Sunday, 21 October 2012

Like A Child

It is easy to assume that relationship with God translates into entitlement.  Career advancement, upward mobility, good assignments, prominent positions – that’s what so many of us aspire to.  The world’s image of greatness is hierarchical, with the greatest at the pinnacle of the pyramid and God hovering over the top.  The closer one gets to the pinnacle, the closer one is to greatness.  Success, upward mobility and being served are signs, rewards, of faithfulness.  That’s how it’s seen.
In Mark 10:35-45 we have the account of James and John requesting the best seats in heaven.  They were caught up in the existing power structure ideas, and they were ambitious.  It’s easy for us to condemn their words and their attitude.  How could they have so misunderstood Jesus?  How could they make this attempt to carve out what they saw as a suitable niche for themselves?  How could they be so ambitious?  How could they fail to see how greatly their request ran counter to the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus?
Yet do we not still make precisely the same mistakes?  We are ambitious.  We establish our power structures, yes, even within the church, and jealously guard them.  We are concerned that we should be given our rightful, and well earned, place.  We stand there, so often, with James and John looking to move up the hierarchy.
The message needs to be shouted at us too.  It’s just not like that.  Jesus responds to this request by addressing all of the disciples.  This is not how it is with us.  This is not our way.  We do things differently. 
As Nick Page puts it (in “The Wrong Messiah”) – “The disciples are behaving childishly, but they need to behave like children.  Jesus’ teaching on leadership is informed all the time by a subversion of the models he sees around him.  Leadership, for Jesus, is all bound up with service.  ….  It is an upside-down world, where the last is first, where the landless day labourer who works for one hour gets the same rate as those who worked all day, where those who expect the seats of honour will get put at the other end of the table.”
At least James and John knew where true greatness lay.  They may not have understood what they were asking when they asked to be seated on the right hand and left hand of Jesus  - but they were asking the right person.  They suspected that Jesus was the one who would ‘come into glory’, even though they did not understand the full implication of their request
Jesus’ response to James and John challenges popular assumptions about greatness, power and prominence.  Jesus’ way leads in a different direction.  Out there, says Jesus, leadership is power, with all its trappings and privileges.  With us, he says, leadership is service, with all its hard work and obligations.  First – last.  Last – first.  In John’s Gospel the point will be made with a towel and basin, and twelve pairs of dirty feet, on the night before the point is really made.  Here, in Mark’s Gospel, it is put like this: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Lydia and Paul

The book of Acts is packed with stories of first century emerging church.  Some of the key characters whose exploits are described by Luke were surely the pioneer ministers of their day.  The church needs to be constantly reinventing itself.  The search for appropriate fresh expressions of church is nothing new.  William Booth looked for a different way, and came up with the Salvation Army.  John Wesley developed some new ideas and discovered he had set in motion the Methodist Church.  More recently the ‘base communities’ of Latin America have offered something new.  When we, in the Eastern Synod, explored where such a route might lead, we said that we were looking for a way of being church that is missional, pioneering, people-focussed, ecumenical and risk-taking. 
In the days of Acts it was the likes of Paul who went out looking for the pioneer ministers that would nurture the church into being in each place.  Various people were found to do those different things that were called for in those first days of the early church.  Acts 16:11-15 introduces us to one such, Lydia.  I wonder if we might describe Lydia as one of the first pioneer ministers.  She certainly wasn’t an obvious candidate to be getting a church going.  We know that she was a wealthy woman.  She had a business dealing in luxury items.  Only the wealthy could afford clothes that had been treated with the expensive purple dyes.  And she lived in a house that was big enough to take a  number of guests.  At this point Paul is travelling with Silas and Timothy, but she is able to persuade them to go and stay with her.  She is a woman of high social standing remembered in this history of the early church as an associate of Paul’s. 
It is also interesting that when Paul and his colleagues went looking for some people who might be open to their message they found a group of women and sat and talked to them.  The Jewish rule was that no service could start until there were ten men present.  This emerging church develops from a flexible approach.  Paul has a strategy.  It was his custom to go to the synagogue because he believed that was likely to be the most fruitful field for the gospel.  We do need strategies.  But here, though Paul didn’t find what he was expecting, it didn’t put him off.  We need flexible and adaptable strategies.  It is also worth remembering that Paul mostly worked as a non-stipendiary minister.  The day job was tent-making and he didn’t expect those amongst whom he was trying to grow a church to provide him with board and lodgings, let alone anything more than that.  Here though, he is offered accommodation, which he accepts.  We, too, need to consider questions of stewardship and questions of resources.  Those two are related, but are, by no means, the same.  We do sometimes get the idea that what has once worked ought always to work, and to do so everywhere.
Paul and Lydia, in their encounter, and their joint but different leadership to this emerging church remind us of the need to always be looking for fresh expressions of church.  There is a sense in which there is nothing new, though there is, equally, I believe, a sense in which every form of church was at one time a fresh expression.  How do we know if we have got a fresh expression?  Of course, there are many answers to that question.  Steven Croft suggests “the key distinctive in fresh expressions of church (is) a missional direction and dimension”.  John Hull similarly suggests a couple of evaluation criteria: “Do the Christians involved in the fresh expressions make a habit of walking with God?  Do the structures make the mission of God visible?”
It is God’s mission with which we are engaged – and God calls us to be partners in looking for those who need to be found.