by Paul Bridges.
Six months ago, my wife and I visited Coventry and had the opportunity to see the Methodist Modern Art Collection. My approach to art is similar to my approach to theology – I love exploring it, but claim no expertise. I was looking forward to seeing the collection, having failed on several previous occasions to marry my diary with its location. It was a long but enjoyable thought-provoking day. ‘Pink Crucifixion’ by Craigie Aitchison, and ‘The Washing of the Feet’ by Ghislaine Howard both captured our imagination.
However, whilst enjoying the whole collection, the truth is I really wanted to see one particular picture. A piece that I had never seen for real but have fallen in love with from a distant – Eularia Clarke’s ‘The Five Thousand’.
It is for me, and I assume from the title, a modern version of the feeding of the five thousand. It depicts a 1970s church outing with the congregation enjoying fish and chips whilst listening to an only partially visible preacher. A woman with a pearl necklace, a couple of men smoking, babies in carrycots, toddlers and children, a few people snoozing, most eating and listening to the preacher. The picture and the biblical story speak to me of the Kingdom of Heaven or in other words the value of community.
The story and the picture are for me a miracle of generosity and community spirit, rather than a metaphysical miracle – and no less a miracle for this. This is a miracle that we can still see today when people respond to need and genuinely share what they have. People generally want to help each other, and even more so when food is involved!
At Huddersfield Mission, we have recently had the opportunity to formalise some work that we have been doing for many years – supporting local communities. We have two staff who are using community interventions to tackle health inequalities. So, I ask myself what might Jesus and the story of the feeding of the five thousand tell us about community development.
The feeding of the five thousand starts by someone -in this case the disciples- seeing the need. Too often agencies, professionals and churches start with a solution- borrowed from Google or a book – this is the wrong place. Community work needs to start with people or as the mug on my desk reminds me: “It all starts with a brew.”
The disciples had a solution, but also made the problem one of resources – we need lots of money, they said. Jesus had a different approach, he understood the need and saw that the people already had the solution, but perhaps did not know it yet. This is an asset-based approach, rather than a deficit model. The Kingdom, time and time again is built on what communities already have. Let’s not simply assume that communities have problems and we, the church, has the magic answers to fill the gaps. Following Jesus is a much more active process than this. Community work cannot be done solely from a desk, and involves getting our hands dirty – or at least doing the washing up!
It is important to add here that an asset-based approach is not an excuse for saying that communities don’t need more resources, they do, but resources are only ever part of the solution. Asset Based Community Development is more about the attitude we have to people rather than resources.
Jesus’ solution was based on modelling positive behaviour and then involving everyone – those that came with nothing, and those that had enough to share, and everyone in between. Too much community development only involves the immediately willing, but real change needs to involve everyone. This is frighteningly difficult at times.
Perhaps Jesus could have ordered a huge takeaway for everyone via UberEATS, but the following day the poor would have been hungry again. Modelling the sharing of resources among everyone, shows a way of solving the problem for today and tomorrow. The best solutions always resolve the immediate issue and the underlying problem. Too often we are drawn to immediate solutions that at best are short term and at worse lead to dependency.
Jesus is often described as a fantastic story teller, and he was surely that, but to me he was also a brilliant community worker.
Finally seeing Eularia Clarke’s – The Five Thousand – for real reminded me just how little of the preacher is visible in the picture, and perhaps this is the last lesson for those of us grappling with community development – the story is not about us!
30 thoughts on “Jesus, the community worker”
Thank you, Paul.
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Thanks Paul for your reflection. The key to me is in these sentences. The best solutions always resolve the immediate issue and the underlying problem. Too often we are drawn to immediate solutions that at best are short term and at worse lead to dependency.
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Thanks Paul for your reflection. The key to me is in these sentences.
‘The best solutions always resolve the immediate issue and the underlying problem. Too often we are drawn to immediate solutions that at best are short term and at worse lead to dependency.’
It is the last sentence that thrills me – it is not about us, the saved, the children of God, the non-sinners, the holy, etc. It is about an ethical spirituality with no conditions at work in inclusive communities. It is about love.
Any person of goodwill can work as a volunteer in the community.
So what is the point of church, then?
I attended a lovely service yesterday; I particularly enjoyed the Gospel reading about Mary pouring the expensive perfume over Jesus. Judas criticised her wastefulness, but Jesus didn’t have a problem with this extravagant expression of her love for him. ‘You will always have the poor among you’ he told the shocked onlookers, ‘but you won’t always have me.’
