Random Lent Thought for Friday March 17th: ‘The Boldness of our Spoken Witness’

In the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer, on page 555, there’s a little section giving guidelines on developing for ourselves a ‘rule of life’. It suggests six areas we might like to consider as we think about such a rule; the fifth is this: ‘The boldness of our spoken witness to our faith in Christ’. Yes, talking about our faith with others, spreading the good news of Christ – this also is part of our Lent discipline.

On March 5th 1972, just over forty-five years ago, a process of a few weeks of spiritual inquiry in my life came to a head when my Dad gave me a gentle challenge to give my life to Christ. I responded to that challenge with a simple prayer of commitment, alone in my room. I was thirteen, but by the grace of God it ‘stuck’, and today I look back with great thankfulness, knowing that if it had not been for that day, the last forty-five years would have looked very different.

My parents gave me a strong Christian upbringing but my Dad didn’t trust to that alone to bring me to faith in Christ; when the time seemed right, he spoke a few faithful words, and the Holy Spirit did the rest. Today, may I also be on the lookout for opportunities to speak those few faithful words, to pass on what has been entrusted to me.

How is ‘the boldness of your spoken witness to your faith in Christ’ these days?

‘The Master Plan of Evangelism’: Preface

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read Robert E. Coleman’s classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism (first published in 1963). In it he identifies disciple-making through relationship as Jesus’ simple plan to change the world. As such, it might have been better titled ‘The Master Plan of Discipleship’; in fact, Coleman did write a second book by that name some years later, which I confess I have not read!

I think the principles are sound, even to this day. But some of the language is dated (for example, Coleman is rather fond of saying that Jesus’ goal was ‘world conquest’, which means something different in these days of global terrorism than it did in 1963 when Billy Graham was still leading ‘evangelistic crusades’). He was (and is) a fairly staunch evangelical and used the language that evangelicals customarily used in 1963; some of it may be a barrier to a wider readership appreciating his work in 2016. Also, there is a curious lack of detailed practical illustration in the book; the author is skilled at articulating the principles, but not so god at giving an account of how he has put the principles into practice in his own ministry.

What I propose to do in these blog posts is to use the same chapter outlines as Coleman does, reword his original somewhat, sometimes offer some responses to what he says, and try to give some thought to the issue of how we might work these things out in a practical way in 2016 (not the same world Coleman was writing in, and definitely not the same as first-century Galilee and Judea!).

I will not feel obligated to touch on every paragraph of each chapter; some of them are not relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963, some are definitely dated, and some will not have the same significance to a wider audience as they did for the evangelical readership Coleman was originally addressing. I will however cover the gist of his argument in each chapter, using my own words, interspersing my own ideas and interpretations. Anyone who wants to see how my posts are related to Coleman’s original is strongly encouraged to read the book!

In quoting Coleman’s actual words there are a couple of changes I will make. Firstly, in 1963 he used the words ‘he’ and ‘men’ to mean ‘he or she’ and ‘people’; I will usually (but not always) replace them with a more modern idiom. Secondly, in 1963 it was far more common than it is today to capitalize nouns and pronouns referring to God and Jesus (eg. ‘Nevertheless, when His plan is reflected on…’). I will not reproduce this in my quotes from Coleman; personally I find it distracting, and I suspect others do as well.

Preface: The Master and His Plan

Robert Coleman sees the Great Commission of Jesus as central to the evangelistic work of the church, and although in 1963 he could just allude to it and assume everyone would be familiar with it, maybe in 2016 we need to lay it out right at the start to make sure that everyone is on the same page:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Coleman, writing in 1963 for an evangelical audience, does not bother to engage with the critical scholarship that dismisses this as a later addition of Matthew’s own invention. My own personal view (and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this) is that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. It is consistent with, though not identical to, the commission statements found in the other gospels (Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:47-48 cf. Acts 1:8, John 20:21) – all of which agree that at the end of his ministry Jesus gave his disciples some form of commission to take his message out to the world and to invite people to repent and believe in him. That the early church continued to use the discipleship language of Jesus for some time is demonstrated by Luke’s witness in Acts 11:26 that it wasn’t until the gospel reached Antioch that the word ‘disciple’ began to be replaced by the new word ‘Christian’.

So this Commission has been given to us, to take the message of Jesus out and to invite people to become his disciples. Merely because we’re busy doing stuff doesn’t necessarily mean we’re accomplishing the work we’ve been given. We might even become very skilled at what we do, but if we’re not doing the right work, there isn’t much point to it. As Coleman says, ‘the question must always be asked: Is it worth doing? And does it get the job done?’

