Rethinking Church: Where are you? [Genesis 3:9] Location, location, location. I wonder if you’re familiar with this Channel 4 programme that seeks to help people find their perfect house? The name of the programme emphasising that apparently the key to finding the perfect house is all about place. Location, location, location could also be a phrase that points us to one key theme that runs throughout the Biblical story of God’s engagement with God’s people. A theme that is crucial for us to grasp as we reimagine Church and seek to understand God’s mission. In the very first line of Genesis we read “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”. God is God of all the heavens, of everywhere, and yet is specifically identified as the God of earth. One place in all of the heavens is singled out. From the very start we are told God has a particular relationship with one particular place; earth. And God is similarly known in one particular way; as Creator. We see this pattern continuing through the work of creation. As the earth is shaped and formed, one particular part of creation is chosen to bear God’s image; humanity. Chosen to relate to the rest of creation in a particular way; to partner with God in creating, in caring, in continuing to bring forth and enable life [Genesis 1: 26-28]. And just like with God’s relationship with the whole universe takes particular shape in one place – earth – so too does humanity’s relationship with creation. For though we are to care for all the earth, this takes expression and starts in one particular place. God creates a garden in Eden, God places humanity within it, to tend and keep it [Genesis 2: 4-8 & 15]. This particular place is where humanity is to learn initially what it is to be in relationship with God, and to share in God’s mission, by tending and keeping a garden in one part of the whole of creation. And we see this pattern continuing throughout the Biblical story. I wonder if you have ever noticed just how many place names are mentioned in the Bible? Throughout the various books of the Bible we are consistently told where something happened, where someone was from, where they were going, why a place had a certain name. This is more than simply a consequence of telling stories; place matters. This repeated inclusion of place names makes clear to us that God doesn’t deal with us in the abstract, but in the particular. God isn’t just some vague idea, some aloof person, but is known by particular people, in particular places, at particular times, in particular ways. And we see this ultimately embodied in Jesus. God loves the whole world. God needs to act to save, and so God becomes human, and lives out God’s mission, God’s life, God’s love, in one particular place, at one particular time, in one particular way. Jesus’ death and resurrection may be universal and once for all, but Jesus also shows us that the coming of God’s Kingdom is particular. Look how Jesus announces his mission in Luke 4:18-21. For some it is experienced as a welcome message of invitation, that you are no longer shut-out (good news to the poor); for some it is experienced in being set free from all that has long bound them (release to the captives); for others it comes as healing or a new way of seeing the world or themselves (sight to the blind); to still others it is known in the lifting of burdens and the shattering of barriers (the oppressed going free). Throughout Jesus’ ministry he announces that God’s Kingdom is here, but it is always embodied in specific acts in particular places. Where he is, who he is with, matters. So too for us. The Methodist Church can summarise our understanding of what we believe it is to be Church in Our Calling. That we are to worship, to learn and to care, to serve, and to share the good news of God’s love with others. This is what we shall be exploring over the coming weeks. But if we are created in God’s image, and God works specifically in particular places, then so too must we. We need to ask what is the good news of God’s love for the specific people and the particular places we find ourselves in (either as a scattered church in our daily lives, or as a gathered church)? What does God’s Kingdom look here in this place? What does it mean to worship and serve where we are? Back to creation. When God comes looking for Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit that was forbidden and hidden [Genesis 3: 1-8], God calls out to them, “Where are you?” [Genesis 3:9]. This is far more than the cry of someone seeking one who is lost. It’s a question that invites them to consider where they are. To look around, to see how God has been at work, to remember what they are called to, and who they are to be, in one particular part of God’s creation. Where are you? This was the first question that God asked to humanity, perhaps it is the first question we should be asking now? Do we know the places in which we find ourselves? Do we need to learn more about our communities so that God’s Spirit can help us see what God’s Kingdom looks like there? Do we need to get to know better the people where we live or work, so that God can reveal to us what shape God’s love needs to take for them? Have we, like Adam and Eve, taken to hiding, perhaps in our buildings, perhaps in the way we have always done things, that we have ceased working with God to bring life in this particular place? Is God is asking us now; Where are you? If we want to be serious about sharing in God’s mission, in knowing what it is to be Church, then we need to take seriously the places we are. We need to hear again God’s first question Where are you?
(Psalm 104. 26-30/ Isaiah 42. 5-9/ Luke 10. 1-9) “What is our mission here?” asks Fred Pratt Green in a line from the hymn “What shall our greeting be?” (StF 691). Our task today is to begin some thinking about mission. I wonder what the word “mission” conjures up in your mind. Mission used to be a word we applied in my youth to special events or a week’s activities. Cliff college students or staff used to come to churches and circuits for a week’s mission. I am old enough to remember characters like Herbert Silverwood, Howard Belben, Tom Jones (not the Welsh singer). My parents met on the circuit bus one Whit Monday going to Cliff College. As I once famously said to Howard Mellor in front of the Ministerial Synod, “I wouldn’t be here today if it had not been for Cliff College!”. In a slightly later period in the 1980’s Billy Graham came for “Mission England”. We also used the word “mission” to describe the work funded by collecting boxes of the Home Missions or Overseas Missions varieties.
