As we begin a year committed to proclaiming the Good News, Bishop Mike explores what it means to live out our common calling as witnesses to the life of Christ and what might be stopping us.
When Jesus told his disciples they were to be the salt of the earth and the yeast in the dough, he was telling us that we are meant to have influence. We are supposed to influence the world, not be over-influenced by it. As St Paul put it, we are in the world, but not of the world.
But how do we, as Christians, best engage with a world where much of what is happening is uncomfortable? How do we express what we believe in a world which no longer accepts anything with a hint of absolute truth?
I believe a big part of the answer is to live out our common calling as witnesses. If you are a Christ follower, you are a witness.
The Greek word for witness is marturia the origin of our word martyr comes from. To witness implies the kind of Christianity that comes with a cost. It will involve words, but it will also involve actions.
Very quickly the early Church developed a corporate witness that involved worship, learning, caring for the poor, signs and wonders, and fellowship. It also involved speaking and it later also involved suffering. Were told that the corporate witness of the Church gained the favour of the people but it was when the Church spoke that it invited criticism and violence. The manner of the Church was noticeable, even enviable, but the message of the Church was immediately controversial.
One of the biggest challenges that we face is how we get people to live the life, walk the talk and gossip the Gospel naturally. Why isnt this happening? Maybe some of these statements ring true for you.
Maybe I think that this aspect of our calling is for special Christians who are unusually enthusiastic.
Someone, somewhere, sometime attempted a verbal witness that was so far over the line that it made me think it is the last thing I would ever attempt.
What will people think of me? Will I be able to answer their questions? Am I prepared to live counter-culturally?
Theres stuff in my life that I am ashamed of its just better to lie low.
5.Lack of accountability
I can get away with not being a witness, so why should I try?
6.Uncertainty of our context
Is being a Christian something to go public with? What right do we have to assert one faith amongst many? Does Christianity have intellectual credibility in the secular narrative? If I never speak of it outside of Church, Ill never know.
We need to be challenged and taught what it means to fulfil our calling as witnesses. Here are eight characteristics of a marturia.
1.Someone who is intentionally prayerful for their friends who are not Christians
I was part of a church people got together in threes once a week to pray in a focused way for their friends who werent Christians. By far the greater percentage of those prayed for came to faith. Surely this is something that we could all do.
2.Someone whose life is marked by undramatic and menial service
This is another core calling of all Christians to be servants. You can argue with creeds, (and people will) but its harder to argue against a life of relentless service.
3.Someone who has a story to tell
In a court of law, what a witness does is share their experience. Its worth remembering that stories in which we own our vulnerability have much more to them than our cheap claims to victory.
4.Someone for whom relationships are important
By this shall all people know that you are my disciples; if you have love one for another (John 13:35). We of all people need to be those who, somewhat counter-culturally, deal in the currency of forgiveness. We are more likely to take new things from people we know and trust. Most people become Christians through the influence of a friend.
5.Someone who understands obedience
Jesus said, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:5). There is something about love that keys into our willingness to practise obedience. The disciples of Acts 1 were told to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. Frightened disciples became fearless witnesses. Something like that needs to happen in the Church today. We need to be convicted that this is something that Jesus demands of us.
6.Someone who stands firm in adversity
Bishop Lees witness in the face of his cancer in recent months has been amazing. The media have been fascinated by his willingness to match his honesty about his fears with his faithfulness to God. To be able to speak of his cancer as a gift is perplexing and challenging in a culture which fears death. He is a sign of hope to many.
7.Someone whose life is provocative
It is a way of living that raises questions. In Acts, before our faith became widely known as Christianity, we were known as Followers of The Way. The lifestyle of Christians was characterized by the way they lived their lives. The new community of God's people should stand out as different and challenge the prevailing culture.
8.Someone who shows higher level of commitment to Christ
The challenge to pray, to speak and to live differently is a truly scary but exciting vision. We know we are not on our own, we have the Spirit. But often the Spirit waits till we dip our feet into the water before we feel the empowerment that the Spirit brings.
We live in a secular culture. It needs some salt and it needs some yeast. At its most basic, our message must be that life with God is better than life without God. But it needs a community not just to talk about the better life with God, but communities which live that better life. We have not displayed a contemporary ethic for Christian lifestyle and this is to our loss.
The great news is that its not too late. Christians have constantly been at their best when the odds have been stacked against them. In such circumstances they have found new faith and new hope. But we shall have to dig deep - deeper into God and deeper into the responsibility of discipleship; and we need to do this together.
The kind of Christianity that doesnt nudge us towards true humanity is frankly a sham. It needs to be seen in the new community of believers. When that happens the Church becomes what the Church needs to be the Body of Christ in the world, but not of it.