So, regarding our evangelistic work, we need to ask if our work is actually fulfilling the Great Commission. Are we seeing an ever-expanding company of dedicated men and women reaching the world with the Gospel message as a result of our ministry? Evangelistic programs are all very well, but are they helping us to accomplish our objective?

What we need is a well thought out strategy to help us move daily closer to our long range goal. If we’re going to find joy and fulfilment in our work, we need to know how any particular course of action will fit into the overall plan of God. And this is especially true of any particular plan or method we employ to help us spread the Gospel. We must be able to see how it fits in with the goal of making disciples who will seek first the Kingdom of God by practicing the teaching of Jesus and making new disciples in their turn. Otherwise we’ll just be engaging in busywork.

Coleman’s aim in writing the original ‘Master Plan of Evangelism’ was, as he put it, an effort

‘to see controlling principles governing the movements of the Master in the hope that our own labours might be conformed to a similar pattern. As such, the book does not seek to interpret specific methods of Jesus in personal or mass evangelism. Rather, this is a study in the principles underlying his ministry – principles which determined his methods. One might call it a study in his strategy of evangelism around which his life was oriented while he walked on the earth’.

Our study of the plan of Jesus is based on the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, which are either eyewitness accounts of the story of Jesus, or are based on such accounts. John tells us that he wrote primarily in order to show us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that by believing we may have life in his name (John 21:31). However, this revelation of the new life in Christ also includes the way he lived and taught others to live. The witnesses who wrote these things down not only saw the truth; they were also changed by it. Because of this, they inevitably bring out the particular aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus that struck them the most and influenced them to leave everything and follow him. Not everything is reported, of course; the writers paint a portrait of the whole by describing a few characteristic encounters, teachings, miracles and experiences, all within the framework of the overarching story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But of those things that have been recorded, we can be sure that they are intended to teach us how to follow the Master. And since part of that following includes evangelism (“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” [Mark 1:17]), the gospels are also our best available textbook for the work of evangelism.

The plan of Coleman’s study was to trace the steps or Christ as portrayed in the Gospels without undue recourse to secondary materials. He studied the life and work of Jesus to try to discover the reasons why he chose the methods he used for his mission. In doing this, Coleman tried to look at the big picture, from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, ‘hoping thereby to see the larger meaning of his methods with (people)’ .

Jesus Had a Clear Objective. The days of his earthly life were an unfolding in time of the eternal plan of God. It was always before his mind. Coleman says, ‘He intended to save out of the world a people for himself and to build a church of the Spirit which would never perish. He had his sights set on the day his kingdom would come in glory and power. This world was his by creation, but he did not seek to make it his permanent abiding place. His mansions were in the sky. He was going to prepare a place for his people that had foundations eternal in the heavens’.

Nowadays we might word this a little differently. Writers such as N.T. Wright have alerted us to the fact that ‘dying and going to heaven’ doesn’t actually occupy the same amount of space in the New Testament as it does in popular spirituality. The New Testament writers are more interested in the coming of the Kingdom of God ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’, and in the resurrection of the body. The coming of the Kingdom of God on earth was the centre of Jesus’ teaching; the Church is meant to be an outpost of that Kingdom, a signpost even, demonstrating by its life what that Kingdom is all about, so that people are drawn to follow Jesus as their King.

Everyone is included in this invitation. Jesus’ love was universal; he was ‘the Saviour of the world’ (John 4:42). God wanted all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). So Jesus came and lived and died for everyone. His goal was to reach the whole world with the Gospel of the Kingdom: in terms of the big picture, we in North America are in fact ‘the ends of the earth’ that he talked about in Acts 1:8 (“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”).

Jesus’ whole life was ordered by this objective. Everything he did was significant because it contributed toward this ultimate goal. This is why it is so important to observe the way he chose how to spend his time, and to try to discern the basis on which he made those choices. He did not have in mind only the immediate future and the immediate geographic area of Galilee and Judea. He was calling together a team of followers that he would send out into the whole world to further the plan of God for its redemption. Jesus had confidence in that future plan precisely because he lived by it in the present.

