Depending how we harmonize Mark with Luke it seems that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus’ home congregation in Nazareth got so stuffy about his claim to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s scripture that they tried to throw him down a cliff. Like John Wesley, Jesus went to the working class. In Jesus’ case it was the industrial region of the docks on the shores of Lake Galilee where he chose a few followers and then moved to Capernaum. Jesus-of-Nazareth was a reject, a failed messiah (Luke 4). It was Jesus-of-Capernaum who gained celebrity and popularity as an exorcist and healer. Interestingly his first exorcism was not for a person in an asylum or prison or some other kind of social reject but rather for a parishioner in the local church (synagogue). But then he moved on. Jesus didn’t stay in the place where he was popular.
Luke’s version says that they even tried to keep him from leaving. Personally, being in the process of leaving my parish of 5 years for a new appointment, I understand the feeling of leaving those who seem to appreciate my ministry, and I tend to think “if I only stayed, I could do so much more”.
It seems Jesus’ first followers would have been content to continue with him in that popular and well received local ministry of healings and exorcisms. But Jesus said: “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus deliberately walked away from his fan base. Celebrities who abandon their fan base may be accused of betraying their fans. If a local parish ministry is going well why would we leave it?
It is proper that congregations, vestries, and clergy are concerned with what happens here. But it seems that Jesus’ sense of his place and his purpose in the mission of God was more than just having a satisfactory local ministry (here). As we follow Jesus will we take responsibility to “proclaim the message there also”?
How many of our local Canadian Anglican parishes believe and act as if a major purpose for our existence is to proclaim the message “there also”?
How many of our Canadian Dioceses support church planters or have a deliberate strategy for establishing churches elsewhere ?
Are we satisfied that we are “following Jesus” if we settle for relatively successful ministries within the local parish? Or do we hear Jesus saying to us today: “Let us go to the neighbouring towns, so (we) may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came to do.”?
In our diocese we haven’t planted a new church since I think the 1950’s or 60’s, but I think our Bishop hopes to reintroduce the practice. Meanwhile we can rejoice that a few parishes who seem to have been in “hospice care” are looking more like a resurrection.
There are perhaps several reasons why Anglicans have tended to forget that Jesus’ declared purpose, and by extension our purpose as his followers, is to “proclaim the message there also.” Our historic identification as the state church in England may have trained us away from a motivation to plant churches. When every hamlet has its own church or chapel of ease, there is no need to think of starting any new ones. This pattern was repeated on the Canadian prairies where nearly every small town that had a handful of Anglicans put up a church building and often relied on missionary English clergy to supply them.
Of course there was a successful missionary movement from the Church of England that accounts for the present Global Anglican Communion and numerous other churches of Anglican tradition. Many of those church planters, commemorated in For All the Saints, like Jesus created enough offense as to be thrown from a cliff. Many of them left what I am sure could have been “successful” ministries in their local parishes except that they knew success (faithfulness) in following Jesus means “proclaiming the message there also”.
Is there something more insidious than habit that saps our motivation to join Jesus when he says “Let us go to the neighbouring towns …to proclaim the message there also”? I am thinking of a popular Pluralism which suggests the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus and the apostles preached is not even intended for everyone, only for those who are raised in that tradition. Some have suggested that evangelism is not only unnecessary but impolite and essentially arrogant. Everyone is seen to have their own traditions that mediate “ultimate reality”, and if they already have their own gods and religions why should we bother them with Jesus’ message?
I suppose if we leave out the Incarnation and the Cross and the Resurrection, we might easily admit that our message doesn’t really have much that Gnostics, Hindus, Pantheists, etc. haven’t already come up with. But if we suspect that Jesus has more say and display, to show and tell, than just a rehash of existing religious ideas, won’t we be passionate to join him in proclaiming the message there as well as here?