We have seen that the starting place for discipleship is ‘Being with God’. If you had sixty seconds in a lift to share with someone what being a Christian is, you might begin by saying that the good news is that we are made to live in the closest possible relationship with God forever (a covenant), and that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has made that possible.
We have also seen that discipleship is about ‘Becoming like Christ’. Jesus called disciples as apprentices who, as they spend time with the rabbi, take on His characteristics in a way that also makes them more fully themselves.
But as we have also read previously, the end point of discipleship is “Being with another person…in order to become capable of doing what that person does…An ‘apprentice’ of Jesus is learning from Him how to lead their life as He would lead their life if He were they.” (Dallas Willard)
The aim of any apprenticeship is to join in doing what the teacher does, to the extent that you are then able to apprentice others.
One writer puts it, “The mark of a deeply mature man or woman, the mark of a very mature disciple of Jesus, and the mark of someone truly giving his or her life away is this: he or she is a person who blesses others and blesses the world, just as God does and just as Jesus did.” (Ronald Rolheiser)
These five weeks explore how the purpose of our lives of discipleship is to “Join in with the Spirit” in the mission of God in the world. The first two sessions shape our understanding of what that mission is, and the last three unpack how we might live it out in the power of God’s Spirit.
It is not hard to see that these two themes – mission and the Spirit – can be the source of a lack of confidence among Christians. We might have fears or doubts about mission because we see the church shrinking and becoming marginalised in society, and so wonder what ‘effective mission’ means. Or we may be affected by a general suspicion towards those ‘on a mission’ in a culture suspicious of truth claims or perceived hidden agendas.
It may be easier for us as well to relate to God as our Father and Jesus as one of us, than to have confidence in the nature and purpose of the Holy Spirit. Yet Paul promises that life in God’s rule is a matter of “joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) It is impossible to grow in any aspect of our lives as disciples without God’s Spirit – Jesus did nothing apart from the Spirit.
These five weeks aim to equip us to join in with God’s mission in whatever ways He is calling us, and to do that with a desire for the Spirit, a trust in the Spirit’s goodness, and an openness to the Spirit in our lived experience.
While we might have uncertainty about the idea of mission, or at least what it should look like, it is hard to find an organisation without a mission statement. The word ‘mission’ means ‘sent out’ and such statements say what the purpose of the organisation is sent to do – what does it exist for?
At a fundamental level all human beings need a sense of mission. A psychologist called Viktor Frankl spent most of his life studying the question, What makes life meaningful?” He had an argument with Sigmund Freud about it. Freud thought that what humans most want is pleasure and comfort, and that we organise life around finding it. Frankl argued that what people desire is something deeper – a sense of purpose, mission and belonging. He said it is when we can’t find meaning that we will try and numb ourselves with pleasure.
He developed a “therapy of meaning”, recommending that people look for three things:
Frankl was put in charge of thirty thousand mental health patients who were at risk of suicide in the area around Vienna. He inherited a situation in which many people were dying. Yet by applying these principles, Frankl lost no one under his care to suicide. (Story told in ‘Scary Close’ by Donald Miller).
Jesus described his purpose in life as the true food He needed. “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34) He envisaged those who were with Him and becoming like Him living highly fruitful lives, producing “a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:8) The minimum is a thirty-times multiplication.
As we have already seen, He modelled a spiritually healthy life with as containing a balance of relationships – being with God (up), His close community (in) and then reaching out to others with the message and power of God’s rule (out).
As those who ‘learn as they follow’ His disciples did not have to wait until they had been with Him or trained by Him for a period before being sent. In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ first call to Simon and Andrew is, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) He was using a common phrase from the time to describe those who would go and capture people’s imaginations with teaching. Being with Him naturally led to joining in with His work.
When Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, His sends him to others straight away: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) In the next chapter Jesus sends out the twelve in pairs, with His authority, to do what He did. So “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6: 12-13)
Similarly, in Matthew’s gospel we see this natural link where mission is part of discipleship. Jesus tells His disciples to pray for more workers for God’s harvest (Matthew 9:37-38). Again we read how He sends the apostles out (the word apostle means ‘sent one’) to proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And to act: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10: 7-8)
Jesus tells them that the logical outcome of receiving His life will be sharing that with others: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8) Right from the beginning He acknowledges that to do this will not be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Ultimately, Jesus summarises the goal of discipleship as being able to apprentice others: “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20) and to usher in God’s kingdom, the good news of His rule, in every part of His creation: “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)
Pope Francis calls the church a “community of missionary disciples” because it is impossible to separate being with God and becoming like Christ from joining in with what God is doing. As God sent Jesus into the world, so He sends His disciples into the world.
Going back to our 60 second lift conversation, one way of sharing good news might be to say that being a disciple answers the deepest human questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I here for?” As we have seen, who we are is found in the relationship of covenant-love that God wants with us and makes possible for us. What we are here for – our ultimate purpose in life as His disciples – is to join in with His work. Jesus didn’t die and rise again to save us from something, but for something.
The 18th century missionary Zinzendorf had a motto: “Wherever at the moment there is most to do for our Saviour, that is our home.” Jesus’ disciples dropped everything immediately because they knew that following Him would give them meaning they could never find themselves.
A doctor went to see a rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.” The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologise to God for the ways you have not lived. “Not for the usual sins,” she said. “But for the sin of living small.”
Tom Wright says, “There is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a badly written one.” This module aims to help us allow God to write a story of meaning and purpose in our lives, so that we can live ‘large’ for what truly matters by joining in with Him.
The more we understand what is God up to in the world, and what Jesus understood He came to do, the more we will see in what ways disciples are called to join in with God.
Just as our picture of God is the most important thing in determining our relationship with Him, so our picture of the world will shape the purpose of our lives. For example, some people’s purpose is shaped by the idea that the world is just material and exists for our benefit – this tends to lead to us consuming as much as we can, while we can. Some believe that the direction of the world is about different civilisations are clashing with each other – this might result in adopting a purpose of being stronger than anyone else. Some believe that the world is meaningless – this may result in seeing our mission as just existing in the moment.
Our big story about the world and its purpose is the foundation for our mission in life. In looking at Jesus life, death and resurrection, we have already seen how everything He did was rooted in God’s mission. So how might we understand it?
In short, the mission of God is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Or, as The Message paraphrases it, God has “a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.” (Ephesians 1: 9-10)
He is working towards no less than, “the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.” (Matthew 19:28) God is looking to “restore all things” (Acts 3:21) and “through (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
While church growth or human moral improvement might be part of this, the mission of God into which Jesus invites us is far greater. It’s no less than the restoration of human beings to the covenant relationship of love He made us for. And the new creation of disciples who will join in seeing God’s rule (kingdom of God) fully on earth, restoring everything that is broken until heaven and earth are reunited again.
These two themes of covenant relationship with God, and the life of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven are two of the most important strands of the story of God’s world, and of our lives.
Module 4, ‘Knowing the Story and Bible Confidence’ unpacks this story in more detail.
Here is a brief overview:
God is a creator, who brings new life. He creates the heavens – not a separate place we go to when we die but a description of God’s space, the realm of spiritual realities we cannot see – and the earth – the space where human beings exist. From the beginning, God’s intention is that heaven and earth should overlap and be in harmony.
Human beings are created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, made to live in the closest possible relationship with Him, and given the royal dignity of being able to join in with God’s creative work by ruling.
But the experience of human beings has two realities. We are made in the image of God, and to be a blessing in God’s creation. But the decision to make ourselves the ones who decide what is good and evil, rather than obeying God (described in the story of Adam and Eve but played out again and again in history) drives us away – separating heaven and earth.
As we have seen, “Sin is the one doctrine we can’t dispute.” (G.K. Chesterton) We live with the consequences of this separation in lives which fall short of our human calling, relationships between God and people, and between human beings, in which trust is broken, and in which things which are created to be a blessing can easily be twisted out of shape. This “fall” affects the “heavens” as well as the earth, with much of the evil and pain we face being influenced by the unseen rebellion of spiritual forces. Death results.
The story of the world is God’s mission to restore what is broken, so that heaven and earth can once again be reunited, and human beings can recover our original relationship and calling.
So God re-creates, at first by calling a people to be a blessing to the nations. A new people. For the Jewish people, the purpose of life is joining in with God’s restoration of the world.
In order to be with them, God establishes a Temple in the midst of His people – initially a moveable tent called a tabernacle, and later on a physical building in Jerusalem. This is the place where His presence (heaven) overlaps with ours (earth) and so both tabernacle and Temple were decorated in a way that made the people remember the initial garden in which they were made to be completely at one with God.
At the centre of these dwellings is the Holy of Holies – the space in which God dwells. It can only be entered once a year by the high priest. This is because God remains holy, and His people remain cut off from Him by sin. So around the Temple God gives a system of animal sacrifice, in which the lives of animals are given to absorb the cost of people’s sin, though not in a permanent way. Despite this being an incomplete solution, it provides a way for God and His people to continue in relationship.
God’s love for His people, and His calling on their lives to be a blessing remain, but again and again Israel keep choosing not to obey, leading eventually to their exile from God’s Promised Land – they are taken into captivity.
Yet through this time God appoints certain people to speak His words to Israel – calling them back to be people who will live holy lives, marked by justice and right-living, restoring the earth. Over time this vision emerges as a promise of God’s kingdom being fully established again – a time when God’s heavenly rule will be completely at one with the earth. Prophets speak of someone anointed with God’s Spirit (Messiah) who will bring God’s kingdom to earth once again, healing lives, changing people’s hearts so that they will want to do what God desires once again, and enabling them to be with and worship God everywhere.
Jesus is this anointed one. He is called the “Word made flesh” who sets up God’s tabernacle among us (John 1). He is the Temple – the place of God’s full presence. In His life and wherever He goes He creates places where heaven and earth overlap once again, those who are sick are restored, the oppressed are set free, and people’s hearts are turned towards God in love.
Through Jesus God’s mission is re-established. Jesus begins to restore what is broken, but also points to a time when this healing will be complete, and God will be all in all. He sent His disciples to join in the same work: “Go! I am sending you… When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10: 8–9)
Jesus also becomes the sacrifice – the Lamb of God – whose death means that evil, sin and death are absorbed and defeated, not as a temporary solution, but possible for all people, time and space.
As God’s covenant people, Jesus’ disciples are called out (the meaning of church) to continue this work of the reconciliation of all things and people. They are given God’s presence (Spirit) to begin to rule creation once again in His image.
While they long to see God face-to-face, their hope is not to leave the earth when they die, but to be with God forever in a renewed creation, in which heaven and earth overlap completely once again, and humanity rule in the love and power of God. The end of the Bible looks forward to a time when this restoration will be complete.
While they look for this renewed creation, joining in with the restoration God began most fully in Christ, they still experience the ‘death throes’ of evil, chaos and mortality in the world. The world itself is still groaning like a woman in childbirth longing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay”. God’s mission of restoration continues in the context of this struggle, but with the hope and vision that one day the kingdom will be fully “on earth, as it is in heaven”.
This is the mission God that shapes a disciple’s life, and the life of God’s people. It helps us know who we are but also what we are here for. The handout ‘Being completely secure in who you are’ unpacks these two questions and provides a group or mentoring resource.
At the heart of the church is of course worship. We exist to worship God and will enjoy Him forever. We are “God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) That is why we begin the Way of Discipleship by ‘Being with God’ in worship.
But our worship has always been expressed by responding to the call to join in with God for His purposes. Worship and mission are intertwined, the one naturally leading to the other. We are not a tribe who look after ourselves, but to live out God’s purposes in the world.
“The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.” (Brunner). It is not that the church has a mission, but that “the mission of God has a church”. The more we have a sense of joining in with God’s mission, the more we will be being true to the nature of what “church” means. A recent report talked about the need for us to be a “Mission-Shaped Church”. This is why the wartime Archbishop, William Temple, famously said, “”The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”
The Methodist Church defines what church is very similarly to Pope Francis: “a discipleship movement shaped for mission.”
This neatly describes the relationship between the three words, church, mission and discipleship, in a way that is sometimes counter-intuitive to our expectations.
Our task is not grow the church – Jesus said “I will build my church.”
Neither is it to do God’s mission for Him – we are to join in with where He is at work.
Our commission is to “make disciples.” (Matthew 28)
As we grow in discipleship, we will be paying attention to where God is at work and equipped and led to join in with His mission. And as we join in with His mission, the community of worshipping people called out (church) by God will be shaped around His purposes.
When Puccini was fairly young, he contracted cancer, and so he decided to spend his last days writing his final opera, Turnandot, which is one of his most polished pieces. When his friends and disciples would say to him, “You are ailing; take it easy and rest,” he would always respond, “I’m going to do as much as I can on my great master work and it’s up to you, my friends, to finish it if I don’t.” Well, Puccini died before the opera was completed.
Now his friends had a choice. They could for ever mourn their friend and return to life as usual – or they could build on his melody and complete what he started. They chose the latter. And so, in 1926 at the famous La Scala Opera house in Milan, Puccini’s opera was played for the first time, conducted by the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini.
When it came to the part in the opera where the master had stopped writing because he died, Toscanini stopped everything, turned around with eyes welling up with tears, and said to the large audience, “This is where the master ends.” And he wept. But then, after a few moments, he lifted up his head, smiled broadly, and said, “And this is where his friends began.” Then he finished conducting the opera.
Mission is ‘to continue the opera’ – to faithfully do the same things that Jesus did, in the manner in which He did them, for the same ultimate goal.
The creation-wide restoration mission of God has many dimensions, and there have been many attempts to define it. In 1984 the Anglican Church created a “mission statement” and these were fully adopted in 1996. The statement says:
The mission of the church is the mission of Christ:
While there may be other ways of expressing the content of mission, these principles emphasise:
The priority of God’s kingdom. The group which developed it wrote, “The first mark of mission, is really a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus’ own summary of his mission. Instead of being just one of five distinct activities, this should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.”
The creation-wide scope of mission. Leslie Newbigin wrote, “We have to keep steadily in view the fact that what the gospel offers is not just hope for the individual but hope for the world. Concretely I think this means that the congregation must be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of the neighbourhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus.”
The social impact of mission involves reversing of all the evil consequences of sin, against both God and neighbour. It is not just restoring an individual’s relationship with God.
The way mission gets rid of the sacred/secular divide. God is interested in restoring every part of life. Mission is not something we only do as church-based activities together – we are seeking God’s rule in all the scattered places we find ourselves in our everyday faith occupations.
The breadth of God’s mission is so big that no-one can do it on their own – mission is rarely a solitary adventure – we need each other.
Mission is more about going to others and inviting them to join in, rather than expecting them to come to us. As Jurgen Moltmann says, “… in place of the spread of our … churches we have to put a passion for the kingdom of God. Mission doesn’t mean `compelling them to come in’! It is the invitation to God’s future and to hope for the new creation of all things: `Behold, I am making all things new’ – and you are invited to this divine future for the world!”
Throughout these sessions we will explore these five marks more specifically, looking at what it means in our lived experience to: join in with God’s mission in our everyday faith and workplaces (session 2), share faith and make disciples (session 3), serve our neighbours being a church that goes to others (session 4) and seeking to challenge injustice and look after God’s world (session 5).
In trying to summarise the nature of the church, one bishop described us as an instrument of God’s reign – in other words – one of the (main) ways He sees His purposes on earth. But he also used two other words. The church is a sign of God’s reign, and a foretaste of His rule.
In other words, by looking at the church people would see a sign of what it looks like when God is ‘in charge’ of a community – in the way we love one another and act. And they would have a foretaste of what the world will look like when God is fully present in the healing and restoration the church seeks to bring.
God needs a visible Christian community that functions as the body of Christ who live out His mission. Mission is not just something we do; it is who we are. The French philosopher Pascal said that it is virtually impossible to try and persuade people of the truth of Christianity, unless the more important thing is in place – to make people wish that it were true because they see the vision of what it offers lived out in real people’s lives.
The writer Hugh Halter says this about God’s mission in our time: “The incarnational big-story gospel will require a place of discovery, where people will be able to see the truth before they hear about it. This place will not be location but a community of people who are inclusive of everyone. These people will be making eternity attractive by how they live such selfless lives now and will be modelling life in a new kingdom in ways that will make it easy for other people to give it a try….Success is faithfulness. The rest is up to God.”
How is it that God can be with each person, and in each place, throughout time and space? How can God act in the world?
From the beginning of the Bible, it is through the Holy Spirit that God carries out every aspect of His purposes. It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of God’s mission and the way in which God is present to us.
We saw that in the story of the Bible God’s mission is to bring life into being, restore and recreate what is broken, be in personal covenant relationship with His people, and appoint us to live out His purposes.
All of these things happen by the Holy Spirit. He is God’s personal and empowering presence. No aspect of God’s mission is possible without God’s Spirit.
Christians are familiar with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is important to know that this is a continuation and expansion of the work of God’s Spirit throughout all of history. It is with the arrival of Jesus that the Spirit appears in the fulness in which we know Him. While the Spirit is referred to 126 times from Genesis to Luke, from John onwards He is spoken of 196 times.
It is good to know as well that the Holy Spirit is not only an invisible “power”, but a person who helps, strengthens, cries out from within our hearts, knows our own spirits, prays for us, works things together for good, and creates the character of God in us, known as the fruits of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is more than personal, but also not less than personal.
While it has been more common to refer to the Spirit using the masculine ‘He’ (see https://www.churchsociety.org/resource/is-the-holy-spirit-to-be-referred-to-as-she/) in some cases the words used are feminine or neuter. This opens us up to knowing that the character and action of God’s spirit is beyond any gendered ideas we might bring.
The Holy Spirit is a divine and a distinct person. Yet the Holy Spirit only works to point us to the Father or the Son. He is ‘God behind the scenes’, acting anonymously, meaning we are never directly aware of the Holy Spirit, but His presence will make us more aware of the Father or Son. Jesus said the Spirit will “testify about me.” (John 15:26)
Augustine called the Holy Spirit the tie of love between the Father and the Son which He then pours out on us, drawing us into the circle of love and making God’s love real to us. He…”proceeds from the Father and the Son… and makes Christ known in the world.”
That is why people in the Bible do not pray to the Holy Spirit, and such prayer was rare in the life of the early church. In the New Testament the normal pattern is to pray in the Spirit, not to the Spirit. At the heart of God’s Spirit is a wonderful reminder of God’s self-giving agape love – the desire to make the Father and Son known above all.
In one way, if we find the Holy Spirit hard to relate to, it is perhaps a sign that what really matters is that He is helping us see the Father, through the Son, even more clearly.
The Holy Spirit never comes to us as a separate force, but always makes our vision of God the Father and Son clearer, and our experience of their fellowship more real. Only by the Spirit could we possibly hope to have the life of our transcendent three-in-one God in us.
So even while we honour the Holy Spirit as a distinct person it is consistent to know the Spirit in our lived experience as the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Paul talks about the “Spirit of Christ” three times, and the “Spirit of God” 16 times. Nevertheless, as the Bible progresses there is an increasing move to celebrating the Spirit as “Holy” as the normal way of addressing the Spirit.
For example, whereas the Old Testament talks about the “Spirit of God or the Lord” 67 times, this phrase is used only 25 times in the New Testament. In contrast, the name “Holy Spirit” is used just 7 times in the Old Testament, but 88 times in the New.
The Spirit’s holiness is not about distance, but about a uniqueness – in being the only one who creates life as a distinct person.
From the second verse of the Bible, it is the “Spirit of God” who brings order out of a totally uninhabitable world of darkness and chaos, bringing life and meaning to the creation (Genesis 1:2) and human beings. (Genesis 2:7)
There are a number of images used to describe the presence and work of the Spirit, and the first is that of breath. It is God’s breath (breathed out as He speaks things into life) which enables human beings to come to life, giving us a ‘spirit’ – a divine life-spark.
The same Spirit-word of breath can also mean wind – the invisible force that brings energy to the whole world and makes them move. The writers see the Spirit’s work in bringing life to humans and creation as one and the same.
It is through God’s personal Spirit that He creates and sustains animals, plants, and the movement of the stars, and gives humans a spirit.
Through His personal “breath”, His own personal life-giving power, God is present to the world, both creating it and sustaining it. It is through His “breath” and “wind” that God can be present in the world.
Wind and breath remind us of power and gentleness, movement and peace – these are the characteristics of God’s presence. Wind also cannot be contained by anything, and so is a reminder that the work of God’s Spirit will always be bigger and wilder than we can express.
In the New Testament this theme continues. Each Gospel emphasises how Jesus’ work is connected to the creative work of the Spirit. The bird hovering over Jesus at His baptism recalls the Spirit over the waters at creation, bringing new life. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit. gives birth to spirit. … The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 5-8)
When the Spirit comes on all the disciples at Pentecost they are all able to speak different languages, but be understood. In a twenty-first century multicultural environment, it is crucial for us to see from this that the Spirit creates in such a way to bring people together but celebrate all their differences at the same time. The creative work of God’s Spirit always does what human beings struggle to do – hold together unity and diversity.