It is tremendously revealing to study that plan. If we think carefully about it, we will be led to some far-reaching conclusions. But it might take us time to discover them; in fact, it might appear at first glance as if the Master has no master plan at all! This is in fact what Coleman calls ‘one of the marvels of his strategy. It is so unassuming and silent that it is unnoticed by the hurried churchman. But when the realization of his controlling method finally dawns on the open mind of the disciple (we) will be amazed at its simplicity and wonder how (we) could have ever failed to see it before. Nevertheless, when his plan is reflected upon, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that is implications are nothing less than revolutionary’ (italics mine).

We will proceed to lay out eight guiding principles of the Master’s plan. They are not necessarily sequential. Actually all of the steps are implied in the first one, and in some degree they all begin there. The outline is only intended to give structure to Jesus’ method and bring out the progressive logic of the plan. One thing we may notice is that as the ministry of Jesus progresses, the steps become more pronounced and the sequence more obvious.

The next post in this series will be based on Chapter One of The Master Plan of Evangelism. The chapter is entitled ‘Selection’, and the first subheading (restated in modern idiom) is ‘People were his method’!

The Master Plan of Evangelism/Discipleship

RCIt’s very clear to me that Robert E. Coleman has a different definition of evangelism than many other Christians today. To him, it’s not just getting someone to pray a sinner’s prayer. It’s not just about persuading someone to give their life to Jesus. And it’s certainly not just about persuading people to start coming to church. No – it’s about making disciples. As such, the evangelist’s job isn’t finished when someone decides they want to become a Christian. No – the evangelist needs to walk with the new Christian to get them established as a disciple. And this isn’t about signing up for a multitude of programs – it’s all about relationship.

Who is Robert E. Coleman? He was born in 1928, so he’s getting on a bit now! He has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College, and since 2001 he has been Distinguished Senior Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In 1963 he published a book that has since become a classic in the field of evangelism andMaster-Plan-Book-Cover-300x464 discipleship studies: The Master Plan of Evangelism (over 3.5 million copies in print). The book is not long (my old paperback edition has 126 pages), and it sets out to answer one simple question: What was the evangelism strategy of Jesus Christ?

In answer to this question Coleman identifies eight principles from the life and practice of Jesus. They aren’t sequential (‘first 1, then 2’), but each constitutes one essential element of the way Jesus did his work. Here they are:

  1. Selection. Jesus chose a small group of average people (Coleman, writing in 1963, uses the word ‘men’, and it is true that all of the twelve were men, but it’s clear that Jesus also had followers who were women, and he certainly has them today!) – people who were honest and humble and teachable. Jesus kept the group small so that he could work effectively with these people; his objective was to mould them, and it is certainly true that the potential for effective training and transformation in a smaller group is much greater. In choosing this method, he was not ignoring the masses: rather, he was expanding his ministry, as each of these men and women would be able to go out and reach many others with the gospel.
  2. Association. This is how Jesus impacted the lives of these early disciples: by being with them, and by letting them follow him. Association preceded explanation; good teaching could take place in the context of association. Because the group was small Jesus was able to give personal attention to each of them. In imitating his method, we will spend as much time as possible with new Christians in order to model the life of discipleship, teach them the things disciples need to know, and answer their questions.
  3. Consecration. Jesus, Coleman says, ‘values loyalty before intelligence’. His disciples would learn the truth in proportion to their willingness to deny themselves, dedicate themselves to the Kingdom of God, and obey Jesus’ teaching. Mere ‘church attendance’ is completely inadequate, and so is mere head knowledge; a commitment to obedience to Jesus is essential.
  4. Impartation. Jesus ‘gave himself away’ to his disciples – he gave them his peace, his joy, the keys of the kingdom, his glory, even his life. St. Paul had the same attitude when he wrote to the new Christians in Thessalonica ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well‘ (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Jesus poured himself into the lives of these people, and the result was their transformation. In the same way, we’re called to share ourselves with others in a practical demonstration of the love of God.
  5. Demonstration. Jesus demonstrated for his disciples how to live the life of faith and commitment: How to pray, how to use Scripture, how to reach other people with the gospel message (and, we might add, how to live simply, how to bear witness to unpopular truths, how to cross barriers and reach marginalized people, etc.). His method was to conceal that he had a method, because his method was himself. Jesus never required his disciples to do anything that he had not demonstrated to them in his own life.
  6. Delegation. In the early days the disciples did little more than follow Jesus and watch him, but as time went on, Jesus began to give them more to do. He included them in his own work and then began sending them out on preaching and healing missions. They were to put into practice the methods they had learned from him. Evangelism is not an optional extra but an essential and integral part of discipleship, and we should be giving evangelistic assignments to new disciples today and expecting them to be carried out.
  7. Supervision. Jesus’ disciples were required to report back to him on their mission efforts, and he saw their inevitable failures as teaching opportunities – a sort of ‘on the job’ training. He was constantly interacting with them and was not afraid to rebuke them when they needed it. In the same way, we need to be involved in intentional, deliberate, one-on-on supervision of the people we are training to be like Jesus.
  8. Reproduction. Jesus wanted to produce disciples who would themselves produce more disciples. The Great Commission calls us to ‘…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). ‘Converting’ people isn’t enough; unless those people are becoming obedient, reproducing disciples, something is seriously wrong with our method.

