Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mobilising for Mission

Numbers 11.24-30
1 Corinthians 12.1b-13
John 7.37-39

The point of the strange story about Moses surely lies in its punchline. We don't need to worry too much why the Lord should have commanded Moses to gather a symbolic group of seventy elders around the tent of his presence, in order to bestow on them a share of the prophetic spirit which he had already given to Moses himself, although a quick look back at the earlier part of the story shows that it was part of God's response to Moses' complaints about the intolerable burden of leadership which he felt that he had to bear on his own two shoulders.

So part of the story's purpose is to remind us that God's people can never rely on one or two charismatic leaders to carry out God's mission for them. Mission is a shared enterprise which requires team leadership at the very least.

This much might seem obvious. But the punchline then takes the lesson of the story to a new and unexpected level which is much more challenging. Moses tells his sidekick Joshua, "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"

"Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!" For 'prophets' we must read 'people prepared to take on leadership roles and play an active part in God's mission.' This is a message which speaks to Methodist circuits struggling to cope with fewer ministers and new ways of being church. How far are congregations willing to mobilise in support of the mission of the local church to their neighbourhood and in support of other congregations which might need additional support?

Of course, no one pretends that it's easy to engage in mission or to lead other people, which is why we need the Lord's spirit to help us. Only the Lord's spirit can give us the courage and the resolve that we shall need to play our part effectively.

Paul develops these ideas in his own teaching to the church at Corinth. He believed that no one ever receives all of the gifts which God has to offer. Instead each Christian receives just a part of the kaleidoscope of gifts and graces which the Church needs in order to function effectively and to become an expression of Jesus' power and presence.

Some of us are enabled to give a lead when wise and astute counsel is needed. Some are enabled to study and comprehend difficult ideas. Some receive the gift of faith, enabling them to encourage and inspire those around them when the going gets tough. Others find that they are empowered to heal and work miracles, and so on.

Without doubt, Paul saw all of these gifts as essentially miraculous rather than as natural abilities or acquired skills. This is why his list includes gifts like discerning spirits and speaking in tongues, which might seem to have no obvious leadership potential today. But the key point is that for him, as for Moses, mission and leadership are a shared enterprise, a team exercise. They are never things which can be done for us, or which belong exclusively to ordained ministers, or even to elected or self-nominated lay leaders. To be truly the body of Christ, the Church has to be mobilising all of its resources and all of its people.

The most striking thing about today's passage from John's Gospel is John's very clear identification of the Holy Spirit with Jesus. It is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus which transforms believers into agents of God's mission.

Jesus himself offered the living giving water of God's sustaining presence and love to his hearers in First Century Palestine. If they believed in his message, that God loves us so much that he has come alongside us both in life and even in death, then they need never be spiritually thirsty again - no matter what times of drought, uncertainly, pain and fear they might face in the future. However, John says that Jesus' mission to bring hope and salvation to the world continues in all those who truly believe in him and are filled with his spirit.

Does that include us? Do 'rivers of life-giving water' flow out of our hearts? Are we a source of comfort, strength and sustenance to everyone we meet - our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues? And if not, why not?

For John, it is this power to proclaim God's message, in word and by example, that is the true mark of the Spirit's presence, and it is much more important to him than the other gifts mentioned by Paul. However, the common theme which emerges from all three passages is that if we are filled with the life-giving Spirit of Jesus then the role of ministers and leaders becomes merely to support, encourage and enable our own share in Jesus' mission. They become, if you like, the back-office team rather than the people on the front line who spear-head the Church's mission. That is because the front-line belongs to people like you and me, out there in the world and in the community, witnessing to the Spirit of Jesus within us day by day.

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