For disciples the mission of God to bring life to creation including human beings can only be by the Holy Spirit. And the mission of God, from the beginning, is seen in every part of His creation.
After His resurrection when Jesus appears to His disciples “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22) Through the Spirit, God continues to create and re-create what has been broken…
The Holy Spirit is Creator, but also the Redeemer throughout the Bible, working to draw us to God’s future and give us a foretaste of the restoration we long for.
If the first creative work of the Holy Spirit makes us God’s creatures, the second work is to reverse the effects of sin by restoring us as His children, growing into who He made us to be, wanting to obey Him.
In the Old Testament, particularly after Israel goes into exile, there is a longing for God’s Spirit to be restoring His people. The prophets through whom the “Spirit of Christ” speaks (1 Peter 1: 10-11) look to a time when God will send His Messiah – which means the one anointed by His Spirit – and bring salvation.
The main prophecy about this anointed one is in Isaiah. God promises a King on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest (the Spirit is mentioned four times) who will bring righteousness, justice and faithfulness to the earth, bringing about a renewed creation. This Spirit will give wisdom and understanding. (Isaiah 11: 1-10)
Ezekiel looks for a day when God will change all His people from the inside out. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36: 26-28)
God will bring people who are lost and spiritually dead back to life by His Spirit. Ezekiel speaks of all that the Spirit does, using the words breath, wind and spirit: “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life….‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live’…I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…” (Ezekiel 37: 1-14) This is the high point in describing what the Spirit does – it is only by the Spirit that we can be truly re-created.
As we have seen, the New Testament uses the same ideas and language as the Old (Jesus ‘breathing on the disciples’, the Spirit hovering over the water, the sound of wind at Pentecost) to describe the work of the Spirit in recreating.
But with the arrival of the anointed one, this new creation breaks into the world in a decisive way, expanding God’s work of restoration.
The Holy Spirit’s power is linked to the power of Jesus’ works and His resurrection. “Christ Jesus…who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1: 1-4)
We see the Spirit’s re-creation in bringing the wholeness of God’s kingdom to broken people. In His life and ministry, the healing and deliverance which Jesus brings is done “by the Spirit of God”. (Matthew 12:28)
We see this the Spirit’s re-creation in the defeat of the power of death. The Spirit has enormous power to bring new life, being involved in raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus “was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)
And we see this in the action of the Holy Spirit as being a guarantee, and a foretaste of the complete healing of all things. The Holy Spirit has begun His work and will not stop until the whole creation is liberated.
Because we live at a time when God has defeated the power of death and evil, but we are yet to see that victory completed, we still long for that day. Paul says that “we groan inwardly as we wait for the….redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)
Meanwhile, our experience of the Holy Spirit is as a down-payment of that future promise. We have received the first-fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23). Pentecost came at a festival of the first-fruits of the harvest that is to come.
The Holy Spirit is at work now, re-creating the world and us. God’s mission through the Spirit is, as much as possible, to make His future kingdom a reality today. In God’s new creation, there will be no racism, or hypocrisy, or lies, or sickness, or environmental harm, or fear…and so our mission is to partner with His Spirit to see that healing become real today.
For disciples the mission of God to bring restoration which points to God’s future can only be by the Holy Spirit. And the mission of God restores whatever or whoever is broken in any part of creation.
We have already seen, in looking at how our characters are changed to become more like Christ, that the having our minds renewed by what we focus on and having a community in which we can be both encouraged and exposed matters.
But we have seen how a key discipleship principle is that it is our practices of being with God which help change us indirectly as they give space for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts – the place of our deepest desires.
The new creation work of the Holy Spirit is seen in the world, but also in disciples being “new creations”, who are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18) We are on a journey to become like Christ, and journey which will only be complete when we are resurrected. We are not what we were, but we are not yet what we shall be.
The Holy Spirit is working to change us from the inside out, to grow the character of Jesus in us (the fruit of the Spirit). Whereas in the Old Testament people received the Holy Spirit for particular tasks, in Christ the Holy Spirit lives in us for a lifestyle. A word for this process is sanctification – of the journey being made more holy – set apart for God – throughout our lives.
Just as the Holy Spirit does the ‘heavy lifting’ in our transformation, even in our being able to put our trust in Christ most of the work belongs to the Spirit. “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) Our wills are too affected by sin and brokenness to be able to manage on their own. As one writer puts it, “What matters is not the strength of our spirituality, but the grace of the Spirit of God.”
The encouraging thing in terms of sharing faith is that just as we ‘join in’ with God’s mission in its wider sense, our first need is to see where the Spirit is already at work in people’s hearts.
For disciples the mission of God to make disciples more like Christ can only be done through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Only by the Holy Spirit can the love of God be made real to us, and can we be secure in our identity as His covenant children. The Spirit is God’s personal presence.
We reflect this every time we gather for worship. For example, during Holy Communion we begin by saying, “The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.” During our thanksgiving prayer there is a particular moment when we call upon the Holy Spirit to be present to us through the bread and wine: “Send your Holy Spirit, that these gifts may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are looking for an encounter with God through the Spirit.
Jesus promises the Spirit to His disciples as someone who will come alongside them, like a legal defender (paraclete) when He is physically absent. John writes most about the Holy Spirit as being the “Spirit of Truth” who will guide them, teach them, strengthen them when they are persecuted, remind them of Jesus’ teaching, and reveal Jesus to them. (John 14-16)
In Romans Paul says it is the Spirit who leads God’s children, reassuring them that they have been adopted by touching their spirits, and helping them call out to God with the respectfully intimate name, “Abba Father.” (Romans 8) In one sense, every human being is God’s child. But the usual understanding of our intended status before God is as being His children “in Christ.”
The “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” brings God’s love to us, coming to us in our most difficult places and weakness, even helping us to pray when we cannot: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8: 26) Prayer is not something we begin, but something we join in. The Holy Spirit makes us stand where Jesus stands with the Father, drawing us into the same circle of love.
Just as the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of God’s final new creation, so His presence is the seal of our status before God. In Ephesians Paul says that we our freedom through Christ before God was “signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit”. He is like a “signet from God” guaranteeing God’s promise for our future. (Ephesians 1: 13-14) During a confirmation service the words a bishop prays over the candidate, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit”, are emphasising this sense of being marked with God’s promises.
For disciples the mission of God means trusting the Holy Spirit’s work in us before we join in with Him.
The Holy Spirit appoints and commissions God’s people to carry out tasks and gives the strength and wisdom to put them into action. Again, as the story progresses, we see that the way the Spirit of God does this in the Old Testament expands and is fulfilled in the New.
In the Old Testament the Spirit usually gives people power for certain tasks, at certain times – we have seen the examples of Joseph and Bezalel. God empowers Moses, and through him, seventy others: “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.” (Numbers 11:25). Balaam prophesies by the Spirit of the Lord. (Numbers 24:2)
There is a common thread that it is the Spirit that enables people to prophesy throughout the Old Testament. As well as giving life, God’s Spirit also influences people with God’s wisdom and ideas, giving them insight they could not naturally have, helping them to speak His words.
Later prophets like Micah derive their ability to challenge God’s people from the Spirit: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.” (Micah 3:8)
Linked to this the Spirit of the Lord coming on people is often associated with the task of leadership. “The Spirit of the Lord came on (Othniel), so that he became Israel’s judge…” (Judges 3:10), on Gideon so he can lead the Israelites. (Judges 6:34) They are given the wisdom and the power to carry out God’s work. They are helped to do things not humanly possible (like Samson being able to tear a lion to pieces with his bare hands! (Judges 14:6)).
Anointing with oil becomes a further sign of the Spirit’s presence, particularly linked to people being appointed and strengthened. Saul and David both have oil poured over their heads by Samuel when they become king. “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.” (1 Samuel 16:13)
When the Spirit of the Lord influences a person, rather than taking away or overriding their human talent or gifting, it fulfils it, making more of their strengths and qualities. The more they are empowered by the Spirit, the more fully human they become, the better a king, or leader, or artist, or high priest, or prophet.
So from the beginning, God’s Spirit anoints specific people in particular ways. Yet there is a promise that one day God “…will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)
Jesus announces and demonstrates that His whole ministry is through the power of the Holy Spirit (see next section). But it is after His ascension that Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all disciples at Pentecost, empowering them to continue Jesus’ work, not through particular anointed individuals, but as a whole community.
They are now able to be “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), in whom God’s Spirit remains. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers and strengthens the disciples for God’s mission. Jesus promises His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; And you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8). The Holy Spirit is “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power” (2 Timothy 1:17) and enables them to speak “the word of God with boldness”. (Acts 4:31)
In the same way that specific individuals were gifted by the Spirit in the Old Testament, that promise of gifts is expanded so each one receives ministries and gifts to carry out Christ’s work. At Pentecost, Peter quotes Joel’s words to show this is the fulfilment of that promise. Because the Spirit now comes on a community, Pentecost is often known as the birthday of the church.
For disciples, this survey of the work of the Holy Spirit demonstrates how in every single thing, and in every way, whether in the life of the Church or in the life of an individual disciple, the power comes from the Spirit, or not at all. By understanding this we might grow in a desire for the Spirit, a trust in the Spirit’s goodness, and an openness to the Spirit in our lived experience.
Our tour through the Bible shows just how much the “chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit. He is the director of the whole enterprise. The mission consists of the things that he is doing in the world”. (Bishop John V. Taylor)
In recent decades there has been a heightened awareness that as disciples we “join in with the Spirit” because He initiates God’s work in the world. Over the next sessions we explore what this means in our lived experience. The incredible gift is that it is not our job to do God’s work for Him – we just get to join in! As one writer put it, “I used to ask God to bless what I am doing. Now I find out what God is blessing and go there.”
If Jesus is our model for mission, it is instructive to see how much He saw Himself as being led by His Father in it: “…the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing” (John 5:19) and how His whole life and ministry are in the power of the Spirit. Jesus did all that He did as a human being empowered by Holy Spirit. Just the same as us.
He is the anointed one, whom Isaiah prophesied would anoint to bring good news (Isaiah 61). Famously, Jesus quoted these words about Himself at the start of His ministry. All the gospels, particularly Luke, emphasise how Jesus is led by and speaks by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is in the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35), comes on Him at His baptism (3:21-22), leads Him into the wilderness (4: 1-2), comes upon Him at His Transfiguration (9: 28-36) and is promised by Him to His disciples (24:49).
The gospels bring another image into play alongside breath, wind, and oil. Jesus is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and who “full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan.” (Luke 4:1) The Spirit fills Jesus and His disciples as if they are empty containers, and soaks them with His power.
It is not surprising that for the early Christians it was natural that they “prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8: 14-17), that Ananias prayed for Saul (who became Paul) saying “the Lord…has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9: 17), saw the gift of the Spirit being poured out on those who were not expecting it (Acts 10:45) and that Paul said all the fruit of His ministry came from God: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)
Bishop Leslie Newbigin, for some time based in Birmingham, wrote, “Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in it missionary journey….every action of the kingdom of God is an action that is performed and sustained only by the power of the Spirit.”
The logical fruit of a life lived with God, and a character being shaped by His Spirit, is to want to join in with His mission.
For those of us who might struggle because of all kinds of pressures or fears to seek the kingdom two themes from this session may help us.
We don’t engage with God’s mission because it is a task to be done, but because it is the outworking of who God is.
By looking at the nature of the Holy Spirit, we can see that God is in Himself a God who always overflows to others, always goes to them. He is a missionary God. The poem “The Coming” by RS Thomas describes God looking at the brokenness of the world and ends like this:
“…On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. ‘Let me go there,’ he said.”
The more we keep company with a God whose nature is to go to the darkest cross to reach those in need the more we will want to share in His mission.
Experiencing the Spirit as the best, and most necessary, gift we can receive.
Moltmann writes that, “The Spirit is more than just one of God’s gifts among others; the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up…the greatest and most wonderful thing which we can experience…We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God and God in our life.”
Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit as the best gift anyone can receive saying, “…how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11) The philosopher Kierkegaard asked, “What is a Christian? A person who has caught fire from God’s…presence…a Christian is a person set on fire.”
The story is told of a young monk seeking advice from an older monk about his spiritual life. “Abba,” he said, “as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
We have started to see how vast God’s mission is. God is working to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ….the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.” God is looking to “restore all things”. (Acts 3:21) Our calling as disciples is to do what the one we follow did, in the way that He did it. It is not that the church has a mission, but that ‘the mission of God has a church’.
As we shall see, joining in with this mission helps us to be fully the people we are created to be. It can also have a deep social impact because God’s mission involves reversing of all the evil consequences of sin, against both God and neighbour.
At the heart of Birmingham is a story of someone who joined in with the mission of God in such a way that it touched every aspect of his life and has left a legacy of what society might look like when God’s reign – His kingdom – is experienced.
George Cadbury, a Quaker, set up a business in 1873 with his brother Richard. He was a bit of an eccentric – passionate about sport – football, cricket, tennis, swimming and golf. He loved early-morning cold baths and swimming in freezing cold rivers.
But George was not just concerned about making a profit, but saw the way in which he did it as an expression of God’s kingdom on earth. One of his chief aims was the happiness and well-being of his employees.
What was it like to work in the Cadbury chocolate factory? Well, each day began with Bible readings and prayers for all. The working day was considerably shorter than many other factories at the time. George and Richard believed in the balance of work and rest and they introduced half days on Saturdays and bank holiday closing.
In 1878 when the factory became too small, they decided to build a factory in the country and named it Bournville. On this site they provided football and cricket fields, a huge playground for children, even an open-air swimming pool. They built schools, hospitals, and introduced a pension scheme which they started at their own expense. George would often walk into the factory in the afternoon and tell the workers to knock off for a few hours so they could play cricket.
They made sure each person had their own garden planted trees along the wide roads. On his estate he had a special building created and each year thousands of deprived children found in its grounds every delight that could appeal to them – swings and cricket, races and games and above all the open air swimming pool. When George died in 1922, his funeral was attended by over 16,000 people. His chocolate factory was a signpost of the kingdom of God.
In such a complex world, it is easy to see why we might struggle to connect our everyday lives, at home or work (paid or voluntary), with the mission of God. There may be issues which we find it hard to work through. Or we might find it hard to juggle all the competing demands work, family, or church place upon us. We might see work as demeaning or oppressive – a distraction from God. We might not see how the different parts of our lives can fit together. Being part of a church community can feel like welcome ‘time-off’ from the demands of our daily lives.
No doubt George Cadbury faced many pressures. But it is equally true that his discipleship led him to join with the Spirit in every area of his life. This session is designed to inspire us with the big picture, and some simple ideas, about how we can serve as disciples wherever we are, and with whatever issues we face.
In the book ‘Holy Habits’ Andrew Roberts tells the story of Shona who “…over the years has introduced hundreds of children to Jesus. She has taught them to pray, shared biblical stories with them, introduced them to Christian worship and has engaged them in Kingdom activities including the support of Fairtrade and providing gifts for other children by filling shoe boxes with toys. All at the same time as equipping the children with the foundational learning skills that they need to flourish, and being a listening, prayerful support to colleagues struggling with illness and bereavement.
“Shona is not ordained or employed by the church. She is a primary school teacher faithfully doing her best to follow Jesus and bring transformation to the lives of the children she serves and the community in which the school is set. All at the same time as equipping their children with the learning skills necessary for life.”
As much as we might warm to the vision in these stories, it is common for Christians to feel a disconnect between our daily lives and our discipleship.
We can grow up with the sense that certain activities matter less to God. Decades ago, Dorothy Sayers wrote, “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
Or we can absorb the idea that certain callings are more acceptable expressions of discipleship. On Desert Island Discs Sister Wendy Beckett was asked, “When did you first decide you wanted to be a nun?” She replied, “I was a baby. It was the only thing I wanted because I didn’t know there were other ways to love God completely. I now know of course that you can be a bus conductress or a television person and love God completely.”
This can lead to us having a split view of life and God’s mission. Jim meets the vicar at the back of church. “That was a very nice sermon, vicar, very comforting. And now I’m going to step out into the real world.” The vicar bristles and thinks, “I had thought we were in the real world. The world that belongs to God – every square inch of it – and in which Jesus has come to bring his rule.”
Jim has a split worldview. He has one way of looking at things in church, but as soon as he steps into his workplace, he’s operating by a different set of assumptions. He has a different framework of basic belief about things which govern his business dealings. In fact, which govern most of the rest of his life. He splits life up into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.
As churches, we can reinforce this sacred/secular split-living. Jean is discouraged. She’s an athlete, who could go far. But people at her local church have put on a discipleship course and a few prayer meetings at the same time as her hurdle practice. What should she do? Her fellow Christians are encouraging but make her feel that the meetings should come first. That if she really wants to worship, she should do it in the meeting room, and not on the race track.
When a teacher says, “I do Sunday school for one hour a week, and my church get me up to the front and pray for me. I teach 30 children for 39 hours a week and no one ever mentions it in church,” we see this split-living and thinking. We see it in the phrase “Full time Christian Worker” when it is only applied to those working in churches.
We see it in the way that people who have enormous skills in their working lives may be unable to transfer those skills into the church area of life. Or in the lack of a weighty Christian presence in the arts, politics, music, academia or business. Or when we give money to someone going to preach the gospel in Transylvania, but not to support a struggling Christian artist who seeks to bring the yeast of the kingdom into the world of art.
In terms of joining in with God’s mission, Mark Greene says this is the decisive issue: “The UK will never be reached until we create open, authentic, learning and praying communities that are focused on making whole life disciples who take the opportunities to show and share the gospel wherever they relate to people in their daily lives.”
As we shall see, the roots of this disconnection are centuries old. More recently the Church of England has set up reports and projects called ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and ‘Everyday Faith’ in order to address this for our generation.
The report aims for two things:
Equipping all people to find and follow God confidently in every part of life, and
Recognising the gifts and callings of all people, whether ordained or not, and encouraging all people to use these skills for the good of God’s Kingdom.
Simeon Stylites was a monk who built a column six feet high in the Syrian desert in the fifth century AD and lived on it for several years. However, he became rather ashamed of the small column and after a determined search he found a 60 foot pillar situated thirty miles from Antioch in a sun-scorched wilderness.
This pillar was perfect; it was three feet across with a railing to prevent him from falling off in his sleep. On this perch Simeon lived uninterrupted for thirty years, exposed to rain and sun and hail.
A ladder enabled his disciples to take him food and remove his waste. He bound himself to the column by a rope; the rope became embedded in his flesh, which putrified around it, and stank, and teemed with worms. Simeon picked up the worms that fell from his sores, and replaced them there, saying to them, “Eat what God has given you”.
Simeon lived on this pillar for thirty seven years in every extreme of weather, praying and posturing or standing with arms outstretched in the form of a cross for as long as eight hours at a time.
Simeon’s view of the world and what it means to be “spiritual” affected his whole approach to life. He believed that the world, and therefore his body, was essentially evil – a corrupted creation in need of redemption. The purest form of discipleship was therefore to be removed from the earth (literally 60 feet above it!) in order to be closer to God and await rescue from matter.
If you had asked him what a Christian approach to art, education, politics, food, sexuality, business was, you know, all those things God has created – he would probably have replied, “They are at worst essentially evil, and at best distractions from the real business of life, which is following God alone.”
While he might be an extreme example, he illustrates what has been a common struggle in discipleship – the relationship between the soul and body, between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. It is common among religions to see the body as something to ‘escape from’. Christians have been influenced to see life this way in part by thinkers such as Plato, for whom “the body is a source of endless trouble…if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body…” The more we can be freed from ‘worldly’ concerns, the more truly ‘spiritual’ we will be.
If we are influenced by this in any way, it is easy to see why this would lead to an understanding of some areas of life being more set apart for God than others, some callings being more sacred than others, and why some things which seem more “worldly” are distractions for discipleship, rather than part of God’s mission.
The path you take through life is shaped by where you think your destination is. A common misunderstanding is the belief that ultimately the earth will no longer exist, and instead our souls (without our bodies) will go to be in a place called heaven when we die. The main aim of life becomes preparing for heaven and winning souls for God. The earth is simply the temporary stage on which this is played out.
If we believe this it is easy to see why we might feel that much of what we do now is at best a distraction, and at worst wasting our time. There will be two areas of life – the real and eternal one of church and worship, and the ultimately pointless one of everyday life – work, politics, rest, entertainment, football, business, art, sexuality.
In this scenario while we seek to be a disciple in the church sphere as soon as we step outside of that we are not sure what it is God really wants us to be doing with this temporary life. It might also mean that people who hold fantastic responsibilities and have major talents outside of the church sphere of life won’t really feel encouraged to use their gifts which they use the rest of the week within the context of the church sphere of life.
The first mark of mission is to “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom” and the fourth to “seek to transform unjust structures of society”. But operating as a Christian disciple in a society and culture which might not share some of our values presents challenges in how or if it is appropriate to display our faith in a public sense.
If we are in a position of influence, we might struggle with how much we expect Christ’s presence and ways to change our context. We will come across issues where knowing what to do might not seem clear cut, and we struggle to work out what a Christian ethical response should be. We may ask in a general sense whether work should be experienced as a blessing or a curse.
