We are now at the halfway point of our series on the Five Core Values of the Baptist Union, and this is the bit of the service where I recap what we have thought about so far, and start to look at what we will be reflecting on today.
We started by thinking about what it means to be a worshipping community, and I suggested that it meant living in ways that express God's worth, both individually and together. And then last week we looked at being an inclusive community, and I left you with the idea that inclusion is orthodox Christianity, and the image of a tree where birds of all plumage find a home.
This recap bit is also helpful for sneaking in the things I forgot to say the week before, and one thing I didn't mention last week was the importance of language. This is something we’ve thought about before, most obviously when we took the decision to repaint the motto at the front of the sanctuary to read “goodwill to all” rather than “goodwill to men”. We recognised that when it was first painted over a century ago, ‘men’ was still commonly used to mean ‘all’, but also that language has shifted and it is no longer common practice to use the default male in that way, so the text had unwittingly become problematic. A couple of hours work and it now says exactly what it always said, but without anybody tripping over the final word, without anybody asking if they really are included in this expression of goodwill. And those of you who have sung ‘Be Thou My Vision’ here in the last few years will know that the version we have on screen uses the form of words from the Church of Scotland’s hymn book, which avoids the phrase “I thy true son” in the second verse.
But the truth is that default male language still lives on in our hymns and our bibles. Plenty of older songs use men where they mean all, and while it is often fairly easy to amend the lyrics, it is not always obvious that it is right to do so, knowing that the change can be as jarring as the language. And I often forget that the church bibles are older versions of the NIV, and so I will sometimes be taken by surprise when it comes to the reading and we have the noninclusive version. It happened a couple of weeks ago, where the text I had used in the week and put on screen said “if your gift is prophesying”, but the reading we heard said “if any man has the gift of prophecy”. It felt clumsy to address it at the time, but my head was screaming “the Greek includes everyone!”
I appreciate that this kind of gendered language will not be an issue for everyone, but some of us wince every time we come up against it and some of us feel actively excluded by it. Male language for ministry stings when you know there are people who would deny your calling for not being male, and phrases like ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ don’t leave room for those who don’t sit easily in those binaries. Much of the time there is a fairly easy fix, as we have proved with our front wall and Be Thou My Vision, but it does take a bit of thought and a willingness to depart from what has been familiar. I wonder if this might be something we need to have a fuller discussion about, so that we can agree together what we do about noninclusive language in our hymns and bibles, in order that no one is caught out by words that are unhelpful or unwelcoming or unfamiliar.
This week we are thinking about what it means to be a missionary community, so let's start as we have in previous weeks by hearing what the Baptist Union has to say: “Following Jesus in demonstrating in word and action God’s forgiving and healing love. Calling and enabling people to experience the love of God for themselves. Corporately and individually we are obliged to seek to bring other people to a personal experience of God’s saving love and to a faith-relationship with him and to demonstrate in our words and actions God’s forgiving and healing love.”
Jonah and the Big Fish
'Go to Nineveh,' God said to Jonah. 'Tell the people there that if they do not stop their cruelty, I will destroy the city.' Jonah hated the people of Nineveh because they were enemies of Israel. He did not want them to be saved, so he jumped aboard a boat sailing for a faraway country. But God sent a storm. Huge waves crashed over the boat and it was about to sink. Jonah knew it was because he was trying to run from God. He told the others to throw him overboard so the storm would stop. Down he plunged into the cold, dark water. Jonah was about to drown when God sent a huge fish to swallow him up. From deep inside the fish, Jonah thanked God for saving him. The fish burped Jonah out onto the beach. 'Go to Nineveh,' said God again. This time Jonah went, and the people listened to him. They asked for forgiveness, and God did not destroy them. Jonah sat under a shady vine and said, 'God, the Ninevites are our enemies! How could you save them?' God replied, 'They are your enemies, but they are my children, too.'
Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
As I have done for the past two weeks, I am going to offer some questions for you to reflect and some thoughts of my own. I want to get you thinking and talking, and then at the end of the series I will invite you to share your reflections and what they might mean for this community. So my first question is this: What is mission?
