There Is No Plan B

Thrailkill

Thrailkill

By Phillip C. Thrailkill –

When Jesus ascended to heaven after his mission on earth, the angels asked him, “Did you accomplish your task?”

“Yes. All is finished.”

“We have a second question,” said the angels. “Has the whole world heard of you?”

“No,” he said, “not yet.”

“Then what is your plan?”

Jesus said, “I have left 12 men and some other followers to carry the message to the whole world.”

The angels looked at one another, down onto the earth, then back at him. “What is your Plan B?”

Friends, there is no Plan B. The church as a community of worship and witness, the church in all its various local manifestations is the God-ordained means for drawing people to Jesus Christ and into the force field of the kingdom of God.

We are a missions outpost and a training center where a divine transformation process takes people as we find them and by the alchemy of God’s grace transforms them into credible witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ. We are not a waiting room for heaven; we are not a religious club; we are not the last bastion of decency and values; we are not the society for the preservation of the way things used to be; we are not a memorial club for a dead hero; we are not a place to hide from the big, bad world – we are agents of a foreign government bent on winning this rebellious world back to its rightful ruler. We are agents of the kingdom of God, dropped behind enemy lines to announce, “The king is coming. Jesus is this world’s rightful ruler. Are you ready to receive King Jesus?” There is no Plan B. Jesus Christ has puts all his eggs in one basket, and the label on that basket is church.

Which leads me to a series of arresting questions. If not us, then who? If not here, then where? If not now, then when? I want us to feel that burden as it settles down on our collective shoulders. The church has a God-given mandate to be a living witness to the love and power of Jesus Christ. Christians are people with a purpose. They live under the reign of the risen, ascended and exalted Lord for the sake of his mission in this world starting at the church’s front door. Someone has said that the church is the only institution in the world that exists for those who are not its members.

If you see the church primarily as a religious institution, then you will relate to it as you do to other institutions, perhaps with benign respect – glad it’s there when needed – or perhaps with cynicism and scorn because it’s not perfect.

If you see the church as a voluntary organization, then you will relate to it as you do other voluntary organizations. You’ll offer it a little time, pay some dues and perform polite committee work, all to show your good civic spirit.

Original artwork by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com).

Original artwork by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com).

But if – like Jesus and the apostles – you see the church as a missionary society at worship, receiving directions from its heavenly commander for another week of operations in the field where both the victories and the casualties are frighteningly real, then you can no longer be casual or flippant about what the church means in your life. It is God’s pipeline of life to the world.

To be part of the mission, every person should answer two questions:

1. What spiritual gifts has God given me for the sake of the mission?

2. How am I presently using them for the glory of God?

If you can’t answer those two questions, if you don’t know your spiritual gifts, or if you have identified your gifts but are not using them, you are not part of the army – you are merely a member of the audience. And don’t mistake your pastor for the commander. Jesus is the head of his church. Your pastor is the training and logistics officer assigned to a specific unit for a few years to help get you in shape. He or she is not here to coddle you, though there may be times when comfort is appropriate. Pastors are not religious hired hands, though they aim at excellence in all their duties. They are not here to make you happy, though along the way there will be times of deep joy. Your pastor is not here to solve your problems, but to help you discover the rich resources for problem solving and holy living that lie unused in the Bible and in our rich Christian tradition. Pastors are not here to stroke you, though they love the ministry of spiritual encouragement. Your pastor’s name is not Rev. Helicopter Honeysuckle; he or she is not here to hover over your life and spread sweetness. Your pastor is here to train you and lead you deeply into the continuing mission of Jesus Christ.

A BRIEF LOOK BACK 

John Howard Griffin was a white man born in Dallas, Texas, in 1920 who believed he could never really know what it was like to be an African-American unless he became one. So in 1959, with the help of a dermatologist, he used various drugs, sun lamp treatments and skin creams to darken his skin. Shaving his head to hide his straight hair, for several weeks Griffin traveled throughout the South by bus and hitchhiking. The book he wrote about his experiences – Black Like Me – became a best seller and helped whites better understand the myriad inconveniences and the hatred faced daily by people of color. Griffin took a risk. He laid aside privilege and assumed the life of a person who was subjected to humiliating discrimination on a daily basis.

And that is what God the Son did. He came down and looked at life through the eyes of a Galilean Jewish working man named Jesus of Nazareth. God knows by experience all the indignities of being human in a fallen world, even to being strung up naked as a political criminal. Before the incarnation, the Son – the second member of the Trinity – existed from eternity in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And since his resurrection, ascension and taking his seat at the Father’s right hand, Jesus has been restored to the glory the Son had before the Holy Spirit planted his being in Mary’s virginal womb.

WHAT IT MEANS TODAY

So what is Jesus doing now? Plenty! According to Scripture, he is praying for his church, directing angels, ruling over the cosmos, bringing all powers under his rule, receiving the prayers and praises of the angels and saints and the church on earth and welcoming home those who have died in the Lord. He is pouring out his Spirit on the church across the globe; judging and correcting the church; and calling his people to pray, study the Scriptures and get ready for a great harvest.