This is testament to the fact that Jesus should be first and foremost in our lives, before all others and before all the good works we do, even in his name. How sad to reduce him to no more than a first century do-gooder.
I attended a service yesterday in which the preacher spoke of the unconditional love of God. Then, near the end, she spol=ilt a wonderful service by telling us that the love of God is freely given to us IF we are saved and praise Him. I felt the shudder go through the congregation! If God’s love is unconditional then how can we place conditions on His love? I was tempted to walk out. Jesus is first and foremost in my life and what you call doing-good, I call the Second Great Commandment.
It is sometimes suggested that the first of the two great love commandments must have precedence over the second one. Yet Jesus’ words suggest that it is not that simple, and that these two commandments are neither as hierarchical nor as distinct as we might assume.
If we take seriously the “anything you did for one of my brothers you did for me” of Matthew 25.35-45, God may be much closer than we sometimes realize. It seems he is more likely to appear to us as someone suffering or lonely or in need than during a meditation on what happened 2,000 years ago. This is not a comfortable thought. It is more difficult to love some of the people we encounter than to worship God at a safe distance. If our image of God is the King of Kings portrayed in stained glass windows and in many hymns and liturgies, we may have initial difficulty in recognizing him in a workman or gardener, in someone we meet on a journey or in a stranger on the shore. It is only when we engage with people that we see their hidden depths.
If God is so close to us, we need to adjust our focus from first century events to God’s action in the world today. This presents a challenge to our understanding of worship. Isaiah told us that faith is best expressed not through religious ritual but through acting justly and looking after those in need. In more recent times Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this as: “God wants us to honour God on earth; …in our fellow man and woman.” For him prayer had to be connected to concrete action for justice.
It is as we respond to God’s presence in those oppressed, distressed or perplexed that we transcend our concern for personal salvation, make “Thy kingdom come” a practical prayer for the here and now, teach God’s love in the most effective way – through our own lives, and express our love for God through self-giving.
Where does church come into this? God doesn’t need our adoration, but we need to keep our spiritual batteries charged up, we need the encouragement and support of fellow travellers and we need to listen to guidance on the way forward.
Nobody is disputing the unconditional love of God. God created us, he knows everything there is to know about us, the good and the bad, yet he loves us with a love that knows no bounds. It does not matter how many times we go astray, God has provided us with a way back to him, through Jesus our Saviour.
The principal message in the story of the prodigal son, which many people miss, is not that the father welcomes him back with open arms, it is that the father loves the son enough to let him go in the first place. It must break his heart to do it, but the Father lets us go, if that is our choice.
The preachers should be giving the Gospel message of Salvation through Jesus Christ, even when it makes them unpopular. There will be many who balk at it, because they don’t like to think of the consequences of rejecting God’s gift of grace, but it should be given anyway.
The shudder that went round Robert’s church as they heard the good news would be the Holy Spirit prompting them to pay heed to what they were hearing, before it’s too late. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just give us warm, cosy feelings. He also pricks our consciences and sets alarm bells ringing!
I pray with all my heart that our ministers and preachers will set aside their own agendas and go back to doing what they were called to do, which is to point to Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of all souls.
Lord, in Thy mercy ……
In your earlier post Catherine, you speak of Jesus ‘reduced’ and being ‘no more than’ a ‘do-gooder’ (an extremely pejorative term) and here you speak of those who understand and preach salvation as you understand it (forgive me, I am sure that is not what you are saying, but it is to some extent what I am hearing) as following God’s agenda and those who see things differently as following their own agenda. Don’t we all only see part of the picture and there may be insight or even inspiration in the views of others?
Far from being ‘reduced’ and being ‘nothing more than’ isn’t the unconditional loving nature (clearly Good, but surely not ‘do-gooding’) revealed in Christ actually hugely expanding our understanding of the nature of God? Doesn’t the Goodnews include if not actually an out right rejection, at least deep scepticism of religiosity and adherence to a belief system and a sense of those who are in and those who are out? The examples of Goodnews Jesus speaks of in commentary on Isaiah or in the sermon on the mount (and the plane in Luke) are highly related to the concepts explored in the article aren’t they? No doubt there is a lot missing if one only looks at this article but to portray it and the comments around it as reducing the Goodnews is surely not helpful.
