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Sunday 27 January 2019

Mission for Life, or Growing Old Disgracefully

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21


By Adrian Cassidy

Church Leader (lay), Twickenham United Reformed Church


Context: Sunday morning service with a lively congregation, mainly middle-aged and retired

Aim: to affirm that Christian mission is a lifelong commitment


‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’. This phrase was first coined in 1976 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, now a Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. It’s been attributed to such diverse characters as Marilyn Munroe, Eleanor Roosevelt and Anne Boleyn.

So, is it a good thing to be well-behaved?

A visit to any charity or National Trust shop will furnish a supply of birthday cards directed to the older generation: ‘When is it old enough to know better?’ ‘Stressed at being one year older? Stressed is just desserts spelt backwards.’ ‘Age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese.’

It would appear that growing old disgracefully as a lifestyle is to be encouraged; to continue living friskily in old age in the same way as when young and feisty is to be commended. One must not conform to geriatric assumptions.

Which brings us to Jesus. In our gospel reading we find him in the synagogue, following his extended time spent alone in prayer and the inner struggle of the temptations. He has identified his mission and ministry, and it is time for him to go public. He places it firmly in the context of the time, using the sacred Jewish text of Isaiah. He is ‘anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free’.

We can imagine the dramatic stunned silence to the unanswerable statement ‘Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ as Jesus sat down, and the buzz of ensuing conversation.

This agenda is the very heart of the gospel. Yet all too soon, through Jesus’ practical working out of this calling in his words and actions, he was opposed by the authorities of the day, especially the religious leaders. He did not conform to expectations or apparently the law, and was therefore disgraceful.

Nevertheless, Jesus will stick to his mission for a lifetime, despite the opposition and the ultimate personal toll of physical and emotional cost. Not of course is it all doom and gloom: there are the accounts of his enjoying eating out with the preferred company of ordinary people rejected by polite society, attending a wedding, and spending quality time with his disciples. There was good precedence for this in our Old Covenant reading: Ezra and Nehemiah declare the case for feasting with joy, whilst embracing the strictures of the law by ensuring that the deprived share in the banquet. In this joy is found holiness and strength.

So, what is the purport of all this to the would-be Christian? Is a Christian someone who conforms to a set of beliefs, or one who aspires to the way of Christ? If we would be a follower of Jesus, then we sign up to accept his mission. In the eyes of the world, this may be disgraceful. For we would not just be establishing a comfortable life for ourselves and our family. In the face of our non-conformity why should we be surprised at efforts to marginalise or oppose Christianity? We should not just complain of bad treatment or about the sins of others, but positively put forward the case of Christ. We can measure all the emerging society issues such as child protection, GDPR, dealing with abuse, etcetera – and indeed world political events, even Brexit – against the Spirit’s anointing to bring the good news to the poor, and release to the captives.

And that commission is for a lifetime: once signed up, there is no fixed term or zero hours contract, nor any options for early retirement. Not for us the outlook of a teacher acquaintance of mine who used to announce boldly every Friday afternoon ‘One week nearer to the lump sum!’ There was no fixed term contract for Jesus: we know how he struggled, needing to spend time apart, and from his prayer in Gethsemane. In the secular world B&Q have encouraged the employment of older people on the shop floor, able to provide improved customer service. In our church, the mission activity through midweek clubs and organisations, our community involvement, and the practical tasks, inevitably have a heavy dependence on the allegedly retired. (I assume this applies to many if not most churches!) We must recognise too that this mission will take us on occasions beyond our comfort zones, make us unfashionable, and leave us exhausted, nevertheless following the way of Jesus before us.

Paul’s analogy, in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, speaks for itself, urging each of us not to neglect our gifts but to use them collaboratively, whatever they are, in the service of the gospel. We are all interdependent and necessary; no one is surplus to requirements.

Let us all, therefore, whatever our age, sign up to Christ’s Mission for Life, and so, with grace, grow old disgracefully together.


[Following hymn: God’s Spirit is deep in my heart.]

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