Leadership Lies: Just Preach The Gospel And The Church Will Grow

man planting plant

Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com

 

This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.

It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?

The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.

I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.

Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.

The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.

You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.

What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.

I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond  – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.

I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.

So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.

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Scars and Hopes 4: Goal

I am not moved by small ideas, targets and visions. Ever since I can remember I’ve been far more intrigued and caught-up by the absurdly big as opposed to the comfortably attainable. Why have a game of table-football when you can have your own World Cup? Why lead a church when you can change the continent?

That can lead to a dangerous type of hubris, of course. We all know people who are always talking about changing the world and what ‘this generation’ (usually people 20 years younger than the one talking) can do. So the key is in being content to not meet the goal.

Huh?

bevmeldrumphotography.com

As the turn of the millennium approached, my wife and I and some others felt that it needed celebrating in a more subversive way than that of which we’d yet heard tell. So we (who were all engaged in some full-time, part-time or voluntary capacity with the London homeless scene) read the Gospels (always a dangerous to thing to do) and decided to hire a big, well-known venue in London as close to Millenium Eve as we could and throw a huge party for as many different homeless people as we could. We set ourselves the goal of 1,000 (it may have been 2,000 … I can’t remember now). We worked a lot with a lot of different people and agencies arranged transport for people from projects all over London; we made sure there was good food and good music; we got a lot of free stuff; we dreamed and hoped and talked and prayed.

By the goal we set ourselves, it was a failure. We didn’t get 1,000 people; we got several hundred (I can’t remember how many).

So what?

Celebrations were had; we danced with people who didn’t look or feel homeless for one evening; there was a lot of laughter and fun; industrial quantities of quite-good-actually food were consumed.

The goal didn’t matter. The kingdom of God was expressed and anticipated, a prophetic challenge was issued to the church and the city, and though it wasn’t a perfect event it was pretty good, all told. I have no idea what other events and ministries it has since inspired, but I’m sure it did provoke more strange ideas.

Mission-shaped living needs big goals, big enough to get you out of bed on cold, grey, relentlessly wet London morning to see if you can get the price of the food reduced by another few £s; but you need also enough grace to remember the goal itself doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the right journey. It’s a goal expansive enough to permit failure and redefine success. Which needs courage, faith and a healthy dollop of prayer.

Hear that?

It’s the applause of heaven as, on your terms, you fail to reach yet another unobtainable goal.

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

Scars and hopes 3: Listen

I’m not the sort of person who ‘just asks God’ and readily downloads the answer. That being said, God is a missionary and if we’re doing missionary type of things then we should expect God to have something to say to us about it. Not that life will be an unbroken journey of “God said this” devoid of doubt and colour; but He wouldn’t be much of a leader if He invited us to a journey and only gave us a two-thousand year old map.

I’d had an idea in the back of my mind for a while, which I hadn’t mentioned to others but others were starting to coincidentally mention to me. It was the idea to take church to the pub, which I’ve mentioned before. Aware of the work, stress and money this would involve as well as the fact that to some this would sound at best barmy or at worst offensive, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer that went along the lines of “God, if there’s something in this, please make it clear. Amen”.  I knew the church needed to be more open and available to the average person, but I wasn’t sure this was the way. I kept the prayer simple … and went to the pub.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

My friend and I were meeting there to discuss an unrelated church issue; pints in hand, we took our seats at a table for two. As we did so I noticed two women at the table next to us. I didn’t know them, but they were engaged in animated conversation. As I made contact with the seat I heard one say to the other “The problem with that church is that it just needs to be more available”. 

That’s me told, then. God’s a missionary. He says we’re missionaries too. If we’re to make church a missionary endeavour, it only makes sense to ask Him what He’s got to say about it and if there’s any guidance He wants to give. My experience suggests that you get more opportunity to use ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ when we’re doing missionary type of things, because that’s exactly where God is and wants us to be. And just because missionaries have to go somewhere, that doesn’t always mean you’ve had to move.

Ears open?

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Scars and hopes 2: Time

photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

 

It takes time. Lots of it.

The problem with leading a church is that you feel a nagging drip of pressure to get results as soon as possible. We ran church in the pub once a month for two to three years, plus a weekly visit to the pub quiz. Church in the pub was expensive – we were laying on free breakfast; it was also a hassle. Taking a church service that wasn’t a church service off site once a month was, even for a small church like ours, a bit of a production. Sound gear, instruments, children’s activities, Sunday newspapers, jelly, Jenga sets, model pigs and an inflatable Dalek. It was a bit of an effort.

