Most of our regular attenders in Church services will know that I am currently working through the course ‘Leading Your Church into Growth local’ with the PCC. It is good to be prayerfully and carefully looking at growth together – in terms of numbers of people, our own individual spiritual growth and discipleship, and servanthood – our capacity to engage with and support our local community and share the Good News. In the sessions so far, I have set out some hallmarks or values of how we are called to be as a Church community and we’ve touched upon in our discussions those things that inhibit, diminish or stifle growth. You may remember that a few weeks I shared with you a simple statement: “What I am today is not what I will be tomorrow and not what I was yesterday.” That means what defines me at this moment in time is not exclusively what I experienced through childhood and adolescence. If we allow such things to define us, then we and other people will always struggle to look beyond that, and we diminish our capacity to change and grow. Are you the same today as you were 10 years ago? I doubt very much that you are.
That brings me to today’s Gospel reading. I want to talk to you about three things…Jesus, the people and his disciples. Jesus had been in Capernaum and returned to his hometown of Nazareth, where he had been raised as a child. Up until this point, Jesus had done incredible miracles and many people exhibited great faith in him. But now in his hometown, when he preached in the Synagogue, people were amazed – not so much because they were convicted by his message to come to a place of great faith – but rather because they knew him simply as a carpenter and Mary’s son and struggled to come to terms with the change they saw before them as Jesus embraced his calling and ministry. This made it difficult for them to look beyond and accept his divine authority; they were resistant to his message, and the power of God. We are even told, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
God is raising up and equipping lay leaders in this place. Do we define them by how they were yesterday and in childhood and adolescence? Do we only acknowledge them as ‘so and so’s’ son or daughter? Or, do we acknowledge how God is at work in them, that they are different today to how they were yesterday? Are we resistant to recognising and affirming their calling and ministry just as the people in Jesus’ hometown were resistant to his? You see so often unless we step back and open our eyes, we fail to acknowledge how God is at work right here, right now. And our very attitude can impose a glass ceiling on growth and realisation of potential. We must work to create an environment of nurture, free from fear, where people can have a go and test out their calling. We belong to one another. There is a mutual accountability, a mutual and shared responsibility. Leadership is not a right. It is a privilege, a precious charge. If any of us hold a view that we are not accountable, then we need to think again. What might Jesus say to us now?
When we think of the people of Jesus’ hometown, it is clear that there is a profound difference between doubt and disbelief or unbelief. Disbelief or unbelief blinds us to the truth, robs us of hope and inhibits growth. It is tragic indeed when people are without hope – hopeless – and perhaps because of a hardness of heart, stubbornness or pride are either unwilling or incapable of seeing God at work in someone else’s life. Are our hearts hard? Are we stubborn and resistant to acknowledging God in our midst? Are we filled with pride?
Jesus called the twelve and instructed them to travel in pairs, to travel light, to strip everything away that was not necessary, and to be uncluttered. “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.” We learn that the people they encountered in the homes they visited might respond in either of two ways:
- To welcome them and listen to them, in which case the pair of disciples would stay there and minister to the household and bring blessing.
- To not welcome them and reject them, in which case the pair of disciples were instructed to shake the dust off their feet and leave as a testimony against that household.
Does that surprise you? In my ministry, I have had many conversations with people who have given me a gracious welcome. But I have also had conversations with people who have shown a hardness of heart, stubbornness and pride who were unwilling or incapable of seeing God at work in someone else’s life and unwilling or incapable of taking responsibility in their life and showing accountability. I’ve even gone the extra mile with these people because I know God does not want anyone to be lost – but ultimately I have had to give them to God in prayer, dust my feet off and walk away.
I implore you, do everything in your power to avoid having a hard heart, to avoid being stubborn and full of pride. The disciples “…went out and preached that people should repent.” People resist admitting blame, taking responsibility, appearing humble, showing accountability and asking forgiveness. We’d much rather be confident, in control, capable, and ‘on top.’ But faith starts with this old-fashioned, humbling exercise called repentance. It recognizes that God is in charge, and we are in need. It is His will that we pray to be done, not our own. It involves accepting Jesus’ sacrifice, not as our right, but as his undeserved gift to us. On God’s terms, not ours, we begin our journey of faith. As we go, we remind ourselves that grace, not pride or personal power, keeps the journey fresh and vital in an environment of nurture and growth with the Holy Spirit at work. So come humbly to God. May we repent of our spiritual blindness and the times we inhibit or diminish growth and wholeness in Church and beyond.
I leave you with one final thought about Paul. At no time after Paul gave his life to Christ do we see in him a hardness of heart, a stubbornness or pride. What did Paul boast about? Not his training, position, authority or accomplishments, but his weaknesses. He confesses to the thorn in his flesh that tormented him and recognised the poverty of his spirit. Paul’s testimony was of a gracious God who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I said to the PCC…The truth is I am not worthy to wash your feet. As Martin Luther once said “Wir sind bettler. Das ist wahr” – “We are all beggars. This is true.” We are merely beggars seeking to show other beggars where to find bread. It’s clear that we all have different gifts, we are called to use them for the glory of God and we must do all that we can to foster a loving and nurturing environment where Church members feel able to exercise those gifts, recognising and encouraging God being at work in their lives. Amen.