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Farewell Sermon: We Are All Missionaries

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:

Luke 10:1-20

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[1]. 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[2] 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.

[1] 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’.

[2] Or seventy-two, depending on your translation; manuscripts vary.

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.