Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Don't look back without looking forward too.

The Church as we know it is going through a period of transition and change as God challenges us, through decline, to get back to the essentials. What do we need to keep and what do we need to throw away are key questions as we make our faith journey. What will hinder our calling to proclaim the Kingdom and what will help?

I have always been deeply challenged by Jesus' teaching on discipleship in Luke Chapter 9 verses 57-62. Here three people profess a desire to follow Jesus. The first promises to go with Jesus wherever that may be: "I will follow you wherever you go." (v57) Jesus' reply is to gently remind the man that words are fine but does he realise what that really entails. "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (v58)

Words are easy. We have sung and said them often in our services, but Jesus requires more from us. He wants what we sing and say to connect with our hearts and our resolve. Now is not the time for words but for action. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that because we say something religious, or sing a Christian song, that we are being true Christians. Now is not the time for religious games. "Follow me", says Jesus. Put what you say and sing into action.

The second man wants more time. "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." (v59) Lets hold on a while. I will come in time. I will follow Jesus when I have less on my plate. I will serve God when my life is less cluttered. But time is not what we have in the Church today. It's running out fast and with it the tide of faith. Sure there are examples of growth, but only where churches are picking up this sense of urgency that God is placing upon us. "Let the dead bury their own dead", says Jesus. "But you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." (v60). When considering what should be our priorities, maintaining dead things - whether traditions, ways of being church or outmoded religious practices - is not a luxury we can afford. They are things that can drag us back or nail us to the floor. No, we must "throw off everything that hinders" as well as the "sin that so easily entangles us." (Hebrews 12:1) What helps and what hinders our call to follow Jesus?

The third man wants to say goodbye to his family. "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family." (v61) Maybe Jesus senses a hesitancy here based on split loyalties. Often in the Gospels Jesus' teaching challenges us to always put him first, even talking about "hating" father and mother, in contrast to loving and obeying him. Jesus is not anti-family, but he is aware that sometimes we can use them as an excuse for not doing something for him. Jesus replies. "No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." (v62). What are our priorities when it comes to the kingdom?

Looking back is what we are fond of doing in the historic churches. We are proud of our traditions and get rather nostalgic of the good old days when things were different, and in our opinion, better. Like the four rather elderly choristers I met recently, all that is left of a once large choir. Talking in the vestry before the service they were bemoaning the fact that there were so few of them now to sing the old anthems or chant the parts of the old Prayer Book Communion service. Their choir was once the pride of the church but now it has dwindled to a few loyal and elderly ladies. "Where have all the young people gone?" they asked. This a question that is often posed to me, mostly by churches who will not let go of the past and move onto new things. "Why don't they come?" they asked, as if for some mysterious reason the young people don't like the things they have found so comforting and familiar. "You have to move on," says Jesus. Don't look back.

All this sounds rather iconoclastic and warnings about babies and bath water are received and understood. But throughout history the Church has had to face hard facts about itself and face the need for radical change. It has had to face the stark choice of either submitting itself to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit or face inevitable decline and death. It is the Spirit's task to ensure that the Church keeps on track, doing what it was created to do - proclaim the Kingdom of God by words, deeds, signs and wonders in every generation. To do that there must be some adjusting and spring cleaning as the Church keeps pace with the changes in society and the way things are communicated and understood.

It has always struck me that Jesus was never very prescriptive about how the Church should look as it does this. No mention of buildings, choirs, pews, liturgies or vestments and clergy garments. Could this be that he understood that the church in every age had to be flexible enough to cut its cloth according to its cultural environment?  Could it be that he saw the need for each community of Christians, in each era, to present the Gospel in terms that each suceeding generation would understand and not get bogged down by what were clearly not core considerations? Could it be that he wanted nothing to distract us from his great commission which was to: "Go (not stay), and make disciples of all nations..."? (Matthew 28:19)

So we need to ask ourselves: How can we express our faith in a way that does not compromise it while at the same time speaking in the language of the culture we find ourselves living in? What can we jettison, and learn to do without, that may prevent us from doing this? What will help and what will hinder our mission?

There are no easy answers to the above and we will need much encouragement, courage and vision if we are to meet the challenges that face us. But one thing is certain. We must try. We cannot afford to stand still and do nothing. We cannot look back either, as Lot's wife found to her cost. No we must forge ahead relying always on the Holy Spirit to guide us.  And as we make our journey Jesus has promised to be there: "Go and make disciples... and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:20) I can't think of better company than that.
Adapted from a Parish Magazie article.

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