Formed for Robust Mission

Formed for Robust Mission

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Bishop Rennis Ponniah is the bishop of the Diocese of Singapore. He is also the Dean of the Cathedral.

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18 November 2016

Formed for Robust Mission

One of the important words in the book of Jeremiah is the word formed. The Prophet is told by God that “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,’ (Jeremiah 1:4). Then in the message the prophet is given at the potter’s house concerning God’s people, Jeremiah observes, “But the pot he (the potter) was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed from it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” (Jeremiah 18:4). The world formed carries with it a strong sense of the purpose and skilful care that the Potter exercises in shaping a vessel that is both useful and beautiful. It harks back to Creation when God formed the first man (Gen 2:7).

I have recently returned from my sabbatical leave. Several of you prayed for my wife and me, and we are most grateful. It certainly was a time of refreshment and replenishment. But it also was a time of formation: of being formed by God in new and sometimes painful ways for the road ahead. I found myself being reshaped and refined by God to lead the Diocese in the next lap of my tenure as your Diocesan Bishop.

What is the distinctive feature of the next lap? I believe the Lord wants me to lead you forward in robust mission. This is the way in which we will experience amazing Kingdom advance. I further believe that God has also been sovereignly and steadily forming the Diocese through its development over the years for such a time as this. The formation is quickening at the present time.

The Church’s Mission to the World

As the people of God, we are called and commissioned to participate in the mission of God. It was Rev Dr J I Packer, author of the classic book, Knowing God, who summarized for me over a lunch meeting what the mission of God entails: “It is nothing less than the redemption and re-creation of the entire fallen created order.”

Bishop Rennis with Dr JI Packer in Vancouver recently.
Bishop Rennis with Dr JI Packer in Vancouver recently.

God has established the foundation for the redemption and re-creation of the world through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Lord Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) in which every person, through faith in Him, can experience the fatherly and saving rule of God in his or her life. The Kingdom of God goes beyond personal relationship with God, to include the restoring of every aspect of human life (family life, work, leisure, socio-political institutions and environmental responsibility) to divine patterns so that God’s justice, compassion and righteousness can be reflected in the here and now of man’s existence.

In this sense, the church’s mission of extending the Kingdom of God in the world (Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 5:3-16) is broader than world evangelization. Our mission must include leading people and people-groups to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and it must go beyond to restore a wayward and unjust world to the ways of the Creator-Redeemer God of the universe. Such a mission is truly tough, but God has been and is forming His Church to meet the challenge to the praise of His glory.

There are three aspects of the robust mission that I want to briefly highlight. They are:

To proclaim the Gospel faithfully
To overcome hostility boldly
To shine God’s light winsomely

1. PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL FAITHFULLY

We need to recover our confidence in the persuasive power of the Gospel. We are to present truth to the mind, “speaking true and rational words” (Acts 19:25 ESV), and trust the Holy Spirit to bring about conviction, faith and a change of heart in the hearer (Acts 19:28-29; Rom 1:16-17).

We are also to convey the Gospel message in its entirety. In particular, we cannot trim the Gospel message of its ethical component. Forgiveness of sin and a new, endless life with God is for all who repent and commit themselves to Jesus as Saviour and Lord (Acts 2:38). Hence, in proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ Jesus, Peter exhorts his hearers to “save (themselves) from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). In the same vein, Paul not only spoke to the Roman governor Felix about faith in Christ Jesus but also “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:24-25).

The Gospel of God’s grace towards humankind in Jesus Christ is an invitation to a changed heart and a changed lifestyle in conformity with God’s design.  This power of transformation is made real to the person who turns to God in repentance and faith by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes real the power of the Cross in our lives so that we can live in conformity with God’s patterns for man – which is to live truly and freely (John 10:10). This is the basis of sound teaching and is reflected for instance in the Joint Statement by Global South and GAFCON Primates on Same Sex Unions (Cairo, 2016). We must robustly contend for the truth out of true love for God and our fellow human being; and at the same time reach out to all who grapple with the brokenness of sin in their lives with the compassionate and life-transforming love of Jesus Christ.

