Mission Now but Mission How

Introduction to the readings

Acts 9:36-43

This is clearly a reflection of Jesus raising Lazarus and the leader of the synagogue’s daughter.  In his commentary on the passage William Barclay includes the previous section about Peter’s healing of a paralysed man.  In that passage Peter says ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you.’  Although we are not told what words Peter used in his prayer in the raising of Tabitha it is fair to assume, as Barclay does, that both healings were carried out by Peter ‘in the name of Jesus Christ so Peter is shown allowing Christ to work through him and not through any special power of Peter’s.

The passage follows a series of sheep and gate parables, and Raymond Brown writes that, in this place in John’s narrative, the demand that Jesus say plainly whether or not he is the messiah makes perfect sense.  He has referred to himself as a shepherd, a metaphor which traditionally has been used of the Davidic kings and of the expected messiah.  However, Jesus is always anxious to qualify what messiahship might mean because it had strong nationalistic and militaristic overtones.  Jesus’ concept was entirely different, and he answers by giving examples of what he is doing, in his ‘fathers name.’ and in verse 30 that is summed up, as is common in John’s Gospel, in a theological statement ‘The Father and I are one’.

Jesus is the good shepherd but only his sheep recognise that, he is not going to force that recognition on others as a military messiah might be expected to do. [1]

Peter in Lydda and Joppa

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.[a] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them, and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.


I hadn’t heard about Arise Church until a friend told me that his daughter had taken him to a service.  He was amazed that to attend they had to book tickets online and he felt that the music was appalling.

‘Nek minnit’ Arise Church is in the news with allegations of overworked interns.  Young people who pay for a learning experience and end up working long days to facilitate the churches programmes.

I then read a number of David Farrier’s articles about Arise and found a lot of similarity to other mega evangelical churches.  They set up churches in university cities and used friendship evangelism to target lonely young people who had come into the city to study.

Although I was unaware at the time, I had been the subject of friendship evangelism as a teenager.  The local Baptist Church enticed me into a leadership role in the harrier club they were starting, and I was happy to help.  The club was made up of Baptists looking to save lost souls and harriers who wanted to run races.  I was not aware of the cunning plan until I wrote an essay about it on Study Leave many years later.

However, although I didn’t become a Baptist the marker of my essay noted ‘some sow and others reap.’ Pointing out that the once atheist teenager was doing a paper on Youth Ministry as a Presbyterian Minister.  The Baptist Church had opened the gate and like a steely eyed border collie the Holy Spirit nudged me into the flock.

Furthermore, I am passionate about growing congregations and have some enthusiasm for friendship evangelism but totally opposed to exploiting the vulnerable and the prosperity gospel.

The churches I want to see thrive and grow into the future are churches like St Ninians.

Congregations that promote a reasoned theology, encourage Spiritual growth, contribute to the wider community and question the secular community.

I believe religion is important to the future of humankind. 

Furthermore, I believe that there is a good reason that Christianity is one of the three great faiths of the world. A Christianity that is preached in a way that makes sense of our world reinforces our instinct as communal mammals in a way that makes us truly human.

But above all, the unique edge Christianity has over other forms of spirituality is that it ‘images’ God in the Jesus of the Gospels.

People have such a yearning for God that they build their own versions of a deity in their mind.  That may well be helpful and comforting but such a god will inevitably fall short of the ground of all being.

A self-fashioned deity leads to the sort of dominating religion that American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer warns us of when he says,

‘Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power’.[2]

That is the temptation of leadership in mega church’s just as it is the temptation of totalitarian rulers and leaders of billion-dollar corporations.

When someone builds an image of a god in their own imagination, that god inevitably holds exactly the same world view as its creator.  Therefore, the person that imagined such a deity has divine sanction for all their ambitions, prejudices, and perversions.

That is not only very comfortable; it can also inspire some very dangerous and anti-social behaviour such as punishing or eliminating those who disagree with them.  As we have seen with conspiracy theorists and antivaxxers even someone who has no god can comfort their conscience by their own disbelief.  They can have faith in their disbelief to the point of corruption.

But the Jesus of the Gospels is framed by the Gospel accounts of the teaching and stories of, and about, Jesus.

The God, we image in Christ is a challenging God who offers correction to any of our self-serving impulses and inspires us to a greater humanity than we might otherwise aspire to be.

That is why it is vital that we not only keep our faith alive, but also pass it on to future generations.

The faith that has guided and inspired our lives needs to be played forward and passed onto the future.

However, a great truth of evangelism is spelled out in this morning’s Gospel reading by the spiritual Jesus of John’s Gospel. 

