Tag Archives: mission

Are you receiving me?

(There is a dialogue sketch on Mark 6:1-13 available here).

How do you communicate with God? It’s a very personal thing, and should be. But it is also important, and so worth talking about.

People vary in the ways they relate. Some are more spontaneous, some more formal and organised – I remember a story about one person, who was said to pray as if he were addressing a business meeting, but – they said – that was all right because he talked to everyone like that.

The story of Jesus going to the synagogue in his home town (Mark 6:1-13) is sad. He is known to be a wise teacher and powerful worker of good miracles – but he is offensive because of his local background. Nobody suggests he has done anything wrong, it seems just to be that he can’t be taken seriously. It’s sad, because it means he can do little there – there isn’t the open communication, or the trust we call faith, which makes it possible to teach and heal.

But then the twelve are sent out on mission. Their confidence in Jesus has grown to a point where they can take a risk and try things for themselves. It will be an important leap forward in their faith, their understanding, and their communication skills. The instructions to take no provisions increase this – can it work? Yes, apparently God can do it.

So, how do you communicate with God? Is it a “wish list” of things wanted, or an expectation of emotions flattered and soothed? Is it about what you want, or is there a relationship where you can be honest about what you want and feel, but also listen for what God is doing and saying – even when that is not what you want to hear?

Are you like the locals, who didn’t want to take Jesus seriously and found excuses not to, or like the twelve, who (probably with very mixed feelings!) went and did what they were sent to, and as a result learnt and grew and celebrated?

Something missing?

The story of the angel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) sometimes gets crowded out (as it may this year) with the rapid approach of Christmas.  That would be a pity, because it has plenty of interest.

It is full of realism.  Mary has to be told not to be afraid – this is not the land of fairy stories where angels appear and disappear without comment.  She is perplexed, for the message doesn’t seem to make sense.  But the thing that strikes me is something that isn’t there.  There is no apology.

There could be several, or so we might think.  The angel does not apologise for frightening her, puzzling her, disturbing her routine, or (more significantly) for giving her a job which will be emotionally draining, at times deeply traumatic, and immensly difficult. There is no offer of counselling, compensation, or even reward, because  . . .   ?

Because, in the end, and despite our assumptions, God is entirely within his rights. That sounds harsh.  God is not playing with people’s lives, but there is a lot at stake, and what is asked is only what has been freely given.  Mary is indeed given a most difficult and demanding role – which is what her life was intended for, and which will bring its own rewards. It is the same for us. God does not apologise for the demands he makes on our lives – our whole lives, all our time, money, and effort. It is what we are intended for, and brings its own rewards.

Perhaps, sometime over Christmas, we shall each feel a bit sorry for ourselves.  You know the sort of feeling: undervalued, ignored, overworked . .  Mary could so easily have felt like that, or just refused her mission.  We celebrate her faith because (whatever she went through on the way) she understood that life is meant to follow the plan of God, and that is how it achieves the best things.

 

Risks everywhere

How do you feel about taking risks? Do you enjoy being scared? For that matter, what do you think Christian faith has to say about taking risks?  This isn’t just a rhetorical opening. I want you to think clearly and have an answer: Does Christian faith encourage risk taking – if so, what sort and when? Does Christian faith discourage risk taking – again, what sort and when?

Jesus tells a story (Matthew 25:14-30) which involves huge amounts of money – a talent was a labourer’s wage for 15 years!!! – so the 3 are given, say £1m, £1/2 m and a mere £200,000. The stakes are high, the servants are not being asked to do odd jobs in their spare time.

How might this apply to us? In my part of the Church we are being asked to move to working in Ministry Areas. – Fewer paid priests, but using the gifts of more people. Parishes working together in areas, with more opportunity to do things that could not be done in one Parish alone. Risks? High stakes? Changes – yes, its all there.  But you might say that these things are part of normal Christian life, mightn’t you?

The challenge, of course, is to take that positively. Not “It’ll never work!”, “Seen it all before”, “You can’t expect me to . . “ negativity, but – well, let’s see what the parable (or is it an allegory?) offers:

Jesus is the master, and the Church members are the slaves. In a difficult time, we are given gifts and the wits to use them – and will be judged on our energy and inventiveness. The gifts may not be evenly distributed, but we all have something to use, – and the amounts are huge!

We might think of spiritual gifts and physical ones, people skills and technical know-how, but don’t forget education, time and money. All of these are given (never owned, just borrowed) for a purpose.

The third slave fails, because he does not understand – perhaps does not want to! His master requires that he be inventive, take risks, and be fruitful. Not bothering, minding his own business, cultivating his resentments, is failure – and a failure for which he is rightly condemned. He has not done what is required of him. [It’s true we might say that God is not like the master, who appears harsh and unreasonable – we have reason to say God is not like that. But the parable makes the point that the servants were given – or loaned – these talents in the expectation, a reasonable expectation, that they would make the best use of them they could.]

