Annual Meeting of the Synod of Western Australia 2016 Bible Studies
Rev Dr Chris Walker
National Consultant, Christian Unity, Doctrine and Worship
Theme: Towards healing and wholeness through faith, hope and love.
Helping someone to be healed: Mark 2: 1-12
This story in Mark 2 is about a paralyzed man who is brought by friends to Jesus. Immediately following this healing is the call of Levi, or Matthew, the tax collector to be one of Jesus’ disciples. This healing story and the call of Levi following are in all three synoptic gospels. I could not see any particular link with the call of Levi.
It is important to note that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are symbols of the profound authority Jesus conveyed. He spoke and acted with authority, with the power of God working through him. This included the authority to forgive sins which restores people to fellowship with God.
The story begins with Jesus and the disciples having returned to Capernaum. News spread that Jesus was back and at his home. People gathered to hear Jesus speak and they crowded in and around the home. Palestinian houses usually consisted of just a single room. The roof, which had to be repaired before each autumn rainy season, was constructed of wooden beams overlaid with branches and covered with mud. Very often an outer stairway of stone steps led to the roof.
The friends of the paralyzed man could not get to Jesus because of the crowd, so they took the extraordinary measure of removing the roof above Jesus and then lowered the paralyzed man down on his mat. The boldness and determination of theses friends was recognised as faith by Jesus. It was the faith of the carriers that was primary not that of the man. What happened was entirely a work of God through Jesus when he had the paralyzed man before him.
As with our reading from Mark 8 this morning, it was because other people cared for the paralyzed man and believed Jesus could help that he was healed. They heard and possibly saw previously what Jesus could do and wanted their friend to be healed.
Our experience of Jesus
Thomas Bandy spoke at a series of conferences held in different states in Australia in 2004. He is a United Methodist minister in the USA who served as director of Congregational Mission and Evangelism for the United Church of Canada for seven years. He has written a number of helpful books especially Kicking Habits which contrasts declining and thriving church systems. He is senior editor of Net Results magazine, a church leadership periodical specialising in new ideas for church vitality. MediaCom publishes many of these articles in its magazine Australian Leadership.
He gave us a key question: “What is it about my experience of Jesus that this community cannot live without?”
He said that ministers and core leaders need to be able to answer this question positively if they desire a thriving church. Note that the question focuses on experience over knowledge. People need to have an experience of Jesus in their lives. The risen Jesus has to be real to them; not just a figure from the past. While it is a personal question it has communal implications. If Jesus has made a difference to my life then he can also make a difference to the lives of others in the community. Recognising this can motivate and assist a church to reach out appropriately to people in the wider community.
I affirm what Bandy says. The beginning point for thriving churches is people who have experienced Jesus and desire others to experience him also. They want others to know the healing and wholeness that Jesus brings to people’s lives. The thriving church system Bandy presents is based on people who have experienced Jesus and had their lives changed as a result. They go on to grow in Christ and listen to God. The church helps them to grow and become equipped as disciples. They then serve God and share Jesus with others as part of the mission of the church, the mission of God.
Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations
Many congregations have also found the five practices of fruitful congregations’ approach of Robert Schnase, a bishop in the United Methodist Church in the USA, to be helpful. The five practices are: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity. Note the adjectives: radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking and extravagant. They are exceptional not just adequate. He points out that these practices not only describe the congregational activities through which God draws people into relationship, they also map the path for growth in personal discipleship. If people want to grow in grace and in the love and knowledge of God, they do so he says: “by deepening their personal practice of gracious hospitality, by placing themselves regularly under the influence of God’s Spirit in worship, by intentionally seeking to grow in Christ-likeness through learning in community, and by practicing compassion and generosity in concrete ways. In these practices of Christian discipleship, the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace of God, become visible, real and life changing.”