The first time I encountered the word “mission” outside of this Christian context was as a young minister some thirty years ago when I was visiting an elderly member in a nursing home. On the wall of the home was displayed a “Mission Statement” indicating its purposes, goals and aims and ethos.
Mission has, since those days, come more into or common speech in Methodism. Indeed twenty years ago we had presented a summary of the Our Calling document outlined as this “the Methodist Church- a discipleship movement shaped for mission”.
So what do we mean by the word mission? I looked in my small Oxford dictionary and found this- “persons sent out as envoys or evangelists, or task that one perceives oneself appointed to carry out”. So we get a sense here that mission does not belong to the people doing the tasks or being sent it is in Christian terms that which belongs to God, though God invites others to share in it. Absolutely fundamentally mission is God’s- “mission dei” in Latin. God is a God of a mission. God has a mission and God invites us as disciples of Christ to share in it. It is not ours, it is God’s just as the Church is not ours, it too belongs to God.
The psalmists words (Ps 104) remind us that when God speaks God creates things and renews things. This goes to the heart of our understanding of God as a God of mission. In Isaiah 42 we heard that God’s mission is no small, narrow agenda, the one who created the heavens and the earth and who gives breath to all peoples, invites his people to be a covenant to the people and a might to the nations. A missionary people who see their mission to the whole world. In Jesus Christ this mission comes to a fulfilment as Simeon proclaims in the words of the Nunc Dimittis “he is a light to lighten the Gentiles” as well as “being the glory of God’s people Israel” (Luke 2.29).
And sending Jesus to come among us is part of this mission of God. But Jesus doesn’t just announce and perform God’s mission himself, he invites others to share in it. So in Luke 10 we see Jesus sending out his disciples on mission.
I want us to notice five things:-
INTENTION- Jesus sends out disciples to the places he himself intends to go. They go out with intention, not with a vague feeling of it being something nice or interesting. Intention is a word which has come to the fore in much Christian thinking recently. It has come to the fore because we have previously lacked it. We are not always intentional. If asked what we are doing or why we are doing something we often would hesitate to know what to say. Why do we want to keep the chapel open, because we do. That is often the vagueness and generality that I hear. We need a clearer idea of our intention. We need to be intentional. Knowing what we are doing and why we are doing it. To have a clearer sense of purpose and aim and goal. Intentionality is often lacking and we need to find it. We often tend to bumble along without the clarity of intention.
The HARVEST is plentiful. Over recent weeks I have witnessed the work of combine harvesters gathering in the harvest. But Jesus says about the world and the people in it, the harvest is plentiful. John Wesley said often to remind the Methodist people that “we have nothing to do but save souls”. We might balk at some of the techniques used in previous generations but the task remains the same. We have perhaps more folk than ever who have no idea of the gospel message. We have a massive harvest field. The number of people who need to hear the good news (not the bad news that they are wretched sinners) that God loves them so much that he sent his Son, is a massive number of people. We need to re-shape what we do so that we are clearer that what lies behind our efforts and our activities and events is a passion about sharing the good news of Jesus.
And Jesus SENDS his followers out. Sent with a mission and a purpose. And a sense of urgency which meant they were not to dilly dally on the way but to be fleet of foot and swift in the execution of their tasks. Perhaps we need to find or re-discover something of that sense that we are sent. This is the essence of the word apostles- those who are sent.
Ad we are sent out with the clear instruction GO. Not stay. Go, go to the people, not stay within the safe confines of the household of faith. We are sent out. In every act of worship we are at the end sent out. Whilst it is good to share fellowship and to gather together (something many are missing very deeply) we cannot remain in the sanctuary for ever, we must go out into the world where the people are. We must go to be among the people, gather where they gather and use every opportunity we have to proclaim the good news (I don’t mean button-holing people and asking them “Are you saved, brother”? like some insensitive evangelist did in past times). But finding a way to share your story of faith in ways that makes sense to people. The one good thing this pandemic may have brought us is to realise that we must be outside the building because we cannot be inside it. And we must be wary that as we now reflect on re-opening our buildings, we don’t just slip back into our old ways and habits.
And the fifth point I wish to emphasise is the centre place of the KINGDOM. Jesus gives his instructions and says you are to say “The kingdom of God has come near to you”. Now the kingdom of God is a massive topic and has a wide-ranging agenda. All of what the followers of Jesus sent out on mission were to say and do seems to be couched in terms that place that range of activities like healing the sick, proclaiming the gospel is an expression of the kingdom. We know that the kingdom involves feeding the hungry, challenging injustice, releasing captives, announcing sight for the blind etc etc etc. We might ask of any activity we are thinking of re-starting, is this extending the kingdom? And that might focus our minds a bit.
Scheduled for 23 Aug 2020 at 10.30am.
