One of the challenges that is often made to the Church is that the Church should ‘get into the 21st Century’. There is an understanding that the reason the Church should make changes is to keep in step with what is taking place in the rest of the world. However, if we are faithful to the gospel message, the Church should be providing leadership to the rest of society.
One of the very difficult questions that I continually need to ask, and I think we all need to continue to ask, is how to discern what is the core message of Jesus and what is our cultural and timely expression of that message in word and deed.
The Church has led the world in significant change. Even though the Bible affirms slavery, it was the likes of Wilberforce and cohorts, who fought for and led the world to the abolition of slavery. This both challenges us to discern the core message of Jesus and to argue for changes within society that reflect that message.
It is true that sometimes the Church has been challenged by what is taking place in the world, and this has caused the Church to ask questions concerning what has been important and fundamental to the message. In the Anglican Communion, we only need to consider the motivation, in part, for the consideration of the ordination of women as deacons and priests, and more recently, as bishops.
The Church, in all its variety of expressions, continues to be a voice within society and the world, speaking out against the world on a variety of issues and is therefore sometimes criticised for being out of touch and out of date. I love the privilege we have as Anglicans that our Diocesan Bishops are allowed a voice in the public sphere concerning social and political issues. A week will not go by when I have not received a copy of at least one Media Release from our Archbishop or Regional Bishop through the office of Anglican Media.
Although I think we need to continue to be vigilant in our discernment concerning the fundamentals of the gospel message and making changes in our expression of the message, I do not think we should ever respond to the world’s call to ‘get into the 21st century’ when that request is a watering down of the fundamentals of the gospel. The challenge is not to change the gospel message in order that we might be relevant, but to change the way we present the same eternal message in a way that is relevant.
Such changes can be seen, for example, in contemporary worship in the type of songs and music that are being sung. The message of the songs is the same, but the poetry of the words may be different, the music may be more contemporary, the instruments that are used in the music may be different, and the presentation of liturgy in a more visual style may have changed.
It is clear from the gospel reading today that the disciples of Jesus believed, in response to the authority and power of his teaching in word and action, that “everyone” was searching for Jesus. This is not, I think, some passing reference, but a very real theological statement by the disciples. We are to understand that, fundamentally, every human being is searching for Jesus, whether they recognise that search, or the one for whom they are searching. Jesus does not refute the disciples’ understanding, he answers, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” (Mk 1:38; NRSV)
As Jesus indicates in the ultimate introduction of Mark’s gospel concerning the identity of Jesus and his ministry, the gospel message is about the kingdom of God, at hand, or near, personified by him. Everyone, says Jesus, needs the message of the gospel, which is a relationship with God through him, and he “came out” to proclaim that message.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:16-23), speaks about his understanding as a disciple of Jesus, to continue in Jesus’ purpose to proclaim the gospel message, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”
This obligation to proclaim the gospel could be understood in two ways. It could be understood as his particular commission as Apostle to the Gentiles to proclaim the gospel, or it could be understood that as a disciple of Jesus, along with all disciples of Jesus, in Jesus’ present and in the future, we are all entrusted with this commission. I think there is plenty of evidence to support that all disciples are entrusted with commission to proclaim the good news even though there are those we set aside as teachers, or evangelists.
With Jesus, Paul sees no limitation to those to whom this gospel message is t be proclaimed, “I am free in respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so I might win more of them.” (1 Cor9:19; NRSV) Later Paul says, “that I by all means save some.” (ibid. v 22) The gospel message is meant to proclaimed to all, but encourages us to accept that only some of them will respond; will be won. But the more we limit our proclamation the less response we will have.
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul adds a further dimension to the proclamation of the gospel message, “To the Jews I became a Jew… to those under the law I became as one under the law… to those outside the law I became as one outside the law… to the weak I became weak,” Paul became as one of them. Not one with them, but as one of them in order to proclaim the message to them.
In the letter to the Hebrews (13:1-8) the writer states, “Care for those in prison as if you were in prison, for those who are tortured as if you were being tortured.” The best care that can be offered to those who are suffering is to try and imagine what it would be like to be in their position, to imagine what it would be like to be as one of them. This means that we need to come to an understanding of who they are, what their life is like, what the constraints are on their life, what their needs are, who is affected by them, what their questions about life are. Only in this way can the presentation of the unchanging, eternal gospel be changed so that is relevant to them. The question then is not how to change the message so that it is more palatable to the world, but how do we change the presentation of the same eternal message in order that some will be able to respond to the kingdom of God made revealed in Jesus Christ.