I’m clearly no scholar, but many moons ago at Bible College they tried to teach me New Testament Greek. Twice. I haven’t retained a whole lot – apart from being an alpha male with who enjoys a good pi. Still, one little thing my teacher mentioned has really stuck with me.
There’s a lot of vocabulary to learn of course, so we made hundreds of little flash cards to go through every day, with the Greek on one side and English on the other. “Here’s a trick,” my teacher said. “When you get a card right, put it in a pile to your left. When you get a card wrong, put it in a pile on your right. When you finish, leave the left pile, but pick up the other one and go through them all again, with the same method. Keep going until they’re all on your left.”
OK so perhaps that’s not revolutionary. But my teacher pointed out that we humans have a penchant for going over and over the things we already know (because that feels good), and avoiding the things we don’t know (because they make us feel inadequate). So many students waste precious swat-vac time revising over and over things they already know. By disciplining yourself to focus on what you don’t, you can learn a lot and very quickly. Did I take it to heart? All I’ll say is don’t take me on at Trivial Pursuit Genus I edition.
But it makes me wonder how we go about learning to be sacred agents. “Come follow me,” says Jesus, “And I will make you fishers for people.” The good news is that the Lord will teach us. The question is: Are we really wanting to learn?
When I hear Christians talking about what it means to be on mission, I hear us rehearse again and again – and again – and again the things we already know. We conspire to keep the conversation in a safe place. But what if we pressed into the things we don’t know and aren’t being effective in? What if one agent could say to another “I just don’t know how to…” or “I’m just getting nowhere with…”? What if our collective prayer was “Lord, forgive our slowness, but please, please, teach us to represent you to our neighbours in a way that really matters. We’re obviously missing something, probably plenty. Open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and would you go over it with us one more time?”
In a boat, on a lake, Jesus leans over to his disciples and tells them to be very careful. It’s a captain’s safety warning, but it’s not about life vests, and it’s not, as the disciples first thought, about the supplies. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ It’s a warning for all who would set sail with Jesus on his mission. But what does it mean?
In a nutshell, the ‘yeast’ is a simple, little idea. But it spreads through a group and forms a culture it changes everything. The yeast of these groups were two different kinds, but both concerned with how to rule the world. Well, how to get everyone to behave.
The little idea of the Pharisees seems to be that ‘You can get people into line by shaming them.’ Point out people’s mistakes, make a public example of a few, and people will be too mortified to step out of line. This idea hasn’t run out of steam, we see plenty of it today. It’s the major weapon of our comedian-prophets who try to reinforce a particular framework of values by lampooning those who don’t share them. People who don’t fully support same-sex marriage are constantly shamed, for example. And does it work? Does shaming transform a society? No. It’s a powerful weapon, but at the end of the day, not an effective one.
The Herodians had a different little idea: ‘You can get people into line by coercing them.’ If you have the political power, you can set the rules and police them, and so just make people behave, punishing those who don’t line up. This is another familiar idea. Many people today seem to think you can shape society by getting the numbers in parliament to pass certain laws – say to legalise or illegalise abortion. But when you get the laws you really want, do you then get the society you really want? No. Coercion is another tool that so many clamber for, but in the end it doesn’t build what you want to build.
Jesus is setting out with his disciples to change the world, but it didn’t – and doesn’t – happen through shaming or coercion. Both of them breed elitism, hypocrisy and resentment. Watch out for those little ideas! As sacred agents, we’re not to use them on others or stress when they’re used against us.
And it all raises the big question: What is Jesus’ yeast? Discuss.
Jesus sure asked some tough questions. But he also asked some really easy ones, like “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Even kids know that you get grapes and figs from the IGA.
When occasionally I’m tempted to despair as a sacred agent, I find myself repeating this over and over: “They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes.” When the media increasingly derides Christianity and lauds secular humanism, what hope do we have of reaching people? Well, plenty. Jesus was pointing out that the difference between good and bad philosophy comes to light through the kind of communities they produce.
Over the last decade, during which Christianity has faced very hostile press, parents have been falling over themselves to enrol their kids in Christian schools in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because when it comes to the crunch, when it really matters – such as your own kids’ future – people have a good nose for good fruit.
