A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, January 28th 2024
“Forty more days and North Shields shall be overthrown!”
How well do you think that would work as the slogan, or as the opening line for an evangelistic crusade to be carried out by you all at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church in 2024?
“Forty more days and North Shields shall be overthrown!”
Not many takers? I’m not surprised.
Jonah, with his ‘forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown’ (3:4) does not provide us with an obvious role model for sharing the good news of God’s love and justice in 2024. To be fair to Jonah, he was surprised, disconcerted, and indeed disappointed by the impact of his message. The people believed him, turned to God, and so avoided their destruction. This displeased Jonah who was a very unwilling evangelist, one who had hoped that the Ninevites might suffer calamity rather than turn to God.
We don’t want people to suffer calamity, but in another important respect we are very like Jonah. Confronted with a call to share our faith with others, with the intention of persuading them to join in with us in worshipping God, and in following Jesus, we would rather run a mile. This is the United Reformed Church after all.
A report from the Christian thinktank, THEOS, commissioned and published by our denomination last year, shows that although many URCs have a strong community presence (which is good), very few of our congregations are comfortable with sharing the content of our faith with others. We shy away from telling others about why we worship. We’d sooner be swallowed up and then “boked” up by a giant fish than attempt it!
Jonah’s story points to how challenging it is to find an appropriate way to share faith in twenty-first century North Shields; appropriate for us, and for the people with whom we would share. So let’s take a look at how Jesus’s ministry in Galilee – specifically the calling of the first disciples from their workplace by the lake – might help and encourage us.
In these verses in Mark’s Gospel we see a process of presence, proclamation, and persuasion going on; and this we can apply in our situation today.
First, presence: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.’ (1:14) Jesus had been baptised in the River Jordan, then he had spent some time in the wilderness. (1:9-13) Now he came to Galilee; he came North. It’s a statement of the obvious, but to share something with someone you have to be present with them, and Jesus did this by coming to people in a place – Galilee.
‘Jesus came to Galilee [was present in Galilee], proclaiming the good news of God.’ (1:14) As well as being present with someone in order to share news with them, you do actually have to share the content of that news i.e. you have to proclaim it. And that’s what Jesus did. He came to place to be present in it, and he proclaimed good news which had a specific content. It was news about God.
Then, Jesus, who was present in Galilee, proclaiming news about God, persuaded some people to do something about that. It’s good to be present, and it’s great to proclaim, but what about persuading others to respond to your presence and your proclamation?
‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, to James and John, ‘and I will make you fish for people.’ (1:17) Mark’s Gospel is very succinct. He is disciplined about focusing on what matters to him about Jesus. In the version of Mark’s Gospel which we have, which may be the full version of what he wrote, he doesn’t even report Jesus’s birth, or mention any resurrections appearances.
Mark’s approach might give the impression that Jesus appeared out of nowhere, calling out to disciples who had never seen or heard him before they dropped everything to follow him – persuasion without either presence or proclamation. Mark’s little line – ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’ –gives us a hint that they already knew about Jesus and his message about God. The other three Gospels flesh that out some more. Simon, Andrew, James and John most likely were already acquainted with Jesus, at least by reputation; both the person present to them, and the message he proclaimed.
So what should Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, make of all of that?
First of all, we’ve got the ‘presence’ part of the presence/proclamation/persuasion of the process cracked. We are definitely present here in North Shields. Many of us live here. This church building is located here, to say nothing of our online presence. We are present to the community through the availability of this space to other groups, and a range of church-sponsored activities that occur here. If you counted up all the people who came in and out of the building, and added all the personal and neighbourly relationships that church members have with others in North Shields we would get to a huge number. Congratulations everyone! Presence achieved.
Next, proclamation. What do we do in terms of telling the good news about God, as it has been made known to us through Jesus Christ, to all those people to whom we are present? Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you do quite a lot of that, and on a weekly basis. In fact, every Sunday morning, as a congregation we gather together and proclaim the good news about God.
We do so in prayer and song, in readings and sermons, in sharing bread and wine; actions which remember and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you do the same again on the last Sunday evening of the month, and every time Messy Church gather. And I’ll bet that if we go through our church calendar for the year well discover other proclamation actions and events. What’s a Christmas carol service to which you invite everyone, for example, if it’s not a Christian proclamation event? It’s an event where we present the story of God’s love, incarnate in Jesus Christ, all done through word and song.
Which brings us to ‘persuading’ – the bit we’ve all being looking forward to (not)! – persuading others to respond to our presence and our proclamation by joining in with us in journeying with Jesus, and worshipping God. Yes, we are now entering the United Reformed Church dis-comfort zone
It would be a pity, though, to celebrate our substantial presence, and to discover that we do quite a bit of proclaiming the good news about God, but never get around to trying to persuade others to join in with us in following Jesus. This is an area of our church’s life that needs thought and work, since we are doing the other two elements in this process so much better. It will make an appearance in next Sunday’s after-service Church Meeting, when we are going to explore growing as a church, in faith, service and numbers.
I’ll conclude with a simple practice, one that was shared at a conference I attended recently. It’s about beginning to persuade people to join in with you. When you are going to attend a “proclamation-type event”, and opportunity arises, you could simply say to someone you know: “I’m going. It’s going to be good. Would you like to come along with me.”
“This is happening and it’s going to be good. I’m going. Would you like to come along with me.” If they decline – no problem. If they say ‘yes’ – good news!
For ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God … And he said to them, “Follow me”.’ Presence, proclamation, and persuasion, as we seek to grow in faith, in service, and in numbers in North Shields in 2024.