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16th May 2021

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Passage: Acts 16;11-15


Famous last words number 2: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is the bit we do not like. It implies talking about our faith; trying to persuade those who do not wish to be persuaded to come to our church; in the Christian community where I grew up, it was about standing on street corners, threatening people with hell fire. Not in our comfort zone……
There is also today a certain uneasiness about strident missionary endeavours- in the past these have at times gone hand in hand with colonisation- taking over another nation’s government, culture and resources, saying, “Jesus told us to.”

Jesus himself was not a bully. He did not coerce people into following him; he invited them to come to him, offering truth, light, and love they needed. He brought them peace with God, which also meant peace with life and peace with yourself. He did not do the “hard sell,” so what is he expecting of us when he tells us to “go and make disciples?”

A little story from Acts 16, about St Paul, a dedicated Christian missionary, gave me two new insights about “making disciples,” which I would like to share with you now.

“Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So, they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia, begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen this, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel there. “

How is that for a CV? We tried making Christian disciples in Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Bithynia and failed in all those places.
Christian efforts at mission do fail- we know that- but why tell everybody? Because Christian efforts at mission do sometimes fail. There are people we try hard to inspire faith in and it does not work. Even Jesus spoke of seeds falling on stony ground where they would not grow. And in our sense of pressure to “succeed” in terms of packing them into the churches, we need to accept that we are not always the right people in the right place. That is not a cop out, nor an excuse to stop trying. It is just that so long as we tell ourselves that we are miserable failures, the work of Christian mission will never bear fruit.

Having experienced all these setbacks, Paul then has a powerful dream which re-ignites his mission. He hears a cry- please come and help us- so he goes. No plans, no risk assessments, no performance reviews, just a passion to respond to a crying human need.
You know what? Maybe the reason why Paul could not do mission in all those other places was because he was not in the right place himself, spiritually. Maybe he was too anxious about his performance, his success rate. This new direction in Christian ministry was fired up, not by his own “professional ambition” but purely by the desperate needs of others.

Do you know what? This is the only kind of Christian ministry which will keep you going when you feel like a failure- the fact that there are people who still need you.
It is the only kind of Christian ministry which will “take you over,” and allow the power of the Holy Spirit to take charge.
It is the only kind of Christian ministry which will constantly open up new opportunities to you.
It is the only kind of Christian ministry which people will even begin to accept as authentic- because it is fired by a deep passion for meeting real human need.

We want our church to be alive, active, growing again. And that is only going to happen when we are fired up by deep spiritual needs of people out there and we want more than anything else to respond to those needs. Our prayer has to be above all else for new passion.

Let’s hear the rest of the story
“We travelled to Philippi… the leading city of that district of Macedonia…. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” “

Paul had reached Macedonia and walked through the city of Philippi. Having no place of worship (church), people who wanted to pray tended to gather by the river. Paul went down and “spoke” to them and this word is not the same word in Greek as “preach.” This word-spoke- implies conversation, which is far gentler and allows each person to listen to the other’s story.

And Lydia-we are told- was ready to respond to the Christian message because God had opened her heart. Once again- did you notice?- this is not just about us. We do not know when someone is ready to respond to the Christian Gospel. All we can do is to try to keep channels of communication open and a relationship of genuine, loving care going, so that when a person is ready to hear, we are in the right place at the right time to speak with them.

Lydia was a “dealer in purple cloth” which was the equivalent of our successful fashion designers. Today you might be talking Zandra Rhodes, Donatella Versace, Jean-Paul Gaultier- right at the top of the fashion tree. Yet this Lydia seems anxious about her status in the eyes of Paul- if you consider me a believer, will you come to my house? And you think well, Zandra and Donatella and Jean Paul would never be worried about their status….. or would they? Even success and celebrity do not necessarily mean supreme self-confidence. We do know that.

A Prison Chaplain once told me that when someone convicted of a serious crime arrives in prison the first person they see is a Chaplain and, no matter what this criminal has done, the Chaplain must not on any account show revulsion. You imagine coming face to face with a serial killer, a terrorist, a child-abuser. It does not bear thinking of. But if there is any hope at all for a hardened criminal to gain any sense of basic humanity, it will only come through someone somewhere showing them acceptance. Not acceptance of their crimes but acceptance of themselves as a fellow human being. A Christian chaplain represents Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ hates the sin but manages somehow to keep loving the sinner, making him their most powerful source of hope.

That is the second insight I gained from this story- that “making disciples” can only be done with compassion: letting people know that they are loved; that they are valued; that they do not have to prove anything either to us or to God.
“Baptise them” said Jesus, for baptism is a symbol and sacrament of new life, of washing away the past and rising out of the water to receive the Holy Spirit. It is about affirming who you are in the eyes of God.

Famous last words number 2: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the God Father and of Jesus, the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is within the skill set of every single one of us, isn’t it? So let us pray for renewed passion as we hear and respond to the needs of the world and for compassion as we represent Jesus Christ and let people know that they are loved.