when it arrives from Amazon) ‘Organic Leadership‘ come highly recommended, and I’ll be tackling them on top of my already wide reading in the emerging and missional area.

Obviously, this is going to occupy me beyond the sabbatical, and I’m going to want to read other things that interest me too! In the long term, this could well be the core of the PhD dream.

Starting out with a book from the first of these phases means that today I’ve begun to tackle ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘ by Ritva H Williams. It’s not simply an aggregation of texts: she says in the Introduction she is going to argue that the early church took some of the social conventions about leadership and subverted them for their own purposes. If that is the case, then we might have an interesting foundation for creative approaches to Christian leadership and ministry in our culture. It could make the case for Methodist pragmatism being extended beyond what we say we have ‘received’, which is sometimes treated in a rather fixed way, despite our pragmatism.

All this talk about ministry could be so introspective, and that would fit my nature as an introvert (but then we’re back to the Myers Briggs stuff again!). However, I want to offer something to the church, not simply clarify my own thinking. If all I do is sort out my own thoughts, I’m still left with tensions and frustrations with the institution.

 

Sabbatical, Day 33: Books, Music. And Decisions. Oh No!

What was I going to do with the Amazon vouchers and money given me for my birthday? I soon had some ideas. It doesn’t take me long, the problem is shortening the long list.

There are some books I still need to purchase for sabbatical reading. Not only do I have to pare down this list for financial reasons, I have to recognise the limits of what I shall actually get through during the remaining two months. Some have been recommended or are obvious picks, but if anyone has any thoughts on these books or others in the same field, please leave a comment.

Ministry and Leadership, Ancient and Modern 
Ritva H Williams, Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church

Steven Croft (editor), Mission-Shaped Questions

William H Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

Neil Cole, Organic Church and Organic Leadership

Ministry, Spirituality and Personality Type
Leslie J Francis, Faith and Psychology

Julia McGuinness, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs® Model

(Both of these were among the books recommended to me last week by Jerry Gilpin.)

Faith and Technology  
Quentin J Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age

Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture and Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith 

…………

And if boks feature large in my ideal spending, so too do CDs. Yes, I’m old enough still to want CDs, not simply MP3s. Actually, it’s the old hi-fii snob in me. I’m waiting for the day when the children are old enough for me to risk replacing the loudspeakers they damaged a few years ago. MP3s are great for convenience and flexibility, but the fidelity of sound is poor.

I’m eyeing up replacing some of the Little Feat vinyl I used to have, regretting the fact that the 4 CD compilation Hotcakes And Outtakes was less than £20 on Amazon recently, but when I went back to buy it, back it went to £43.

There are some new or imminent releases that catch my eye, too. I’m a fan of the UK-based American singer Jeb Loy Nichols, who combines country, funk and reggae amongst other influences. He has a new release called Parish Bar and Andy Gill in The Independent said it was his best release ever.

Or there are the ever-wonderful Buddy and Julie Miller, whose new recording Written In Chalk comes out on Monday. Julie Miller had the distinction of somehow continuing to write painfully honest songs in the CCM world, touching on child abuse and all sorts of things. Buddy is an extraordinary guitarist, singer and songwriter, famous for playing with Emmylou Harris and others. I was recently playing his 2004 release Universal United House Of Prayer to bits. 

Also out on Monday is Quiet Please … The New Best Of Nick Lowe, a songwriter I have admired for years, but I’ve never bought anything of his. Might this be the time?

I only know I can’t buy everything I want! I’ve been totting up prices on Amazon, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, HMV, Play and PlayTrade. Then, in the case of books, I’ve conducted a further comparison at Bookbrain. Once I’ve totted up the cheapest prices, I then have to make the hard decisions. But being a ‘P‘ type in Myers Briggs, I like to keep my options open as long as possible!

…………

Tomorrow holds the CT scan on my sinuses, following the investigation I reported on 19th January. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow, although I won’t know the results and likely treatment (surgery?) until an appointment on the 30th. 

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.