Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
As Jesus surveys the crowds that were following him, he uses two agricultural metaphors to describe them. That they are like lost sheep and that they are like a ripe harvest. Jesus really knew how to mix metaphors!
The thing that links these two metaphors is this idea of gathering, harassed, helpless sheep need to be gathered by their shepherd to find pasture and protection, a ripe harvest needs to be gathered in ere the winter storms begin. This, Jesus says, is the work of his followers, both the first disciples and those of us who call him ‘Lord’ today, we are to be engaged in gathering in.
Instinctively, I think we know that we are all to be engaged in this work. As Christians we seek to shape our life according to the patter of the Lord Jesus, and so as he devoted himself to gathering in, we understand that we should too. But saying that is easier than doing it. We all, whether gregarious or reserved, find sharing our faith hard, your priest no less than you. It can feel awkward and risky speaking to people about your faith.
Part of our nervousness about this comes from feeling uncomfortable with what we think motivates this activity of sharing our faith, evangelising:
Sometimes it feels as though we are encouraged to share our faith to bolster a failing institution. Sometimes we can sense to corporate panic in the Church of England, where census data shows us that fewer and fewer people are identifying as Christian, and even fewer worshipping in a Church of England church on a Sunday. The church used to be powerful and influential, it pervaded British society, and there is a sense of loss and panic when we see that on the wane. And then comes the call to action from bishops and Archbishops and church growth experts: ‘we must do something to arrest this decline’, and so the latest evangelistic drive is spawned, ‘The Decade of evangelism’, ‘Mission Shaped Church’, ‘From Evidence to Action’, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, to name just a few during my lifetime.
We can be tempted to think this way at the local level too: giving is down, inflation is up, in is harder to pay the bills. We need to do something to attract more people to make us viable… the diocese is circling!
Instinctively we know that this is a poor motivation to share our faith. It smacks of desperation, and nothing is less attractive than desperation!
Sometimes evangelism can seem to be motivated by a deep seated need to be perceived as right, or moral, or spiritual, or wise or something like that, which again seems a particularly poor motivation for sharing faith. How can we genuinely enter into a conversation about life and faith with another person if you have such conviction that they are wrong and have nothing to offer us? If that is what evangelism is about, naturally, we want nothing to do with it.
Worst of all is the motivation we sometimes perceive that sharing our faith is about plucking souls from the flames. That is a terrible reason for sharing our faith, worse than the other two bad reasons. We naturally recoil from evangelism is this is what it is all about, and I don’t just say this because I find the concept of hell, the eternal punishment of finite offences, both theologically dubious and morally repugnant.
Our instincts are good when these poor motivations for sharing faith cause us to hold back. I am sure that evangelism motivated by panic, or fear, or superiority, are more likely to turn people off Christianity than to attract them.
But there is a better way, the way of the Lord Jesus, who sought to draw people to himself our of compassion. He looked at the suffering, harassed, helpless people following him and he loved them, and had compassion on them. He longed for their lives to be given direction, joy, and wholeness. This is the only true reasons for sharing the gospel, because we genuinely believe that life in union with God through the Lord Jesus is a better life, here and now. Jesus was motivated by compassion, and so should we.
And what of the people who are called to gather in the harvest? We might also resist sharing our faith because we think that this is something which is reserved for specialists, people who are gifted and trained in spreading the gospel, for leaders, spiritual entrepreneurs, who can strategise, and communicate, the Billy Grahams of the world. But Jesus didn’t ask us to pray for specialists. He used a simple unpretentious word, ‘workers’, farm hands, unskilled labourers, and their work isn’t even to sow seed, or tend and nurture it. It is simply to gather in the crop. Jesus pictures a work that has already been done by another, a work that is almost finished. We aren’t to pray for leaders or strategists, we are pray workers, who will recognise and respond to the work God has already been doing in people’s lives and to gather them in, to help then draw closer to God.
There are lots of ways that might practically manifest itself, through inviting someone to church, or to a small group, listening to someone’s experience of life, of faith, taking seriously their questions and feelings about the mystery of life. It will always involve being ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us, as St … says, nurturing our own faith so that we have some resources to use when people ask us about our faith.
We are to pray for such people to be sent into God’s harvest filed, and to be prepared to believe that God’s answer to that prayer may very well look like us.