If we were doing this as a word association party game and I said 'mission', someone else might respond with 'impossible', and it would conjure up images of Tom Cruise scaling a skyscraper. (At least I think that's what he does. I've never actually seen a Mission Impossible film.) But I'm asking in church, and we've just heard the great commission and the story of Jonah, so my guess is that many of you were thinking more along the lines of going out into the world to preach the gospel and build the church. It's a fine answer, as for a long time that was the primary definition of Christian mission, and it is still an important element, but in recent decades there has been a challenge to expand our understanding. Kang-San Tan, the general director of BMS World Mission, talks about no longer seeing mission as 'the West to the rest', recognising that the church is global and we have much to learn from one another. And while Christian mission has long included practical work such as building schools and hospitals, there was a sense that this was secondary to turning people into good Christians and part of an effort to make 'them' like 'us', but this too is shifting. BMS have reframed their approach, so that their work in areas like justice and healthcare and education is of equal significance to their work in preaching the gospel, and everything is done with rather than to local people. Mission is working for the kingdom to come to the ends of the earth, bringing the infinite love of God and the abundant life of Christ and the gentle inspiration of the Spirit so that all may flourish, but also recognising that these are to be offered not imposed and will have cultural expression as they are received.
My second question is not dissimilar to the first, but may open up some new lines of thought: What is a missionary?
There are people for whom missionary is a job title, people who give their lives to the sort of work we have just thought about. The words 'mission' and 'missionary' come from the Latin 'missio' which means 'sending', and there is still a sense of missionaries being sent out. There is an assumption that missionaries do their work in very different contexts to the ones they have come from, and often that means travelling to different countries, although the church increasingly talks about things like inner city mission and rural mission too. Again though, I think we are called to widen our view. The third and final point of the Baptist Union's Declaration of Principle says that "it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world". We are all sent into the world to do the work of the kingdom, and so in a sense we are all missionaries.
Perhaps that feels a bit daunting, so let's ask ourselves this: How do we go about mission?
Here I want us to think back to the reading from Matthew. These were Jesus’ last words to his disciples before ascending to heaven, and are often known as the great commission. “Go and make disciples.” When you read it like that, there is a definite sense of being sent out with a clear purpose, but translation is a tricky thing, and another way of reading these words is “Go, and as you do, make disciples.” Read like this, it feels more like the disciples were being sent back to their normal lives, but were expected to live those lives in such a way that others wanted to join them in following Jesus, which is after all what being a disciple is. I think the ambiguity is helpful here, because both can be true for different people and for different seasons. Some people will be called to serve churches and missionary organisations, while others will be called to witness in workplaces and families and communities. And the “evangelisation of the world”, as our Declaration of Principle puts it, doesn’t have to look like preaching on street corners or handing colleagues gospel tracts with their tea, it can be as simple as talking honestly about our faith and the part it plays in our lives, and getting involved in the kind of social action that makes the world more like the kingdom.
Let’s think about our other reading now, and consider this: What can Jonah teach us about mission?
I wanted to bring Jonah in this morning because I think he is really interesting. He is both a brilliant missionary and a terrible one. He preaches the word of God so well that an entire city repents of its wickedness and turns to God, but it takes a pretty dramatic false start to get him there and he is unhappy about the whole thing from start to finish. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire which had previously besieged Jerusalem, and collective memory of exile at the hands of the Babylonian empire was still strong, so we perhaps shouldn’t judge him too harshly for not wanting God to let them off the hook, but still there is a challenge there to engage in mission with the grace that Jonah lacked and would surely have been much happier with, and I think there is also comfort in knowing that God can work through us even on our grumpiest days. I think the whole story is also a powerful reminder that “the love of God is broader than the measure of [our minds]”, as we sang last week. This is God’s mission and so it is up to God to set the limits on it, which of course God doesn’t do because God’s love and mercy are limitless.
I said earlier that discipleship is about following Jesus, and so in all things we look to the example of Christ, which brings me to my final question: How did Jesus live out his mission?
I seeded one possible answer right at the start of the service, when I chose the passage in which Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. He read “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” and then he sat down to teach, and his whole sermon was “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” I’m not sure if you’d feel relieved or cheated if I preached an eight word sermon, but the important thing is that he went on to practise what he preached. He proclaimed the good news of freedom and recovery and favour because that was his mission, that was what he had been sent to do. And he did it by making tangible differences to people’s lives through the miracles he performed, but also by teaching people how to make differences for themselves. Do you think Jericho was the same after Zaccheus redistributed his wealth? Or do you think the entire town became more like the kingdom? Jesus lived his mission in a way that invited others to join in and carry on, and that invitation is extended to us as we seek to be a missionary community.
Jesus the love who embraced the world with compassion and touched lives with healing; who dared to offer forgiveness and worked to bring reconciliation; who showed the things that make for peace with God, with one another and with ourselves.
Jesus we must walk your way. Call us to be a missionary community.