A minister’s real passion flows from the things that are particularly meaningful to them. It may be healing or leadership or servant ministries or teaching. For me I think it is encouraging ordinary people to believe they are good enough to be loved by God and to serve God. In the 13 years I’ve been ordained I seem to have spent a lot of time around people who are underconfident about their faith and their worthiness in God’s eyes. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
While looking for inspiration for Sunday’s sermon I was trawling the net. A lot of it wasn’t helpful. But what caught my eye and made me write was a banner across a page proclaiming that this particular ministry’s course would “be the breakthrough in faith you have been looking for”.
Imagine my response to that red rag.
Breakthrough is a very loaded word. Is it the kind of breakthrough that comes from hard work and practice? Or maybe efforts that have produced a competitive edge? Or does it mean an outcome that originates from being frustrated at how poor we are at something and receiving a sort of magic bullet that makes up for our deficiencies?
I suspect it is the latter because I’ve needed to do some repenting of falling for the same sales pitch myself.
My oldest son is taking his GCSEs this year. One of his courses is Chemistry. It is interesting that none of his teaching has been focussed on one level as the destination. He is expected to make a journey through Chemistry. He will struggle with some of it and master some it. But no one has a flag marking where the journey stops. It doesn’t stop except where he chooses to put down his book bag. He is being taught to recognise that progress is what we make when we apply ourselves to learning and living what we are learning.
To entice faithful people to your course because they perceive they are “getting it wrong” somehow encourages them to believe that faith is a technique that produces results rather than a life that is lived. Learn the technique, claim the prize. Ignore the technique, fall behind. I know far too many Christians with a faith that causes them so much anxiety because of their fear of missing the final piece in the puzzle if they ignore the latest techniques or books or DVDs.
It is a deeply ingrained western habit to see everything as a problem to be solved or a goal to be obtained. That’s why lots of money can be made in this breakthrough business. Better teeth, trim figures and a package of obvious but scholarly sounding concepts about the bible, prayer and Christian living seem to go a long way to convincing us that these breakthrough teachers have the final word (until their next final word comes out).
Now I’m not criticising the dress sense, dental work or scholarship of my best teachers, but they tend to be people without a big breakthrough plan. They tend to be people who freely offer me, a fellow traveller, the gift of what they are learning at Jesus’ feet. It is offered not as a Eureka moment but rather as a quiet calmness which comes from knowing there is truth in the room seeking to infect us all.
My favourite story in the Gospels (apart from the fish with the tax money in his mouth…but that’s for another posting) tells me that Jesus is the breakthrough. The rest is conscientious following.
Jesus came to a town called Jericho. In the town there was a tax collector called Zaccheus who kept his office under a tree. Jewish tax collectors were hated because they were seen as collaborators with the occupying Romans. While they collected Caesar’s tax they added a commission for themselves. If you wanted to define a sinner in 1st Century Palestine, he was your poster boy.
Anyway, Zaccheus hears the big crowd coming and wants to have a peek at who this celebrity was. He was short so he climbed the tree to get a better look. While he was up there Jesus stopped and singled him out saying he was going to Z’s house for his supper. A big surprise for Z but he agrees and off they go. We’re not given the transcript for the mealtime conversation but I wish we had it.
After the meal Zaccheus, the hated sinful corrupt tax collector, comes out and acknowledges how wrong he’d been in the career he’d chosen. He offers to repay several times the amount he took from each person because he’d rather start a new life poor than be burdened with an old life of oppressing the poor.
That is a breakthrough you can’t get buy. It is what happens when your heart responds to the Christ who doesn’t define you as a tax collector but as a Child of God. It’s what happens when you have enough faith to follow and build your life around that faith to see what happens.