All these questions may make it very tempting for us to compartmentalise life into parts in which God is involved, and those in which He is not. While raising the question here, we explore how we work through harder questions in module 4 as we look at how to interpret the Bible well.
After God and human beings rested on the seventh day, God gave Adam and Eve their task. This first task is a part of us living out what it means to be made in God’s image and describes the shape of the daily existence God made us for. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’….He brought (animals) to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 1:28; 2:19)
God gives humans genuine influence in how the world develops – we name the animals. While we are not equal co-creators with God, our participation is meaningful, and honoured by God.
We are made to “rule over” and “subdue” creation in the sense of protecting it and keeping destruction at bay.
Most fundamentally in terms of our daily work, God makes human beings to be “fruitful…fill the earth” by unlocking the potential of the world that He has placed within it. This of course means creating more humans, but it also means so much more. Everything God has made is good, from the minutest cell to the furthest galaxy. It all belongs to him, and all brings him praise. But what does he want humankind to do on this earth? Keep it as it is? Sit around waiting for it all to end so that we can enter some higher non-material sphere of existence?
The truth is much richer. God gives Adam and Eve a world inherent with possibilities: minerals wait to be mined for metal instruments; plants grow to be cut for food or herbs; animal skins can be converted into human clothes: trees to be made into furniture, houses, cities, books, musical instruments.
He places them on the stage and says “Act! Use whatever you can to bring glory to my name.” Fill the earth, not just with babies, but with music, creativity, technology, learning, art, architecture, parks, photography. Make it interesting. Stewardship is more than maintenance, keeping things ticking over until he comes again. The task Adam and Eve got, and the role that we have inherited as a result, is one of building a civilisation which teases out of God’s creation all that he primed it to be able to do to the glory of his name.
This is the main human task. And Jesus did not change it. It is what we were made for. Theologians call it the “cultural mandate” – a commissioning to develop things. We are not here just to evangelise until the Second Coming (though we have a burning desire to see others in the Kingdom), but to continue in our daily work, in whatever small way, the task of caring for God’s creation and working to unfold its wonders.
This is what we are saved, or made whole, to do. The fifth mark of mission, “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” is nothing less than a reminder of our human calling.
In our daily lives God has given us this task. It is the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve for every sphere of life. The Bible has no sacred and secular split. We can obey this command to develop the life of God’s creation just as much outside the church as within it, because the whole world belongs to God, and he cares for every part of it.
God made everything. And we are here to unfold it to his glory. To unleash music that hasn’t been heard before, business initiatives that haven’t been practiced before, games that haven’t been tried, technology that hasn’t been invented, teaching methodologies that haven’t been devised. If belonging to a church doesn’t equip us for unfolding the life of creation then we have a partial vision.
God provides ways in which every aspect of life can flourish. As well as setting up laws for the natural world, God invites human beings to discover and live into His norms for every kind of activity. For example, the prophet Isaiah talks about how God has a design for good agriculture: “When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually? Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil? When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way.” (Isaiah 28: 24-26)
The writer sees how God designs and rules the natural world. But he also sees in the same breath that in the same way God provides commands and words that work to his people. Human life is normed in everything: in every field of human affairs there are right and wrong ways of doing things. Just as God has laws for nature so he has norms for human behaviour.
In our society people are not generally happy with this idea. They find it easy to accept that God might be sovereign over the animal kingdom, but not have a plan as to how the state should function. They might believe that God has designed energy exchanges to occur according to certain laws, but not the world of agriculture. But as disciples, part of joining in with God’s mission will include seeking wisdom on how God has purposed each aspect of life to work best.
Rather than devaluing our daily work, how might our understanding of God’s healing Kingdom and the ultimate renewal of all things help us recover a sense of the worth of everyday tasks?
God will restore the world, not rescue us from it.
We have traced in many ways how God’s mission is not to destroy the earth and take us off to heaven, but to renew it. The whole story of the Bible speaks of God’s plan to redeem, ‘buy back’ everything touched or broken by sin or evil. When Scripture looks to a “new earth” at the end of the Bible (Revelation 21), the word for new isn’t describing something completely new, but a restored version of something that already exists.
God’s mission is more like Spiderman than a fireman. A fireman will rescue people by getting them out of a dangerous place and taking them to a safe place. A lot of people think that Jesus came to take them from a nasty place – earth – to a safe place – heaven. To get them out before the whole thing goes up in flames. But that is a worldview which can lead us to abandoning any sense of real purpose for being on this earth whatsoever.
If redemption is about waiting around to escape, what’s the point? Jesus was much more like Spiderman. Spiderman’s mission is to get rid of the enemy so that the people can once more live in safety and peace in what was originally a good city.
The nature of Jesus’ ministry shows God’s kingdom coming to earth, as it is in heaven. Where God is not King there is disease, injustice, hatred, exploitation, spiritual possession, and death – and so Jesus brought healing, and broke the power of oppressive forces through dying and rising again. The world cries out for God’s just and gentle rule, for the “earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”. (Habakkuk 2:14)
The mission of God aims to bring healing to every aspect of life. Everything has been created and will one day be redeemed. Even cookery belongs to God. Even pots will be made holy: “On that day, the Big Day, all the horses’ harness bells will be inscribed ‘Holy to GOD’. The cooking pots in the Temple of GOD will be as sacred as chalices and plates on the altar. In fact, all the pots and pans in all the kitchens of Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.” (Zechariah 14: 20-21)
All the words in the Bible that talk about salvation imply a return to something that was once there.
Reconciliation means restoring a friendship that has been lost.
Renewal means making something new again – restoring the newness it once had. Restoration means a return to the goodness of a first creation.
Recreation means an old creation being restored.
Redemption means buying something back that was once yours. The image is of a slave being released by being paid for and enjoying the freedom she once enjoyed. God refuses to abandon the work of his hands.
As disciples, God has restored us to covenant relationship with Him. But He has also restored our calling – to serve Him in every aspect of unfolding creation once again. Part of resurrection hope includes a promise that our original human task will be completely restored to us in the life to come. Paul promises Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (2 Timothy 2:11–13)
The vision of Revelation points to disciples who God has “made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10). Jesus tells a parable to show that those who have been faithful in this life will be entrusted with more in the age to come: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:21)
God’s mission to restore the world is not a return to the Garden of Eden, before human beings were able to make any changes to the world, but a renewal in which everything we do in our lifetimes, which reflects His goodness, will be included in God’s future. This means that every small act of work and creation we do can have eternal value. The music, technology, recipes, languages and countless other things we have and are creating will not be thrown away – daily tasks are not a distraction.
This is why the renewal of all things is shown as a city, and not a restored garden. (Revelation 21) It is a promise which includes human work. When John describes this future “city”, he writes how “…the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.” (Revelation 21: 24) In other words, all that is a true reflection of human worth is brought in. Isaiah promises that God’s “chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.” (Isaiah 65: 22-23)
It is clear that not everything will be included. There are many aspects of our work or history that do not reflect God’s glory. This is why Peter promises that on “the day of the Lord…the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” (2 Peter 3:10) The true value of our work will be seen, and what reflects God’s kingdom will remain.
Paul expands on this: “…their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:13) It is this hope that what we do can have eternal value in resurrection that means Paul can write: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
The Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not one square inch of creation over which Christ does not say, ‘It is mine!’” Every part of life belongs to God, every part can be spiritual. To call some things sacred and other things secular creates a false gap between areas of life God created and those we think He did not. There is no job that is purely ‘secular’.
However, any area of life made by God can be going in one of two directions. It can be reflecting and shaped around the goodness of God’s kingdom – such as George Cadbury’s approach to business. Or it can be shaped around the values of the present world, as if this is all there is and God has nothing to do with it. To be secular literally translates as to be only shaped around the values of this particular age or world.
So while nothing God has made can be secular in itself, it can still be heading in a secularised direction. Every sphere of life can be lived according to God’s rule, or not.
Historically some Christians have thought various things are wrong in themselves. For example, some have said that Christians should not get involved in pop music. They have said the same thing about dancing and playing cards. But they are getting confused between the structure of music – the essence of the gift of music, the thing that God made – and the direction in which that music is going.
Nothing God has made is evil in itself, in its structure. Dancing is wonderful – but it can go in sinful directions. Playing games is part of the structure of God’s creation – but games can be warped by over competitiveness, corruption and gambling. The structure of atoms created by God can be made into energy to resource or destroy life, the films we watch or make can reflect something of God’s values or dehumanise other people, the organisation of societies through the gift of politics can free or enslave people.
Instead of calling things ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ it is more helpful to ask, “How is this aspect of life or my work originally good?” and “Is the direction it is going reflecting God’s kingdom, or is it being secularised?”
The preacher John Stott called work “… expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God.”
In itself work can be a great blessing. But many experience it (or aspects of it) as more of a curse. This balance in our experience is reflected in the Bible in which work is given to human beings as part of God’s imprint and blessing before human beings fall. Human beings are designed to be fruitful and productive for all our lives.
James Davison Hunter writes that “People fulfil their individual and collective destiny in the arts, music, literature, commerce, law and scholarship they build, and in the institutions they develop – family, churches, associations, and communities they live in and sustain – as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing.”
Lack of work (paid or unpaid) denies us this fulfilment and leaves us incomplete. Fruitfulness does not have a cut-off date. While we might stop being paid to work, the idea of retirement from being fruitful is not in the story.
Yet soon work is shown as being affected by the brokenness of the world, and our current experience is that aspects of it cause toil, sweat and hardship. Part of our calling as disciples who are being restored in God’s image is, like Cadbury, to try and reverse these effects.
In joining in with God’s mission, every disciple has a calling from God, and there are no callings that are more or less important than others. Paul makes it clear in his picture of the church as a body that every part is needed, and in fact “God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it.” (1 Corinthians 12:24)
To think that those who have callings within the church sphere have a ‘vocation’, while those who have a calling to God’s mission in a hospital do not creates a destructive split not only in our individual lives, but also in the church. The truth is that most of God’s mission occurs as disciples serve their callings outside of the gathered church community.
The second person in the Bible to be anointed by God’s Spirit for a task is not a priest or preacher, but a craftsperson named Bezalel, whom God chose “to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” (Exodus 31:4-5)
Church-based callings are one aspect of our vocation. We are called by God in many different ways. Christians have spoken about having callings in three ways. In our relationships – as a child, parent, spouse, friend, sibling – our ministry – serving the church – and our social callings – how we impact and serve wider society.
Discovering our own particular calling can need prayer and advice from others but Frederich Buechner’s definition makes ‘vocation’ into something which can bring joy and resonate with the way we have been made and gifted. He writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, if I ask myself, “What makes me happy?” and, “Which needs do I care about in the world?” the answers to those two questions will point to our God-given calling.
Samuel’s story illustrates this sense of calling. “I used to run a marketing and communications business. I was in Paris with the marketing team, in a building that was all brushed aluminium and steel. It felt good. The Managing Director of the company asked me to do a campaign for a product that was prohibitively expensive and might actually be bad for you. That was quite a moment. I’d thought a lot about running a business, but here I was faced with a dilemma. I said ‘yes’, and what was interesting was working to redeem the product.
“Marketing can be hard-nosed, cut-throat and manipulative, but I’m not interested in that. I’m not sure that there was a right or wrong answer in that situation, but it’s about how your values impact the world through your faith.
“What brings me alive now, is seeing people step into their fullness, that there is an opportunity within the ordinariness of life to step into something holy. There’s something extraordinary about bringing in a new hiring policy that levels up employment for people from the edges of society, as much as for those who went to Oxbridge. I’m passionate about that.”
Finding God in the ordinary things of life becomes much more possible when we remember He has created every aspect of life. In his book ‘No Splits’ Steve Shaw describes how laying a table for dinner with friends can be a joyful response to God, handling all the ‘ingredients’ of God’s creation in a holy way.
He reflects on how choosing whom to invite can become an opportunity for discipleship, how the choices about food can involve fairness and justice, how making the table look good reflects God’s glory…He is asking three things in doing this. What is a dinner party called to be in God’s world? How does it serve God and creation? Finally, how do all the small decisions help to open up all the different elements involved to proclaim the life of God’s kingdom?
Similarly a short video from LICC about ‘Anne’ demonstrates how each part of what she considers to be a “normal, boring life” has the potential to be part of God’s kingdom in many ways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVKbvE-HQeI .
Celtic Christians, with their emphasis on heaven overlapping with earth, have a long history of celebrating God in the ordinary things of life. This prayer, by Bruce Prewer, in a Celtic style, offers a farmer’s daily work to God:
Bless, Lord God, my little plot of land,
and the strength with which I’m tilling it,
bless the seed I’m carefully planting,
and the prayers I’m sowing with it.
Bless the seasons that are coming,
and the sunshine and the rain.
Bless the days and shortening nights,
and the hopes of my small barn.
Bless, O Father of good giving,
Bless, O Son of redeeming.
Bless, O Spirit of the living,
Bless, O Holy Three all-loving.
These three stories, two real and one imagined, demonstrate how joining in with the Spirit in a workplace, while involving prayer, witness, and kindness, has the potential to bring transformation at every level – reflecting God’s ‘cultural mandate’ and bringing healing to what is broken.
John started working in his company three years ago. The company made an ordinary but essential household object. John was given the opportunity to steer the direction of things in the company and to ensure the relationships among staff were what they should be.
Several people at his church had suggested that John should look into going into the ministry, but he knew that his full-time Christian work was actually found in the company. After all, it was here that he was able to use his gifts and he had contact with those outside the church whom if he’d been a vicar he might not have met.
For others, work may have been about paying the bills, getting ahead, being successful, justifying their existence. But John has a bigger cause than that. John started off by praying for his workplace and his fellow staff. It wasn’t long before he noticed that relationships in the office were not what they could be.
For a start, some of the more junior staff were being made to work longer hours than they were contracted for and as a result there was pressure put on their personal lives. John prayed about it and was able to gently intervene and suggest that the staff might work much more fruitfully if they were actually given adequate time off. The management agreed.
In addition, John found himself in a position to pay attention to those in the office who had more menial jobs and at Christmas time he put on a thank you meal for them. It was the first time this had been done and several people came up to him to thank him.
Over the coming year finances were tight and the management was tempted to cut corners, shortchanging its customers by subtly making their product less than was advertised. John believed that what they were doing was far bigger than just making a profit, and having prayed about it, was able to influence the company in grasping hold of its vision to be providing a good service – developing a product not just in order to make more money, but to create something of worth, that was good in itself.
John was also able to encourage the company to embrace partnerships with deprived areas of the city that they were based. As a result several of the employees became involved in hands-on work in the local community.
The Walgreen Company is the largest drug retailing chain in the United States. As of May 31, 2014, the company operated 8,217 stores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
One of its employees named Julia Turner has Down’s Syndrome and she loves her work. “I tell you what — I love this job!” she said. “I’m happy, I’m contented. I’ve got people all around me who are the best friends I’ve ever had in the whole world.” When asked by ABC News if it felt good to get a pay-check every week, Julia responded, “It sure does. And if anybody needs a big check, come over here and they’ll give it to you.”
It is Julia’s joy in her work that is so striking. Good work has also brought her friendships and community. She was asked by the bus driver – “Did you have a good day?” she answered – “I had a wonderful day.” How come Julia has a job that brings her so much joy and fulfilment?
It’s all because a Christian man wanted to join in with God’s mission at work. Randy Lewis was a senior Vice President at Walgreens in the USA. Lewis has an autistic son, Austin, and desperately wanted him to have a future and hold down a good job. Previously Walgreens had employed differently-abled people to do “ancillary rather than mission-critical work”….cleaning toilets, sweeping floors etc.
For Lewis differently-abled people face a death by a thousand cuts when looking for work. Many are isolated, unemployed or have ‘rubbish’ jobs. He wanted to create meaningful and rewarding jobs for differently-abled people. He stated, “We underestimate the abilities of people on the margins.” He persuaded Walgreens to change the work place…to suit people of different abilities.
Walgreens has now designed warehouses where 40% of the employees are differently-abled. These jobs pay an equal wage to the typically-abled workers and hold all employees to the same productivity standards. So Julie Willard, a deaf woman, opined, “It’s my dream to work here!”
Angela Mackey, having qualified with an MA, couldn’t get a job because of her cerebral palsy. Her speech sounds slurred but what she says is very intelligent and insightful. She said that no one would employ her! She had applied for 250 jobs without success. At Walgreens she is in charge of the recruitment of differently-abled people. Employing in this way has unleashed incredible creativity and imagination in typically-abled employees.
They have designed new technologies that serve and bless everyone. In these ‘warehouses of wonder’ they use images rather than words which help people who struggle to read. So instead of an unimaginative Aisle 14 they will have a strawberry image. This helps people who cannot read numbers. The HR department has changed many of its policies. When applying for a job a differently-abled person can bring a friend to fill in the application forms.
What is so exciting is that the company has discovered that differently-abled people can often outperform typically-abled people. Not only was performance the same (Lewis called in statisticians who studied 400,000 hours of work and proved performance is similar for those with and without disabilities), but in the warehouse, staff turnover was 20% to 50% lower and absenteeism was also down.
Safety costs were also lower for people with disabilities. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found deaf forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear”, says Lewis. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.” Randy Lewis’ work for God has led to thousands of differently-abled people doing work they love and getting good wages as well.
Finally, a fictionalised reimagining of life at a top football club… Let’s imagine that a football manager and top players really begin to study the New Testament on a daily basis. They notice that Jesus had compassion on the most vulnerable people in that first century Jewish society. Somehow Jesus challenged the assumption that some people are terribly important (rich people) and that other people (lepers and shepherds) are unimportant.
The club striker makes the following suggestion: “Boss, why don’t we pay our cleaners a better wage and start to treat them with real respect?” The manager concurs enthusiastically. A few days later the cleaners at the club are enjoying some of the wonderful benefits of the good news of the kingdom of God. The goalie spends several hours talking to Elsie about her lumbago and impulsively decides to pay her gas bill that month!
Small acts of mercy and generosity flood the club and several players are deeply impressed by Christ’s command to ‘love your enemies’ and they issue public apologies to players they have deliberately fouled. Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen are gob-smacked and discuss the club ‘transformation’ on Match of the Day.
The captain delves ever deeper into the Word of God and begins to unpack the meaning of Jesus’ commission ‘to preach good news to the poor’ and ‘to release the oppressed’. (Luke 4:18). Over a coffee he raises the issue with the gaffer and dramatic events unfold. Ticket prices are slashed in half and unemployed and differently-abled people are allowed into the ground for nothing! All the players agree to a wage reduction and the lead goal-scorer writes an article in the Sun newspaper explaining how easy it is to get by on only ten thousand pounds a week!
The manager decides to adopt a football club in Mozambique and develops a charity which allows young players to come and play football at their club ground. One of the players is so impressed by these fine young players that he flies out to Mozambique, investigates the scenario and then sets up an orphanage for waifs and strays. It’s only chump change for a millionaire but he finds the experience so rewarding and moving that money is no longer an issue. He is simply grateful to God that he has the financial resources to be such a blessing to so many people.
Oh and when the players play football, they are full of grace and genial bonhomie. They laugh and smile continually and take great pleasure in the game. They play skilful, imaginative football to the glory of God! They are living out the task God gave them. They are full time Christian workers! (With thanks to Mark Roques from www.thinkfaith.net for the Randy Lewis and football stories)
This one and a half minute video from LiCC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E_dSz_yd6c&feature=emb_logo) paints a picture of how society might be transformed if every disciple saw themselves as joining in with God’s mission in their everyday faith.
Most of the time the church is scattered into different areas of life. But when we gather together there are many ways in which we can support and develop this whole-life mission. Here are three particular opportunities.
Praying and supporting. A woman named Ruth recounts how, “I’d been out of the paid workplace for over a decade and I realised re-entry was going to be hard. Yet I’d been encouraged by my friends in church to trust the sense that I had that this was God’s next step for me.
“It was so much harder than I imagined. It wasn’t just the confidence issue, which I’d been prepared for. It was the way people behaved towards me in this predominantly male office. It seems that their relational repertoire consisted of treating me like their mother, a sex object or the office slave. I confess I was ready to move on quite quickly.
“My church gently challenged that. They were sure God would use me in that place. They also believed I would grow along the way. In fact, they got me up at the front one morning and they prayed for me, for wisdom, grace, humour, godliness. It was a daily challenge but their confidence was infectious and I found myself praying in new ways. Their continued interest, the insightful questions, Sunday worship; It all encouraged me to see things differently, to turn to God in new ways.
I didn’t think it really showed in the office. Until Joe approached me one day with his question, “Are you a Christian? There’s something about the way you’ve been responding to us.” It’s been quite a journey for me, and for Joe, who’s come along to church and seems to have made some significant steps of faith.”
Prayer and chaplaincy in the workplace. In Birmingham, as in many other places, informal networks and chaplains can be a resource to link disciples together in encouragement. The CofE website tells how during the pandemic of 2020/21 “Peter Bethell works for Birmingham City Council as a Transportation Planner.
