It was just a couple of days earlier that I had been exploring with one of our NWBA churches, the Gospel story of Jesus and the hungry crowd. But as I now sat in Hyde Park, with our late Queen’s funeral being broadcasted to any ever-growing throng – it struck me that I was becoming involved in a 21st manifestation of that great picnic. There was an unusual reverence amongst the crowd as the service began and the words of Jesus unequivocally and unashamedly boomed from the speakers ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’ – ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ – reinforced by a clear and relevant message from the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was also sheer normality as runaway toddlers and the slamming doors of Portaloos continually interrupted the silence.
I have no doubt that the thousands who filled that park were impacted by the service they witnessed, with many millions through watching in their homes. But where do they take their experience now – who will help them make sense of their spiritual and emotional reaction to this event? And even though our views on the monarchy, the Church of England and many other aspects of the event will be broad and varied – it is hard to deny the words of Jesus ‘If I am lifted up – I will draw all people to me’.
And so I found myself returning to the story of the 5000 and asking ‘what was the role of the disciples?’ and ‘How might this inform our role as churches and Christian believers in own contexts?’ And I was struck by the fact that their role was quite mundane. How often do we find ourselves trying trying so hard to deliver our own version of the ‘big screens in Hyde Park?’ – pull the crowds, proclaim our message by ever more inventive means? Yet I would respectfully suggest that if every local church in our Baptist Union successfully pooled our every last resource, we could never create an event that could so equivocally proclaim the message of Jesus as the funeral of our late Monarch. But where do people go now? – that is a question which just might inspire, inform and challenge us.
As a North-Western Baptist community, we have sought to draw our inspiration for 2022 from the simple invitation to Hold the Light. As an engineer or simply as a child helping my dad with jobs around the house, it was a phrase I often heard in the most ordinary of circumstances. Perhaps when working in a dark and dingy corner, or needing to better see a particularly intricate piece of wiring, success simply required that I held the torch so that another could more clearly see what was in front of them. Not the most spectacular of tasks perhaps, but one that was utterly vital – it was simply to enable others better do what they needed to do for themselves. And perhaps we can recognise a similar role emerging for those early leaders within the Jesus community, as they helped a huge gathering of people engage with what God was doing and saying in the moment.
Three things particularly strike me about the disciples’ role:
They were challenged to see the potential of those beyond themselves: We understand from Luke it was a boy’s lunch that provided the menu – and as I am often keen to point out, Jesus seemed content to stick with that, not impose any superior preferences. Do we sometimes reduce God’s mission to seeking to convince people that we have all the answers, God can help them conform to our expectations, rather than considering how God might use the people they are, the experiences they bring, and the resources they already hold in their hands?
They were told to organise the people into manageable groups: It was here that I really saw the potential and calling of an Association of churches like our own. We could easily re-describe those ‘groups of 50’ as being like a network of 150 or so local congregations and mission initiatives. I sense that our task in the particular events I describe is not to stand on a soap box at Hyde Park corner declaring our own version of that message, but to create the spaces where people can share their stories, experiences and questions in a manageable and meaningful way -creating those manageable groups through which people can share in God’s generous story.
They were instructed to pick up the leftovers: This might feel like the most mundane part of the task, yet I would argue it is vital. We have faced a worldwide pandemic; we are in the midst of what is being called a ‘cost of living crisis’ – exacerbated by an immoral war in Europe; we have lost a monarch who has been the backdrop for the whole conscious life of anyone under the age of 75; we might well describe ourselves as very much in ‘leftover territory’ as a nation and a world. ‘What just happened?’ – ‘What now?’ – ‘Where do we go from here?’ are the kind of questions that I suspect many people will be asking right now. And I would respectfully suggest that our role as local churches is to pick that up, not by offering pre-determined answers but creating the space for people to process the mess; to provide the baskets for people to deal with their unfinished leftovers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we engage with digital media recently, and just hours after the event, I began to get texts and messages telling me that some of my comments on the day were being broadcast on North-West TV. The back story is a long one, but the simple truth is that I made the cut because the news editor felt I had something of worth to say in the light of these significant events. Perhaps the challenge for us all right now is to make sure that we have an authentic story rather than a spectacular presentation – for I suspect that many people in our neighbourhoods and communities already have a great deal that they need to process and make sense of.