VIRAL WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT
A message to those ordained priest in the Church of God, September 2020
Since the tech revolution, insurgent new start-ups have enjoyed using the word ‘disruption’ to describe their impact on established industries. The term has spread widely, creeping into conversations about all sorts of things. Using it shows how wired you are, ensuring acceptance among peers and aligning yourself with every T shirt wearing Silicon Valley billionaire.
No-one talks about how it feels to be disrupted, of course. That’s only for losers. Until now, that is. It’s said that the smaller the outfit, the more admirable the disruption. So how about disrupting everyone and everything across the world and yet being too small for the human eye to see? That’s disruption on an epic scale, and we all know what it feels like to be on its receiving end.
Your early ordained ministry has been conducted in the pandemic’s shadow; this service being a symbol of its effects. It is a chastening experience to have something so tiny undermine the human race at just the moment we were priding ourselves on advances made in science and technology. Its effects will continue to be illness, death, poverty, human separation and the loss of human touch. Life has become sadder, less carefree.
But there is a different insurgency at play in the world today. To many people it is equally tiny and inconsequential. It can’t be seen with the human eye. There are people who don’t believe it exists and who ignore others that claim it will affect the whole world. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is first evidence of the world’s biggest disruption, the emergence of a new creation, that spreads with viral capacity across peoples and cultures. Its effects are the polar opposite of today’s virus. It brings life, healing, comfort, hope, security, the ready trust of others, peace between people and nations, infecting us with joy.
Though your ordination as priests will always be linked to the virus, do not be defined by it. As priests, you are viral with the Holy Spirit. The office you are assuming has status, though we should not become self-regarding, because it exists to give clarity and focus to your influence. We can underestimate this because we don’t want to think of ourselves more highly than we should. That’s biblical, right? But we need to be aware of our influence because it is always greater than we imagine. We assume influencers belong on social media, conquering the world from bedrooms in Croydon and Carlisle, but the capacity of some to influence more than others by virtue of their status is a human reality.
As priests you will be noticed and copied. St Paul said: be imitators of me as I am of Christ. It makes our toes curl with awkwardness just to say it, knowing how we are, but better to see it and embrace it for what it is like the Apostle did. You are contagious. People will copy you. The Gospel spreads exponentially like a virus. It’s said we haven’t been able to get our heads round the maths of exponential growth and it has made people too relaxed about the virus. The Gospel spreads exponentially, but we do not act like it should. Instead, we pray for incremental growth and change. Think about your viral influence. It is a way of subverting all that’s hurt us these last months and re-purposing it for God.
The trouble is, human needs have also grown exponentially in the last few months. After a long period of restricted activity, it will be tempting to make up for lost time by working at speed and trying to attend to lots of things. The existence of a need does not necessarily translate into a call to meet it. Those who think it does often end up burnt out. We need to figure out what God is saying to us, which suggests the most pressing need of all right now is to stay close to Jesus, not wandering off and trying to lip read him from a distance.
God has ministry for you and attention to individual human need is paramount. In John chapter one, we hear about Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel. Our reading (1: 47-51) began shortly after Nathaniel’s killer put-down of Nazareth as a useless dump. That conjures up the impression of a cynic, that kind of person who has the world neatly categorised, a story about everything and a world-weary way that makes everyone else conform to their disenchantment. But the first thing Jesus does is to ignore this and compliment him for his honesty. It wrongfoots Nathaniel and shows us how a generous interpretation of someone else can unlock defensiveness.
Nathaniel is also impressed that Jesus already knew who he was. ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’, he says. Fig trees grow tall and, significantly for us here, wide. We don’t know why Nathaniel was under the tree. Perhaps he was hiding from the sun. Shielding from the damaging effects of the natural world. Perhaps he was lonely and using the tree as camouflage for his isolation. Maybe he was bored and taking a moment to rest. There is no way of telling.
More important is that Jesus saw him. If Jesus was on a hot, dusty road with the sun in his eyes, it would have been hard to make out a man surrounded by lots of branches in the shade. But his lateral vision picked out Nathaniel, and it is just this kind of sight we need to cultivate today. The people who accost us may not be the ones we need to spend time with. Those who are hidden from view should be sized up too before decisions are made over who to minister with.
It’s assumed that people succeed in this world by being loud and in your face, and so everyone feels they must do this to get noticed. But it is the voiceless and the disempowered, the people others look through, whom God is calling us to reach first in this global crisis. Only the art of listening will lead us to them, perhaps the least celebrated of all the virtues but one at the heart of your role.
Many opportunities lie in front of you, and it helps to keep a sense of direction. We are here to meet human need and relieve suffering, but this is not distinctive to our calling; many others have this, too. We are to invite people into relationship with Jesus Christ. In his short and astute conversation with Nathaniel, Jesus achieved a lifetime of lasting change. And this won’t have ended with Nathaniel because he will have told other people about this encounter, who each told other people, ensuring the Gospel spread exponentially and that we are talking about it even today.
Keeping it simple has great value when life seems to make everything as complicated as possible. For us, right now, I think the simplicity is twofold. Like Paul, we are ‘to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified’. The second bit is to resist going on a sustained ministry bender where we never stop and grow increasingly burdened with the weight of the office because we are trying to make up for all the virus has spoiled.
‘Come…all you that are weary…and I will give you rest’, Jesus said. We should embrace our limits. But above all, we should know his power. He began a disruption in Jerusalem long ago that will recreate everything in its path. Our task is to follow in the slipstream.
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