The last chapter of the book, ‘The Master Plan and Your Plan’, is an epilogue in which Coleman spells out how we could implement Jesus’ method. He suggests the following:

  1. Make people a priority
  2. Begin with a few disciples
  3. Stay together with them
  4. Give them time
  5. Meet as a group
  6. Expect something from them – give them tangible assignments to live out their commitment
  7. Keep them growing in grace and knowledge
  8. Help them carry their burdens, and then
  9. Let them carry on the work itself.

I’ve heard about this book for years, but I’ve only read it in the past couple of weeks. Like many great ideas, it is essentially simple. I do think, however, that some of the language and modes of expression need some updating for today’s readers. Coleman is fond of describing Jesus’ goal as ‘world conquest’; that doesn’t have quite the same ring in the era of Jihad that it did in 1963! And he has a habit of listing Bible references, rather than quoting and exploring them, which I find somewhat unhelpful. Also, I think the book could be hugely improved by a few examples of his own experience in putting these methods into practice.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that Coleman is onto something. It’s not rocket science, of course – good ideas seldom are. For me, it’s a salutary warning not to let programs displace contact with people, and not to let secondary matters take the place of the main job we’ve been given. The Kingdom of God spreads as disciples learn to follow Jesus. There is no more important priority for us than making disciples. And in learning to put that priority into practice, we could do a lot worse than giving serious thought to what Coleman has to say.

So I plan to do that. I’m hoping, over the next few weeks, to explore each of his chapters and to share my own thoughts about them. My purpose here is entirely selfish: it’s my own instruction. I’m not good at thinking inside my own head; I do a lot better when I write things out. Hopefully, my thoughts might be useful to others as well.. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in making disciples (and if you’re a Christian, I hope you are), I highly recommend that you track down this book and read it (it’s easily available as a Kindle download).

 

‘On Not Losing the Plot’; a sermon on Luke 24:44-53

When I was reading through today’s gospel I found myself thinking of a few sayings we have in the English language, all of which seem to cluster around the same set of meanings. I’m thinking of sayings like, “We seem to be losing sight of the big picture here”, or ‘I can’t seem to see the wood for the trees”. Sometimes we shake our heads and say of someone else, “He seems to have lost the plot!”

Well, there are times when churches can lose the plot, too. We can get caught up in doing ‘the things we’ve always done’ – holding worship services on Sundays, running a Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it – and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find an answer to that question that goes any further than “Because it’s always existed and we like it that way”, we probably won’t have very much motivation for making sure that our church does the work Jesus called us to do.

So we need to recover the plot – and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us.

Actually, in today’s gospel we’ve come full circle. This is where we started the Easter season six weeks ago – in the upper room, with the risen Jesus and his astonished disciples. You see, Luke’s not too worried about chronology. If all we had was the Gospel according to Luke, we’d assume that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! He begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.

Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then – on the evening of the same day he rose from the dead – he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. You see: the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!

Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us quite clearly that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3). So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period, so that we don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:

Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day”.

We’re used to the idea that there are all sorts of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so it’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that until Jesus came along, no one had put two and two together quite like that before. What I mean is that Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. The one strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah – a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and then set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, with its throne in Jerusalem. These prophecies are expressed in passages like Psalm 110:1: ‘Yahweh says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”’. God would give his chosen king the victory over Israel’s enemies, and Israel would be free and safe again, as it was in the days of King David.

The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah, where we run into a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God – but in some strange way, God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).

Jewish people today don’t read that text as referring to the Messiah. They never have. They’ve always understood it as referring to the nation of Israel as a whole: somehow the nation has a vocation to be faithful to the Lord through suffering and to help bring healing to the world. But Jesus seems to have initiated a startling new way of reading this passage – a way that led to the entirely unprecedented conclusion that the Messiah would not defeat the Lord’s enemies, but be killed by them. But somehow, through his death, God would win an even greater victory.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer…” (v.46). Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. This whole world that God created and that God loves is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases, and natural disasters like this massive forest fire that’s afflicted the folks from Fort McMurray this past week.