It takes courage to proclaim the victory of the Cross in the face of the resilience of evil and its parasitic spread in the world. If Christ is already on the throne and the Kingdom of God has already come through Him, why are dark forces allowed to dominate in the world and cause so much pain and destruction? 1

The truth from Scripture is that God is sovereign over evil, and even harnesses evil to serve His saving purposes. The crucifixion of Jesus is the most telling case in point. Yes, the Kingdom of God is here but it awaits its consummation when Christ shall return to expunge all evil and bring about a new universe described as the “home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). That is the certainty that enables us to proclaim Jesus as the true King of the universe and to extend His kingdom on earth as the kingdom which knows no end. We look at the contested present from the vantage point of a glorious, consummated End (Rev 4-5). Hence, we press on to proclaim the Gospel is to advance Christ’s kingdom in the midst of the darkness that envelopes the world.

We note from the book of Acts that the best way to proclaim the Gospel is through spiritually vibrant local churches (Acts 2:42:47). The passage indicates that there are four aspects to the life of a congregation that contribute to its spiritual vitality: orderly teaching, genuine fellowship, reverential worship and fervent communal prayer. When these are in place, the outcome is that “the Lord added to their number daily those who are being saved” (Acts 2:47). What an incentive to build strong Spirit-filled churches!

At the present time, it seems to me that the greatest need in the inner life of our parish churches is for the orderly teaching of all ages coupled with intentional discipleship. May God enable us, clergy and lay leaders – including teachers of our youth and children – to take robust action in this area.

2. OVERCOME HOSTILITY BOLDLY

When the Gospel is proclaimed and the Kingdom of God extended, there will be opposition. Christians can be put down by intimidation or derision. In several parts of the world today, Christians face threats, discrimination and physical violence. In other parts, Christians face the subtle pressure of marginalization, sarcasm and ridicule. But onward we must go to bear witness to Jesus the King and to work for the advance of His Kingdom. Suffering for Christ’s sake is normative for faithful Christians.

As Archbishop Ben Kwashi has stated in the face of violent persecution of Christians in Northern Nigeria, “There is no Gospel if all that is seen is destruction. There is no Gospel if man is not reconciled to God and man is not reconciled to man… There is absolutely no room for revenge or retaliation or vengeance in the Gospel.” 2

Rather, Christians are to follow Jesus in the way of the Cross as we participate in the work of redeeming and recreating the world. We do not return evil for evil but are prepared to suffer for doing good (1 Peter 2:18-25).

We need boldness to bear the costs of faithful witness, to overcome the fear of hostility and to enter those mission fields that pose great dangers. Thanks be to God for raising up cross-cultural workers in our Diocese who will take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Several are already serving in our Deanery countries, some have gone to difficult fields in the Middle East and other have found courage to go to remote unreached people groups. Among our clergy, Revd Steven Seah will move to Cambodia and Revd William Mok to Egypt for longer-term misson at the end of this year.

How do we overcome our fears and the threat of hostility? The only way is through the kind of prayer that cries out to God. For such prayer helps us to regain our vision of God and to be filled with courage and power.

Acts 4:23-31 (ESV)

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant,[a] said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

Notice from Acts 4:23-31 how the gathered disciples recognise that the God they worship is the Creator-God of the whole cosmos (v24). His “military might” is seen in His mastery over all creation. He is also the Lord over all history (v23-28). The God they serve is the One who prophesied the attack of the rulers of the world against Him and His Messiah, and how their attack will be fruitless (Psalm 2). Hence, the disciples are confident that the attack on them was also under God’s supreme control. They are led to pray not for the removal of hostile opposition but for boldness in the midst of opposition (v29). The effect of their prayer is that they physically experience God’s powerful presence and experience the filling of the Spirit that enables them to go on proclaiming Jesus, without fear of the hostile authorities.

We, too, need the sense of God’s powerful presence to shake us up and fill us with new power to boldly advance the Kingdom, no matter what the hostility or cost incurred. Such boldness only comes through fervent, concerted prayer.