It happens very locally. Many Australians hate the idea of Christian chaplains in public schools, but love the actual chaplain in their own local school. My kids’ first school firmly resisted chaplaincy and any whiff of Christian input. The result? Parents were constantly asking us whether their kids could attend our kids club at the church next door to the school. Those parents had a nose for what’s stale and what’s fresh. It’s just common scents.
Which hints to me a tangible way forward for mission in Australian culture. If we don’t despair, but live fresh, distinct, communal lives invigorated by God’s Spirit, and simply be visible to and smellable by others, the ‘aroma of Christ’ will do its thing and many prodigals will come to – and follow – their senses.
“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” said Jesus. Is your church that kind of community? And do you have ways for the neighbourhood to get a whiff of it?
If you were asked to explain the good news of the kingdom in one minute, would the Holy Spirit get a mention? What if you had two minutes? Five? The ‘traditional’ (habitual) evangelical snapshot of the gospel has been shown to have many serious flaws (NT Wright and Scot McKnight are very helpful on this) but significant among them is this: We might talk about the Father sending the Son, but we don’t mention the Spirit. Here’s the result:
- We omit the good news of transformation. The life-transforming power of God is replaced with inspiration at best – “realising” that God loves us is implied to be what makes the difference. We reduce Christianity to a philosophy and that’s a massive reduction. We are meant to be inviting people into a thoroughgoing transformation – to become a new creation! To be born again! Not just to be moved by some ancient story.
- We omit the good news of community. When we don’t mention the Spirit we don’t talk about how God knits us together into a new humanity, into the body of Christ, diversity in unity. If we’re not sharing about the Spirit, there’s every chance that we’re sharing an individualistic message that looks more like our culture than God’s kingdom. We leave out the Spirit of adoption that calls and enables us to live as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
- We omit the good news of the present reign of Jesus. When we don’t mention the Spirit, we don’t talk about how God is presently at work in us and the world. God is absent – Jesus has gone to sit at the right hand of the Father and we’re left just waiting.
- We imply a new legalism. If we don’t talk about what it means to live by the Spirit, what do we leave people to live by? To try to follow Jesus’ teachings instead of or as well as the Old Testament law? It’s one thing to try to follow Jesus as an aspirational admirer, but you just can’t keep up with him! To be baptised with the Spirit and with fire, though – that’s what Jesus has in mind for us and all who will come to him.
The good news is big news, rich news, and I know you have to start somewhere and often can only say so much. But the Spirit is not God’s afterthought, so nor should He be ours.
We don’t think of fishing as a team sport. When I think about fishing, the image that first pops into my head is someone standing alone out on a jetty holding a fishing rod and trying to keep themselves warm. At most, they nod and grunt to other individuals who are doing the same thing nearby. Often we imagine fishing for people in the same way.
When we think of worship, we imagine Christians together in something approximating harmony, but when we think of evangelism so often we imagine ourselves (or someone else!) performing a solo. This is to our enormous detriment, and not what Jesus has in mind. The ‘you’ in ‘I will make you fishers for people’ was plural, and he was talking to fishermen familiar with the importance of teamwork. Right at that moment they were mending their nets, and it’s time for us to mend ours.
Teamwork is vital in mission for so many reasons. Jesus said “everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” That’s hard to do alone. Effective mission also involves all the parts of the whole body of Christ. Fruitful mission needs spokespeople (evangelists), yes – but also hospitality, mercy, service, encouragement, teaching, stewardship, pastoral care and leadership. In teams we can each bring our God-given strengths and cover one another’s weaknesses. Teams – at least good ones – tend towards mutual accountability and regular reflection and feedback. Teams can allow a continuity of mission even as individual members move in and out. Teams are the perfect environment for new members to have a go and be developed.
Show me a church where baptisms are common, and I’ll show you a church that organises for team mission. And yet, do many? Even in churches where we feel that most of us are called primarily to individual witness – do we seek the help, support, intercession and coaching of others? Or are we alone out in the cold, happy that at least there’s no-one else to see our empty bucket?
I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.
If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.
But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.
But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.
And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.