There are two common responses to new ministry and mission programmes, strategies and initiatives. The first is, “It’s never been done like that before.” The second is, “We’ve tried that in the past and it didn’t work.” If it is not literally these two, then it is variations on the same theme.
I suspect that one of the reasons that lead to both these responses is a lack of understanding of how we define ministry and mission. We often think that it is the type or quality of work that we do that defines an activity as ministry. However, we are reminded that, ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (Jn 15.5; NRSV) Without Jesus, as well as without love, according to the collect of the week just past, ‘all our doings are worth nothing.’ (Week of 4th Sunday after Epiphany, APBA, p 533) Ministry and mission aren’t simply the good things we do, the activities we undertake ‘in Jesus name.’
The theologians have a phrase, in Latin, Misseo Dei, meaning God’s Mission. Missiology, or the Theology of Mission, argues that mission and ministry can only be effective and fruitful when we participate with God in the things God is doing in the world, rather than doing things on behalf of God or for God. The motivation is that if we don’t do something nothing will happen.
There is, then, a difference between doing things that are in themselves good and doing the things that God wants us as to do. Without Jesus leading the way and us participating in what he is doing, even good things are not ministry and mission.
Another reason that may lead to those responses to new initiatives is an issue of understanding time. There are two types of time spoken of in the Bible. One time is Chronos, from which we get the word chronology. This is the time of the seasons of the year, the time of day and the age of life. The second time is Kairos, this is God’s time, when things are in place when events are right for things to happen. It is of Kairos, God’s time, we read, ‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoptions as children.’ (Gal 4:4-5; NRSV) For those who love history you will understand that Jesus came at a time when the known world was populated by Jews whose dispersion was made possible by the extent of the Roman Empire. The message of the incarnation would be able to reach as many people as possible.
When Jesus was standing at the lake of Gennesaret, a large crowd gathered. They wanted to hear the word of God. There were two fishing boats on the shore, not being used, the fishermen were washing their nets. Jesus gets into one that belonged to Peter and asked him to put the boat out a bit. Jesus sat down and, from the boat taught the crowd standing on the shore.
When Jesus had finished speaking, he instructed Peter to move the boat out into deeper water and let down the nets for a catch. Peter’s response is basically, “We’ve tried that in the past and it didn’t work.” What he did say was, “Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing.”
Peter does show some wisdom, though, he responds to a limited knowledge about Jesus, “yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Unlike the unfruitful night of labour, this time they caught so many fish the nets were under stress. Peter calls the fishermen and the other boat to come and assist him and there were so many fish that, loaded into the two boats, the catch was threatening both boats ability to float.
Not surprisingly, this is a bit of an, “Ah, ha,” experience for Peter and his partners. Peter drops to the level of Jesus’ knees and there is a shift in his understanding of Jesus. Where Peter initially called Jesus master, now he identifies him as Lord. Because of what has taken place, Peter considers himself to be not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus and confesses to being a sinful man.
I suspect the point of the event is the conclusion to what Jesus was teaching the crowd now left on the shore of the lake. It is, I think, a comparison between the two fishing expeditions. The first took place at night, during darkness. The biblical metaphor of night and darkness is one of being without relationship with God, being without God. But here, in the light of day, with the physical presence of God in Jesus, the fishing bears fruit – and with extravagant abundance.
Peter’s sin is not that he is a failure as a fisherman and this son of a carpenter can fish better than he can. Peter’s confession appears to be a recognition that he has been trying to work without Christ. There is nothing wrong with being a fisherman, it is a good occupation and vocation, but, it seems to Peter, without Christ it is nothing and will not bear fruit.
Then, because Jesus recognises that Peter understands this, an invitation is added, “From now on you will be catching people.” Apply the same understanding that you have now come to and you will catch people.
Perhaps one of the mistakes that we can fall into, even as people who have a relationship with Jesus, is we attempt to undertake ministry and mission without Christ, that is, Jesus is not doing what we are attempting to do, even if it is good and for all good reasons and motives. Without Jesus our ministry and mission will not bear fruit. The fruit we hope for is a transformation of the community in which we live as a result of people coming to have a transforming relationship with God through Jesus.
The difficulty is discerning what it is that God is doing and, even if we know what God wants to do, waiting until God has everything in place, according to his time.
When we believe we have identified what God is doing and the time is right, then we need to be doing that and nothing else. There is no point in doing anything else because it is not going to bear fruit anyway. It is a waste of energy and will only cause us to become tired and dejected.
It seems plain to me, however, that a lack of fruit may indicate that we are putting energy into activities, even good things, that God is not involved in, or the time is not right. If we are participating in what God is doing, then it will bear fruit, we can expect to see people being drawn to God through us and expressing their relationship with God amongst us.