How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and who have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.

Luke loves the idea of Jesus reaching out to suffering people, especially the victims of prejudice and injustice. Luke’s gospel stories especially focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, the Gentile soldiers and the tax collectors, the shepherds and children and women – people who were seen as being somehow on a lower level in the society of his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief’. Jesus enters into their suffering; like them, he is despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he is faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

And God is faithful to Jesus; he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. He isn’t ‘going away and leaving us’; he is being honoured by the Father and assuming the title that Peter gives him in Acts 10:36: “He is Lord of all”. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death; the love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.

So what’s the church called to do? Surely we’re called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you who some of those people are today! We’re called to suffer with them, even to die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to believe that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; that he will not abandon us, but one day will raise us up with Jesus.

So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about – what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we intentionally getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?

But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. Look at verses 47-49, where he says,

“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.

They are witnesses. They’ve seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story.

Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin. We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.

Some people think God is like that, too, but Jesus wants them to know that he’s actually not. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. As we’ve seen, he even goes so far as to forgive those who murder him – demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.

We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that the people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not?

Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (v.47). Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. And this is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated, but that it is to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!

So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?

Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong”. Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.

The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth; you don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners and preach sermons through bullhorns, if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!

The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (vv.48-49). You know what that promise is about, don’t you? It’s our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.

First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and to long to know and love the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.

Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to go across the Bosporus to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.

So, brothers and sisters, we don’t need to lose the plot. We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so that they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No – God wants to pour out his Spirit on al flesh, and that includes us.

That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.

‘Two Conversions’: a sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I once heard a friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, talk about an Agnostics Anonymous group he had run; he had invited people of no faith or of very uncertain faith to come together and have some conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There was a good response to his invitation and the group ran for a few weeks. One of the interesting things was that, when my friend presented what he thought were good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group weren’t particularly moved by them. But at one point he asked, “Have any of you ever had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural?”. Immediately heads started to nod all around the room!

One of my convictions as an evangelist is that the risen Jesus is at work long before I arrive. We tend to think of the world around us as anti-God and anti-religion, but what we often miss is that spiritual hunger is alive and well. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God.

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I couldn’t find the figure, but I remember Reg Bibby saying that a large percentage were willing to admit that they had unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority said they did not believe they could get those needs met in churches.

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not – in fact, I think there are signs that it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced that the church has anything worthwhile to offer them – at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope that unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace were invited. They did not wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians – not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too – saw it as part of their Christian journey to go out with this message and pass it on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them – apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas – went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the Good News of Jesus and planting little communities of new Christians. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem; many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’.

I can imagine how that happened. These early Christians moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary Christians were excited about Jesus; they believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them – as natural as breathing – to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier. He’s so interested, in fact, that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

You see, the early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was quite obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so that God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they took a little more persuading to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to; in Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. They were worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they had their own version of the ancient scriptures of Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. It made no sense to many Jewish Christians to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians – but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. Have you ever tried to seriously live by all the laws of the Old Testament? Believe me, you have to really want to do it! And all of that was before they could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story, but let me fill you in on the first half too.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship Jupiter and Mars and Venus and all the other ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that and become a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unfamiliar story in the ancient world. Here and there, the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods; they’d been attracted to the idea of monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name; they were called ‘the god-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

So Acts 10 tells of how Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying; Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice; “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the penny dropping in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food – unclean Gentiles – maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message; see what happens when you follow the leading of God in evangelism, instead of trying to make it happen by your own plans and efforts? Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: that he is Lord of all, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles, and Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they all proceeded to get wet!

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” This was reprehensible behaviour for a faithful Jew; in a world where Romans were assimilating people left and right, the only way Judaism would survive would be for Jewish people to stick strictly to their laws and customs.

So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative: God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius; God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals, and when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

‘“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”’ (Acts 11:16-18).

So in this story we can see two conversions taking place, and both of them are the will of God.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). This sounds very good and tolerant, and as good pluralistic Canadians we’d all be cheering for Peter at this point.

But Peter doesn’t mean that God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, ‘Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are’. This man has already been on a spiritual journey; he’s left the false gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now; God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did not say to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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 28:19-20a). The New Testament tells us that it is God’s will for people to turn from their previous allegiances and become disciples of Jesus, and that it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait”; he said “Go”.