Going to pub quiz once a week was less work – apart from those Tube station questions – but required a willingness to be mocked over the microphone for being ‘the church team’.

So all told it would have been great to be able to point to real progress after 3 months. Or 6. Or a year at a push.

We didn’t. Over 2-3 years we’d made meaningful connections with a roomful of non-Christians, two of whom became regular or semi-regular church goers; it opened opportunities with many others we’d never have seen.

Not exactly explosive church growth, is it?

Problem is, that’s appears to be the default mode of the Spirit when you’re out there in the world, mission-shaped and ready to roll. The slow, gentle, deep work of the Spirit, working to His own timetable and seemingly unconcerned with the pressures on me to show that it was all Worth It.

Which needs patience, courage, and a willingness to look stupid and aimless for a long time in the eyes of the people who pay the bills (that would be those who actually give money to the church). Which leads to many scars and an awful lot of desperate hoping.

Pioneering mission-shaped ministry may be the talk of the era; but it’s not glamorous. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s about co-operating with God’s good work in people which is usually slow and gentle and deep. Which points away from me as the leader and towards the individual, away from results and towards formation, away from transferable quick-fix models towards patient-in-it-for-the-long-haul living.

Also In This Series:

An Introduction

1: Soup

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

Learning a new language

This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts 13:13-52. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.

We all know that we express our deepest thoughts and feelings most easily in our mother tongue. A couple of years ago I helped out with an Alpha course in the mediu-security wing of Pollsmoor prison. When it came to group discussions, we’d start in English, but when one of the guys in the group got passionate about a point or was trying to express something more personal, they would often transition from English into Afrikaans, sometimes over the course of a single sentence. Then they’d be off and running, talking at length and great speed for a few minutes. They’d finish, often with a polite “Thank you”; and a kind group member would take pity on me and attempt a translation. It’s not surprising that this happens – if we want to talk about the deep stuff of life, we do so most easily in the language that comes most naturally.

At St Peter’s we have a community of about 120 people, with what I estimate to be about 12 different nationalities and as many different languages among us. That’s great diversity, reflecting the area in which we are placed. We use English as a common language, but sometimes we’ll pray the Lord’s Prayer in languages of our choosing – maybe we could move towards songs and hymns in other languages … it’s a great way to express unity in diversity. We’re not just a diverse group in terms of spoken languages – there’s also the ‘cultural’ languages we speak – students, taxi drivers, people who sleep on the street and so on … how do we speak those languages? We’ll come back to these thoughts in a little while.

Last week we looked at Paul & Barnabas starting out on the first missionary journey, and the template they give us as we all live as missionaries in the world God calls us to; going to the place where God is already at work and getting involved there. Here that continues  – they arrive in Antioch, and head once again to the synagogue. The synagogue rulers – those responsible for the ordering of public worship – invite them to speak (Acts 13:15-16), which Paul does.

His sermon falls into 3 sections. In the first part (Acts 13: 16b-25) he sketches the highlights of Old Testament history – which is the history of the community that gathers at the synagogue. He contrasts the disobedience of the people with the faithfulness and the grace of God – God endures (13:18) their faithlessness as they wander in the desert; they get judges to lead them even when they do what is evil in God’s sight; they ask for a king and eventually get one who is a Godly man (13:22) despite the fact that God tells them they should not have a king.

From there, Paul moves to the second section – to Jesus (13:26-37), demonstrating that Jesus fits in line with this history and the prophecies they know so well, unrecognised by some but God’s son nonetheless (13:27). Paul moves seamlessly from there  to his conclusion – an invitation to respond to the grace of God in Jesus (13:38-41).

It’s a familiar structure for a speech about Jesus to an orthodox Jewish audience – it has all the hallmarks of Stephen’s speech  before his martyrdom. Stephen’s sermon, though, concentrated on the disobedience of the people; Paul’s here majors on the contrasting grace of God.

Initially the response is good – there’s a desire to hear more (13:42), to which Paul and Barnabas respond the following week (13:44). Within a week, word has spread and a huge crowd arrives (13:44-45); and it’s this that exposes the hard hearts of some in the synagogue community. Seeing the newcomers, they are jealous and protective of their privileged status, which they put into action by lashing out with gossip and slander (13:45-46). Pau seizes the opportunity, and like Stephen he’s now able to talk clearly about the disobedience of people who claim to belong to God; which leads, ironically, to Gentiles turning to God for themselves (13:48). This is too much for those who hold the religious power; the welcome and invitation of a few days earlier is revoked, and the evangelists are expelled from the region under threat of persecution (13:50), provoking a dramatic response as Paul & Barnabas shake the dust from their feet as the leave (13:51).

