The Missing Sword
It seems a pretty common experience for anyone trying to do mission and grow church in new places, with new people, to find yourself genuinely wondering “Have I got this whole thing wrong?” I suspect everyone hits a crisis of legitimacy at some point – if we’re not already that way inclined then many of the responses from people around us will bring it on. All those questions that begin with “But…”
- “But isn’t there a church there already?”
- “But shouldn’t church be more diverse than that?”
- “But what do you do about baptism/communion/membership/insert anxiety here?”
- “But how many people have come to faith yet?”
- (Or the admirably straightforward) “But how is that church?”
I know that these are all good questions. I also know that “Well, right back at you, mate!” is a pretty good answer to them almost every time. But I thirdly know that their effect, and who knows how often their intention, is to make what we’re doing seem less than proper, less than kosher. And that gets under your skin because, frankly, it’s already hard enough. The fear that, for all our effort, maybe faithful living for Jesus actually doesn’t look like this can be a crippler. Maybe this feels so hard because it’s not where we should be? Maybe we’re letting Jesus down and we should be doing what it seems everyone else is doing?
So how does a missing sword help?
What was going on in Peter’s head when he denied knowing Jesus? It’s such a familiar story I struggle to get a grip on it. But recently it struck me that immediately before it, at Jesus’s arrest, Peter acts boldly and decisively: he draws his sword and strikes. Who knows who would have won that fight but Peter doesn’t hesitate to stand and fight for the Messiah of God. But Jesus takes his sword away, tells him that’s not an option.
So when Peter follows on, finds himself in the courtyard, under suspicion how is he meant to react? Jesus has taken away his likeliest response, his first option for safety, so what can he do? I honestly don’t know. Maybe leave? He has to stay with his Lord but he can’t confront the power of his captors so what can he do? I don’t think fear is the reason for denial. We know he’s ready to fight. We can see his courage because there are three denials: any sane person would have moved on when they knew their cover was blown the first time. I wonder if he couldn’t be anywhere else because of Jesus and yet he couldn’t respond the way he instinctively would because of Jesus. How to square a circle? In confusion, in desperation he denies the one he’s risking everything for.
We’re growing new church with new ways because there are so very many people utterly untouched (or underwhelmed) by church, the gospel, or Christian faith or community. We’re trusting that the gospel is good news in the face of millions in Britain finding the 21st century people of God to be anything but. So we’re trying to listen radically to what Jesus says and does to know how to live faithfully. To meet those people somewhere they can discover a Jesus they didn’t expect. And that involves laying down a lot of swords.
It means re-sheathing the power dynamics and leadership approaches that get lots done but also oppress and marginalize. Refusing to use the story-telling, images, and promotion which convince everyone that you’re where it’s at but bend the meanings and compromise the truth. We’re letting other voices than our own define what we do together, what worship might look like, what the Bible is teaching us because control of these things looks a lot less ring-fenced and predictable in the Bible. We’re letting go of the very real reassurance that doing things the way they’ve been done before is being faithful to God and the church. We’re letting our context inform who we become as church because we’ve thought hard about that theologically but we still worry that we might be watering down what it means to be the people of God.
And that’s a fear that matters – are we, despite ourselves, letting God down in some way?
Well, what’s the worst that can happen? The person that Jesus chose to build his whole church upon got there before us. He actually, out loud, words from his own mouth, denied Jesus. And Jesus coped. And because he still loved him (assign the pronouns whichever way you like) Jesus restored him and built his church.
In the last year or so we’ve been worrying at Hot Chocolate; that we’ve not been focussed enough on the spiritual. Are we doing the things which make Jesus known? Are we giving people the chance to know him? To become part of the church? Are we talking missional and walking something diluted, denuded, something which is not really proper church, real mission? And we’ve been taking those questions seriously – finding the resources and frameworks to invest in responses.
But a couple of weekends ago we were sitting around a fire with about 30 of our team, our community reflecting on Hot Chocolate growing up. Someone, not a Christian, started talking about praying when we’re together at Hot Chocolate and one after another people told story after story of discovering a whole new meaning to what Christianity, prayer, church, Jesus can be. Almost all of them are not Christians. All of them talked about how being around people praying real prayers about real things that we’re all facing together, had turned around their assumptions, their past experiences of church and Christians, their ideas of who Jesus might be. It was a beautiful and holy moment.
Two thoughts linger though:
First, all of that was true the day before that bonfire, we just didn’t know it. In our anxiety and uncertainty about whether we were going the right way, God was quietly, patiently at work.
Second, it got us into trouble again. At one point in a reflective, admiring tone, someone called Jesus “that sandal-wearing m****rf****r!” Nobody there was in any doubt it was meant with goodwill, if not yearning, as well as a little bit of knowing mischief. It was, in its way, worship and a call to worship. Certainly, I have witnessed many acts of worship within the walls of churches more questionable than that unusual doxology. But second-hand, and quite understandably, it made at least one person challenge us – had we crossed the line? Gone too far? Are we getting it right?
Honestly, I’m often unsure. But I’m never going to draw that sword again, and I’m going to keep getting into situations I don’t know how to get out of. And Jesus is with us.
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