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UNLESS THEY ARE SENT

Kings 19:9-18, Romans10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33

 

 

13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

 

In the last Deanery Mission and Pastoral Group meeting when discussing the Deanery Mission Plan as required by the diocese under their latest Mission Action Plan or whatever it is called, I put the point 'do we know why the mass of people are not interested in the Christian message? What stops them from accepting the gospel message? Until we know that any mission plans are a waste of time'

 

I can't say that I have had much response to this.. Bob Jackson, who is supposed to be the big guru of church growth appears to say nothing about it but, like this latest move by the Diocese, emphasises organisational factors, making the church welcoming, training laity and clergy etc. etc. apparently with some success, at least, perhaps in halting the decline in some places. The emphasis is always on church growth, basically getting more people through the doors, preferably on a Sunday. Yet church growth can, at best, be only a sign, a symptom of a more general spiritual growth and can never be an end in itself. All the time that we think of numbers conforming to our own expectations we are wasting our time; worse, we are failing to do God's work and are failing the people who should, in Paul's words, 'be calling upon his name'.

 

Let me say at once that I do not have any good answers, but if we are to do what we are expected to do then we need some idea of what is wrong with the message we are putting out.

 

But surely, you may say, people have heard of Jesus and rejected him. Our schools, especially our church schools teach about him, but what are they teaching and how they do it?

I remember talking to an ex Holy Trinity pupil who liked the school but 'there was too much religion' and they were put off the whole thing. The National Curriculum gives no weight to Christianity, treating it as just one faith among several and teachers -if they have any faith and by no means all of them have - are not allowed to let their own faith intrude significantly into their lessons. In families that have no church connection there is very little opportunity for a youngster to hear the gospel in terms that they could warm to.

 

Adults have even less opportunity to hear the gospel. However hard we try, baptisms, marriages and funerals have become so secularised, at least in people's minds, that they give limited scope for getting over the message.

To this must be added the culture of the age. Universal education, socialism and full adult suffrage, two devastating world wars, mass communication, our adversarial political system, corruption, big business and mobility and loss of social cohesion have contributed to an attitude of self-centredness in the face of forces over which we have no control, a reliance on but mistrust of science and technology along with a distrust, rejection even, of any authority and a demand for novelty.

Against this background, the words of a Jew 2000 years ago, kept going by a bunch of -out-of-touch middle-class , often elderly people who meet on Sundays for a boring session of arcane language and dull, silly songs, because that is how many people see us, simply do not stand a chance. The irony is that those that do find it realise that the gospel of Christ, the message of the Kingdom of God, of a God who cares, who is real, who not only forgives bt absolves us, wipes the slate clean and gives a meaning to life is just what so many people in this fractured, striving, stressful society are crying out for.

 

So what can we learn from the gospel story?

As with any of the miracle stories we can look at it in two ways: we can accept the story at face value or we can look for a way to rationalise it. Many people will object to the latter course but I think, if we are truly to learn from the story, we need to be sure of what it is we are looking at, an approach where I am one with Barclay, the great bible commentator.

 

The story is found in Mark's and John's gospels as well as Matthew and they accord closely except that only Matthew writes about Peter's involvement. If we put them together we get a story like this:

Jesus, after the feeding of the 5000 realises that the crowd want to make him a king which is far from his design or desire. To keep them from trouble he sends Peter and the others off in a boat while he calms the crowd and then slips away to go up the mountain to pray and be quiet and alone. While there he sees that a storm has blown up and the disciples are in trouble so he comes down the mountain and goes out to help them. The storm calms and they reach the shore in safety. The only contentious bit is whether he walked on the water to reach them.

 

The first reference, in verse 25, the Greek term can mean walking over the water or towards the water. In verse 26 the term means on the water but it is exactly the same term as John uses when Jesus is seen at the sea shore. Also the word Matthew uses for waling means to walk about.

Clearly, the words can mean walking on the water but equally it could be quite a different meaning. Could Jesus, seeing their trouble, have hurried down the mountain and walked around the shore to where the boat was being driven and helped them as they were tossed about in the shallows?

Unless one needs the miracles to convince of Jesus special nature, the message is really the same in both cases: Jesus cares. He cares so much that he leaves off what is a sort of recharging process and goes to the aid of his friends, maybe putting himself at risk in the process. That is how Jesus cared then and how he cares now and how he will respond if we call on him in our troubles. He may not sort out the troubles for us but his presence brings relief and reassurance when we need it.

Here, surely, is a gift that comes from accepting Jesus, something we can offer to those who are in difficulties in this increasingly chaotic and demanding world.

 

If Jesus cares do we? Well? Augustine quoted the words from Romans to refute an argument that the gospel had been preached to all the world and that Jesus could return at any time. For that man the world was the Roman empire, all other people were just barbarians about whom God did not care. There is a danger we may have a similar view and that the Word has been preached to those who matter and if it has been rejected, tough. But it has not been preached and it is not being preached and unless we do something about it it will not be preached. The great revivals were successful because they reached out to people in terms that they could grasp and that spoke to their needs. We seek revival, for nothing less is called for, but until we speak and act in forms that people can relate to and that speak to their needs it ain't going to happen.

Howard Gorringe


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