It is interesting that both you and Pavel make similar points (albeit with implied criticism of different people) about the Goodnews not necessarily being comfortable -Pavel: the idea of God’s immanence in the suffering around us “is not a comfortable thought”, as opposed to worshiping a distant God; You: “The Holy Spirit doesn’t just give us warm, cosy feelings.” This is surely a Biblical thought too. Is there value in trying to listen to others understanding of the Goodnews perhaps particularly if we are uncomfortable with it?
To return to the original article if we take the observation that “he was also a brilliant community worker” (incidentally placed alongside another attribute, so definitely not ‘nothing more than’) as seeing Jesus’s ministry in narrow 21st century terms, then yes it is a reduction. However, if we see it as a useful way of exploring the nature of God’s love as revealed in Jesus, isn’t it expansive?
Perhaps we can all agree with the final comment “the story is not about us!” – but then may be again it is about “all of us” just not “us as opposed to them” and not about what we believe or what we think of the believe of others.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. John 3:16
This is God’s agenda. All variations on this are the arrogance of humanity thinking they know better than God. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ anything, nor do I need to. For me, it is the wonderful ‘mystery of faith’ which I celebrate at every Eucharist. It is the best gift we could wish for anyone.
I think it is very selfish of people who had the good fortune to hear the gospel of salvation and the freedom to choose whether to accept or reject it, to then want to prevent others enjoying the same privilege. To deny someone a faith is only one step away from persecuting people for their faith. Sadly, I fear the Methodist Church has gone past the point of no return. It has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and it need look no further for a reason for the serious decline it now finds itself in.
I’m sorry I really don’t understand this Elizabeth. I don’t know what your understanding of salvation is and I am resisting drawing my own conclusion. Given that, I cannot conceive what you mean by the rest, still what it has to do with this discussion. In particular is there really something here that is “want[ing] to prevent others enjoying the same privilege”? Is anyone really seeking to “deny someone faith”? I suppose given that I don’t understand what you are saying I might have said something that you have heard in that way or there may be something in the article or one of the other comments but it is utterly beyond me what it could possibly be. I certainly have no conscious desire to prevent anyone anything, let alone a faith.
‘You are from below, I am from above. You belong to this world, I do not. That is why I said that you will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.’ John 8:23-24
I find it difficult to think that the state of my soul, or my salvation, or my belief system matter in the slightest when faced with the war in the Ukraine, Covid, the prospect of mass poverty or the death of a loved one. All I have is the certain knowledge that the love of God is totally unconditional, so new life is always possible. In our mutual care, our human kindliness, our love for each other we find we are forgiven for our past mistakes, given courage to face our present difficulties and hope for the future. Furthermore we can come to forgive, encourage and bring hope to others. This unconditional love is the good news. I know this because I try to follow Jesus, the most “woke” do-gooder that ever walked the planet. And as for John 8:23-24, where is the love?
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Either you believe the gospel writers or you don’t, but if you think that Jesus was no more than a kind man who lived 2000 years ago, why get so hung up on it?
Yvonne, I think it may be that your questions are very specifically for Robert and therefore the following comments may be irrelevant. However, I am encouraged to make them following your good and clear response to Julie’s excellent post below. I think having read your post some of my questions may be a little redundant, as you very clearly want to recognise the whole Gospel. Please forgive me as I make those comments anyway. [Actually you may look at the length of what I write and stop here and that is also fair enough.]
You ask, “Either you believe the gospel writers or you don’t?” Is it really that simple? There are a huge range of understandings of the Bible (including the gospels), from the idea of literal and absolute truth, through varying degrees of understanding of exactly how it is the inspired word of God, merging into positive sceptical engagement, through to outright attacks and of course most people somewhere well off to the side of such a spectrum). In any case isn’t it the whole Gospel (and therefore at least all that the gospel writers give us) that we should engage with. [Here I think I am knocking at an open door, if I read your post below correctly.] Doesn’t the whole Gospel contain much about the loving nature of God as revealed in Christ, such as this article is about? Doesn’t it also warn against a dependency on a stale belief in doctrines? Indeed the context of the verses you quote above (John 8.23-24) could be argued to be against the traditional doctrinal views of ‘the Jews’ with whom Jesus is arguing. They can of course be used to defend a narrow understanding of salvation through belief in Jesus. [I mean no offence by the use of the word narrow, I am merely trying to suggest that there might be other more open interpretations.] Whilst I understand Robert’s question in relation to these verses, “Where is the love?”, I can not agree with what I think is his implied answer, which is that it is not there. He seems to be taking it as narrowly literally and as out of context as those who profess only narrow doctrinal beliefs.