Like many, he has been working from home since March. He misses the personal contact, but he gets a sense of job satisfaction from working in the public interest. Peter keeps in touch with other Christians at work through networks, and he plays a significant part at his home Methodist church.
“Anne Smith works for the City Council in helping to organise elderly care: she is also working from home. She enjoys supporting people in the community and making a difference. Anne links up with other Christians through her friendship groups, family and her home Roman Catholic Church. She finds that this gives a shared experience and sense of community.”
Anne and Peter are both part of an ecumenical chaplaincy network run by Anglican chaplain Peter Sellick and his colleagues. The Chaplaincy has been working with the Birmingham City Council for years. They share prayer requests and meet Wednesday mornings and Thursday lunchtimes for prayer. “It is important to keep in touch with other Christians, to support each other and to know that you are not alone – even though we are all working from home,” says Peter Bethell.
“The Chaplaincy has been providing a listening ear and emotional support to staff. We have been going through some of the most turbulent times in the Council’s history,” says Anne. “During the pandemic they have been needed more than ever. They are there for all staff, of any faith or none. They also provide regular meditation sessions online at lunch times. Many have benefited from these, as sometimes it’s the only supportive interaction they have all day.”
Learning to change with others. We are all on the journey but making the changes to place God’s mission in everyday faith at the heart of being church can be a challenge. As we have seen, we are seeking to undo habits and thought-patterns which are centuries old.
In Church of England Birmingham we offer a very practical response to any church which wants to develop in this way. We get small teams from our churches together over a two-year period in a learning community to help each other address this. Journeying together, we seek to put seven changes in place over two years which will help our churches be increasingly growing into valuing every calling, and seeing every disciple as equally called. These changes will depend on where people are starting from, but they cover the things we do, the people we encourage in leadership and ministry, and the choices we prioritise. A handout explains the scheme in detail.
The Revd Jemima Prasadam is a priest who likes to talk, but her style is less to preach from the pulpit than to build a community by chatting to anyone of any faith she meets on the streets.
After 20 years honing her skills in Lozells parish, she retired to London, where she makes a point of speaking to anybody, whether she is waiting in a bus queue, at a coffee shop, or buying a pint of milk. It might start with a comment on the weather, or a smile for a toddler, but often the talk turns to matters of faith and there is always a word of support or encouragement — and, occasionally, an invitation to church.
“I don’t know if I have talent for striking up conversations; I am just being myself,” she said. “Jesus talked to people, even about the most mundane of human things. The Church seems to have lost that; I don’t know why….I don’t go out looking to talk to people, but I am ready to do it,” she said. “I don’t pass anybody without saying ‘Hello’, and when I leave, I always say ‘God bless you’.
“There is no set pattern: it is spontaneous. People are perhaps reading a newspaper. I ask is there anything good, and they usually come out with something. Some people are very British and reserved, but most people are prepared to talk. They often say they are not religious, but I say we are all spiritual beings and they agree; so I simply tell them that weak and simple people like me call that God.
“Some people come across as angry; they have been let down by their faith or are too busy at work. But many accept my invitation to come to Trinity Church. Last week, seven people came at the same time. They included two Hindus, one Japanese woman, an Irishman, and a Scottish woman. Many of them come again. I am not proselytising or recruiting: I just invite them to come along.” (From a Church Times article)
Three times in the New Testament Jesus tells us to, “Go and make disciples.” Bishop Steven Croft says, “If ever a single verse could be said to have shaped the history of the world, it is this one.”
As we have seen, God grows the church, we join in with His mission, but the existence of the church, and the calling given to every Christian, is to fulfil Jesus’ “Great Commission”.
We are all different personalities, with different gifts, but the more we can grow in confidence in not only being disciples, but making disciples, the more we can experience the kind of fruitful existence Jesus hoped for in our lives: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)
As we have seen, to join in with God’s mission is the end point of an apprentice. If we are being with God, and becoming like Christ, we will naturally reach out as Christ did. Elaine Heath writes that, “To be people whose meaning is love is to become broken bread and poured out wine….a complete belonging to God, of full commitment to the reign of God in this world…”
In this course we have seen that the first two marks of mission (which lead on to the other three) are to “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom and to teach, baptise and nurture new believers”. We have also seen how a spiritually healthy life has an “out” dimension, as well as an “up” and “in”. If worship is our highest calling, then mission is our most urgent assignment.
But while most might agree that the first two marks of mission make natural sense for disciples, many disciples have varying degrees of confidence when it comes to faith sharing. Sherry Weddell tells a story of a pregnant teenager Sarah who showed up at a local parish church. But Sherry comments, “What troubles me is: an unchurched teen shows up, in a small parish in a small town, week after week, clearly interested in the Mass, with a young man who has been active in the parish since he could walk, and no one wants to tell her the good news.”
Sarah said, “It would have taken next to nothing. No one said, here, read this, tell me what you think. No one asked me to come to any kind of lecture or meeting. No one prayed with us or said they were praying for us. It’s not that I think I’m so special, it’s just that….What were they doing? Why didn’t they think this was important today?”
Sherry challenges us by saying. “…the parable of the lost sheep is reversed today: ninety-nine sheep have gone off and one remains in the sheepfold. The danger for us is to spend all our time nourishing this one remaining sheep and not have time to seek out those who are lost.”
Jesus told His disciples, “… there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He told them to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”. (Matthew 5: 13-16) The apostles in Acts were accused of “…filling Jerusalem with their teaching.” (Acts 5:28) Acts tells the story of the early church growing in diversity, geographically, and in number.
Many things might have contributed to a lack of confident witness – we have lived over the last few decades with a background and mindset of church decline and feel powerless; society has become more diverse and we feel unsure about how to “proclaim” anything, whether faith-based or not; we might be fearful of being manipulative when individual choice counts for so much; we might think faith should be a private matters; we might simply be afraid of causing offence or being rejected; we are not sure how much “freedom of expression” we are allowed in certain contexts; we might be confused about what “evangelism” is – the New Testament gives little advice on how it’s done or what it is; we may lack confidence in our own discipleship and therefore not know how to share it with others (we only tend to pass on what we have first experienced).
The aim of this session is to equip us to be freed from these fears so we have confidence in being able to take whatever opportunities God gives us to disciple other people, believing this is the most precious gift anyone can offer. We will look both at how to share faith naturally with those who might not yet identify as Christians, and how to help others grow as disciples. Our possible lack of confidence may be less a question of whether we may do it but how we get to do it. This session aims to offer some motives, ideas and ways forward.
A few years ago, the World Council of Churches wrote a document called Mission and Evangelism. In it they wrote, “God leaves us free to choose how to share our faith. But our options are never neutral – every methodology either illustrates or betrays the gospel we announce.”
In other words, we all carry a message about what we believe through our actions and words. If we choose not to share faith, we are still saying something. The only question is: what good news do we want to carry in our lives and how might we share it?
Just as the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s world and invites us to join in with His mission, so in every step on our journey of discipleship the Spirit is at work in us. Every significant part of our faith development is the work of the Spirit.
This has to be the case because our wills – the place of our desires and choices – do not work completely as they should. We have competing desires and sinful reactions. No part of us can develop without God’s help. So…
It is the Spirit who shows us our need for God’s grace and gives us an accurate picture of God and ourselves: “…he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8)
It is the Spirit who helps us see the truth about who Christ is: “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth….He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” (John 16: 13-14)
It is the Spirit who enables us to put our trust in Christ: Paul wrote: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) Oliver O’Donovan writes that “active belief in Christ needs to be evoked in us by God himself.”
It is the Spirit who assures us that we are God’s children: While in a general sense every human being is God’s child, the Bible usually keeps that term for those who have “been adopted” by God through Christ. The Holy Spirit makes this possible and enables us to experience it: “…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship…The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8: 15-16)
It is the Spirit who grows the character of Christ in us (the fruit of the Spirit): “And we all…are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The outcome of any faith-sharing and discipleship depends not on what we do, but on what God’s Spirit is doing. It is not our job to convict anyone of their sin, for example. This means that we have the freedom of knowing that, while we have a part to play in discipling others, God does all the heavy-lifting.
From the start we can be freed from the burden of thinking it is about our effort. And because God is at work in everyone, long before we meet them, rather than needing to ask, “How do I do this?” a better question might be, “Where is God already at work in this person, and how might I notice or encourage it?”
A recent research survey of 383 people who have come to faith as adults showed that for most people the process of coming to faith is a gradual one. In this, it highlighted that the church community and individual relationships with others were the most significant factors in helping them to do so.
Over 80% of them had had contact with a church during childhood, and 90% said that the church was very significant.
92% had a relationship with a Christian which led to their own journey. 87% of them knew someone was praying for them and the same number had responded to some kind of invitation to join in with the church in some way.
More people said that an individual explaining the Gospel was significant, than those who said that a public speaker explaining the Gospel was significant. Only two people said the internet had been helpful.
This emphasis on the significance of relationships and community as the environment for faith-sharing and disciple-making is seen in the ministry of Jesus and the early church.
Jesus almost always worked in groups.
While some evangelists have the gift of reaching out as individuals, for most disciples the call to make disciples is always done through relationships, and with others in community. Jesus called His disciples to be “salt” in the world – seasoning society with God’s kingdom, and “light” – being a visible sign of God’s kingdom. But in Matthew 5 He calls them to be this together.
Similarly, Jesus always sent His disciples out at least in pairs to join in with His mission. And He rarely nurtured His disciples individually – most of His interactions with them were in groups.
It was and is the life of the community that speaks loudest.
The French Christian philosopher Pascal said there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. Instead, the best way is to make people wish it were true because they can see the rich reality of life in the kingdom lived out by those in the church. Once people’s hearts notice something they find attractive, often their minds will catch up. Our love for one another is the demonstration of God’s love which provokes curiosity.
Acts 2: 42-47 describes the life of early Christians in community, being together in worship, discipleship and service. As a result, they enjoyed “the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (verse 47)
At its best, faith-sharing isn’t an activity we do, but flows out of who we are as a Christian family. As Dallas Willard writes, “There is a special evangelistic work to be done, of course, and there are special callings to it. But if those churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic.” Elaine Heath adds that, “…the expression of loving community is the greatest apologetic for the gospel.”
They showed commitment to those around them.
In the next session we look more at how as a gathered church we can go to others and be a blessing. While it’s true that sharing faith often starts with taking the initiative to meet people where they are at, this sometimes can be balanced with the decision to stay with the people God has placed us with.
It is striking how much of Jesus’ ministry took place in a small area. Of His 32 miracles, 28 were in Galilee – an area far from the religious centre of Israel and seen as a backwater. Most of his time was spent among the Jewish villages of the North West, around Capernaum where he had his base. Most of the places Jesus visited would have been within a two-day walk of Capernaum.
Jesus gave the Great Commission in Galilee and not in Jerusalem. Often, He would encourage people to stay, rather than go. After healing a demon-possessed man, Jesus tells him to, ““Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8: 38-39)
They were radical in including people.
Just as Jesus scandalised the religious leaders because of the company He kept (““Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:16) so the early church demonstrated God’s agape love by turning the social expectations of the time upside-down. In a community in which in Christ there was no difference in status between “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) the sight of seeing slaves and their owners in an equal relationship must have been extraordinary.
Whereas Jewish men at the time might pray, “I thank you God that I am not a woman, not a Gentile, not a slave” we are told that in Philippi the earliest converts and founder members of the church are a woman (Lydia – who opened up her house for the church), a Gentile (the jailer, whose whole house is baptised) and a slave (healed of a spirit through Paul). (Acts 16: 11-40).
A notice from outside a church in Wales captures the flavour of this attitude of openness,
“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds.
“We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or are like our vicar (who can’t carry a note in a bucket). You’re welcome here if you are just browsing, just woke up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been in church since little Jack’s christening.
“We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, down in the dumps or if you don’t like organised religion. We’ve been there too.
“If you blew all your money on the horses you’re welcome here. We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
“We welcome those who are linked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in the one way system and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts……and you!”
As we have seen, the main way we give God’s Spirit the room to work in us and through us is by developing practices or habits in our lives.
“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) The practice of hospitality, whether we offer it as individuals to other people, or together as a church, provides the best space in which faith sharing and disciple-making can happen. In addition, as a way of joining in with God’s mission, the practice of hospitality offers a gift to our society where many are struggling with loneliness and mental health challenges.
If we want to stay committed to people, offering relationship and a welcome which includes them, the more we can practise hospitality the more these values can be demonstrated: “Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make the faith visible.” 3 John 5 (The Message)
Much of Jesus’ disciple-making took place over food. Famously He says three things about why or how the Son of Man came: “…not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45) “to seek and save the lost,” (Luke 19:10) and finally He did this by “eating and drinking.” (Luke 7:34)
Whether this is a simple drink, or a meal, the practice of hospitality creates a space for disciple-making and faith-sharing because we are sharing who we are as much as what we say. It is an equal, sharing environment. It is hard to imagine any meaningful relationship developing without hospitality.
We have seen how relationships and experiencing the life of the church is so important when it comes to faith sharing. But perhaps rather than asking, “How could this person come to church?” a good starting-point might be, “How might this person encounter church over a table?”
Two other principles are helpful in how we practise hospitality.
Deliberately seeking to offer hospitality to those who can’t offer it back. One of Jesus’ parables puts it plainly: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14: 12-14) Unconditional hospitality shares the faith and disciples others by demonstrating the nature of God’s self-giving love.
The practice of hospitality can be as much about our being willing to receive from others, as offering space to them. Jesus frequently ate at others’ homes and was unafraid to ask for help. In doing this, we meet others as equals and demonstrate that we are not the answer to any needs they might have.
We read the words “witness” or “evangelist” over 20 times in the book of Acts. Evangelism comes from a word which means good news. It is clear that the passion of the church was to present the good news. While we might be aware of examples of bad evangelism, the idea of telling good news is a wonderful gift in the Bible: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)
As this course and this verse hopefully show, the good news is about so much more than ‘getting people into heaven’. In fact, it is more about ‘getting heaven into people’. The invitation is to know that God’s kingdom is near, and to respond. Someone translated this definition of evangelism as a call to “re-think how you’re living your life in light of your opportunity to live in God’s Kingdom today and forever by putting your confidence in him.”
The good news is sharing that because “Your God reigns” the world is a safe place to be. The good life is to live in God’s kingdom, to be filled with His love, and to be with Him, become like Him and join in with Him. In simpler terms the good news is Jesus’ invitation to, “Follow me.”
In essence this will mean presenting Jesus and inviting people to allow Him to be at the centre of their lives. Archbishop William Temple wrote, “To evangelise is so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit that people come to put their faith in God through him, to accept him as their Saviour and to serve him as their King in the fellowship of his Church.”
A later conference of bishops from around the world said, “To evangelise is to make known by word and deed the love of the crucified and risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that people will repent, believe and receive Christ as their Saviour and obediently serve him as their Lord in the fellowship of the Church.”
And Pope Paul 6th wrote that “there is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of God, are not proclaimed.”
However, because God always meets people very differently according to their need, responding to Christ and embracing God’s kingdom will start with different emphases depending on people’s situations. For some, it may mean being aware of the depth of God’s love and forgiveness, for others it may mean a much more intentional need to turn away from a lifestyle, for others it may mean surrender to Christ as Lord.
This is another reason why listening relationships and knowing people are key, rather than a one-size-fits all message. When helping someone come to faith, particularly in the early stages, we need to ask God to help us understand the right approach. William Temple said the way in which people surrender to God is always different because it is “as much as I understand of myself responding to what I know of God”.
As Peter and John told the authorities, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) As we have seen, we all carry ‘news’ of some sort whether we intend to or not. And as a church community, in a real way, we are the message.
It is equally true that everyone needs the opportunity to hear and understand before they can respond. As Paul wrote, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’” (Romans 10:13–15).
Jesus explained his own mission of preaching to his disciples as “what he came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) He then spoke of sending them as the Father had sent Him. (John 20:21).
Jesus gave the task to all his disciples to be disciple-makers – no one was excluded. (Matthew 28:16-20)
But it is also clear that there are people who have a specific gift of evangelism within the church. It is one of the particular five gifts Paul says Christ gives to His church to carry out His mission. (Ephesians 4: 7-11)
How do you know if you have this gift?
Evangelists are people who naturally speak about the good news with enthusiasm, telling the core story of God, believing God is working today. They love spending time with and gathering people, and particularly with those who don’t call themselves Christians, in a naturally infectious way. They have a heart for those who are lost and love deeply.
Evangelists make God’s truth accessible and relevant to seekers. They create curiosity and excitement. They translate it into different cultures, making the most of what media are available.
Without evangelists people can fail to notice God’s transforming work, lack confidence in sharing their own story, refrain from inviting others to God’s family and become dry in faith. They call the church to pay attention to those outside its community, recruiting others to God’s mission, often with urgency. They drive for growth and make sure there are opportunities for people to respond to God’s kingdom.
If you are a natural story-teller, focussed on those outside the church, and can easily enlist others to join in you may have the ministry of evangelism. You may be a good salesperson or in your work life be involved in some kind of public relations role.
While not everyone is gifted with this ministry, we all get to be witnesses. Jesus described all His disciples as His witnesses taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
A helpful way of understanding the heart of a witness comes from Peter who wrote, “Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, but do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:16) Paul adds, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4: 2-6)
There is a confidence and readiness in taking the faith-sharing opportunities that God gives us at the heart of being a witness. The rest of this session aims to offer ways to develop this.
A bookmark offers ‘Helpful reasons for and attitudes in mission and faith sharing’ which hopefully will give encouragement and motivation to every disciple and meet some of the fears we have outlined.
To focus on the main way in which we might grow to want to share our faith Elaine Heath tells a story which is a good example of people who are unafraid to be witnesses, and most importantly why they are able to be confident in doing so. She describes taking a group of students to visit some Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s order) in Dallas, USA, where they meet Sister Salvinette who tells them,
“We go out two by two and knock on doors in the neighbourhood. We offer to pray with people and to listen to them talk about whatever is going on in their lives sometimes. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to us or let us come in. It’s always because they think we want something. We tell them no, we are just there to pray for them and get to know them. That is how we basically do our ministry. We find out what they need, what is going on in their lives, and we pray about that with them and try to help them if possible.”
“Sometimes my students think it is good to offer neighbourly help as a form of evangelism,” I told her, “But they are reluctant to tell those they are helping that they’re doing it because of Jesus or the gospel. They think that offering such kindness in the name of Jesus is coercive toward those they help. This is, after all, a pluralistic world.”
Sister Salvinette grew animated. “We would never coerce anyone,” she said, “But we always do these things for Jesus, and we tell people about him. Remember, Jesus said that if we are ashamed of him before men, he will be ashamed of us before the father!”
She then told a story of a man she met while knocking on doors in the neighbourhood. When she offered to pray for him after talking with him, he refused, saying he didn’t believe in prayer or her faith. “That’s okay,” she answered, “I need prayer for myself so you can just listen while I pray for both of us.””
However, what is striking is the way in which Elaine says the nuns grow in their motivation to do this:
“The basic ministry, the sister told them, is prayer. They use mostly silent prayer contemplating the love of God in front of the sacrament. This is how they receive the love they need to give to the people. ‘We could never do what we do if we did not pray this way,’ she told us. ‘It would be too hard.’”
According to Elaine Heath, if we are lacking in confidence or desire to witness for the Lord, the only place that will change is as we allow ourselves to receive His love. For the nuns this is through contemplation. In whatever way, the more we can be reminded how much God loves us and others, the more our desire to share Christ with them will develop.
We only need to share the good news of the gospel in the way that Jesus did. One key insight is that Jesus knew He could not be everywhere at once, and so focussed His mission. For example, in Matthew 10 He tells His disciples to “go only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Neither did He go to everyone or respond to every request: “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’” (Mark 1: 36-38)
In addition, not everyone responded to His offer – and He didn’t force them. For example, in Mark 10 the rich young ruler did not want to be pursued. “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth….Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’”
There were people who were not ready to hear His message, and they reacted strongly against Him. He warned His disciples it would not always be easy. If the teacher is not warmly received, the students should not expect a warm welcome.
The key principle is that He sent His disciples out to look for those who were “of peace”. “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where He himself intended to go…. 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.” (Luke 10: 1-6)
Because only the Holy Spirit can prepare someone to receive good news, the first step in sharing faith naturally is always being aware of when people are able to be “of peace” towards God, at any given moment. You might be able to relate to this – there may be, or have been, times when you are more open to God’s loving presence in your life.
Jesus and the disciples started with the people
who welcomed them,
listened to them,
served and supported them,
and were warm to them.
Jesus said that when you find a person who is warm towards God, stay there. We should not force dialogue or relationships where they do not naturally flow. He even warned his disciples against being distracted by those not ready to receive their message. (Luke 9:5 and 10:4) Paul did the same. On arriving in Philippi Paul set out to find a person of peace. He knew where to look and found Lydia. He stayed there and planted a church. (Acts 16)
While we can show God’s love through our words and actions to all, but if people are not “of peace” we must be careful not to put pressure on them.
