The devotional reflection offered at the meeting of Presbytery this morning has continued to rattle around in my heart all day. Ron Fischer, the minister of the host congregation, began the reflection with a long quote from a recent report conducted for the Life and Mission Agency of our national church. Part of reference was to the church’s seeming difficulty in and determined resistance adapting to the changing realities of our society. The trend has been simply to shutter our minds to the loss of Christendom as we still knew it a half century ago, all the while trying to re-invent the strategies of the past, believing that if we just did the things that worked yesterday, and tried harder, then success would be ours.
Ron then brought in the day’s scripture lesson which was the story in Acts 9 in which a disciple named Ananias was directed by the Holy Spirit of Christ to go to a house on Straight Street in Damascus where he would find a man from Tarsus named Saul. The voice of the Lord commanded Ananias to place his hands upon Saul to restore his sight. The biblical narrative says that Ananias protested in fear because of the reputation of this man named Saul who was wrecking havoc on the church with his persecuting zeal. The Lord identified that this same Saul was Christ’s chosen instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles, and the rest, as the adage goes, is history. Ananias did as commanded. He found Saul, laid his hands on him, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.
Ron’s conclusion was a simple question: what are the things we in the church, and as the church, so fear that we refuse the Lord’s command to go, lay hands on that which terrifies us, and declare, “Brother fear, in the name of the Lord Jesus…”
Short and provocative, the theme of the meditation is a significant challenge especially to all leaders in the church in a time in history when the world has so rapidly become an alien landscape to all of us whose images and expectations of “church” are far too rooted in a model or paradigm that is simply no longer relevant or viable. Alan Roxburgh, in a book in the Leadership Network series entitled Missional Map Making, suggests that the church must understand itself as needing to pioneer its sense of mission in a world where all the old roadmaps have been rendered meaningless by the incredible shifts and transitions in culture and society over the past fifty years. Simply trying harder to do church in the old ways will not only exhaust us more quickly but will waste valuable time and resources that should be directed to listening prayerfully to the Holy Spirit’s promptings to embrace the world that is becoming, rather than trying so hard to hold onto the world that is no more. Roxburgh argues that when church leaders decide to make the fundamental shift from focusing on the church itself to asking what God is up to in the neighbourhood where their people live, it can be challenging and ultimately liberating for both leaders and the people of the congregation.
All of which leads me to ask of myself and of us as a congregation the following questions:
• How do we view the world/our neighbourhood around us? Do we see it as the world for which Christ died, a world over which God’s heart breaks and yet a world that He looks upon in love and with delight, despite its ignorance, avoidance and rejection of Him? Or do we see it as a hostile environment against which we stand in righteous battle or look upon with a mix of disdain and suspicion? Do we see our neighbourhood as a holy place wherein the Spirit is waiting to release power and miracle and blessing through our loving, humble presence as servants to those Christ holds every bit as precious as ourselves? Do we view the world as scary and dangerous or do we believe Jesus is calling us to lay healing hands upon it and give it sight?
•Where do we see Christ in the world? In one little haunting cartoon, Jesus is standing next to a homeless man outside the tightly closed doors of an imposing church building. With sadness written over his face, the Lord says to the man, “Don’t feel bad – they haven’t let me in for years either.” There is a poignant verse in the letter to the Hebrews (13:12-14) in which we are called to remember that Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood, and that we need to go to him, outside the camp…. Do we naively believe we have Christ comfortably restricted and boxed inside our holy huddles, all the while the Lord is busy doing his ministry out in the world he came to love and save? The chilling judgment of Matthew 25 applies: those who were declared righteous were so named not because they had the right theology or conducted themselves properly in worship or because they busied themselves doing other “churchy” things. The righteous were just those just going about ordinary tasks of compassion, kindness and mercy – what Jesus himself did, and still is doing. Will we join him where he is working in the world?
•How do we understand ourselves? This past Sunday, Derek Pearce began the call to worship with the greeting: “Good morning church!” Are we content with going to a building we call church or are we overwhelmed with the wonderful privilege of being the church? Are we content with caring only for our own safety, comfort and salvation with the likely danger that we may indeed forfeit our souls, or are we ready to risk everything for the sake of the joy of the gospel and find more glory and grace being poured into our lives than ever we could imagine (Mark 8:35). Are we content with playing church in our shuttered up sanctuaries (Eugene Peterson has written that too many pastors have succumbed to the temptation of being “religious shopkeepers”) or are we boldly impatient and lovingly insistent upon being the church set loose by the Spirit into the world?
When I was a kid, I used to wonder what it would have been like to have been one of the bold explorers searching out and mapping the undiscovered wonders of the North American continent for European kings. In truth, you and I are being invited to become bold explorers , Spirit-filled adventurers and grace-bearing map-makers for the King of kings in the strange, uncertain and holy world that is coming into being each and every day. Will we be the Ananiases that will put fears aside to obey the summons of our Lord?