I understand your second point about Jesus being ‘no more than a kind man’ a lot better having seen your post below and the following may therefore not be helpful. I tried to explain in a post above that explorations like those in this article far from reducing our understanding of God as revealed in Jesus actually help us appreciate the enormity of God. I appreciate that has little to do with what you were saying to Robert, but it seems important to me.
Tim, sorry but I stopped after your first paragraph. As far as I am concerned, this is a discussion, not a debate. I know I have allowed myself to be dragged into arguments in the past but it doesn’t help anyone.
It might be better if we were only allowed to make one comment each. From now on, I am going to try and discipline myself to do just that! Thanks anyway 🙂
I found this post really inspiring and particularly helpful when thinking about the church’s relationship with communities. The desire to ‘feed’ in response to a recognition of need is something many, or perhaps most, churches would identify with. But finding a way to respond, being truly loving to our neighbours, as Jesus commands us to, is not always straightforward and money isn’t necessarily the answer. The recognition that God has given us all we need, all of us, and that sharing our own God given resources – whether physical or spiritual- would be ‘food’ enough and to spare, shifts the work and responsibility of the church. Our task is
now to enable people to discover resources within themselves, God given resources, and in discovering and sharing them, to find their place in community, and perhaps even more than that, their place in life. What could be more worth celebrating. After all jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full”
Thank you Julie not just for the excellent content of this post but for taking us back to the actual article.
Thank you, Julie. That makes perfect sense to me! I still need the creeds, doctrines and religious practices though, because if Jesus was just a nice guy from Nazareth, then he really doesn’t care any more. He is dead and gone. Why would we follow a dead man? It only leads to the grave. We are heading there anyway, so we might as well take it easy along the way. Life is hard enough, why burden ourselves with other people’s problems?
(I am trying to see things from the perspective of the unbeliever. It all seems futile if there is no living Lord to answer to.) A church without creeds and doctrines has no appeal to me.
Long-winded arguments are very tiresome and off-putting. We should be able to express an opinion without being interrogated and criticised by those who think they know a better way. We are all followers of Jesus, and if the Holy Spirit is giving us different messages then it is because he has different roles for us within the church, some to look after the spiritual side of things and some to work in the community. There is room for all in a loving and inclusive church.
Thank you RNP and sincere apologies. I must plead guilty to being long-winded and tiresome. I guess I am also guilty of interrogation and criticism, although in my defence I see it as trying to understand other people’s position and to suggest there may be other points of view. However, in my own head at least, I do not think I am trying to suppress the opinion’s of others, still less that I think I know a better way – I believe I am doing the reverse, seeking to allow different opinions to be heard and understood. That being said I know there is an argumentative part to my own thought process so it should be no surprise if others are hearing me to be shutting down options or that I think I know better.
In short I completely with you when you say “There is room for all in a loving and inclusive church”.
Sorry I should proof read before pressing ‘post’! Obviously I meant ‘opinions’ not ‘options’ in the penultimate sentence of this post.
I should think we are all perfectly capable of reading the different viewpoints and reflecting on them for ourselves. We don’t need to be given the third degree or be beaten into submission by the little gang of three who think they own this site. Sometimes, in spiritual guidance, less is definitely more.
Having said that, apology accepted. Thank you.
Thanks for this Paul. My experience of engaging with the Methodist New Places for New People movement is that it has forced us to slow down, listen to, and participate in, rather than charging in with a churchy quick fix. Harder, but feels more likely to be genuinely transformative in the longer term.
Thanks everyone for your comments on my piece. I value the space that Theology Everywhere gives me to explore my faith, so in the same spirit I welcome the range of comments.
Some of you clearly found my thoughts chimed with your own, some of you didn’t, and some of you seem to see ideas that I had not intended. I can’t help but wonder if Eularia has had a similar experience as the artist!
Just to clarify I had no intention of reducing Jesus to only a community worker, or to negate the role of the Church, actually quite the opposite.
But I must plead guilty and proud to being a do-gooder, but I usually use the term community worker!
Thank you for clarifying, Paul.
I am also a voluntary worker, as I think most Christians are these days, traditionalists as well as progressives. I do it not for personal satisfaction though, but because I feel it is my Christian duty. I have to be honest and say that I would rather spend all my spare time listening to music, or walking, or dancing, or gardening. I am no saint! But I do have compassion for those who need support, and I feel that service as well as worship are part and parcel of the Christian way of life. I just enjoy the worship more, that’s all 🙂