What do you think about the future? There’s good and bad, of course, and change which is never easy. But more important, What are you going to do about it? Given a chance, an opportunity, how will you react?

Go back to the beginning. What did you think the Christian faith had to say about taking risks? It’s true that in general we might be expected to be careful, but I hope you understand what this parable has to say. It is important now, not because of the present position of the Church in society, but because the Christian faith requires, of all its members,

  • that they receive different gifts from God
  • and use those gifts, energetically and creatively, in his service

It’s not use coming back and saying “there wasn’t a safe option”; of course there isn’t. Get out there and take risks – that is what is required, and required of you, now, in Christian mission.

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!

Comfort and Healing – that we must share

As Jesus travelled, ” he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  no surprise there – we expect Jesus to teach, heal, be compassionate. But think what else he could have done:

  • this is ridiculous, I need a holiday, I’m off!
  • here’s a real commercial opportunity, if I charge them £5 a head, we can all retire next month
  • if I organise them properly, I can have any position I want just by asking for it.

But Jesus isn’t like that, and won’t do those things (not that they are necessarily bad! – there’s nothing essentially wrong in making money by supplying what people want, or organising people to voice their demands and promote their leader, but)  As Mt summarises the first part of his gospel, he reminds us that Jesus had taken the initiative. He travelled, and taught (free of charge), and healed people. His reaction to the crowd is not even “here we go again”, but one of concern for them, for their real wellbeing. He doesn’t wring his hands or bemoan the situation, he gets on with working to tackle it. I hope you find all this encouraging. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to be a Christian, a better, more effective Christian, a Christian in action, not just words or theory.  It is evidence of love, of quality love which is not interfering do-goodism, nor ego-boosting “I told you my way was best”ism, nor anything else but deep, effective concern for the best for the other person.

There’s a bit of a sting in the tail!  Jesus reaction to the need is v37 (” Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”) and 10:1,7 (” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”, “go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. “). The 12 (only here does Matthew call them apostles – those sent out) are given authority, and their marching orders.  Again, we’re not terribly surprised; heard it before, perhaps. But shouldn’t we be?

  • Jesus could have called for volunteers – the extrovert, perhaps?
  • he could have sent those with that sort of gift
  • he could at least have kept a couple back, to keep him company, to get things ready for the others when they came back. You know the sort of people – “don’t expect me to do the religious stuff, but if you want practical help, I’ll be there.”

But just as Jesus worked for the good, the real benefit of the crowds – in the same way he sends all his disciples, to work in the same way. It’s a bit daunting, very much against our culture.  Imagine the complaints, and their answers:

  • I just want a bit of comfort; – fine, but go and give it
  • I like religion the way I like it; – go and love people
  • I’m hurt, damaged, tired, too old; – welcome, find the healing, energy, renewal – but even as you find it, share it with others.

It’s very easy to get used to Jesus, active in practical love.  It is distressingly easy to get used to our own willingness to admire that, even benefit from it, but not take him seriously.

A dark time

It’s a dark time.  Clouds are gathering and optimism in short supply.  As Jesus goes to Galilee, (Matthew 4:12-23) John the Baptist has been silenced, thrown into prison.  But there is prophecy of hope from as far back as Isaiah, and Jesus’ proclamation seems to be announcing something good.

Meanwhile, he is not going to work on his own.  First he calls Simon and Andrew, and then quickly also James and John.  It is not immediately clear how well they know Jesus, nor what they are letting themselves in for.  It seems to be enough that for the moment they will leave normal routine to follow and learn, taking instruction.  There is no contract.  This “discipleship” will take time to work out, but it is worth starting.

We know a little more of how things developed.  These four, with others, stayed as Jesus taught and healed.  Perhaps at first they sat and listened, but no doubt they began to help.  Was it organising those who wanted a private word first? or the practicalities of shopping for food or finding a bed for the night?  How long before they started to re-tell some of the favourite stories, to help people understand what Jesus was talking about?

We know that later, they were sent out in pairs. (Matthew 10:1-15)  Told, not just to preach, but to heal and exorcise people as well!  However they felt at first, they came back celebrating – and went on to learn some more.  There were all sorts of disciples, not just 12 men.  Luke tells us of 72 (Luke 10:1-20), and also speaks of how the women contributed to Jesus ministry too (Luke 8:1-3).  After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles explains how it was disciples who spread the message of Jesus.

They didn’t always get it right.  The whole of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians show an enthusiastic, but sometimes mistaken, church.  Early on (todays reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:10-18) we hear of dangerous divisions into groups and cliques.  Paul is clear that unity is important, and that Jesus is the leader, his death on the cross the vital answer to the need of messed up humans.

Disciples don’t become perfect – at least, not until they get to heaven.  But they do understand their need to learn.  Following Jesus goes on.  We learn more than stories to tell.  We become who we are meant to be, and being together is part of the process.  Some things have to go – competition, useless argument.  Some things come to show their value – Jesus, his choice of dying to serve, a future which brings light in the gloom.  Discipleship is still something to value, and keep doing.