Here in Ephesians, Paul comes towards the end of his letter asking for prayer. He asks for the provision of words “whenever” – moment by moment – he is called upon to speak of the “mystery of the gospel”.
There is humility in his request. Paul cannot control the gospel – for it comes as a gift and as a mystery. He may have spoken of the gospel many times before, but that does not mean he can presume to know it, nor have words to share it, in the moments to come. Paul, like us all, remains a recipient of a surprising and mysterious gospel – God’s gospel in Jesus Christ. As Mark’s words succinctly announce, the arrival of Jesus comes so suddenly: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is God’s initiative and God’s gift of grace.
I often feel this truth – praying for the ‘whenever’ moment – not only the words to speak, but also for the moment of gospel to come and visit where I am. I pray it comes when I preach and as my gathered community worships. I pray it comes even when, especially when, I’m least expecting it. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to position ourselves in situations where gospel revelation might be possible? Or, at least pray that God might lead each of us into such situations.
Here’s one of mine…
Some years back, I had finally responded to persistent invitations from various members of my congregation to check out the local Relay-For-Life event. The team event is a fundraiser for the Cancer Council. About 100 teams walk around the local athletics track in a 24-hour relay effort from 12 noon Saturday: each team with their own marquee tent base, thousands of people, all generations together. The more formal Saturday evening ceremony of speeches was followed by a Scottish piper that heralded a solemn moment of public memorial; candles were lit right round the 400 metre track with messages of memorial and hope. As I walked silently in the darkening dusk around the track, I found the display overwhelming. Why?
The event had a threefold emphasis that was clearly evident:
- Remembering – honouring those who have died. People giving expression to their grief and deep respect for those who have been part of their lives. They remember with profound pride and solemnity.
- Compassion – standing alongside those who are suffering. Many people walk for those they know who were battling cancer. In many instances, such sufferers were part of the team that had gathered.
- Hope – making a stand of hope for a future where pain and suffering are no more.
The question was repeatedly asked: “Who are you relaying for?” Was it someone you once knew, someone you now know, or someone you are yet to meet?
I became acutely aware that this huge community event was laced with so many dimensions of pastoral care: dimensions of love and care that, as a Uniting Church minister, I knew were so sorely needed in our community. And I felt blessed to be present in the midst of this community of people.
I remembered. I remembered my mother who died of cancer. I remembered the ones who had gone before me. I remembered the one who invites me: “Do this in remembrance of me”.
I was moved with compassion. Compassion for those I walked with, compassion for their stories, compassion for those who have encountered incredible hurdles in their life. I recalled the one who, filled with compassion, reached out his hand and touched the ones no one else dared touch.
I was imbued with hope. It was a hope born of community and solidarity. Not the hope of wishful thinking, but rather it was a hope grounded in companionship and resolute purpose.
A person I didn’t recognise came up alongside me and greeted me by name. Eventually I discovered that I had led a funeral for a member of their family. Repeatedly, conversations were naturally struck up: some from previous connections, some from random introductions. I even met people from my own congregation, cancer survivors, who already knew the ministry of participating in this event.
For me, gospel was interweaving in a context that took me by surprise. It was like church at its best. In the years that followed, the enthusiasts in the congregation drew a team together and set up ‘church’ in the midst of this event. Somehow, God was present here, and it was where our congregation needed to be.
And today, what has this to do with the synod’s Strategic Framework – our Vison and Mission Principles? I ask myself: “Can our church strategies make the gospel come and breathe continuing life into our Uniting Church?”
The answer has to be ‘no’. We do not put our faith in strategies. Our faith is in the one who – in a mysterious (strange) way – renews the Church. Our faith is in the Spirit of Christ by whose fellowship we may not lose the way. The gospel comes as divine grace, and it is only ever received as a gift.
Yet this ‘no’ does not imply our own inactivity. The best we can do, in terms of strategy, is to apply ourselves, our learnings and our resources as faithfully as we can, and to move into various contexts and possibilities that are open to us. In short, we seek to live as disciples worthy of our calling. And then in that active application and movement on the way, we wait – wait for gospel with open hands. When this gospel gift comes upon us, we receive it with joyous thanksgiving. This good news is our daily bread.
I pray that our efforts at strategy and planning, of stewardship and leadership, may lead us in the Spirit’s power to places where the gospel of Jesus Christ is encountered and received. May we be surprised, challenged and converted by the mystery of the gospel that calls us forward.
Strategic Framework Minister