THY KINGDOM COME 2019
Just over two years ago, the Social Mobility Commission produced its latest report and then its members promptly resigned en masse. It was a shocking product of the sense that no real progress is being made in helping poorer children better their circumstances in adulthood. It caused a brief stir, and then it was business as usual.
The beauty of the Gospel is that there is no bar to spiritual mobility except our own inertia and selfishness. The Holy Spirit is available to all and God is generous in his gifting. But in practice, there are still limits, and some of these emerge from our problem with social mobility. The Church is significantly over-represented by those with degrees to their name. These people befriend similar people, which reinforces the pattern. It’s a generalisation, of course, but there is truth to it. And so spiritual mobility becomes linked to social mobility, reinforcing its sclerosis.
In making disciples, there are other limitations. When a child is growing up, relatives love to identify emerging family traits. The actor, the teacher, the footballer, the artist, the dancer. We imagine them as adults, fully formed and living out what we can see so early on. Yet when people become adults, we stop doing this. We don’t imagine adults ever really change, especially for the better. And there is plenty of psychological evidence to show that adults find it very hard to alter the way they think and act. We find a groove and sit in it, all the while making the groove even deeper. And so we stop imagining a different kind of person.
When we pray for those who do not know Jesus, that they might come to see how much he loves them and give their life to him, we usually do so with a static image of the person in mind. But perhaps we should begin our prayers with an image of this person as a fully-formed disciple – rather like when we imagine that child as an adult – and then pray them to this point. Hebrews 11 is a vivid description of the life of faith. It begins by saying that faith ‘is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen’ and goes on to show how the big names of the Bible worshipped God by believing in fully-formed outcomes before they received them.
All faithful prayer makes its mark, but I sometimes wonder if our prayer lives – personally and together – aren’t hindered by a lack of imagination and creativity. We need to be more like the painter or the musician who can visualise or hear their creation before they produce it. Instead we approach the canvass or the recording studio with no more plan than the first stroke of the brush or note on the guitar. Plodding prose has its place in intercession – there are few soaring heights in prayer when you’re negotiating a roundabout at the wheel of a car – but God is asking us to pray in poetry too, when we have the space and the quietness to hear what he whispers into our desires.
Jesus’ last words on earth were to go and make disciples. He didn’t say, go and make people believe in me a little, when they need my help from time to time. This is the product of prayer which lack aspiration. To make disciples, our prayers should begin at the end, and work back.
Now if today’s head-hunters had been put in charge of finding disciples for Jesus, it is unlikely they would have chosen Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel. More likely they would have headed for cosmopolitan Jerusalem to locate urban, educated types who were easy with the language of power and the subtle requirements of political occupation. Men and women who would look down on Galilee as backward and provincial, rather like London’s view of Lincolnshire.
But Jesus went to the place where the countryside met the sea – Grimsby, perhaps – and chose some honest working-class men used to turning long shifts. Quiet people minding their business in an unfussy corner of a small land which history would otherwise have passed by. There is no way of knowing what he saw in them or why they gave up their day jobs so easily when another itinerant preacher came to town. But they did. And perhaps this was because Jesus, in going out to make his own disciples, prayed first and imagined what these men would be in God, seeing something in them that no-one else had seen.
The truth is that God makes disciples of ordinary people in mundane places. Galilee and Nazareth may sound like mysterious and romantic places to live, but that’s only because we don’t live there. Other people did, and they had no sense that they lived in a magical place. You never think your home town possesses mysterious powers. What did Nathaniel say about Jesus: can anything good come out of Nazareth? It’s like saying, can anything good come out of Grimsby? Actually yes – it can and it does. We all snigger, just like Nathaniel did, because it sounds daft and underneath we think that nothing special happens in our neighbourhood.
And apologies to you if you come from Grimsby. I grew up in a seaside town on the other side of England.
In the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, we are asked to pray for five people, that they might come to know how much Jesus loves them. When you pray for them, think of the town they come from. It’s usually not hard to find out, in this era. Say to yourself: can anything good come out of Slough / Wolverhampton / Derby / Rochdale / Barking / Lewisham? And then invite God to prove you wrong through your prayers.
Social mobility has slowed to nothing in the UK and we collude in this with our view of certain places. But these towns are just as important to God as London, Paris and New York. With Peter, Andrew, Nathaniel and Philip, Jesus set a trend in the making of disciples that we find today. Ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places witnessing to the extraordinary love of God.
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