That in itself was provocative. Dust was symbolic for a good religious Jew; a rabbi’s attentive student was said to be so close to him that the student was covered in his master’s dust. When a rabbi passed through a Gentile area, he would shake the dust from his feet as a prophetic sign of the danger of ignoring God … as this dust is shaken off me, so God will do to you in your disobedience. In another echo of Matthew 10 (verse 14), Jesus had told his disciples to shake the dust from themselves as they left a region in which they found no welcome for the message of the kingdom of God. So as Paul and Barnabas do this, they stand in a prophetic lineage with Jesus, turning the religious obedience of the synagogue rulers back on themselves. They are now the ones under judgement.

All through this, Paul and Barnabas have been speaking the language of their audience – from the history of the community which opens the synagogue sermon to the prophetic dust0-shaking as they leave, they are speaking a cultural language of their audience.

There is a good heritage for this. Jesus, after all, was God speaking human language, a man able to empathise with our weakness; to experience our temptations but get right for us what we could not get right for ourselves. This is what we’re all called to respond to: the God who makes us in His image then stoops to speak our language so that we can hear him. Have we heard Him? Have we responded to the amazing grace of the God of creation learning our languages?

Do we learn from that, and learn then languages of those around us? Do we in Mowbray, or wherever we are, learn the languages of students, drivers, homeless; those in Mowbray and those from all over who pass through? Do we embody Jesus and the kingdom of God in language that will then be heard? Or do we harden our hearts and become jealous as those of other tongues encounter God and come into our community’s orbit? Imagine a church with such missionary language-learning, resourcing and equipping communities of mission of all those in our surrounds, embodying the kingdom of God in a way which will be seen and heard.

To whom is God calling us, you? What languages, cultures is he putting on you heart? To go and learn will lead to persecution and misunderstandings and gossip, as it did with Paul and Barnabas. Their response? Joy (13:52). How is that possible? They are filled with the presence of God (13:52).

Ask for the presence of God to fill you and flood you, giving you a language to speak, a place to go and joy in all circumstances.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.

Where is God?

This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts 13:4-12. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post. This is my first attempt to turn a sermon into a blog post. I’d value knowing if this helpful to you or not.

Where is God? That’s a question that’s haunted people for as long as we’ve sought meaning in the world. From philosophers to the Russian cosmonaut who returned from a trip into space claiming to have looked unsuccessfully for God to any one who has ever felt alone or said that a place is ‘godforsaken’; it’s a question that most of us ask at least once.

We Christians think we know – God is with us. Push us for a little longer, and many of us will talk in terms of ‘taking God to…’ a people group, a person or a place. The missionary movement has sometimes been understood as being founded on that very idea – there are places where the news of the kingdom of God isn’t known, so the message and the gospel (and by implication God) need to be taken there. Many people have come to know God…but there’s been much damage along the way also.

The problem is that’s the wrong way round. Today we come to the beginning of what we call Paul’s first missionary journey. It takes place around the year 46/7CE, and lasts for 18 months. In it we see a template for being a Christian missionary – or more correctly, being a Christian as we’re all missionaries following a sending God. What we see in Paul, Barnabas and John is a model of mission and Christian life which reverses how we see any situation – that they go to a place where there is no church, no understanding of the gospel as we might think of it, and there they point out where God is already at work and invite others to join with God, to submit to Him and work with Him.

Instinctively we know this. We all understand, though, that what we know isn’t always the same as what we live out. The Bible’s actually quite clear that God is, somehow, everywhere. Take Psalm 18, written by someone in deep pain and distress of some kind. Look at how God is described as seeing the distress and moving towards it – not away from it as we may expect of a holy, distant God:

“The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water.” (Psalm 18:4-12, ESV)

Gods of the Psalm-writer’s day were aloof or manipulative – certainly not present in suffering and pain. This God, though, is quite different – He sees the plight of the writer and, in the poetic language, moves heaven and earth to be there with him or her.