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. In fact, Jesus is not an unsympathetic figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him, and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means that non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve had non-Christian friends who I’ve invited to church tell me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it’s a huge thing. It means that those early Jewish Christians left their comfort zone, crossed the barrier and went to the outsiders, and discovered there, to their amazement, that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Pastoral Evangelism

I was trained as an evangelist in the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries) and served in this role for twelve years before my ordination in 1990. As a Church Army officer I exercised my evangelistic ministry in a parish context, and I’ve continued to do that since then as a deacon and priest. My dad was a parish priest with a wonderful evangelistic ministry, and he gave me a great example of how the two vocations (pastor and evangelist) – often seen as distinct and indeed somewhat different from each other – can be brought together in a life-giving way.

So I was thrilled yesterday to read a very fine short sermon from Bishop David Chillingworth on this subject. Bishop David is bishop of St. Andrew’s, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and he is also Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He blogs regularly about his ministry at Thinking Out Loud. The sermon below was preached at a service of the restoration of the commission of a Church Army evangelist who had resigned from the Church Army on his ordination (as used to be the requirement), but had since decided to take up the offer of the restoration of his commission. I have been present on similar occasions here in Canada and they are very moving for all concerned; the sense of healing can be very powerful indeed.

I love the way Bishop David expresses so succinctly what I have always tried to live out in my ministry, and more intentionally in the last few years: the refusal to accept the idea that the gifts of pastor and evangelist cannot co-exist in the same person. Of course they can! I saw it clearly in my dad, and I like to think it’s true for me too. I’m very grateful to Bishop David for giving me permission to reproduce this short sermon. Here it is.

Re-commissioning of Revd Nick Green

12.9.15

‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through  him’

Our Service this evening – the re-commissioning of Nick as a Church Army Officer – celebrates and affirms that work of evangelism.  It’s the great tradition of John the Baptist who came to bear witness to the one who would come after him – to proclaim the coming of Christ and to call people to repentance.  And St Paul declares the centrality of faith – but reminds us that faith needs to be proclaimed.  It needs those who are called to proclaim it and respond in obedience.

I was delighted when Nick told me that he had decided to accept the invitation to receive back his Church Army Commission.  I know that he thought and prayed deeply about that.  In these moments, the question is, ‘Is this something of the past which I have now left behind – or do I carry it forward as a guiding principle of my life wherever the call of God may lead me?’  And I think it is the latter.  So there is in our worship this evening more than a touch of the gospel of reconciliation – a reintegrating of Nick’s calling to be an evangelist with his ministry as Rector of St Mary’s, Dunblane.  And what is the gospel if it is not about reconciliation – the breaking down of the barriers between us and the breaking down of the barriers between God and his people.

But there is more to this.  There seems to have been a time in the life of the church when decisions tended to be presented in binary – or adversarial – or straightforward ‘yes and no’ terms.  I constantly meet the legacy of that in my own ministry.  And I think that the time when the Church Army said to its evangelists that if they sought ordination in the church they would have to give up their commission as evangelists.  It had to be one or the other – it couldn’t be both and.

I believe passionately that there are many circumstances in which both/and is just what we need and what the gospel requires.  And my experience is that much of the energy which we need comes when we bring things together rather than keeping them apart.  Wasn’t the ministry of Jesus like that – healing, teaching, feeding, caring – all wrapped up together?  As Nick goes about his ministry in Dunblane – caring, teaching, shaping worship, building relationships in the community – what could be more creative than that he brings to that the heart and passion of an evangelist?

So it’s going to be both/and for Nick.  And I think it’s going to be inside and outside the church.  The Priest and Pastor is at the heart of the community of God’s people.  The evangelist is with those without faith – the evangelist is often outside – like John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness.

So Nick the Rector – and Nick the evangelist – bring together that inside/outside understanding of the church.  The tendency of the church to tame and domesticate is offset by the call of the evangelist to be with those who are not part of the church.

This is a really important moment.  I am delighted and honoured to be part of it.  I am delighted to be part of the growing partnership between the Church Army and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I pray that God will bless us as Church and Church Army do both/and and inside/outside in his name.

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Note: For a good example of how the ministries of evangelism and pastoral care can be combined, it’s hard to beat David Hansen’s superb book The Art of Pastoring. David is a Baptist pastor, and his book gives many examples of how witness and evangelism can be built right into the daily work of pastoral care in an ordinary congregation (the book was written in the context of a multi-point charge in rural Montana). I highly recommend it.