People who have experienced Jesus, who know the touch of his Spirit in their lives that has brought them healing and wholeness, are able to share with confidence the difference faith in Jesus makes. I am convinced churches need to turn from fear of decline, from self-preoccupation and worry, to facing the community with the liberating message of the gospel. Jesus does not promise this will always be easy. Some people may ridicule our faith and reject what we offer. But we do have a message worth sharing. Jesus is the one who can bring healing, wholeness and reconciliation to people. So like Paul let us not be ashamed of the gospel. Rather let us look for opportunities to share faith and invite people to where they can hear this good news.
Question: Share your response to Bandy’s question, “What is it about my experience of Jesus that this community cannot live without?”
Sins forgiven, reconciliation with God
With the man lowered before him lying on his mat, Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It is not that the paralyzed man was unusually sinful. The association between sin and sickness was the traditional understanding. Elsewhere in the gospels, Luke reports the teaching of Jesus that denies a causal relationship between sin and calamity (Luke 13:1-5).
What Jesus was doing here is deeper than just a healing. The paralyzed man would have probably accepted the traditional link between sin and sickness and thought that he was not accepted by God, that God was punishing him for his sin. His relationship with God was broken as well as his body.
The teachers of the law took offence at Jesus forgiving sins. They asked, “Why does this fellow speak in this way?” They rightly said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In their Jewish eyes Jesus blasphemed in claiming to be like God and to forgive sins. Jesus perceived that they were grumbling and criticising. He raised a question for them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?”
The clear implication is that it is easier to pronounce sins forgiven than to heal. The first involves a declaration and the response is internal and out of sight. The second involves a command and the response is public and very evident. What Jesus did was both to say to him on behalf of God, “Your sins are forgiven” and heal him of his paralysis. Before he healed the man he said, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” The man did so and all were amazed.
Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man. He was the long awaited Messiah. However, the Messiah was not expected to forgive sins. The Messiah would liberate God’s people Israel from Roman subjugation; he would not forgive sins. Jesus was a different kind of Messiah. Jesus acted as the representative of God, as the Son of God. He did not deny that God is the one who forgives sin. What Jesus did affirm was that God was acting with authority through him. He in effect was the presence of God. The healing was a sign. Jesus called people, including his opponents, to recognise God’s presence and authority in him.
Jesus’ authority and freedom is evident in various ways in the gospel accounts. He not only forgave sins; he associated with those regarded as notorious sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes showing them God’s compassion. He was willing to break the law, especially the Sabbath law, to release people and bring them healing and wholeness. He demonstrated the ability to act on behalf of God to overcome sickness even to the point of death and to cast out demons that tormented people.
The deepest need of people is sin and separation from God. Jesus brought people back into a right relationship with God. Through him they could be reconciled with God.
The continuing ministry of Jesus
The church has the responsibility of continuing the ministry and mission of Jesus. Just as he was involved in preaching, teaching, challenging those in power, healing, and enabling people to be reconciled with God, so the church is to be about these activities. While we have come to appreciate that God’s mission is greater than the church, nevertheless the church has a crucial role to play in God’s purposes.
The Reformers of the 16 century spoke of the church always being in need of reform. It needs to change in response to changing times. It has to change to remain authentic in its witness and service. What was helpful in one period has to be renewed or new approaches begun in another era. The goal is the same: to be about the ongoing ministry and mission of Jesus, to make disciples and equip them to participate in God’s mission in the world.
The Basis of Union speaks of the mission of God in terms of “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” (BU par 3). God’s mission is all embracing: it has to do with the reconciliation and transformation of people and creation. The church is called to be involved in what God is doing in the world. It does so as a community of those who have experienced God’s renewing and reconciling love and are aware of God’s purposes for the world. Just as “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,” so, as Paul says to the Corinthians, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation and are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).
Fresh Expressions of Church
One recent response to the need for the church to change and try new forms of ministry is the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement stemming from the UK, especially the Anglican and Methodist Churches. While the inherited church continues to have a place, the fresh expressions movement seeks to reach people that are not responsive to the usual forms of church. Having said that, there is also a growing number of people who are attracted by historic churches especially cathedrals and liturgy that is well crafted and carried out. The influence of the Taizé and Iona communities is testimony to this.
