THE LIGHT FOOTPRINT OF MISSION
We need to keep mission simple and not over-complicate things. People just need to know how much God loves them. This is a story all may respond to in a world where we otherwise feel the burden of proving our worth.
Despite the implacable opposition Jesus received from the religious establishment, we tend to think his ministry was an unbridled success. By the time Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth in Mark 6, he had healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed a storm and raised the dead. But there’s no-one like those who have known you since childhood to bring you down to earth.
Jesus attended the synagogue at Nazareth and taught the listeners. What he had to say was as astounding as his miracle working power and helped people to see they were in the presence of someone unique. Even the residents of Nazareth agreed on the power of his teaching, but where others made a leap of faith in following him, their response was myopic and parochial. For them, Jesus was a manual labourer from a large family with a prevailing hint of scandal over his birth – note their reference to him being the son of Mary rather than the son of Joseph. And so we read that Jesus was unable to do any real works of power there. Sometimes the environment we work in is so unyielding in ministry that nothing much happens. This can feel dispiriting and lead us to question what we have done wrong. If Jesus himself hit a brick wall in ministry at times, we shouldn’t be surprised if we do from time to time.
That Jesus was able to emerge from the shadow of his childhood should also be an encouragement to any who grew up in a large family where you could never get any air space and where you were constantly being compared to other siblings. But his case shows the power of appearances in our judgment of others. All kinds of unconscious biases are present in the observations we make of other people. Judgments are formed in a matter of seconds, based on how people look and sound, and are often swayed by experience. I heard of one case where an interviewer didn’t give a job to a credible candidate because he reminded her of an ex-boyfriend.
It’s said that we judge other people by their actions but judge ourselves by our intentions. In forming opinions of people, we look at what they do but rarely factor in all the circumstances which have gone into shaping the person and the way they behave. Someone may be irritable because they have lost sleep or had an argument at home; another person may be depressed because a sad anniversary is upon them; yet another may be flaky and forgetting things because they are worried about their marriage or their children. The judgments we form of others are often sharp because they lack context. By contrast, we are kind to ourselves and make excuses because we know deep down we mean well – without cutting the same slack for others who probably do in turn.
Jesus could have obsessed over his truculent neighbours, but he was no shallow narcissist keeping scores and settling vendettas. The people had made their choice and he respected it, despite his astonishment at their mean-spiritedness. Instead, he invented a new approach to ministry, sending out the twelve disciples in pairs to the surrounding villages to tell them the kingdom of God had drawn near and giving them authority over other powers. It’s a point easily missed in the story. When we begin a new work for God, insecurities can re-surface. We feel we have to re-establish our credibility. We may even wonder if we can pull it off. Here Jesus reminds us, the anxieties that nag are hushed by one truth: the authority has been given by God himself. No-one should undermine this in us and it affords us confidence to express the gifts that lay behind his calling in the first place.
The instruction to the disciples to take virtually nothing for their journey is curious. It’s rather like sending people on a week long mission today and arbitrarily saying there can be no mobile phones, no laptops, no wifi, no credit cards, no meal deals and no bottles of water. We all need props for the journey; they afford us security. What is a mobile phone for if not to look at when we feel awkward in company or disconnected from others? The instructions of Jesus were an unsparing stripping back of all the things, a symbol of the priority and immediacy of their task. They were to travel lightly through the world as they followed Christ.
I think we are also called to a light footprint of mission also. Our culture is adapting to new environments with manic, ill-considered speed. There is a collective vertigo that makes us feel queasy at rapid change. A natural instinct is to resort to what we know and the props that give us meaning. For the Church, this is to hold on to what we have received. There is much wisdom in this, but this gift runs out if it means we do not adapt the way we do mission in this post-modern world. For many people today, the Church is simply irrelevant and they can’t get beyond this to the love God has for them. Our mission should be imaginative, flexible and daring in the ways we reach out, pointing cleverly to Jesus.
The risk for a highly institutionalised Church is that its mission also becomes encumbered with a bureaucratic overlay. It’s like we’re sent out into the safe, sunny streets around us with the equipment of a soldier climbing mountains in Afghanistan. While everyone else is in T shirts and shorts, we are wheezing and gasping inside layers of life-saving kit, lumbering down the street ready for a battle that isn’t going to happen.
We need to keep mission simple and not over-complicate things. Have confidence in God; he has confidence in you. People need to know how much God loves them. This is the story they are going to respond to in a world where we are endlessly having to prove our worth and never feel we match up to the next person. Walking towards another person with God’s unconditional love is the light footprint of mission.
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