Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Theological Reflection from Estonia 3

The beginning of my last week at Püha Vaimu Kirik (see picture) found me preaching on Mat 16 with Peter’s recognition of Jesus as "The Christ, the Son of the Living God", a more sophisticated statement of faith than that expressed by the Canaanite woman. And herein lies the key to the Christian experience. I have said a number of times in sermons that Lutherans have this understanding about faith and good works with good works, important as they are, merely being the marks of obedient discipleship. The church, when it does these things well, is a remarkable agent for social change and a powerful moral force, but these are marks of obedient discipleship and are not our primary ministry. Our primary ministry, as Dean Gustav would say, is Worship, Word and Sacrament followed by Service. What is the motive for our Christian service? Why does a church like Püha Vaimu have links with significant social services organisations? Why do we continue to care for the marginalised and disenfranchised even when it is sometimes hard to be in sympathy with their plight?
In Mat 25.35-36 Jesus says "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me and I was in prison and you visited me." To do these things for their own sake is justification enough because they need doing, but as Jesus has already said earlier in Matthew (11.28) "Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest....and you will find rest in your souls." the wider justification for our good works apart from obedient discipleship, is to provide a Christian witness: a witness that points to Jesus and the salvation he offers so that people can say, as Peter said "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." And begin that journey of faith into salvation.

This raises the huge issue of the distinction between witness and evangelism There are many Christians who are impatient to speak to every "lost soul" and see preaching the Gospel in all seasons as an obligation and a duty: they dismiss a more cautious approach as "friendship evangelism": "But that person may drop dead tomorrow and you never spoke of Jesus because you were too busy relationship building." Others prefer a more softly-softly approach waiting for the Holy Spirit to prompt with the right opportunity to speak: they dismiss the alternative approach as a scatter-gun that does more harm than good to the Christian cause: "Well, I’ve told you so now you know. When you go to Hell, it’s not on my conscience." Yet both approaches aim at building faith to the point of a personal revelation such as that to Peter "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And even in bleak Kopli there is an overt Christian presence. Both the Salvation Army and Bethel, through the Peeteli Kirik, have a base there. (Bethel works particularly with street children and now runs a day centre and children’s home.) Both organisations experience growing church attendance. Even in Kopli the understanding "you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" is a daily reality and a rebuke to those of the NIMBY persuasion who resist the setting up of Christian centres for the vulnerable in their "nicer" areas. Nevertheless, this seems to be a situation ripe for a church planting: and a church planting of a fresh expressions approach.

I leave the last word to the Tallinna Kopli Korpus (Salvation Army): "Have I not commanded you? Be courageous. Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." (Josh 1.9).