A key trainer for the Fresh Expressions movement is Dave Male, an Anglican minister in England. He started a new form of church called the Net in Huddersfield and built it up with others over the next seven years. He was then appointed to train others to lead churches like the Net. He has developed a training program and visited Australia. A modified version of the course has been conducted in Australia and the ‘fresh expressions’ approach has been picked up in some places in Victoria and South Australia in particular in the Uniting Church.
The main difference between the Net church and parish churches is that it is based on the dominant social reality of network rather than territory. Fresh expressions seek to develop a ministry around a particular interest or activity, such as a coffee shop. The goal is not to regard this as an activity of the church but to build a church community around it. So it is not just a service activity but through it the intention is to draw people into some worship and service connected to the activity not a church building elsewhere. It is a new form of Church that links people with a common interest and builds them up there. The intention is to reach people that the usual churches do not. The main challenge is to grow beyond the initial team that has the vision for the new ministry, form a Christian community, and lead people to become, grow and serve as disciples.
One of the other areas of responsibility that I have is the Christian Unity Working Group. I have come to appreciate the reality of different expressions of church represented by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Salvation Army, Quakers etc. A recent development in ecumenical thinking is what is called ‘receptive ecumenism.’ Recognising that there are significant differences between the churches, it asks each church to bring its particular strengths and qualities to the ecumenical table as it were and share them. We can not only have common statements, such as the important Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church have agreed to; we can also benefit from appreciating our differences. In my understanding while further unions between churches may well take place, co-operation and respect between churches is very important. We can learn from one another.
Internationally a very significant development initiated by the World Council of Churches is the Global Christian Forum. It brings together all the major forms of church: Catholic, Orthodox, historic Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal. A conference was held in Albania in November 2015 on “Discrimination, Persecution and Martyrdom: Following Christ Together.” 140 leaders from 65 nations came together. It was historic for two main reasons. First, it brought together all the main traditions of global Christianity around the issue of the persecution of Christians. Second, it acknowledged the Church’s complicity in being also a persecutor of people of other faiths and fellow Christians. It has called churches globally to pray, support and be in solidarity with those suffering persecution due to their faith.
Question: How does your congregation learn about what other churches are trying in ministry? Are you in touch with other church traditions and if so which ones?
At the end of the healing story the people who witnessed it glorified God saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” They recognised it was not just that Jesus was a healer. They glorified God, for it was God working through Jesus that led to the man being healed and having his sins forgiven. They were amazed at what they had experienced and seen first-hand.
We are called to be witnesses to Jesus and instruments of God’s purposes in our lives and through our churches. Fundamental is our experience of Jesus. We are to grow as followers of Jesus through making use of Christian disciplines and practices. As churches we are to focus on the primary practices that enable us to connect with people and assist them to experience the extravagant love of God. The goal is not simply to help people but also to meet their deepest need which is to have their sin forgiven and become reconciled with God. We want people to enter a right relationship with God and know they are loved sons and daughters of God. Beyond that there is the need to help people to grow in faith and become equipped to live as disciples and join God’s mission through the church and in the world. Our churches need to be open to change and be willing to try new forms of ministry. We can also learn from other churches and co-operate with other churches as applicable. For we are all part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” as the Nicene creed puts it.
We are participants in God’s large mission to bring healing and wholeness, reconciliation and renewal to the whole of creation. May we not be fearful and timid, but be confident and bold in our faith, hope and love. For we have good news of a Saviour who lived, taught, healed, challenged, died and rose again that we might know the great love of God. Enabled by God’s Spirit let us together participate in God’s mission in the world.
Let us finish with this prayer from St Benedict: Seeking the Lord
O gracious and holy God,
give us diligence to seek you,
wisdom to perceive you,
and patience to wait for you.
Grant us, O God,
a mind to meditate on you;
eyes to behold you;
ears to listen for your word;
a heart to love you;
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
St Benedict, 480-543