After Jesus healed a man born blind the religious leaders quizzed him, trying to catch Jesus out: “A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. ‘Give glory to God by telling the truth,’ they said. ‘We know this man is a sinner.’ He replied, ‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!’” (John 9:24-25)
The man couldn’t answer all their questions, but he could tell them his story. In a context of so many different voices and points of view around us our experiences have more credibility than our ideas and can help point others to the presence of God. Being prepared to give an answer to those who ask is less about witnessing to the depth of our knowledge about God, and more about sharing the genuine story of how we know Him in our daily lives.
If we get the opportunity, the best way of telling our story is naturally and spontaneously. But some people might find that having a framework can help us to know how to start. Further materials include an example of someone’s story, and a bookmark of some possible ways of shaping how we share our faith.
Being a disciple is a lifelong journey which, as we have seen, begins and grows in different ways, and continues throughout our lives.
Helping someone come to faith always means finding out where God is already at work and starting from where they begin.
Three useful questions which can help us engage with people are:
Who are you? (Lovingly listening to their story…find out who they are, rather than first offering your story.)
Where are you? (Finding out where they are with faith/God/spirituality/church – again, honouring them and working out whether they are “of peace” at the moment.)
Why don’t you? (What’s the next step along the way that would be helpful? It may be coming to church, or going on a course, or it may be as simple as having a coffee together.)
While much of the time we may be helping one another take the next step forward it is important that we gain the assurance that we are His disciples.
Whether or not we have begun to follow Christ through a process or an event, for many people this assurance involves a definite moment in which there is an inner and an outer response to God.
If someone asks us, “How do I become a Christian?” the inner response is to help them “repent” i.e. to turn away from being at the centre of their own life, and “believe” i.e. put God at the centre by surrendering to Him.
But this will start with different emphases depending on their situation – for some, it may mean being aware of the depth of God’s love and forgiveness, for others it may mean a much more intentional need to turn away from a lifestyle, for others it may mean surrender to Christ as Lord.
You will need to ask God to help you understand what the right approach is – so knowing them, and having listened to them, will be so important.
Simply offering to pray with someone expressing these two attitudes, in whatever language is appropriate, will help them step into the assurance of being in Christ.
The outer response, which expresses publicly and tangibly the identity and calling of a disciple, is baptism.
To be baptised is to be immersed. When John the Baptist called people to be baptised they already knew what it meant.
Long before John, the people of Israel would ceremonially wash people and objects which were set apart for God and could then enter His Temple.
As time went on, the Jewish people grew in the hope that God would return and “wash” His people. (Zechariah 13) So as the time of Jesus’ arrival drew near, groups of Jewish people combined this sense of wanting to be cleansed and set apart for God with this commitment to the new thing He had promised. Some started to baptise themselves (sometimes daily) as a sign that they wanted to be set apart for God and ready for the new thing He was going to bring to the world. They were preparing a “highway for the Lord.”
No Jew saw baptism as a ‘magic’ thing that washed sins away – it was a sign of what God was doing in the heart. But it outwardly expressed that they had inwardly turned to God and wanted to be set apart for His purposes.
This helps us understand why Jesus marked the beginning of His mission by being baptised, why He commanded His disciples to baptise other disciples (Matthew 28:19) and why Peter, on the day of Pentecost, told everyone who wanted Jesus to be Lord and Messiah, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 2: 38). Baptism was not an optional extra, but an outward sign which showed and inward change.
If someone comes to a point of surrendering inwardly to God through Christ, the outward sacrament of baptism, or confirmation is a natural and necessary way of marking this change.
The tool, ‘What Baptism Means’ unpacks its significance in more detail.
One of the aims of Way of Discipleship is to give us starting points in our lived experience for our own discipleship, but also to be able to pass that on to others.
The tool ‘Starting Points for Sharing Faith and Discipling Well’ lays out in a simple way an outline of how we might start to accompany people well on their discipleship, using some of the tools in the course.
It suggests ways to have a good conversation, help someone come to faith, build confidence, support everyday faith, and help people understand how God grows Christ’s character in us. There are also some suggested Discovery Bible Study passages.
Using the tool as a resource to get you started may hopefully build confidence in supporting others.
As it reads at the bottom, “People don’t need a perfect example. They just need a real one.”
Andrew Smith’s book, ‘Vibrant Christianity in Multifaith Britain’ sets out from a Birmingham context many of the issues we might face in sharing faith with those of other faiths.
He acknowledges the anxiety this might cause: “….For some people of different faiths the very act of evangelism is deeply problematic, if not sinful….for many families, particularly Muslims I listen to, the issue is not necessarily joining Christianity but leaving Islam. The objection might not be that a family member has become a Christian but that they have left the faith of their family.”
While being sensitive to these issues he says, “One concern is that people of other faiths, and usually that means Muslims, will be offended if we speak about the Christian faith. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth; the vast majority of people are not sitting around waiting to be offended by Christians talking about what they believe but are quite happy to chat about faith.”
He offers some principles as a way of engaging well.
Holding together being confident in loving people and being confident in loving God.
“I have met Christians committed to interfaith work who are intensely focused on loving their neighbours of different faiths, but when I mentioned my belief in Jesus as the son of God, they complained that I’m causing tensions and difficulties by raising beliefs others don’t subscribe to. They are obeying the commands to love their neighbour but at the expense of holding fast to God. Somehow we have to find a way constantly to obey both these commands.”
He argues that loving people of other faiths involves being able to share faith with them: “We are called to love our neighbour of any faith and at the same time to be faithful in loving God.
“A friend of mine who is a leader in the Sikh community often says that if we want to do interfaith well, then we should do faith well. We should make sure people are rooted in their own faith so that they can contribute well in interfaith settings.”
Loving people enough to go to them where they are
“It’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then just how much God loves the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others living near us or appearing on the news. However much we might learn to love our neighbour, it will never be as much as God loves them.
“The more we are confident in our love for God, the greater love we can have for a neighbour, as we see them as made in the image of God and loved by him.
“When the disciples followed Jesus, they found that it meant following him to places where they were likely to meet Samaritans. Jesus didn’t avoid them; In fact, he deliberately sought them out.
“From the start, discipleship meant following Jesus into some uncomfortable places to meet all sorts of people whom one didn’t usually mix with.
“So, this raises the question – are we pleased to see people of other faiths living in our neighbourhoods? Do we love them enough to think, ‘Oh good, I’m glad you live here?’
Do I want people to listen to me talk about my faith? If the answer is yes, then I need to do the same to them and listen to them talk about their faith. Do I want people to visit my church? If so, then I need to be willing to visit their gudwara or mosque.”
Being genuine, equal in relationship and honest
“Loving our neighbour is a key concept in how we relate to people of other faiths, and we have to do that while continuing to love God faithfully. When we love in this way we start to treat people not as a threat, or a project or a target for evangelism, but as people.
“People sometimes ask me how they can start a conversation with their Hindu friends. I say start by asking, ‘How are you?’ Treat them as people, be interested in them, love them.
“We are not at one end with everything to give and nothing to gain from others. We are on a par with others, at times helping, at other times being helped, just as a servant benefits from those they serve.
“As an aside while sharing our faith can be an act of love, I question whether it always feels like that. For an act of love to be genuine, the recipient has to be able to see it as that. As a Hindu friend of mine once said, ‘Why would I invite you to my house when you think I’m an idol worshipper, a sinner and need to convert?’”
Sharing faith positively and humbly
Believing that, “I firmly believe that the gospel is good news, so it can be proclaimed as good news without our having to criticise other beliefs for being bad news,” Andrew has worked with others across Birmingham of all faiths to produce some guidelines for ethical witness (see handout). They include “Sharing our faith should never be coercive…We will speak of our faith without demeaning or ridiculing the faiths of others….We will speak clearly and honestly about our faith, even when that is uncomfortable or controversial.”
He summarises his approach to sharing faith with others in a story:
“I was once at a meal with some young adults of different faiths. During the meal the issue of conversion came up and a Sikh friend turned to me and said, “I understand that if you saw someone who had no faith and was down on their luck, homeless and a drug addict, that you’d want them to become a Christian, but do you want me to convert?”
My answer was this: “I think being a Christian is the best thing ever; I find it gives me hope and purpose and an assurance of salvation, so I’d love everyone to find that too. So, yes, I’d like that for you, but no more than for anyone else; you’re not a target. But also it’s optional. I’m not going to force you to convert; you’re allowed to say no. And another thing: if you want me to shut up about my faith I will.”
As we have seen, the end point of discipleship, and the purpose of God for our lives is ‘to continue the opera’ – to faithfully do the same things that Jesus did, in the manner in which He did them, for the same ultimate goal – the restoration of all things, “the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.” (Matthew 19:28)
Our worship and mission are intertwined, the one naturally leading to the other. We are not a tribe who look after ourselves, but to live out God’s purposes in the world. It is not that the church has a mission, but that ‘the mission of God has a church’.
The more we have a sense of joining in with God’s mission, the more we will be being true to the nature of what ‘church’ means. To recap, our task is not to grow the church – Jesus said, “I will build my church”. Neither is it to do God’s mission for Him – we get to join in with where He is at work. Our commission is to “make disciples.” (Matthew 28) “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” (Mike Breen)
As we grow in discipleship, we will be paying attention to where God is at work and equipped and led to join in with His mission. And as we join in with His mission, the community of worshipping people called out (church) by God will be shaped around His purposes.
This is reflected in the four words used to describe the church in the creeds: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Of these, being “holy” means we are ‘set apart’ for God’s purposes. Being “apostolic” means we have inherited the work of the first apostles (meaning ‘sent ones’).
As God’s called out people (church) we are both scattered in various places, but also sometimes gathered as one. We have already looked at what it might mean to join in with God in our scattered places and everyday lives, and we have explored what it means to share faith with other people. In these next two sessions we look at how and why we can join in with God’s mission together, as a gathered church.
This understanding of being both scattered and gathered as God’s people is seen in Jesus’ use of being “salt” and “light” of the world to describe His disciples. Sometimes they will be like salt – scattered throughout the world, influencing, and bringing life in less visible ways. Sometimes they will be like light – gathered in one point as a visible sign showing God’s life together.
In this session we explore this by looking at how, in the power of the Spirit, we can talk about living out God’s mission as seeking to be a blessing to others as together we “respond to human need by loving service” (the third mark of mission). In the next session we look more specifically at marks four and five: “4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation. 5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”
In its simplest use, to bless someone is ‘to speak well of them’. But in a deeper sense when we bless someone (whether formally or informally) we are communicating that we want for them what God wants for them, what God sees as good for them.
When we bless someone, we communicate in a way which brings God close. Bonhoeffer said blessing is communicating a “visible, perceptible, effective proximity of God.”
The early church was good news in their local community, bringing healing that brought people running (Acts 3:11) and signs and wonders which led to them being “highly regarded by the people”. (Acts 5:13) Tabitha is an example of a disciple who “was always doing good and helping the poor”. (Acts 9:36)
Before they communicated good news in words, they were good news. Blessing people is communicated through actions as well as words.
Maturity in our discipleship will be expressed as we bless other people, and it will also involve giving away something of ourselves so that others can have life.
Using the language of being a blessing, particularly as a way of describing the last three marks of mission may help us to:
Connect with God’s early calling to human beings.
In Genesis 12 God speaks to Abram and promises that through him God will create and bless a great nation. But the purpose of this nation is that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3).
God’s blessing is not only for the benefit of those who receive it, because as the story begins to unfold as to how God will begin to bring the world back to Himself, we see that He will do it chiefly through a people who are blessed, but who then can go on to be a blessing for others.
The restoration we receive through Christ helps us live once again in the full sense of God’s blessing. But the call to Abram to then be those who will bless others remains.
See the impact of who we are as a gathered community in new ways.
In the Church of England, the aim of working for the ‘common good’ has become increasingly highlighted in recent years. (On the Church of England website there are 59 results for reimagining ministry, 560 results for evangelism and 1800 results for common good.)
During the pandemic one writer reflected how, while we might be experiencing declining church attendance (as few as 1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds now identify as Anglican and only 2% of the population attend Anglican worship), nevertheless as a church we remain at “the beating heart of the nation’s socioeconomic infrastructure, with an ever-increasing contribution of food banks, homeless shelters, and a range of community support.”
She reported how the vast majority of churches (89%) report having engaged in some form of social action during lockdown, and a National Churches Trust report estimated the value of church buildings to the UK economy at £12.4 billion pounds a year. Church activities include night shelters for the homeless, lunch clubs, debt advice centres, and toddler groups. (How smaller congregations are still showing up to support their communities through growing social action. Hannah Rich|November 24, 2020.)
Whether through formal activities or informal help offered spontaneously it has been calculated the church members in England give more than 23 million hours of volunteer time every month outside of the regular work at the church.
Change what we count as our significant activities
One church continues to make a weekly count of how many people attend services, how much money is given and how many are baptised.
But they also report how many people are being blessed through their addiction recovery scheme; being counselled through their counselling facility; how many bags are being given away through a food pantry each week; how many expressions of church they are involved in developing; how much money is being given away to the local community; and how many prison visits are being carried out through their visiting scheme.
They are not counting who is coming to them, but who are they able to be a blessing towards. Counting and sharing these figures reinforces the sense that what they truly value in their life as a gathered community is how under God they are able to join in with His mission and be a blessing in many different ways.
Find a way of talking about mission that everyone feels included in.
One of the gifts of being part of the church is the huge range of differences we have – in our personalities, gifts, traditions and stories. This can make sharing an understanding of how we live out God’s mission complicated. In addition, we can lack confidence in the idea of what being ‘on mission’ means, and how we go about it.
Talking about blessing other people, as a way of describing joining in the God’s mission, opens up possibilities for anyone. No matter what our background or level of confidence, we can hopefully all respond to the question, “How can I be a blessing to others?”
Be a healthy church community
Pope Francis has said that, “We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a church becomes like that it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening but if I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out onto the street and a sick withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
Just as the origin of the word “Mass” is the Latin word for sending out, so we end the Eucharist with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the more we are able o be a blessing to others, the healthier our sense of being God’s worshipping, sent people might be.
This session introduces several ideas as to how we can be a blessing, offering a toolbox of extra resources. For example, how knowing my gifts helps; how understanding Anglican identity can be a resource; how to bless communities; different forms of church; hospitality and welcome; working with other churches.
In all of this we will not be talking about ‘the church’ as something separate from ourselves because as disciples we are the church – rather than thinking about how ‘the church’ can be a blessing, we will always be reflecting on how God is calling all of us to grow into this.
If the “chief actor in the mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit, (and) mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit” then being a blessing will be about God’s Spirit doing His work in the world through us (rather than us doing His work). It is God who gives the growth.
We have explored how practices such as prayer, worship, or stillness can become opportunities for us to allow the Holy Spirit to influence the desires of our hearts, and to change our character to become more like Christ.
We have also seen how Jesus’ whole life and ministry was led by the Holy Spirit, how He was “full of the Spirit” (Luke 4:1), and how John said that He would “baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. (Luke 3:16) For the early Christians it was natural that they “prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit”. (Acts 8: 14-17)
Christian disciples always have known this in a general sense, but in the last century there has been a re-emphasis across many church denominations about what this might mean in our lived experience. For example, Father Raniero Cantalamessa is a Capuchin monk who was sent by the Vatican to be an observer at a conference.
During it, he asked ‘a lay Protestant’ to pray for him to experience more of the Holy Spirit. As a result, he reports that he experienced God’s love for him in a new way. He found himself speaking “in a manner like speaking in tongues”. The Bible came alive in a new way. He received a new ministry. In 1980, he was made the preacher to the Papal Household.
While most Christians know that we need God’s Spirit to empower us, we might have different understandings and expectations about how this might happen, and what our experience can be. Some expect there to be two distinct stages, in which someone can be baptised in the Spirit at a later stage to coming to faith.
(“When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8: 15-17))
Some might emphasise being filled with the Spirit as something that may result in receiving particular gifts in order to be a blessing, but which is also an ongoing journey and not a once-for-all experience (“Keep on being filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18)
Others might emphasise that a disciple receives the Holy Spirit when they first say they have faith in Christ (“…no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit…we were all baptised by one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3;13)) and that there may be moments where the work of God is strengthened in them through the Holy Spirit. For example, a bishop will particularly ask for this at someone’s Confirmation.
While these differences can cause confusion, and at worst a reluctance to seek the Holy Spirit, they all point in some similar directions:
As we saw in Session 1, “The Spirit is more than just one of God’s gifts among others; the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up…the greatest and most wonderful thing which we can experience… We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God and God in our life.” Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit as the best gift anyone can receive saying, “…how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11)
The Holy Spirit always brings strength for something new to happen. St Aquinas put it like this: “There is an invisible sending of the Spirit every time any progress in virtue or increase in grace takes place… when someone enters upon a new activity or into a new state of grace: for example, when a person receives the grace to work miracles, or the gift of prophecy, or when spurred by the fervour of love a person risks martyrdom or gives up possessions or undertakes some difficult or exacting task.”
The Holy Spirit always sends us to be a blessing and enables us through giftings. The writer Andrew Murray said, “We must not pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit’, unless we are prepared to go with the Holy Spirit.” Throughout the New Testament, receiving the Holy Spirit results in energy and motivation for mission. Disciples will not put the Spirit to work for us (that is the characteristic of occult practices) but experience that the Spirit puts us to work for him. Just as in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit anoints people for specific tasks, now we are anointed for the task of Christ’s mission in the world.
This is why the Holy Spirit gives, or strengthens, particular gifts. They are “…given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12.7) and “for the service of others”. (1 Peter 4:10) They are not called “spiritual gifts” in the sense of people having them permanently, like a superpower, but rather a list of things (called charisms) that the Spirit does in a variety of ways by gifting us. The picture is that over a lifetime the Holy Spirit can gift and use the same person in a variety of different ways.
The Holy Spirit is promised to every disciple – there are not different levels of Christian. Whereas in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit anointed certain people at certain times, at Pentecost Peter preaches, ““Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2: 38-39)
There are three ways in which the New Testament describes how the Holy Spirit comes to us, but they all speak of a complete dependence on Him. We can be baptised with the Spirit, clothed with the Spirit be full of the Holy Spirit or be filled by the Spirit. When Paul talks about our relationship with the Holy Spirit he is describing how it is about yielding control and allowing the Spirit to guide and empower what we say and do. (“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25))
Reflecting on Paul’s words, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Corinthians 14:20) John Stott writes that depending on the Spirit is what makes the difference in being a blessing: “What we need is not more learning, not more eloquence, not more persuasion, not more organisation, but more power from the Holy Spirit.”
People and communities experience the Holy Spirit in different ways. Reflecting on Jesus teaching Nicodemus, “The Spirit blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), Tim Mackie from the Bible Project says, “…the Spirit doesn’t have to work in the same way at every period of history and in every culture. … And there are many times in church history where these kinds of experiences and activities have marked the life of local churches and people, usually in connection to new movements of the Jesus’ people into new cultures and new places.”
The way that people are empowered by the Holy Spirit who “blows where it pleases” fittingly resists formulas. The Spirit can come upon people. He can fall upon people. He can be poured out on people. People can receive the Spirit or be filled with the Spirit. The early disciples experience the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in a powerful way, with wind and fire (reminding us of God’s holy presence and temple) but also more gently as Jesus breathes on them in the upper room (reminding us of God’s creation of human beings).
In terms of how people are prayed for sometimes people have hands laid on them, and sometimes they don’t. It’s worth remembering that the dramatic stories in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are collected from many places over twenty years and are placed alongside describing being filled with the Spirit as an ongoing everyday experience.
What is clear is that we are constantly encouraged to depend on the Spirit: “eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1) and that growing an awareness of the Holy Spirit in our lives is part of everyday discipleship. Because the Holy Spirit is a “Comforter” and “Helper” (John 14) He stands alongside us in “fellowship”, meaning that He never forces us to do anything against our will.
This means that God offers us a partnership in which we have a part to play. Paul tells us in one chapter to walk by the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, live by the Spirit, and keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5: 16, 18, 25). The practices of discipleship are our part in doing this.
Paul assumes that it is possible for us to be in step with the Spirit, but also to get out of step with the Spirit. While every human being is alive because of God’s Spirit, and the Holy Spirit never leaves a disciple, our attitudes and practices are important in how much we experience being in tune with God. We can choose to allow God’s Spirit to have more or less influence in our lives.
Whether we seek to be immersed in the Holy Spirit through the quiet practices of our daily lives, or through specific moments of laying on of hands, or in the context of worshipping or praying together, or any other way, the method is far less important than the attitude of our hearts.
If we want to be individuals or communities who seek to be a blessing empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, these questions may help keep us open:
How am I or how are we receiving from God before we give?
Am I/are we experiencing a balance between my/our effort and relying on God?
Do I/we have the humility to know that it is God’s work that matters and not mine/ours?
Where am I/are we stepping out into situations in which I/we need His Spirit?
St Bonaventure said, “To whom does the Spirit come? He comes to the ones who love Him, who invite Him, who eagerly await Him.” Am I/are we prepared to give space to wait for God before acting?
Am I/are we open to being used by God for His purposes?
Am I/are we thirsty for His presence?