‘My Sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)

Our calling as disciples is to intentionally live as Christ to others.  In doing so we trust that will open their hearts to what the gospel has to offer.  But we are all Christ’s sheep, and it is the Risen Christ who calls people to discipleship and the Risen Christ, or in orthodox Trinitarian theology, the Holy Spirit who brings people into the fellowship of the church. 

We have a task in preparing people for Christ’s call by making people aware of Christ’s presence, but we are not religious salespeople.

Bringing people to Christ is not a simple process of opening a conversation, explaining the benefits, handling the objections, closing the sale, and getting paid.

The task for all of us who have responded to the movement of the Spirit in our lives is to live as Christ to others.  That certainly means transforming lives, but in a practical rather than a spiritual way.

Without worrying if Tabitha was really dead or how Peter’s prayers might have brought her back to life, we can appreciate that Peter’s intervention was of a very practical nature.  He restored her to the community.  The response was that ‘this became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.’(Acts 9:42) Peter’s action not only restored Tabitha’s life but many were informed about the restoring power of Christ and therefore were able to come at the shepherd’s call.   People became Christ’s sheep because they could hear his voice through the actions of Peter and so were open to the call to follow him.  

The cover story of Time magazine on the 21st June, 1971 was The Jesus Revolution and around that time enthusiastic young people used to accost you on the street asking if you were a Christian.  I usually said ‘No, I’m a Presbyterian,’ partly because I have an inclination to be cynical, but mostly because I was embarrassed for them and embarrassed at the public image they were projecting of our faith.

Destiny Church had antivaxx anti covid demonstrations recently and in August 2004, members of the Destiny Church marched on Parliament wearing black t-shirts and track-pants and chanting “Enough is Enough.”  That was a protest against the civil union legislation and I know of one MP’s I had been lobbying who I suspect finally decided to vote for the legislation because of his distaste of that particular protest.

We are more likely to open the Christian faith to people by the positive works that we do on Christ’s behalf, rather than one to one arguments with unresponsive people.

As well as Levin Baptist’s cunning plan my own movement towards the church was motivated by Ernest Gordon’s book Miracle On The River Kwai.  That book tells the story of Gordon’s experience of the transforming and life-giving care for each other in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Above all I was also moved by the people, including members of the harrier club and the Scout movement, who showed real care and commitment to others because of their Christian faith.

However, I have absolutely no doubt that it was the Divine Spirit that overcame my natural shyness and directed me in uncertainty and trepidation to the local vicarage to seek membership of that congregation.

It was likely that same Spirit that led me from the comforting images and certainty of the Anglo-Catholic tradition towards the ongoing vigorous reformed passion by introducing me to a particular sweet sixteen year old Presbyterian with sparkly eyes.

Many years ago, I attended a church growth seminar by American Win Arn who suggested that it is the Holy Spirit that converts people and as disciples we simply open that possibility for them.

Dr Arn had a whole host of very valid and cunning schemes which made it easy for people to join the church but only when their own circumstances called them to do so.

Kennon Callahan expresses the same ideas differently writing that the way of attracting new members and giving the church a future is: ‘by becoming a legend on the community grapevine through healing the hurts and addressing the hopes of the community.’[3]  He suggests that such churches ‘become the church that helped John and Mary. They become the church that helped Susie.  They become a legend because they become participants in effective mission.’[4]

They are the churches that have a men’s shed and a muffin group. A church that looks to share their site with a Christian Social service agency.

That is a long and infuriatingly patient mission and it may not be the people who the church helps that actually join the church.  It certainly wasn’t Tabitha who came to believe in the power of the Risen Christ when she was raised from death.  She was already a believer.

But her transformation impressed others and as a result they heard the shepherd’s voice.

It is Christ who calls people into the church, but we must be intentional about our mission.  The church is not just a social service agency.

It is a very delicate balance.  In the reformed tradition our mission is to love and care for people because of the love of Christ we have received.  We go out into our community to be Christ to others with no strings attached.  We do that with all sincerity, but also knowing that Christ will call those we open to that call.

Religion is vital to the very survival of humankind and Christianity, even with all its faults is a very good religion.  We are therefore privileged to have a facilitating role in sending our faith into the future.

That indeed is a sacred calling we must be intentional about while also being aware that our role is simply to open the gate.

The Holy Spirt, with the persistence of a border collie, will then nudge those who have been called into Christ’s flock.


Rev Hugh Perry, 8 May 2022

[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John I-XII (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), p.406.

[2] Eric Hoffer as quoted in The Press Saturday April 13th 2013 (Christchurch: The Press 2013 ) pB4

[3] Kennon L. Callahan Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983), pp.8,9.)

[4] Ibid.