Matthew 4: 22-33 “He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and come towards Jesus.” (Matthew 4: 29) I wouldn’t normally speak up for Peter, come to his defence. He’s certainly big enough (and ugly enough) to look after himself, and if you’re going to go around blurting out the first thing that comes into your head or acting on impulse without thinking then you’d better be prepared for the criticism that will follow. But not this time. This time Peter got it more right than wrong. Yet still he is lambasted for his lack of faith, and somehow everyone seems to forget about the rest of us in the boat; us who showed no faith and acted only out of fear. I don’t know if you can picture the scene. Everything is dark – thick clouds blot out the moon and the stars. There’s only a faint glow from a couple of lanterns that are swinging wildly as the boat is rocked back and forth, up and down, as great waves batter the sides. It’s the early hours of the morning and we’re soaked through from the spray, we’re exhausted from the effort of battling against the wind, trying to keep the boat moving forwards, hoping to keep edging towards the shore, yet all the time seeming to get nowhere, stuck out in the middle of the lake. And then, through the gloom, somewhere off the stern, we spot what seems to be a figure walking towards us. For a moment I thought I was seeing things – maybe hallucinating from the tiredness, my mind playing tricks on me. But the others saw it too. When we realised this, we cried out in fear; “It’s a ghost!”. Well what else could it be? I mean, it looked like Jesus, but we’d left him on the lake shore, with the crowds. How could he be out here, now? Even if he had a boat he’d have never caught us up in this wind. Yet there he was, no boat, nothing, striding over the waves towards us, calling out to us; “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Well I tell you, of course we were afraid. Being tossed around in a storm at night in the middle of the lake not knowing if you will make the shore, any sensible person would be afraid. But now, seeing him, hearing him, we were more than afraid – we were terrified. Something was happening that was not of this world. We clung to the sides of the boat, desperate to feel something that was solid, that was real, that was tangible. We sunk down into the hull – surely this was the safest place to be? But it’s at this moment that Peter calls out to the figure – to Jesus or the ghost – “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” What a ridiculous thing to say! What would that prove? What if it had been some kind of evil spirit that wanted to lure Peter to a watery grave? I suppose that just highlights Peter’s faith in what happened next. “Come”, that was all the figure said, and before we had a chance to say anything to Peter, before we could grab him and stop him doing something stupid, there he was, climbing over the stern, lowering his feet into the lake, eyes fixed on Jesus. As we froze motionless in the boat, Peter didn’t disappear. Hesitatingly, wobbling, arms outstretched, he began to move towards the figure. It was Jesus, and Peter was walking to him on the water. Of course you know what happens next. There was no way, given the wind and the size of the waves, that Peter wasn’t at some point going to look around him and notice all this again. And when he did that, out of the safety of the boat, he was frightened, and then he began to sink. He called out to Jesus to save him, and there he was, grabbing him by the hand, pulling him up. Funny how everyone remembers that part. Remembers Jesus saying to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Everyone seems to see this as a withering rebuke, but I’m not so sure. Peter had faith – Jesus’ words acknowledge this. He acted in faith. Yes, there was doubt, but faith isn’t the absence of doubt. Like us, Peter wasn’t sure if it was Jesus, but he was the only one brave enough to speak to him, the only one faithful enough to trust the invitation, the only one willing to risk getting his feet wet. No, it seems to me the opposite of faith is fear, not doubt. Peter begin to sink when his doubt meant he was overwhelmed by fear. But we were the ones who let fear paralyse us, clinging to what was known, to what we thought was safe. Yet noone says anything about us. By the time we reached shore, Peter’s little faith was just a little bit bigger. I think somehow that’s how it works. As we draw on it, so we learn to trust that little bit more. Like a muscle, the more we exercise it, the stronger it grows. In faith Peter responded to Jesus, by faith he had walked on the water. By his faith, we saw Jesus’ power to save, not just Peter from drowning but to bring us peace in the storm, and now even those of us who were overcome with fear were beginning to trust. I don’t know whether you’ve ever literally been in the midst of a storm in a boat on a lake, but I’m sure you’ve an idea what it feels like. To be in a situation where all around you is shifting, where you can’t see what’s going on, where it feels like you’re being battered by wave after wave. Where it seems like everything is blowing against you. Where you’re just so tired but all your effort seems to make no difference. Where you long for a place of safety, for the storm to pass. Where you’re gripped by fear because it’s all unknown and out of your control and you try to hunker down in the boat… In the midst of this, when Jesus speaks and bids you come, will you act in fear or faith? Fear kept me in the boat, where eventually we would have been overwhelmed. Faith, even just a little, enabled Peter to step out and walk upon the waves, and encounter the one who saves. Are you willing to step out of the boat? Fear or faith, how will you respond as Jesus calls
Summer Holiday Club
A long, long time ago, the people of Israel wanted a King.
Hear the Bible story of crowns, battles, giants, lions & bears!
Stanhope Methodist Church
Monday 24th – Saturday 29th August
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