Am I/are we able to trust God’s love and goodness so much that I/we can surrender to His control?
Before considering how we might be a blessing to others, as we have already said, simply living as God’s family (Galatians 6:10) or as members of God’s household (Ephesians 2: 19) can help us to grow into being a “dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”. (Ephesians 2:22)
As this happens, we can become a “sign of God’s reign and a foretaste of His rule,” a way in which others might see what life looks like when God’s healing life is present, a vision of God’s blessing lived out in real lives.
Clarence Jordan founded a community in Georgia, USA, in 1942, which sought to bring blacks and whites together in a way of life which spilled over into their community. He called their life together a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God”. Despite growing opposition, the way of life they displayed was a sign as powerful as the bus boycotts which started the civil rights movement, and out of it was birthed the vision for ‘Habitat for Humanity’, which has housed 2.5 million people.
For Clarence, it was the modelling of a life of blessing that included anyone, and put God’s kingdom on display, that was the basis of the church community.
This calling to be a blessing by demonstrating together a life marked by the values of Christ’s self-giving love (see module 2, session 4) is illustrated powerfully by an early teaching document called “The letter to Diognetus”:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs….With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
“And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives….They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them…They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything.”
In a similar way, Paul writes to the Philippians that they are to be “citizens of heaven.” (Philippians 3:20) But the idea is not that they ignore the world but that they live out the life of God’s kingdom within it. When people form colonies of their own country within a different country, they create communities which can start to look and feel like the country they truly belong to, and through which others can experience something of the life of that country. In the same way Paul says that the more “citizens of heaven” can live out God’s values together, the more others will see His blessing on display.
So encourages this small group of “citizens of heaven”, living under the Roman empire, to live in a way which is “blameless and pure” so that they will “shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2: 15-16)
While there are as many ways to explore what living out the life of heaven on earth might look like as there are church communities, in our time and context three themes have become particularly significant in helping every church become a community which demonstrates what God’s blessing looks like:
Encouraging everyone’s gifts.
‘Setting God’s People Free’ is a title of a Church of England report which longs to see our life together as one in which we are “recognising the gifts and callings of all people, whether ordained or not, and encouraging all people to use these skills for the good of God’s Kingdom.”
God gives gifts to each of us for building up the church, acts of service and for ministries in the church and world. A church in which people don’t see a difference between those ‘up the front’ and those who are not, in which everyone knows “…you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and that our church “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16) will be a community which can bless for at least two obvious reasons. Anyone coming into contact with that community will feel able to participate. The energy of that church will be all the greater the more people are involved.
Knowing and celebrating the gifts of everyone involves creating opportunities for people to discover and use their gifts. The Checklist in the handouts section offers an easily accessible resource for this, and the ‘Way of Servant-Leadership’ offers two sessions aimed at equipping everyone to know and embrace their giftings.
Seeking to celebrate diversity.
While Jesus prayed that we could be one, alongside this the more we are committed to celebrating people’s diversity, the more we reflect the blessing of God’s rich and varied world. In the Bible our cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic differences are gifts from God which can broaden our own worship, life together, and ultimately the way we can be a blessing to the world.
In the next session we look more specifically at mission as struggling against forms of unjust exclusion in the world, but as far as being God’s household is concerned, Revd Sharon Prentis would encourage us to look at our church and ask, “Who are we missing?”
This may lead us to look at how easily accessible our life together is, how varied our culture of worship is, the language we use, how we are modelling diversity or who is in leadership roles. In an ever-increasingly mobile and diverse world, where many are far from home, the more we can pay attention to becoming intercultural the greater the blessing for the world.
Being honest about being a work in progress.
As we have seen, while we can love and comprehend God through creation, looking at ourselves and most specifically through Christ, no disciple would claim to be able to have the complete picture of God’s truth. Paul says, “Now I know in part, then I will know fully.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) In addition, while we are “God’s holy people”, we are still being made holy. Our ability to love, to forgive and to always choose what God wants is incomplete.
As a result, throughout history we have continued to wrestle with big questions as a community, sometimes with great difficulty. Because we are still learning, this journey never stops. Reformers in the church famously said, “the church must always be reformed”.
If we are humble enough to know that continue to learn and wrestle should be normal, we will be able to continue the difficult work of being changed. For example, the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process reflects deep differences on how we understand human sexuality and relationships. In its introduction it gives us ‘pastoral principles’, asking us to address our ignorance, acknowledge prejudice, admit hypocrisy, be brave (cast out fear), listen honestly (speak into silence) and pay attention to power.
As difficult as this is, the more we are characterised by humble growing and learning, the more our life together may be a blessing.
If you belong to a Church of England (or Anglican – meaning ‘of England’) community, you are part of an expression of God’s church with features which have the potential to help us be a great blessing together for these reasons:
Being a blessing by being set up to serve the whole country.
The Anglican Church’s mission has a geographical reach, with the country being divided up at various levels to ensure everyone can be served. These areas are the result of historical decisions, and, while the idea of splitting the country up continues, the shape of some of these areas will be changing to respond to, for example, changes in population.
There are two provinces, north and south, based in Canterbury and York.
Between them, these provinces are divided up into 41 areas, based around cities with cathedrals, known as dioceses.
Each diocese has a bishop, who oversees the ministry of the church within it. There are often other area bishops (known as suffragans) within a diocese. In Birmingham we have a Bishop of Birmingham and a (suffragan) Bishop of Aston.
The Bishop is supported by an Archdeacon (‘servant-leader’) who is his/her “eyes on the ground”. In Birmingham there are two.
Each Diocese is divided up into smaller areas named deaneries. Each deanery has someone who oversees and serves it called an Area Dean. In Birmingham we have six.
And each deanery is divided up into parishes. The parish serves a local area, and usually has one or more church buildings within it.
Historically, every home in the country is in a parish, and every person has a parish church and priest.
We live in a time in which there is rapid change in how this parish vision is experienced, as resources and populations change.
Overall, throughout England there are 16,000 church buildings (12,500 of them are ‘listed’ meaning they have architectural value and protection) organised into 13,000 parishes, with around 10,000 clergy (3,000 of whom are self-supporting) and about 6,600 licensed Readers.
Weekly attendance at services is just under one million and there are 42 cathedrals with around 10 million people visiting them each year.
(The Diocese of Birmingham was formed in 1907, serves a population of around 1.5 million, has 188 church buildings and one cathedral, organised into 150 parishes, and about 15,000 regular worshippers).
Being a blessing by having an emphasis on serving those who are not ‘members’.
The Anglican Church has a legacy of serving the wider community, and the whole community, whatever the circumstances. This can be seen in various ways:
A commitment to all…Anglican churches give financially towards the diocese, instead of simply paying their own way (through a ‘Share’). This means the church can seek to be a blessing by being able to offer a presence in every area, whether rich or poor.
A loose sense of membership….Anyone can be on a list of people who can elect various parish officers every year (the list is known as the electoral roll.) Apart from that there is no official membership of an Anglican church.
Investing in the good of the community… Before the NHS, many Anglican churches employed medical staff for the community. Before the Education Act many Anglican churches ran schools outside of the government provision. A legacy of this is that the Church of England remains heavily involved in providing education across the country.
There are 4,700 C of E primary and secondary schools with approximately 1 million pupils. Around 15 million people alive today went to a C of E school. 1 in 4 primary schools is a C of E school and 1 in 16 secondary schools. (In Birmingham there are 48 C of E primary schools and 2 secondary schools).
These commitments reflect the original meaning of the word “parish”, as a place of refuge for those on the outside.
Being a blessing by seeking to be open and diverse.
While acknowledging we still have a long way to go in order to be truly diverse, the Church of England is part of a wider global family of churches (known as the Anglican Communion) with a shared identity.
There are 38 provinces in the Anglican Communion active in 165 countries, with 77 million members. This means that the average Anglican is a black woman in her 30s, an evangelical, who has at least 3 children and is someone who lives on less than a pound a day.
As well as this geographical and cultural reach, the character of being Anglican offers a breadth which might be a blessing to a large variety of people by holding different things together in being:
Continuous and new: Those who founded the Anglican church in the 16th century did not see themselves as leaving the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church, but were seeking a fresh expression of its life. We continue to be ‘Reformed and Catholic’ – seeking to change but also drawing from our roots.
This balance can be very difficult to hold together but is helped by the fact the language and traditions we use for worshipping together are the main source of our shared identity than any formal statement of belief.
Rooted and varied in worship: The first Anglicans looked to the earliest Christian churches to shape its worship – Anglican worship has a lot of resonances with Eastern Orthodox traditions. It is also rooted in Scripture – almost all the liturgy (written down worship) we use is drawn from the Bible, and we can commit to reading through the Bible together through using a pattern of readings (a lectionary).
At the same time there is creativity and flexibility. Our worship can be expressed sacramentally to different degrees, holding the experience of Eucharist with God’s word. Our worship can be both formal and spontaneous. Because the readings and words we use reflect different seasons of the year, they can give room for many different life experiences and emotions to be brought before God.
Led and democratic: The Anglican church has ‘mixed leadership’, meaning there can be a sense of direction but also involvement from a lot of people. This means while some decisions can be made in the moment, other, more significant decisions are made over time and with discussion.
This is done through a combination of bishops, who lead on the ground in their dioceses, and elected groups of people called synods.
There are around 41 Diocesan Bishops and 74 Suffragan or Area Bishops. The main synod (which means “people together on the way”) is called the General Synod, with people (bishops, clergy and lay) elected from each diocese. It meets twice a year and people stay on it for 5 years.
Being a blessing by being rooted in everyday life.
Anglican worship has a great emphasis on everyday life – with services and provision for many stages of life – and for everyday people. The first prayer book was for “common prayer” and was designed to put the kind of praying that had previously been done in monasteries into language that could be used in the world of daily work.
Anglican worship celebrates both the world that God has made and the way He is redeeming it. This valuing of God’s creation has inspired a lot of creative art and poetry.
The Church of England also has a legal relationship with the state. While this creates some tensions, it is a sign that Anglicans want to be engaged in the world.
Finally, Anglican ministers are set apart to serve in churches, but also in many other contexts, being a blessing by engaging people where they are – there are around 1000 Chaplains in prisons, the armed forces, in education and hospitals.
In the complex world in which we live, all these factors – serving the whole country, those who are not members, being diverse with open boundaries and being rooted in the everyday – have the potential to enable Anglican mission to be a blessing to a wide variety of people.
The researcher Hannah Rich has travelled all over the country looking at how churches are being a blessing in their communities. She concludes that “The loving outreach of social action (can) deepen faith because it brings congregations into meaningful relationships with those they would not otherwise have come into sustained contact with (and even) can lead to growth in numbers.”
“When the church is engaged in social action, it looks most like what people outside it expect it to be at its best, and this integrity is attractive to them.” The ways in which we can be a blessing can make the good news plausible for people who might find our teaching or worship hard to understand.
She writes, “Throughout the research, I heard countless stories of individuals drawn to the church community not because cerebral curiosity drew them but because they were attracted by the goodness that they saw in its action. In a church that has grown a reputation locally because it supports refugees and asylum seekers through coordinating aid trips to the camps on the French coast, one individual told me:
“I saw a Facebook post about this church. It was about the collection for the refugee aid trips. I just thought, ‘This is a church that’s actually living out the gospel. I have to go and see what’s happening.’ So we did and we never left.”
She adds, “This is not to say that churches should engage in social action solely because of its potential to draw people in. These activities are good in their own right and are a response to the biblical call to love our neighbours, regardless of the activities’ evangelistic outcome.”
Another writer comments: “One inner-city church put aside a weekend and many pots of paint to brighten up a dank, urine-soaked subway nearby, inviting local residents to join in, and generating no small stir in the area. In a wealthy area, another church youth group put on a concert and performed music in a local shopping mall to raise money not for themselves or their church, but to enable the digging of a well in a village in Nigeria. A group of Christian students borrowed their college’s dining hall and invited their friends to a simple African meal with music, yet charging them a high price, so that the profits could go towards the rebuilding of educational prospects for young black South Africans.
“These things can be done not for effect or to impress, but just because they were the kind of things Jesus did. They are the kind of things that happen in the kingdom of God – creation is renewed, the thirsty are given water, and the poor are given hope. Actions like these have their own integrity as a sign of God’s rule.
“Although not performed for evangelistic effect, the inevitable result is that when it comes to direct evangelism, such churches tend to find it works better. There is a clearer sense of what people are being invited into, and into the kind of life that Christian faith involves.” (Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church)
Before anything else, being a blessing to others is a way we can show our love for God. Martin of Tours (AD 316–397) was Bishop of Tours, France, from AD 371. One very cold night, riding on horseback, he passed a beggar. Martin got off his horse, tore his robe in two and gave half of it to the beggar. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing the robe that had been torn in two on his shoulders. When asked where it had come from, Jesus replied, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”
One key question is where to focus. We have a certain sphere of influence, people we interact with or our parish, and God calls us to love our neighbour, rather than the whole world. Whether we are wanting to a blessing as a whole church, or as a small group within the church two helpful questions might be:
To whom are we called?
With whom are we called?
As we try and listen for the answers to these questions together to see what the possibilities might be we might find one of these five strategies or resources helpful:
Having a vision planning process. The handout ‘Developing Vision: Questions and Activities for Each Stage’ offers a complete process from forming a team, to discovering a vision, to seeing it put into practice from start to finish. It enables us to discern what the ‘main thing’ is, and results in a plan, which may include blessing others, which can be followed over a time period to see this come about.
Within C of E Birmingham Transforming Church Action Planning supports this. For those working towards a fresh expression of church, the Godsend app https://freshexpressions.org.uk/2018/12/27/growing-new-christian-communities-godsend/ is a stage-by-stage process to help the group focus on how to develop, offering lots of ideas and helpful questions.
Doing a few things well. Natural Church Development http://ncd-uk.com/ offers a framework of eight qualities of a healthy church community, based on international research. One of the qualities is needs-based evangelism – focussing on blessing others. By using a diagnostic tool churches can be helped to work out what their next steps might be.
Researching the needs of our area effectively. Know Your Church, Know Your Neighbourhood (KYCKYN) is a facilitated process that was designed by the Church of England Birmingham to help churches think about themselves in relation to the local communities they seek to serve, and make prayerful and informed decisions about their mission in those communities.
It is a seven-session process which gives a small group of church members the tools to reflect on how their church is seen by others, to listen to the wider community, celebrate its strengths and have a deeper understanding of its needs. The hope is that we can develop a vision for our neighbourhood, as we begin to think about what a flourishing neighbourhood might look like and how God might be seen in it; understand the place of our church within the community; learn about their local neighbourhood; develop an active response.
Discovering the gifts of our area we can join in with. As we have seen, mission is about finding out where God is at work and joining in. The chaplain general to the prison service said that when he first went into the prisons, he thought he would take Jesus in with him. He soon realised that Jesus was already there. He said that from then on he went into the prisons in order to encounter Jesus.
Asset Based Community Development starts with looking for the gifts and talents God has placed in your neighbourhood, and starting from there. It helps individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to realise and develop their strengths. This is a different approach from identifying and meeting needs. Rather than the church being a blessing to others, we seek to become a blessing with others in our community. https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/
Joining in with others to learn and plan together. Learning Community processes, in which teams from different church communities join together every six months over two years, to discern vision, learn from others, and report back, can enable us to focus over a shorter term and in a flexible way. They are focussed around the three questions, “What is? What could be? And What will be?” helping us under God to find achievable active steps in being a blessing.
Various organisations offer this process nationally including Kairos Connexions https://kairosconnexion.org/training/learning-communities-communities-practice/ and Partnership for Missional Church https://churchmissionsociety.org/churches/partnership-missional-church/
At the heart of being a blessing is serving others and demonstrating through action the good news we have received. Underlying all of this is a fundamental attitude in which we want the mission to shape the church, rather than our shape of church to dictate the mission.
This means putting the needs of others before our own in order to bless them. In the way that Christ left His place of power to become human and come to us, Paul gave up his rights, becoming a “slave to everyone”, and said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9: 19-23)
While potentially risky and uncomfortable, Andrew Roberts tells a wonderful story of a church that was willing to abandon its comfort zone to go to others:
“A group of Muslims bought a piece of land next to Heartsong Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, to build a mosque and community centre. The church thought hard about how to react. They put up a big notice outside telling them as their neighbours that they were welcome. The Muslims were so surprised and pleased they went to talk to the minister, who asked what his church could do to help them. They asked if they could rent a little room as temporary accommodation- he let them have the biggest room they had.
“When they had a church barbecue, they bought halal meat so they could invite the Muslims. They began to work together on neighbourhood projects to help the poor. The story was covered on TV in a 90 second video. A few days later the minister had a phone call from Kashmir. The caller said that he and his friends had been sitting in a cafe watching CNN when the story about the Muslims and the Christians came on. They were speechless when they saw it because they had been told that all Americans hated Muslims. They did not think Christians could get on with Muslims.
“They talked about what they could do in response to what they had seen and decided that they should take care of the little Christian Church in their community. They went and cleaned the church inside and out, washing off the offensive graffiti which had been daubed there. They made the minister a promise that, for the rest of their lives, they would take care of the Christians in their community as the people at Heartsong had taken care of their Muslim neighbours.”
Over the last couple of decades there have been many church initiatives which have at their heart the vision that, rather than expecting people to come to us, we bless them by being prepared to shape the way we do things as much as possible around going to them.
The report ‘Mission-Shaped Church’ (2004) tracked this shift, noting that a majority of people in the UK now have no prior church background. It asked the question, “What makes a church?” and argued that much like the life of discipleship, church happens wherever people are OF something bigger than themselves, look UP to God in worship and look IN by being in relationship.
Crucially as well, church happens when we are sent on the journey OUT – the meaning of being an apostolic (sent) church.
Across the country, there is a growth of new Christian communities, which start with a desire to be a blessing, asking questions such as, “Where is God at work and how can we join in?” and “How might our life be shaped around the needs of others?”
While they all share this common vision to start with going out to others in blessing, the way new Christian communities can be shaped is very different. A few terms have emerged to describe what this might look like.
Churches begin congregations in new areas, largely based on an existing church’s way of operating, and still in relationship to that church. This is church planting.
Churches start a new form of church that emerges from activities or ways of life in our culture and engage primarily with those who do not go to church – for example, church based on crafts, sports, the outdoors, café environments. These are called fresh expressions.
Groups within churches start to gather, regularly, with a balance between up, in and out. They will start by identifying an area or network they want to bless, and then organise activities and time together, which includes worship and fellowship. They might be part of a larger congregation. These are known as missional communities.
Along the same lines as missional communities, churches may give opportunities for people in very small numbers (from 2-10) the opportunity to be a blessing to a group of people or area. They will gradually build Christian community around that activity. It is small, flexible, informal in style, and has the intention to expand its blessing by establishing new groups around an area of blessing others when possible. This is called micro-planting.
Other initiatives are resourcing churches, which simply means churches that plant other churches; revitalisations, in which a small congregation will welcome people from another church to help build up its life again, and new congregations in which an existing church begins a new worshipping service over and above any existing worshipping service – this could be on the same premises or within the parish.
While some of these new Christian community definitions overlap, what is clear is that whereas the days when people “come to us” might be largely gone, where church communities start to look outwards and think of how to go to others, there is often significant growth.
Linked to this idea of serving others by going to them is the practice of hospitality. This practice is not so much something we do, but more a way in which we live. When Hannah Rich researched how churches were making a difference in their communities, she identified hospitality and generosity as two of the defining characteristics of churches growing through their social action.
The practice of hospitality is more than entertaining, it is a reflection of God’s character, a response to what we have received from Him, and an attitude of heart we have towards other people. It is an offer of friendship and welcome to guests and strangers.
The early church devoted themselves extravagantly to welcoming and caring for others. It was a way in which they demonstrated God’s welcome: “Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make the faith visible.” (3 John 5 (The Message))
Practically speaking, hospitality offered by a church will involve thinking through how we welcome people into the community, how we reach out to others in kindness, and how we might be able to receive graciously.
Growing in being a hospitable people may involve:
Being willing to give and to change unconditionally.
“Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” (Luke 14:13-14)
In the same way that God’s hospitality is offered to us regardless of our response, Jesus teaches that the more hospitality is offered to those who cannot repay, the more we bless in the way God has blessed us.
As a gathered community, being hospitable may include a willingness to adapt our way of doing things for the sake of others. For example, in his book ‘Distinctly Welcoming’, Richard Sudworth talks about how Christians have to adapt to help those from other faith backgrounds to find a home in our churches.
For example, he describes the experience of Kumar, who was brought up a Hindu but converted to being a Christian and who is now a minister. Kumar reflects how difficult it was for him to find a home in a church and offers some tips to help churches become more hospitable to people from different faiths.
For example, having inclusive worship and teaching, making the presence of ethnic minorities visible in the life of the church, having flexibility about church commitment bearing in mind that people have different pressures on them, being able to understand others’ backgrounds, thinking about the images we use and the prayers we pray and how they represent others, helping people to understand church life by giving them a sense of induction into it.