3. SHINE GOD’S LIGHT WINSOMELY

For effective witness to the Gospel, the Church must engage with the society she is part of. Christians are to shine for Christ in their integrity, their diligence, their love for others, their commitment to the larger good, and the conduct of their everyday lives. More than that, the Church is to be a responsible intermediate organisation contributing institutionally and in small teams to the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).

In this regard, we are very blessed as a Diocese to have the full complement of Anglican educational and community services to augment our witness as a Christian community. Through our pre-schools, schools, community hospital, autism centre, mental rehabilitation work and a whole host of community services, we are in touch with human needs at the grassroots level. Just to capture a sense of scale, more than 20,000 clients receive the care and practical assistance of services provided by Singapore Anglican Community Services and St Andrew’s Mission Hospital each year. This is an important expression of our commitment to care for the poor and those in need. And then think of the large cohorts of students in our nine national schools as well as the vast number of children in our Anglican pre-school institutions. These are lives to be moulded in character for the society’s good and they are lives to be exposed to the Christian worldview. The Church comes alongside the staff in these institutions through our vital School, Hospital and Community Service Chaplaincy services, and through volunteers.

A growing area for our Christian witness is our engagement with issues in the public square. We are committed to guard the moral and ethical gate of our respective nations. So we courageously and responsibly share our Christian values and perspectives on a host of ethical concerns ranging from LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) issues to microbiological research and most recently, to online gambling in Singapore. Not only are we to engage the issues of our day but the Church is also called to give the society an energising vision of a future to aim for 3 – a future that captures the freedom, compassion and righteousness that God intends for all human societies.

As I think about the need for the Church to shine God’s light winsomely in a society, I can see two foundational areas for us to major on if we are to fulfil this calling. The first is the fabric of our family life. We need to recover the practice of family prayer time, to make time and build good relationships with the family, and to strengthen the family as a discipling and witnessing unit for God. The second is marketplace discipleship. Christians will benefit tremendously by being discipled and mentored by exemplary Christian leaders at the place where they work and in the vocations they serve in. God in His grace is already raising up many workplace discipleship groups and fostering periodic larger gatherings like the Daniel Fellowship for those working in the public sector in Singapore. Through fortifying the family and pursuing marketplace discipleship, the quality of Christian witness will shine brightly in each of the seven countries of our Diocese. We will then be able to share winsomely with the rest of society the beauty of holiness... that is, the beauty of living under God’s loving rule and in keeping with God’s patterns for humankind.

GREAT CHALLENGE, GREAT PROVISION

Humankind lost her God-given destiny through her rebellion at the Garden of Eden. But God is not undone. In His great love and the awesome power of redemption in Christ Jesus, He is restoring man and the whole fallen created order to His divine intentions. There is so much pain and destruction in the world, not least because of the darkness in every human heart and the injustice of socio-political institutions. Yet, God is working on re-creating the whole oder of human life. His mission can be seen as the edenization of the world. It is a robust mission and He calls His Church to it.

We face a great challenge. But remember that God has made a great provision for His people to fulfil that mission. In Christ Jesus, He gives the Christian and He gives the Church His powerful Holy Spirit. Let us not be deterred by the difficulty of the task; let us not be disheartened by the thick darkness sweeping over the nations and let us not look to our own resources. Rather, let us be filled afresh and continuously with the Holy Spirit so that together we can proclaim the Gospel faithfully, overcome hostility boldly, and shine God’s light winsomely. Let us come to God, and He will form us and fill us with power for the robust mission that advances His Kingdom and glorifies His great Name.

Your shepherd and fellow witness,

+Rennis

 

 

Footnotes:

1 See Dennis Lennon on Revelation 4-12 in Scripture Union, DAILY NOTES (Oct-Dec 1994).

2 Paper on The Challenge of Mission to the World, Global South 6th Conference, Cairo, October 2016.

3 See Walter Brueggemann, THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, Fortress Press (2nd edition, 2001).