Thursday, May 25, 2006

Putting Jesus' Disciples Back Into The World

In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus says in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.'[1]
Far too often, the Church has not heeded that prayer. It has been more than happy to take Jesus' disciples out of the world. However, Jesus' disciples share the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. We have not had to be browbeaten or persuaded into leaving the world behind. Many of us have been only too willing to join the headlong retreat.
Let's face it. The world can be a tough place and the Church can seem like a welcome escape. Not only that, but people who don't amount to much in the world's estimation can become very important in the Church. And that's basically a good thing, because it's a sign that the Church can turn the values of the world upside down.
The Church's openness to different ways of calculating people's worth means that it sometimes manages to recognise the talents and abilities of people who would struggle to gain proper recognition in the world outside. But this ability to nurture disciples and grow their talents turns bad when two things start to happen.
First, the Church's ability to promote and build up people who have never before had a chance to play a leadership role can be a bad thing if they simply copy some of the bad styles of leadership which they have seen played out at home, at school or at work. The Church needs to help people find a different way of leading which copies the style of the Servant King.
People who behave in church in just the same way that they have seen their boss behaving during the week can cause a lot of harm to the Church's life and mission. The current preoccupation with bullying in the life of the Church is a reminder that the Church has not paid enough attention to getting leadership right. It has taken people out of the world to be leaders, and then permitted them to bring destructive ideas of leadership with them from the world. instead of teaching them more positive and constructive ways to lead and guide the Christian community.
But second, the Church's ability to grow its own leaders becomes a bad thing when it encourages people to retreat from the world and focus their time and energies exclusively on church activities. Jesus didn't want his disciples to be taken out of the world. He wanted them to be equipped to face the world head-on and change it.
If we are helping people to discover their hidden potential to make a difference, shouldn't we be encouraging them to use their gifts to make the world a better place? Despite claims to the contrary, the Methodist Church hasn't always done a great deal deliberately to improve the lives and working conditions of ordinary people or to campaign for democracy. Instead of speaking out against injustice, its leaders in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries fell over themselves to make protestations of loyalty to whichever Government was in power at the time. However, almost in spite of itself, the Methodist Church did change Britain for the better, because it educated and inspired generations of Trade Unionists and politicians who were not content to stay inside the Church. They used gifts nurtured in the Church to go out and take on the world.
Jesus said in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' But the Church, like all institutions, is greedy. It needs people to feed its own life. Without an endless stream of volunteers to collect money, keep its buildings in good repair, train its ministers, circulate its news and information and formulate its rules, how could the Church keeping going? So it sucks people out of the world in order to renew itself.
This is not an entirely bad thing. The Church is the body of Christ on earth. That means, it is meant to be a sign and a foretaste of what God's Kingdom is like and to model different ways of living which demonstrate God's love in action. So people who live in religious communities, for instance, where they devote themselves to prayer, are not necessarily escaping from the world. They are releasing themselves from the overwhelming busyness of daily life in order to focus more clearly on the needs of the world and to pray for them.
When the Church remembers what it is for, when the focus of its energies is on helping its members to change the world by prayer and action, then no time spent working for the Church is ever wasted. But the Church easily gets distracted. People convince themselves that their own agenda is the same as God's agenda.
A congregation can convince itself that keeping an old Victorian building going is a vital sign to the community of God's presence, when really it is a comforting reassurance to an ageing group of people. A treasurer can become convinced that building up large reserves will secure the Church's mission for years to come, whereas – in reality – he or she may simply be starving the Church's mission of vital resources in the present.
The only way to safeguard ourselves against these mistakes is to constantly repeat the prayer of Jesus: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.' It should be the motto carved above every church door.
The Kingdom of God and the Church are not the same thing. The Church is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom has to be built in the world, for it is in the world – and not just in the Church – that God is to be found, and that is where the energy of Jesus' disciples must be channelled.
The Church is the place where we should be able to find the truth. The Church should be there to guard and protect its members from the insidious pressures and dangers of the world. The Church should remind us that the world is not enough. We belong to a higher power from whom, in the end, we take our orders and to whom we owe our allegiance. But that power, which is vested in Jesus, has also given us to the world and sends us into the world to do his will.
[1] John 17.6-19

1 comment:

Andy B. said...

Wonderful post! You describe very nicely the often precarious balancing act the church must perform, and has performed since Augustine's "Two Cities."