Being willing to listen patiently.
The more we can understand others, the more effective hospitality will be in being a blessing. Offering the time to listen to others is a gift and learning to listen well a skill which can be developed. Phil Knox offers a list of questions to help us reflect on how to listen well, including:
Are your questions open? (Tell me about your day / what keeps you busy / about your hobbies?) Closed? Imaginative and interested? Only asked because you want to give your answer to that question?
Being willing to be equal and to be changed.
Hannah Rich notes that “Genuine Christian hospitality, rather than charity or evangelism, offers both in a way that is transformative for all those around the table. It is the difference between feeding people and sharing a meal with them, offering them charity or building a relationship.”
If blessing others always empowers them in some way the practice of hospitality will enable me to create a situation where the other person or people feel themselves as equals, rather than only recipients. It is striking how Jesus brought transformation to Zacchaeus by receiving his hospitality, or dignified the woman at the well by asking for her help.
Particularly as a church community, this may mean that we can be open to being changed through the gifts God brings to us through other people. For example, Hannah notes that “at its best social action is a two-way relationship that can be transformative for both parties as equals.”
The practice of hospitality is so transformative, for both us and others, that for Paul it was essential to being a disciple, and a blessing: “Reach out and welcome one another, to God’s glory. Jesus did it. Now you do it!” (Romans 15.7 (The Message))
Unity not only within churches, but between churches is a doorway to being able to bless others together. Paul encourages the church in Philippi to be “united in spirit, intent on one purpose”. (Philippians 2:2)
Unity is less about the absence of conflict, and more about the presence of a shared purpose – it grows through churches serving together, as we can put aside our differences and instead be focussed on joining in with God together.
But what would such a network focus on? Nic Harding of Kairos Connexions offers a framework for churches seeking to work together across an area.
As these two grow, Nic suggests there can be four areas in which churches might work together to be a blessing to a wider community.
Taken from “Reimagine Church”, Missio, 2018.
Catherine Booth is an example of a Christian who confronted injustice and changed the culture – the life conditions and ways of being – of thousands of people. She was the co-founder of the Salvation Army with her husband William.
With her husband, she campaigned for women factory workers to receive the same wages as men, and for better working conditions for all. She particularly campaigned on behalf of ‘match girls’ (women working in match factories) who were only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen-hour day, and who were also risking their health when they dipped the match-heads in the yellow phosphorus supplied by manufacturers such as Bryant & May. A large number of these women suffered from ‘Phossy Jaw’ (necrosis of the bone) caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus.
Catherine Booth led a campaign against the use of yellow phosphorus. She pointed out that most other European countries produced matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. Bryant & May responded that these matches were more expensive and that consumers would be unwilling to pay these higher prices. In other words, profits were more important than ‘disposable’ workers.
Even after Catherine’s death in October 1890, William Booth was determined to force match companies to abandon the use of yellow phosphorus. In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May paid their workers just over twopence a gross (144 boxes), the Salvation Army paid their employees twice this amount.
William Booth encouraged MPs and journalists to visit this ‘model’ factory. He also took them to the homes of those “sweated workers” who were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like Bryant & May. The bad publicity that Bryant & May received forced the company to reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced that the firm had stopped using yellow phosphorus. Catherine’s hard work had had a transforming impact upon British factories.
In addition, Catherine, along with other Christians like Josephine Butler and William Stead, was also appalled by the ‘white slave trade’, a Victorian euphemism for child prostitution. They exposed the white slave trade in England, collecting three hundred and ninety-six thousand signatures, and saw the practice outlawed. The Booths believed that this kind of political activity was an essential part of their Christian witness. (It’s interesting to note that the Booths were highly effective in seeing many working-class Londoners come to faith, but their approach to mission was holistic and culture transforming.) (Story from Mark Roques of ‘Reality Bites’.)
In this session we look at how discipleship leads to joining in with God’s mission to restore the broken parts of creation and society.
The Booths worked to change and challenge injustice in several ways:
They reflected (before its time) much of the content of the final two marks of mission – transforming unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and sustaining and renewing the life of the earth.
As we have seen, our invitation as disciples is to join in with God in the healing of His kingdom, which affects every part of life, responding to God’s gift to us of being restored through Christ.
Nevertheless, to follow Christ and to do the things He does will always involve a realism about the cost and the struggle involved. This is reflected in some of the words we use at baptism: “Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?…Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?…Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil…May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness…Will you persevere in resisting evil…Will you seek and serve Christ in all people…Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?”
It is also reflected in the way that God’s people are described as the “church militant” here on earth – willing to struggle with self-giving love for God’s kingdom and against darkness. While the way God exercises power in the world is the opposite of the way in which many human systems work, nevertheless military language to describe mission is used in the New Testament to portray the seriousness and cost of these marks of mission. (Paul talks about Christians as “fellow-soldiers” and says, “I have fought the good fight”. (2 Timothy 4:7))
We experience this conflict for two main reasons:
We live in the ‘in-between’ period during which God’s kingdom is present, but not yet fulfilled.
As we explored in ‘Becoming like Christ’, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God has begun to reunite heaven and earth, restoring what was broken, but we are still waiting for the day when this healing will be complete, when “God’s dwelling place (will be among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Nevertheless, because we live in the time between Jesus’ first and second coming, we know that while the decisive battle has been won, we are still waiting for the war to be over (between D day and VE day).
In many ways, when we pray and act now for God’s wholeness on earth, we are looking for the presence of God’s future to break into today. Because in God’s future there will be perfect justice, we look for that justice to become real now.
We are living in the overlap between what Jesus called this “present evil age”, and the age to come, when creation will be renewed.
Knowing that the kingdom of God is ‘now’ but also ‘not yet’ can help us pursue healing and justice now, while knowing that we may still struggle and experience it only partially. This understanding can help us not to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is still so much suffering in the world, or surprised when we still have to fight battles.
God’s kingdom remains opposed.
We may experience conflict because we can be opposed by people, or by spiritual forces. Jesus taught His followers, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15: 18,20) Jesus’ own ministry attracted praise and fury.
Within one story we read that Jesus “was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him” and then a few verses on we read, ‘All the people in the synagogue were furious…’ (Luke 4: 15, 28)
The visible reason for this may be that the call to be disciples can challenge our priorities, and the idols we might base our life around.
But, as we saw in ‘Becoming like Christ’, the Bible reveals an invisible source of opposition as well. As we have seen, the world was created with an unseen landscape (the heavens) populated by forces which are both obedient to God, and rebellious. Jesus saw His work on the cross as disarming these rebellious powers. He came to set the oppressed free – as John wrote, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8)
The final defeat of these enemies is to come, but in the meantime God’s kingdom remains contested. C.S. Lewis put it, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”
This should not cause us to be afraid, but to be vigilant and persevere. Paul writes to the Ephesians that a realistic stance in life is to “Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6: 11-12)
As well as helping us to participate in God’s mission even when it is challenging, because our struggle is not against “flesh and blood” this perspective might also help us not to see people as our ‘enemy’, but to understand how the difficulties we might face need to be fought spiritually – particularly through prayer.
As disciples we are not surprised by suffering and conflict, and this knowledge can equip us with the strength to work for God’s kingdom, in every area of life, despite challenges and the sense that the task will never be complete until Christ’s return. As William Booth said,
“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the street, I’ll fight; while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.”
Christians have had a developing and often different approach as to how, and how much, to be involved in the world and its culture (the environment created by human life). For example, while some might feel that being politically active is an essential part of discipleship, others might be wary of doing so – and politicians may criticise the church for being caught up with political affairs.
If we are disciples who are in a position of influence in society or culture, we can be uncertain as to how much our faith should guide our decisions.
There has been a spectrum of approaches to these questions which is shaped by how we answer two questions:
Should we emphasise the world as fundamentally good, or fallen?
How active should we be in influencing the world?
For example, when it comes to political involvement, those Christians whose emphasis is that the world is fundamentally fallen and that we are called to focus on only influencing the church might see politics as irrelevant to discipleship.
Those at the other end of the spectrum, who emphasise the world as fundamentally good and that we are called to join in with redeeming every part of it, are likely to see politics as a necessary part of discipleship.
Writers such as H. Richard Niebuhr are well known for describing the spectrum of different approaches Christians have taken in their approach to culture, and involvement in the world. (He calls them: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ the transformer of culture).
Slightly adapting these, we could characterise these different approaches as:
Withdraw: Disciples are called to be separate from the world.
Christians who take this approach will emphasise that the world is ‘secular’, heavily affected by sin, that there are two ‘kingdoms’, which God relates to in different ways. They will emphasise Jesus’ words, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) as advocating withdrawal. They are likely to see discipleship as just being focussed on church and spiritual growth.
They will draw a distinction between church and world, emphasising that the church is called to be light in the darkness, and that we should flee from the world. On a personal level, they would avoid watching films or reading books which they do not see as ‘Christian’, seeing them as fallen.
Christians who have been part of monastic communities which have focussed on practices of self-denial (ascetics) might be an example of this approach. However, it might be hard to see how Christians who work and live alongside many people could genuinely separate themselves in this way.
Critique: Disciples are called to critique society, but from the outside.
Christians who take this approach will emphasise that the world is fallen, but the role of the church is to influence by demonstrating in our life together and voicing what loyalty to God looks like. They might emphasise Paul’s words telling disciples to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2: 15-16)
They will emphasise that the church is called to be a prophetic voice which keeps its integrity by not being involved from the inside. On the personal level, they might see watching films or reading books which are not ‘Christian’ as a ‘necessary evil’ – to be read or watched to help us to engage with the world in which we live.
Christians in Anabaptist or Amish communities might be a visible example of this approach. However, it might be hard to see how such a lifestyle could be possible for every disciple.
While these two approaches have historically been adopted by some, most Christians have seen this as splitting life up into sacred and secular, and instead have fallen somewhere between the following two attitudes:
Cooperate: Disciples are called to look for the good in society and cooperate where possible.
Christians who take this approach will still live with the tension that many aspects of the world are fallen, and that their primary loyalty is to Christ. But they will see God’s grace outside the church, as well as within it, and believe that there is good in society already. They will work with others to seek the good of all, and look to encounter God in the church, but also in the wider culture.
The role of the church is to offer the vision of Jesus as the one who can enlighten and fulfil society. They might emphasise Psalm 24:1: “The world belongs to God, the earth and all its people.”
While many have affirmed this approach, they have pointed out the need to be vigilant in holding the balance between accepting parts of culture but rejecting others at the same time. The conviction that society can only be truly healed through Christ needs to be kept at the centre.
Transform: Disciples are called to join in with the transformation of the world in every aspect.
The fifth mark of mission, which looks for the transformation of unjust structures, assumes this view. Christians who take this approach see the world as ‘in between’ good and fallen. But as disciples in God’s image, they are called to both develop the goodness of God’s creation, and to join in with Him in restoring what is broken in every area of life.
They emphasise that Jesus’ restoration was not removal of people from the earth, but restoration of the earth, and that there is no aspect of life on earth that is unaffected. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of creation over which Jesus does not say, ‘It is mine!’”
At a church leaders’ conference, the convenor asked the assembled participants what the greatest problem was in their countries. Almost all included bribery and corruption, often as the most serious problem they faced. The convenor responded as follows: “If corruption is the major problem, then why are we preparing our young people only to be pastors and evangelists? Why aren’t we training them to be the godly entrepreneurs, economists, policemen, judges and politicians that our countries so desperately need?”
This perspective emphasises that Christians are called to be culture-formers and not culture-followers. They believe biblical wisdom can transform any area of life bringing God’s justice, mercy and kindness, in a way that, for example, a consumer view of the world cannot.
Reflecting on Jesus’ words that disciples are called to be in the world but not of it, they would see the world, not as God’s creation, but as the parts of life that can be ‘worldly’ by pulling us away from worshipping God, or by having values which do not reflect God’s kingdom. Rather than there being separate sacred or secular/worldly parts of life, any part of life can either be ‘worldly’ or transformed by Christ.
They would watch films or read books that are not ‘Christian’, seeing them as reflecting the God-granted gift of human imagination and culture, but still aspiring to being set apart for God in their lives as the highest good.
However, they will know that, because societies are constantly changing, and because no disciple is yet perfect, this transformation will be about setting direction rather than providing the blueprint for a perfect culture. They will also avoid aggressive power which, for example, might try to coerce those who do not identify as Christians into going against their own consciences.
Whether we are thinking about politics, or art, or media, or economics, or science, or any area of life, it is likely that, while the priority is to join in with the Spirit in the transformation of the world is, we may also draw helpful insights from the other approaches at different times and depending on our situation. There may be times to emphasise one model over another.
For example, if we live in a very corrupt culture or under an oppressive government, we may need to ‘withdraw’ to protect faith, or to critique prophetically.
Nevertheless, to look at the question of politics, the transformation perspective may lead us to agree with Desmond Tutu’s words, “I am puzzled by which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don’t mix.” We might remember how in Scripture God creates government to bring public justice, and calls governments to account saying, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1-2)
We might look at how being involved in politics can help us develop something good in God’s creation, or to struggle against injustice on behalf of others. We might be strengthened in our involvement by knowing that God’s kingdom is the only holistic source of eternal change – God wants to change both structures and people – and that if hearts are not convicted to change, no amount of political control can be long-lasting.
At the same time, the way in which those who withdraw, or critique, remind us how fallen the world can be might help us be examine the values of our political party or movement, and ensure as far as we can that they are in line with those of Christ. We might agree with Martin Luther King who said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
We might find worshipping with others regularly an important help in ensuring that our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, and not to any party. And the knowledge that we ourselves are works in progress – both good and fallen – might help us to be humble, learning and loving in the way we engage with those who disagree with us.
As we look at the ways we can join in with God to see the world healed, one of the main ways in which every disciple is offered the chance to join in God’s work is through the gift of praying for others. Prayer can be many things – chiefly the way in which we worship and draw close to God in love – but it is also the main way in which we can cooperate with God in the struggle to see His kingdom come.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray not just so they could enter into relationship – but so that they could see a genuine difference in the world. This kind of prayer is known as intercession (literally “standing between on behalf of others”) or petition. When we intercede, we join in with the Spirit in the battle in praying for others.
God repeatedly commands us to pray “….if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Karl Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Archbishop Justin Welby says, “there has never been a renewal of the Church without the renewal of prayer.” James writes that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. (James 5:16)
The partnership God entrusts us with in being able to pray is an expression of the relationship He created us for.
We have seen how God creates and restores us to enjoy a meaningful partnership with Him in affecting the world – from the first task given to human beings to unfold the potential in the world to Jesus’ commissioning His disciples to go and make disciples. Part of the amazing dignity God gives us as His children is to enable us to join with Him in having a genuine impact on the way the world is.
God has set up the universe so that talking to him affects Him and affects what comes to pass. According to the story of the Bible, things genuinely hang on whether we pray. This is because if our relationship with God is to be real, actions and communication must genuinely impact both parties. If they only affect one party, it is not a true relationship.
Yet while the call to be in relationship and to pray is clear, it raises many questions which can undermine our confidence in thinking prayer matters and turn it into a duty done by rote.
For example, if God wants to answer why do we need to be persistent? (Our children only have to ask for things once.) How does prayer make any real difference when God already knows everything? If God always does the best thing because it’s His nature, what difference can my praying really make? Isn’t God going to do what He wants anyway?
In addition, we are used to seeing the world in terms of cause and effect, yet intercession rarely works so directly. We know too that often our prayers seem to go unanswered. The combination of these complex questions and mysterious experiences can undermine our confidence in prayer and make it hard for us to deal well with difficulties.
If a child is ill, and people pray, but the child dies, is this because it is God’s will? Jesus never suggested that suffering was God’s will, or even linked to people’s sin (He rejected the idea in Luke 8). Instead, He displayed God’s character by healing all who came to Him and insisted: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11) According to Christ, tragedy is not an expression of God’s will, and His goodness can be relied upon.
Yet while God’s complete victory over sin and death is sure, until heaven and earth are reunited, we remain in an ‘in-between’ world in which, when we pray, there is more in play than just God’s will. God is all-powerful, yet He has created a world in which several factors, most of which are unseen to us, can affect what happens when we pray. In a real way, these factors can restrict (at least temporarily) God’s perfect will and have an impact on our intercessions.
The laws of nature.
God’s ability to answer intercessory prayer may be affected by the need for a stable and predictable natural world. God made us to learn how to love and make morally responsible decisions, but for that to be possible we need to live in a world which we can influence, but not control. The laws of nature need to be reliable enough to be predictable. If, through prayer, we could see God regularly change the laws of nature, responsible and loving decisions would be impossible.
Miracles are (by definition) therefore possible, but exceptional. God has the power to do anything, but He has created a universe which needs to work in certain ways for loving and moral relationships to exist.
Out of love, God has also chosen to limit Himself by respecting human freedom. For example, Luke makes the comment that it was possible for the Pharisees and the experts in the law to “reject God’s purpose for themselves,” (Luke 7:30) while through Isaiah God speaks of “those who carry out plans that are not mine.” (Isaiah 30:1)
This means that the people we pray for do not lose their free will. We can interfere (at least temporarily) with what God wants. Theoretically, God could choose to override the freedom of human beings, but by taking it away it would mean we never had it in the first place. Thus, while God’s love can influence us, He never controls us.
The spiritual battle we cannot see.
The Bible lifts the veil on a spiritual landscape which both helps but also can hinder God’s mission. Early Christians understood most of suffering to be the result of this hidden conflict. As we have seen, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil”, so Paul describes us as being in a struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms….With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6: 12,18)
The book of Daniel tells a story about how, even though his prayer had been heard by God straight away, an angel had been delayed for twenty-one days in answering because of resistance from opposing forces. (Daniel 10:4-14) However literally or not we might take this particular story, it is consistent with a view throughout the Bible that God’s purposes can to a certain extent be interfered with in ways we cannot see.
According to Jesus, faith can, to a certain extent, also be a factor involved in prayer. Yet misunderstanding the role of faith can lead to at best misleading and at worst destructive views of God.
This is particularly true in the ministry of healing – whether of body, mind or spirit. Just as Jesus demonstrated the rule of God breaking into the world by consistently healing people, so disciples have continued in His name to pray for healing as a normal part of Christian experience, whether by using a more sacramental approach with anointing with oil, or through direct and simple praying through the laying on of hands (or commonly, both).
The healing God brings is better understood as wholeness – a foretaste of the wholeness we will experience ultimately when heaven and earth are reunited. Most Christians would see God’s gifts of medicine and prayer not as opposites, but as working together. While being aware of all the factors we have mentioned so far which might have an impact on our prayer for healing, to join in with God’ mission includes sharing in the ongoing healing ministry of Jesus.
In terms of grappling with questions around praying for others, it is often in the area of healing that the struggle can feel sharpest. Uncertainty about the role of faith in healing prayer in particular can challenge our picture of God, and our understanding of how to pray for others.
We can find ourselves in a dilemma if we pray for someone and they don’t get better. If we see their continuing illness as ‘God’s will’, we can be effectively blaming God, or seeing Him as somehow wanting suffering. However, if, to avoid saying this, we say, “It must be to do with a lack of faith” we can end up making the victim feel blamed (even though we may not intend to).
As we have seen, there are more factors at play than God’s will when we pray. Yet Christ consistently tells His disciples that their faith is a significant factor in praying for others. In the same chapter in Matthew Jesus heals a woman of bleeding, saying, “Take heart, daughter…your faith has healed you.” He then heals two blind men: “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” (Matthew 9: 22 and 29)
Again, in Matthew Jesus’ disciples fail to heal a boy who is possessed. When they ask Jesus why this is He replies, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
We can perhaps wrestle with this by acknowledging that while faith is important in prayer, as we have seen, it is one of many factors involved. We could also point to the way that Jesus, like other rabbis of His time, used the teaching technique of sometimes speaking exaggerated terms to make a point – moving mountains camels through the eye of a needle, for example.
There are other examples of times when it is clear that Jesus can only be speaking of faith as being an important principle, but not a formula. Even Jesus, who presumably had perfect faith, was sometimes unable to heal because of factors beyond His control – He was unable to do many miracles in His own hometown because of the lack of faith of others (Mark 6:5)
At the heart of this is knowing that when we pray for others, having faith cannot mean that we need to generate absolute certainty in our minds about the prayer being answered. Neither does it mean pretending that our prayer has been answered by ‘claiming it in faith’. Jesus prayed for a blind man who at first receives his sight back only partially. Jesus’ response isn’t to blame the man or tell him to act as if he has been healed, but instead to continue praying until he is fully healed. (Mark 8)
When we pray for people or situations to be healed, because there are many variables we cannot be aware of, perhaps praying in faith is not about believing that the prayer will be answered in that moment.
Rather praying in faith can be more about how we set our hope in God and His promise to ultimately heal all things, and to trust that in that hope in our minds and hearts as fully as we are able. The key passage about the meaning of ‘faith’ in the Bible is in Hebrews which talks about faith as “the substance/solidity of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
All the heroes of faith listed in the passage had a conviction that they were moving towards a future promise, even though they did not see them come to pass (Hebrews 11:13) Praying in faith not certainty that they would see their prayer answered in that moment, but it was focussing their minds on what they hoped for as a solid reality. This created a conviction inside them that pulled them towards it.