Or consider Psalm 139, an outpouring of worship and awe and the creative and all-present power of God:

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night”, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” (Psalm 139:7-12, ESV)

This is a God who is present. Everywhere. Or consider elsewhere in Acts. The curtain of the temple was understood in some way to contain the presence of God. How then, in Acts 3, is a beggar healed outside, in the courts of the temple? Saul on a dusty road (chapter 9), on his way to kill Christians. Surely God is not with him? Yet there God meets him. Peter’s on a rooftop (chapter 10), and God speaks in a vision. Peter is visited in prison, and led out (chapter 12).

We could go on. Enough to say, though, that this is a God with no limits, no no-go areas; and this is something Paul and Barnabas are alive to. They follow the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit (13:4), travelling 26 km to the port, then making the 200km or more journey by boat to Cyprus (13:4). On landing, where does Paul start the great missionary project? Street-preaching? No. In a synagogue (13:5), the focus for the worshipping life of the Jewish community there. Why a synagogue? Barnabas and Saul and John know that God is already at work in a synagogue, because there people understand that the law and the prophets – what we call the Old Testament  – is the inspired word of God. They expect to hear God speak through that. It is the story of God’s work in the lives of their ancestors, and they gather to retell the story and to look for Him to work again. The synagogue is where people have a sense of God speaking, and a sense of God acting. So they start there … and move on through the island (13:6).

From the synagogues they move on, and here the missionaries start to face opposition – not opposition they’ve looked for, but as they are faithful and obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, so the opposition comes. The course they are following comes straight from Jesus Himself. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about Jesus sending his followers out on a mission. Here’s part of His instructions to them:

“And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:11-14, ESV)

This is sometimes called looking for the person of peace – the person in any context who will welcome you and make life easier for your mission. They may not be a disciple of Jesus – but they are someone in whom God is at work to enable the kingdom message to be proclaimed. That’s exactly what Paul and his companions are doing here. In the case of Cyprus, we know of no Christian community on the island; there’s no sense of any follower of Jesus anywhere. What there is, is this man Sergius Paaulus – the pro-consul. In other words, the highest Roman authority on the island. In him, of all people, God was at work – because he asks for Saul and Barnabas to come to him (13:7)

This is where the opposition kicks in. There’s a magician, Elymas, who is associated with the pro-consul in some way (13:7). The missionaries represent a threat to him  – his work and his influence. He wants to keep the pro-consul for himself (13:8). What happens next is remarkable. Paul (this marks the change in use of the name Saul to Paul), described as “full of the Holy Spirit” (13:9), confronts Elymas. What is the Holy Spirit, if not the personal, empowering presence of the living God? In that context, Paul confronts the opposition directly, unmasking deceit and corruption (13:10-11). The result of all this is an outward sign of an inward reality – for a period of time Elymas will be blind (13:11). The one who had sought to lead others astray is now groping in mid-air, arms flailing and in need of someone else to lead him (13:11). Unsurprisingly, the pro-consul is astonished, seeing the word of God matched by the power and work of God (13:12).

Of course, every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul, though, knew that we all leak – which is why in the letter to the church in Ephesus we find him saying (correctly translated) “go on being filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). There’s a need for us all to be daily refreshed by the experienced, empowering presence of God’s Spirit. Which means, of course, that there’s no such thing as a place where God is not. Yes, God is present with us by His Holy Spirit. That applies as much as to the places and people we go to as it does to us who go. The Cyprus which Paul and his colleagues land on shows no sign we can see of a community of Jesus followers or gospel proclamation. God’s at work anyway, in the Jewish synagogues and the heart of the Gentile pro-consul.

So truly, there is no place where God is not. Nowhere, no-one is God-forsaken. He is always there, always here, always at work. Which means many things. Not least, this:  no matter how dark it is, how painful or frightening it may feel, God is with you. He has not left you.

That should comfort us. It should also cause us to confess and repent of those times when we’ve lived as if He’s not there, gone our own way, turned our back on someone whose opinion we’d rather not take into account. It’s easy to compartmentalise our lives – the fact of God’s presence with us should both comfort us, but also call us to humble ourselves before Him and seek His forgiveness.It should also mean that we go – wherever He may call us – to work, to our families, to our schools, to our streets, to another place – unafraid. Unafraid of what we may find, because if we go with the eyes of faith, we will find Him at work. Our job, empowered by the ongoing filling with the Holy Spirit, is to ask for the eyes of faith and point out His work to others, to show this matches with what He says, and invite others to get involved, to respond and join in.

Where is God? He is here. He is there. He is where He sends us.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 4th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.