Oh, and one more thing. He’s looking forward to coming back and welcoming his bride – the church – to the great wedding banquet. The life of Jesus within time is but one segment of the career of the Son of God, and if you do not include what came before, what came after and what is yet to come, then you will misread the big picture of what God is doing.

History is not meaningless; it’s headed somewhere, and Christians know where that is, even if they don’t know the when or the how long. History is headed toward a collision with a Holy God who wil1 vindicate his Son Jesus before every human being who ever lived. All history is being bent by God’s providence toward the vindication of Jesus Christ. Every knee will bow – some by choice, others by force – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). Our privilege as his church is to announce his lordship ahead of time.

Luke summarizes the three-year period of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the first three verses of his second volume, Acts. The gospel of Luke chronicles the life of the founder; the book of Acts reports the life of his Spirit in the life of his followers. Such an arrangement was common in the ancient world. First the writer would tell the story of the founder of a philosophical school, and then in the second volume tell the story of his followers. The author would begin Volume II on a separate papyrus scroll, pausing for a moment in the first paragraph to review what had come before. This is what Luke does in verse 1 of Acts: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven … “

Luke was careful in his language. The action and teaching of Jesus are not over but begun in a new form. Phase I has ended; Phase II now begins in the church. There is essential continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the church. And the doing is as important as the teaching: “all that Jesus began to do and to teach … “

One of the great things happening today is that God is restoring power ministry to the church. Through cooperation with the Holy Spirit and the gifts the Spirit gives, the church is learning once again about the complementary ministries of healing and deliverance, both of which were major components of Jesus’ own ministry. And it is my experience that we can more often act our way into a new way of thinking, a new theology, than the reverse. In other words, we are to take risks of obedience before we fully understand, and when we are obedient, understanding follows.

What Luke has packed into these three opening verses of Acts is amazing:

• Jesus’ words and deeds

• selection of the apostles

• the guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit

• Jesus’ suffering and death

• the 40 days of Jesus’ resurrection appearances

• the teaching of the kingdom

• the ascension of Jesus

Not only was the inner circle instructed before the cross, they enjoyed an extended period of interaction with the risen Lord, who continued to appear and teach them for 40 days. They were completely convinced and fully instructed. They had met with Jesus; they knew his stuff. The deposit of Christian revelation was complete. It would be interpreted and unfolded in the mission, but the deposit was now resident within the church’s data bank. There have been no later, secret revelations. In other words, no Book of Mormon with some guy in New York digging up tablets. Whatever unfolds across the history of the church must be measured against the apostolic faith as found in Jesus, written in the books of the New Testament and summarized in the great creeds. If you are not a student of the Scriptures and the faith, how will you know if the devil is feeding you a line?

We have lots of work to do in our Jerusalems, our own back yards. How many lost people live within five miles of your church? Do you feel any burden or sense of responsibility for them? Just to say that the church is here and the doors are open is not enough. Pastors are not sent to churches to continue the fellowship of the holy huddle. They are sent to help you recover your biblical identity as a mission society at worship. But it can’t be done – it can’t even be started – without our waiting on and welcoming the person of the Holy Spirit back into the church.

I don’t know what that will mean. I don’t know what form the renewal will take. I don’t have a program to make it happen. I have read church history and know some of the things God has done in earlier times to renew and refresh the church. I read that it is happening in other places. But we will have to wait and see what God wants to do. And, in the meantime, it’s OK to ask questions. The disciples did, and that means it’s OK for all of us. When we are honest about our desires, when we quit being nice and religious and get real, we also become remarkably teachable. Jesus didn’t berate the apostles. He simply corrected them and brought them back to the promise of the Spirit. We exist for Spirit-empowered mission, not for idle speculation about the end of the world. Don’t worry about it. It’s a distraction, and besides, Jesus said it’s none of our business.

WORK TO DO

Two spiritual diseases can cripple any church: passivity and nostalgia. I define nostalgia as looking back on the good old days while sitting on our duffs in the here and now. All sorts of diversions, such as speculating about end times, can keep us away from the main thing, which is connecting with the Holy Spirit for the sake of the mission.

What is keeping so many church members locked in a spiritual deep freeze? My hunch is that it has to do with our desire to control things, which puts the squeeze on the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Are you willing for God to move in your life in some new and unexpected way? Are you willing to be immersed in the Holy Spirit, soaked down to the bone, and then flung out into some mission field, be that next door, in your own home, at work, in the city or around the world if God so wills?

The risen, exalted, ascended and ruling Lord has work for us to do, the strength for which comes from the Holy Spirit.

Where is Jesus now? Ascended into heaven, seated at the Father’s right hand, pouring out his Spirit for the sake of the mission. And what are we supposed to do? Whatever it takes to be a loving witness to him.

Phillip C. Thrailkill serves Main Street United Methodist Church in Greenwood, South Carolina. As a United Methodist clergyman for 37 years, he has served in many roles including as the chairman of the board of The Mission Society and currently as the chair of the Theology Commission of the Confessing Movement. This essay is excerpted by permission from Resurrection: A Pastor’s Reading of the Major New Testament Resurrection Passages by Phillip C. Thrailkill (Bristol House).

 

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