As Greg Boyd says, “If I pray for a person in a wheelchair with faith it doesn’t mean I know they will get out, it means I have a picture and a hope that this will happen. I can see them concretely being healed and I know it’s God’s will. This creates a desire, a conviction, which I press towards. But I know that that person will eventually get it – there are no wheelchairs in God’s future. But it will not necessarily happen now.”
Praying for others is joining in a battle and affected by many things we cannot fully see – laws of nature, human and spiritual free will, and faith. While it is true that God always wants our healing there may be one further factor of which we might not be fully aware – our understanding of what God wants.
Whatever our prayer for others and the world, seeking God’s will is at the heart of it. Our central purpose is to see God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. As John writes, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5: 14-15)
While we can have confidence that God hears us praying, no one can claim to have complete understanding of what God wants or see every aspect of the universe in the way God does. All these factors mean that when we pray, we see “through a glass darkly” and cannot see intercession as a formula (the book of Job has this as its central idea).
Rather than undermining our trust in prayer, understanding these factors will help us to avoid becoming discouraged in the midst of the battle, and help us to persevere. As we pray Jesus reassures us that God’s goodness cannot be outdone – He gives fish, not stones and eggs, not scorpions and Scripture encourages us that prayer is powerful and effective.
In the light of this complex picture, the Bible gives us several principles to help us pray:
Being persistent and expectant.
When we pray it is not just about God saying yes or no, but we might be coming up against the will of people or forces that have genuine freedom and impact. So it is not surprising that Jesus spoke of the need for persistent prayer. Having driven out a demon the disciples asked Him why they had been unable to do it. He replied, “This only comes out through prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17: 19-21) The disciples may well have said, “Well, what do you think we were doing?” Jesus was demonstrating that sometimes there is a necessity for persistent, repeated prayer in seeing change happen.
In Luke 11, having taught the Lord’s Prayer, He then tells another story to show the attitude needed in prayer in which a friend wakes up another friend late at night for bread with “shameless audacity”. (Luke 11:8) He also tells His disciples the parable of the persistent widow, who won’t stop petitioning a corrupt judge “to show them that they should always pray and not give up”. (Luke 18) In these two stories the encouragement is to know that God wants to answer our prayers and that we should pray expecting to be answered.
Praying with others.
Early Christians were acutely aware that, although it is impossible to see the full picture when we pray, the strength and number of people praying together is also an important factor. In Acts we read, “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.” (Acts 4:31) Asking others to pray with us is an instinct, but also rooted in Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered I am there with you.” (Matthew 18:20)
Being specific and general:
We can be hesitant to ask for specific things for individuals, yet Jesus prayed particularly for Simon, “that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32) On the other hand, Paul wrote to Timothy, encouraging him to continue in general intercession: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions…” (1 Timothy 2: 1-2) To pray for others is to join with God in taking responsibility and to use what God has given you.
When interceding for others we might find our words feel inadequate because the situation feels too big or distressing, it might be hard to know how to continue to pray over a long period, or we might want to intensify our praying. Praying with the Scriptures as a framework, using the gift of tongues or fasting can help us engage well in intercession.
Praying with the Scriptures
Using prayers or psalms directly from the Bible can help us pray for others. Or we might take passages and adapt them into our own words, or context by reading them out phrase by phrase and writing or speaking our own prayers in between. (These offer a good resource. 1 Thessalonians 3: 12–13 to pray for a local church; Ephesians 6: 18-20 to pray for someone’s mission; Psalm 20 to pray for politicians; Psalm 63 to pray for someone in need).
The gift of tongues
There are two ways the New Testament describes the gift of tongues. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives the disciples the ability to speak in different tongues, which means in different human languages, and everyone in the crowd can hear and understand their own.
The other way in which the gift is described is as a non-human language, not directed to people but to God. Paul describes this as a way of praying, not with your mind, but with your spirit – the deepest part of who we are – apart from your mind.
The language can sometimes be interpreted in the context of worship to bring a message. Although Paul prays in tongues, in the context of worship he says he would rather speak in normal words so that others can understand.
However generally speaking, it is a private prayer language which enables a disciple to talk to God purely on an emotional level – you speak what you feel but without understanding the words. It is a way of inviting God’s Spirit to pray through us.
Tongues is not a requirement for a disciple, nor a sign of special favour, but it can be a gift to be used when our own human words feel they have run their course, we don’t know what to say, or we want to persist in prayer.
There is a surrendering of control to God in asking for and using the gift, but we are never out of control. We can choose to use it or not.
The practice of fasting
Fasting is the practice of going without something, normally food, for a period to focus on God. It helps us to do this because when we fast, we not only free up time we would otherwise have spent eating, but we are quickly made aware by our hunger of the things which can control us, and of how we are dependent on Him.
Fasting is a common practice throughout the Bible, from Moses to Jesus. While most of the time it is personal, sometimes it is done together. In the Old Testament God’s people came together to fast and pray at times of national crisis, and over time developed regular fasts. The early Christians fasted and prayed at a crucial moment of change. (Acts 13)
Fasting is not commanded, but in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus assumes that fasting will be a normal practice for the disciple and not as a burden so that people should look miserable while they are doing it: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
In the context of joining in with the Spirit, fasting is a way we can intensify our sense of interceding. For example, in 1756 Britain was facing invasion and the king called Britain to a day of prayer and fasting. Jesus’ conflict in the desert with temptation was fought in the context of fasting.
When we are weak in body, we are more likely to depend on God and become spiritually alert. While our love and devotion to God is always at the heart of fasting, growing in this seems to lend power to our joining in with prayer battles on behalf of others.
We need to be wise about starting to fast, and how regularly we can do it. But fasting gives us an opportunity to both allow God more space in our lives (the aim of all practices), and to bring focus to our praying.
In the light of some of the complex issues we face, it is not surprising if, like Jesus’ disciples, sometimes we might lack confidence in seeking God’s kingdom and feel confused or powerless.
Yet Jesus gave Peter and the church (us) “the keys of the kingdom”. (Matthew 16:19) Later, He tells all His disciples, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) He gave His disciples extraordinary responsibility, but not without entrusting them with the power and authority to act in His name in the world.
It might be easy for us to assume that because He was fully human and fully God, Jesus had a particular power and ministry while He was on earth, which was for that time, and only through Him. Yet Jesus assumed the opposite, sending His disciples to do the very same things He did, in the way He did them.
If, as disciples, we are to join in with His work, being able to grasp the meaning of the authority and power in which He expects us to live will be vital in helping us to confidently join in with God in transforming the world.
In fact, to attempt to do God’s work without first relying on the resource and authority God has given us would be to try and do it in our own strength or on our own merits. God’s Kingdom can never truly grow through those who act as though the authority comes from themselves.
What makes all the difference in our confidence is knowing who we are before God, and the authority He gives us, before we act. In this respect, we are in exactly the same position as Christ.
Jesus performed miracles not because He was God, but because He had deep confidence in who He was before God. He got the authority to do God’s work from knowing He was His Father’s child. “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” (John 5: 19-20)
He gained the power to do God’s work (whether that was simple inner confidence or the power to heal) by knowing the reality of the position God had given Him. It flowed from knowing He was God’s Son, and that He had the authority to represent His Father.
In the same way, as disciples, joining in with God’s work, the only place we can find the confidence to live, act and pray for God’s kingdom is in first knowing who we are before Him. Any sense of authority, right or power we have to act in God’s name comes not from what we do for God, but from who He says we are as His children.
Paul is overwhelmed by the sense of this inheritance disciples are given, telling them that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (and that) he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ.” Not only does this give us deep security in our relationship with Him, but he also wants them to see God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1: 3,4,19)
The source of our confidence and authority to join in with the Spirit is not only that we are never alone, “Jesus is the great high priest who intercedes with us.” (Hebrews 7:25) But it is found in resting in the knowledge of who God has called us to be, and the authority we have already inherited.
God’s mission touches every part of life – we are called to join in with Him to see His rule on earth, restoring everything that is broken until heaven and earth are reunited again. The fourth mark of mission frames this as, “To seek to transform unjust structures of society…to challenge violence of every kind…and to pursue peace and reconciliation.”
This is a call that begins in the Old Testament with the first people being given the task of protecting and developing God’s world, and which continues with the people of Israel being called to be a blessing to the nations, pursuing two things – righteousness and justice. A world which looks like this results in peace or “shalom” for everybody, and everything. Shalom is more than the absence of conflict – it is a word that speaks of complete wholeness.
God’s heart is for justice. Through Amos He tells His people, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your instruments! But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5.23-24) Seeking justice for all was to be a defining feature of God’s people, which set them apart.
Because they had received God’s righteousness, the only reasonable response was to seek justice for other people – to love their neighbour as they loved themselves. “With what shall I come before the Lord? He has shown you, oh people, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6,8) Where there is righteousness, people are in right relationships with God, each other, and the world. Ethical goodness comes from right relationships.
When there is justice, as the statue on top of the Old Bailey shows, there is impartial fairness (shown by the blindfold), truth (shown by the scales), and order in which everyone is protected (shown by the sword). Things are tied together well (the root meaning of the word). People and things can get what they deserve.
The Bible often uses the words justice and righteousness interchangeably, because the two help create each other. If, for example, people live in right relationship with the land, they will not exploit it in an unjust way. Or the more politicians treat people in an economically just way, ensuring they get what they deserve financially, the more relationships in society are put right.
If we are to live into the fourth mark of mission in a Christlike way which brings transformation focussing on these principles might help:
Justice, as well as charity.
As disciples we may well be used to supporting charities to help those in need or to care for the earth. But this story illustrates the difference between acting with charity (or mercy) and ensuring there is justice.
A village was overtaken by enemy forces. All the warriors who inhabited the village were gathered together and imprisoned by the conquerors.
Amidst the villagers were four philanthropists who became aware of the prison conditions that their compatriots were enduring. The first philanthropist went to the prison and said to the captors, “I understand that my brothers are without clean water. I want to take all my riches, and use them to purify the water, so that my brothers will have clean water, that they will not get sick.” The captors agreed and granted the man this right. He walked away, glad that he had been able to show this act of charity for his brothers.
The second philanthropist went to the prison, and approached the captors, saying, “I understand my brothers are sleeping on rocks. I want to take all my riches, and provide bedding for the men, so they may rest comfortably in prison.” The captors agreed, and the man left, feeling that he had fulfilled his purpose in aiding his brothers’ plight.
The third philanthropist went to the prison, and spoke to the captors, saying “I have heard that my brothers have no food. They have only bread and water. I have a large farm and want to harvest all my crops to see that the men have good food to eat while they are in prison.” The captors agreed, and the philanthropist left, knowing he had done much good in helping his brothers in prison.
The fourth philanthropist though heartened by the acts of the other three, was disturbed that his brothers remained unfairly imprisoned. So he found the keys to the prison, and one night, he slipped into the prison and freed all his brothers from their captivity.
The four philanthropists show us the difference between mercy and justice. The first three engaged in acts of mercy. They certainly came to the aid of their brothers and made their difficult circumstances more comfortable, but they did nothing to change the unjust situation. The fourth philanthropist acted to change the unjust situation, not just the circumstances. He acted to pursue justice and not simply mercy.
Structures and institutions, as well as people.
While I can live justly and in right relationship with my neighbour on a day-to-day basis, the fourth mark addresses ‘unjust structures of society’. The calling on God’s people was wider than individual justice, and their own community. God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah saying, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29.7)
There is a sense in which justice and peace for some can only be found when there is justice for all. Failure to seek justice in the wider structures or policies of society can also have catastrophic results.
For example, in July 1938 Franklin Roosevelt called a conference at Evian in Switzerland to respond to the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution by the Nazis in Europe. It gathered representatives from 32 countries, 39 private organisations and 24 voluntary organisations and 200 international journalists observed the conversations.
Hitler responded by agreeing that if other nations would agree to take the Jews, he would help them leave, saying, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
However, at the conference both the United States and Britain refused to accept any more refugees, and most of the other countries at the conference followed suit. Not only did this fail to offer refuge to Jewish people, but the message given to Hitler reinforced his view that no one would help the Jews and persecution could continue.
As complex as some of the bigger issues of our day can be, the more we are able to engage in seeking justice at a structural level through campaigning or political involvement the more likely we will be able to influence change which reflects God’s kingdom. We have seen this in recent times both in the challenges we face in climate change, and also the way that discrimination against different races or differently-abled people requires change at a structural level to begin to see deep justice.
Anger, as well as peace.
The fourth mark calls us to challenge all forms of violence. Jesus called disciples to be peacemakers and lived non-violently, meeting violence not with further violence but by absorbing it into Himself – most obviously on the cross. While Christians still debate over whether war can be just, when we seek to challenge injustice or violence, we are called to break its cycle as much as we can.
In the Beatitudes which describe the heart of a disciple, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) the phrase combines the manner in which we seek peace as well as what we do. A good translation might be, “Blessed are those who seek peace in a peaceful way.”
Nevertheless, genuine change can be fuelled by the right kind of anger. St Augustine even argued that it is necessary. “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
Jesus famously demonstrated this “righteous anger” by turning over the tables in the temple. He was acting out a ‘parable’ about God’s judgment on the way people used religious rituals to exploit others. He echoed God’s anger at injustice which is frequently expressed through the prophets.
While such “holy” anger may be part of our discipleship, as people who are still being made holy it might help our anger to be directed well if we can focus it on institutions, and not people, and if we can ensure our anger is always on behalf of others, or the planet, rather than about defending our own rights.
Peace and justice making, as well as keeping.
Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.” Peace and justice require initiative. This is captured in the Hebrew word for justice (mishpat) which can refer to two things. The first is dealing with what has gone wrong with just punishment (retributive justice).
But the second is a much more active meaning – working to restore what has been broken (restorative justice). This second meaning is the most common – God’s people are called to speak up for those who have no voice and rescue the disadvantaged. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
A great example of this restorative justice, with the right kind of anger, is found in Nehemiah, when he realises many of his people are being kept in poverty, oppressed by excessive borrowing and having to sell their own children into slavery. We read Nehemiah say, “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.”
He challenges his fellow Jews saying, ‘Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.’…’We will give it back,’ they said. ‘And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.’” (Nehemiah 5: 1-12)
Yet speaking up for others can feel complicated – particularly when we feel we might be part of the problem. This can be acute in issues of discrimination. How might we speak up, for example, for the rights of black people, if we are white, and enjoy the privileges of that? Professor Anthony Reddie describes a balance between letting black people speak for themselves, but also being prepared to take responsibility in seeking change:
“What we don’t need is people to speak for us. We are quite eloquent enough. What you can do is be an advocate when we are not in the room. I am curious about what my white friends say when I am not in the room. It is easy to let things pass or slide if it does not have an impact on you personally. It is not black people’s problem to solve racism. White people need to challenge one another and attitudes and their sense of agency. I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me to help them. Take responsibility for your own agency and challenge racism when your black friends are not there.”
Actively seeking justice and peace, as we saw in the case of Catherine Booth, is not just about putting what is wrong right, but often about establishing new ways of living and working.
Robert Lavelle was an estate agent who wanted to help his customers to secure mortgages, so he took over a Pittsburgh bank in 1957. It had assets of $67,000. Lavelle was determined to lend money in a Christian way. He wanted the bank to be a blessing to the poorest people in the neighbourhood. To start with, he refused to join in with common banking practices of lending money to people who are ‘high risk’ at the lowest practical rate of interest, to draw them in to a commitment they may easily fail to keep.
The mission of his merciful bank is to approach people respectfully and through warm encouragement and patient financial counselling, to help them become good risks. Lavelle’s mission is to help poor and needy people to own their own homes, believing that this will change whole neighbourhoods.
Since its inception the bank has seen its working capital increase from $67,000 in 1957 to almost $21 million in 2004. Curiously he started this unusual bank many years before he became a Christian. He says that he only really became a Christian at the age of 47.
As well as refusing to privatise his faith, Lavelle challenged unjust structures by establishing ones which reflected the shalom of God’s kingdom.
The fifth mark of mission is, “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” In 2008 the global Anglican church said in a statement called ‘This is God’s World’, “We believe this is God’s world and we need to walk lightly and humbly within and upon it. We are stewards of that which comes from and returns to God. We believe that all of life is precious and indeed that God has so designed creation that for one part to flourish all must flourish.”
Over the last decade we have become increasingly aware of the climate crisis – an overwhelming series of challenges including the warming of the earth and rising sea levels, migration, species extinction, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, increasing waste/pollution, degrading of the land through deforestation, soil erosion, and bigger cities, population growth and increasing shortage of food, energy, land, or water.
The sense of battle in this area of mission is vast. While taking responsibility for our own lifestyles and consumption is part of the solution (scientists have mapped out that if everyone achieved every possible environmentally-friendly behaviour change it would deal with 30-40% of the emissions causing global warming), change that will make a lasting difference will only be achieved by actively engaging in, or campaigning about, the global political decisions needed.
However, as we look at the ways in which we can get involved, the main battle might not be that we don’t know what to do about making lifestyle changes or joining in with campaigns, but that, despite the warnings we know about, we still lack the motivation to want to engage in the fifth mark of mission.
Why should there still be such an internal battle within so many of us to care for the earth, and actively seek change?
There are several things that have come together in our time which perhaps make it difficult to know what to believe about world issues. Some point to the phenomenon of facts becoming ‘post-truth’ as every claim is disputed through social media. Others have pointed to the fact that as a society we live in a state of permanent crisis, meaning that where we might once have been able to have good conversations in society about issues, we are now constantly facing emergencies, making in-depth responses difficult.
When it comes to caring for the earth, one writer recently explored why it is that it seems that our brains are almost hard-wired not to accept climate change. In the book “Don’t Even Think About It” George Marshall says that the main reason it might be a battle for us to take creation-care seriously is because virtually every one of climate change’s attributes goes against our psychology. He outlines why.
We only become truly aware of a threat posed to us when there is an external enemy involved.
So, if, for example, world leaders at the United Nations discover that an aggressive enemy had been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US we could be confident that the international community would act. Marshall says that even though this kind of damage is occurring regularly, “because there is no outsider to blame, with climate change being an undetectable crime everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive” vast swaths of the public seem to find it less interesting than watching paint dry, and so the politicians don’t have to worry too much about being held to account.”
Issues that grab our attention involve pain, and in the present moment.
Climate change is both gradual and we always talk about it as a future thing. Threats which are more immediate, for example, from terrorism, grab our attention more easily.
Climate change requires immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses far in the future.
Real changes need us to agree with different countries on a distribution of losses and how to allocate the earth’s resources. We don’t like to jump first.
We have a finite pool of worry, and so will focus on what is immediately in front of us.
We have what he calls an “optimism bias”, meaning we tend to think it’s going to happen to other people first – we face lower risks than others.
We have a tendency to cherrypick evidence that confirm our beliefs that others are more threatened, and as a species we don’t want to rock the boat and be outsiders.
If our attitude to looking after the environment can face these difficulties, how might we start to think as disciples in a way that will motivate us to act?
Some of these principles may help.
Remembering our first call.
God made the creation as good, and the purpose we were given as human beings is to protect and develop it.
Looking after the world because God thinks it is worth saving.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus tell us how God loves, not just people, but the whole created world. God loved the world (cosmos) so much that He sent His only Son (John 3:16). Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) By becoming human in Christ, God shows how the material world is valued and holy.
Living in anticipation of God’s future.
In a short-term sense it is about being mindful of our future generations, 100 years from now, who will be living with the consequences of our decisions today. In the longer-term, big picture sense, God’s plan is not ultimately to destroy the earth, but to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10) Our future destiny involves a “renewed earth”. How we care for God’s world now is an expression of our anticipating that future.
Justice and right relationships.
The way we care for the earth expresses the relationship we have with it. But God’s call is not only to treat the land, sea and sky with justice, but to ensure that those who cause the least environmental damage do not suffer most from its consequences. Living simply is about letting others simply live.
We know God through His creation and caring for it is an expression of love and worship.
A sacramental approach reminds us of how God sustains His creation, reveals Himself to us through it, and calls us to celebrate its goodness, beauty and diversity. To care for creation is worship.
Focussing on these truths is a way to move from paralysing fear to action, from apathy to worship. We can care for the creation in small ways – every act of recycling can be an expression of worship and a sign of God’s future, every prayer is part of the battle. We can campaign, lobby, write, or protest to give momentum to the decisions that must be made by governments.
And we can join in the battle with the Holy Spirit by making sure our churches have a plan of action. One diocese (Truro) is committed to:
Cherish Creation: by working at every level to care for those parts of God’s good creation for which we have responsibility, stewarding them for the benefit of plants, animals and biodiversity.
Cut Carbon: We will cut our carbon footprint year on year and to net zero by 2030.
Speak Up: At every level of the diocese, we will speak and act boldly to promote the enjoyment, cherishing and sharing of God’s good creation and, where possible and resources allow, we will work in partnership with others who share the same aims.