Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Gathering and Scattering

The word gather is often used to describe a particular kind of assembly in the Bible. Many times the New Testament talks of the crowds who followed Jesus. However, from His own lips, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing!” Matt 23.37. The heart of Jesus towards the nation of Israel is expressed most fully in this lament. God has repeatedly sent them prophets, who they have rejected and killed. Imagine that. God is reaching out to them and they kill His messengers! His intension is to gather them. The image is of a mother hen and her chicks. It is an image of care and protection; the place where they can be fed and led.

The problem however is not His end – it is the very people His heart goes out to that are not willing. They simply won’t co-operate. And here we come to the crux of any relationship involving the leader and the led. There must be an “I want to” from both sides. The leader must desire to care and protect, like a hen would her chicks. This is a decidedly female image Jesus applies to himself. One that Paul picks up on when he writes to the Thessalonians, “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” 1Thess 2.7-8. Here we see the heart of Godly leaders. They don’t just give a message, they give themselves. But it must be reciprocated. There must be willingness on the part of God’s people.

Jesus expressed this desire to gather people earlier in Matthew 9.36 after a successful tour of ministry. The scripture records that, “But when He saw the multitudes He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary (harassed) and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd”. Notice two things: first there was a multitude, a crowd, a group of people together following Jesus, but not a ‘gathering’ in the special sense that He gives this word. In fact He uses the opposite word. They were harassed and ‘scattered’. I’ll return to this thought later, but for now consider this; either we are willing to let ourselves be ‘gathered’ where we are led, fed and protected, or we will be scattered by the enemy, harassed and ultimately experience our community life as a ‘desolate house’, Matt 23.38.

The second thing I notice from this text is that Jesus connects the scattering and harassment with a lack of leadership – there is no shepherd. In a sense this is ironic, because He is the Good Shepherd. He is present. He is with them, healing, preaching and teaching. Surely He is gathering them? But He can only do so much. The need is great. So Jesus goes on to say, “The harvest truly is plentiful but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His harvest”, Matt 9.37-38. The problem is not with the harvest or with the Lord of the Harvest. It is with the labourers. There aren’t enough. But God has not stopped sending His servants. And we need to pray – to ask, that He will send more!

The Greek word for send here is ek-balo from ek, meaning ‘out of’ and balo meaning ‘to throw’. It is used to describe what took place when Jesus cast out demons. They were literally ‘sent out’ or ‘thrust out’. It is a forceful word. Given the hostility that many of God’s servants experienced it’s no wonder that some hold back. They may need a push from the Lord of the Harvest! In Matt 10.1 Jesus answers that prayer by sending out the twelve to do exactly what He has done in Matt 9.35, heal, preach and teach. They may not have felt ready – but He sent them any way. In order for people to be gathered there have to be those who know how to do this; those who carry the heart of Jesus and Paul; the heart of a nursing (breast-feeding) mother or hen with her chicks. This is a very tender motif used in the scripture and runs counter to much of the teaching on leadership today with its focus on vision, strategy and goals. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that stuff. I’m just saying that that is not what gathers people.

People are drawn to a shepherd heart; a heart that truly cares; a heart that takes time to teach and pray and impart life. Gathering is more than coming together as a crowd. It is acknowledging our connectedness to God through His son Jesus Christ and to one another. It is the ultimate recognition of true community – real Koinonia. This is what Jesus was getting at when He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, I am there in the midst of them”, Matt 18.20. It’s not simply a gathering but a gathering in His Name – and that makes all the difference. We acknowledge His authority in the midst of the church. He is present. The agreement Jesus speaks of in verse 19 comes out of a reverence for His presence. Binding and loosing is a term that refers to the very real authority given to the church, because He is the Lord of the church. He is present to those truly gathered; those who have said yes in their hearts to Him.

I believe God maintains a disposition of desiring to gather what has been scattered. In Matt 23.37 Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your children together...” It was not just once He tried. It was often. The desire was constant, despite their hardness of heart. And all He can do is leave them to their choice – desolation. However, He also gives them hope and a promise in verse 39, “...you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!’” This is a direct quote from Ps 118.26. It’s a Psalm known and acknowledged by the Rabbi’s of the day as a clear reference to the Messiah. Notice how they (the Jewish people) will need to come both to a change of heart and a change of confession – for one reveals the other. When that happens, Jesus will return!

This issue of gathering or scattering is crucial. Jesus gave no ground for neutrality on the subject. He boldly declared, “He who is not with Me is against Me and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad”, Matt 12.30. We are either working with God to gather people and shape community or we are scattering and working against Jesus. There simply is no middle ground. The famous 1924 400 metre Olympic winner Eric Liddell later became a missionary to China. He said, “We are all missionaries. Wherever we go, we either bring people nearer to Christ, or we repel them from Christ”. We are either gathering or scattering. Jesus warned His disciples that the Shepherd would be struck and sheep scattered, Matt 26.31. This is always the enemy’s strategy. By attacking leaders he scatters the sheep and then they are easy prey for him.

In Numbers 10.35-36 we have two very interesting invocations used by Israel whenever the Ark moved. As it headed off Moses would say, “Arise O Lord and let your enemies be scattered. And let those who hate You flee before you”. God’s presence in the midst of His people is meant to scatter the enemy – not the other way round. This powerful proclamation was made before any journey, honouring the presence of God in their midst. God had to rise up before they could. But then when it rested Moses would make another proclamation, “Return O Lord to the many thousands in Israel”. Isn’t that strange? I thought God was always with them? For sure He is. But Moses is looking for God’s presence in a particular way. The word gather is not used but it is implied; for there are ‘many thousands in Israel’. I like that. God is looking to gather thousands. And that’s exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost – three thousand to be precise.

At the end of the age there will be a gathering by the angels of two kinds of people – the sons of the wicked one and the sons of the Kingdom, Matt 13.30, 38-40. Notice that gathering precedes separation. Sometimes things need to be left for a season until their true nature is revealed – then they can be gathered. The story of Simon the Sorcerer is recorded for us in Acts 8.9-25. He begins well. There is a response. He is baptised. But in the course of time his heart is revealed. He follows the crowd but he has not allowed himself to be ‘gathered’ in the sense we have been speaking. He has his own agenda; for those who are truly gathered together to Jesus have let go of all agendas. Their heart prayer is, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done...”

But interestingly, once we have allowed ourselves to be gathered, we will indeed be scattered, but not by the enemy. The farmer sows the good seed. He does so by scattering. We see this in Acts 8.1. A persecution arose and the disciples were scattered. But they used this as an opportunity to preach the gospel wherever they went. Out of this the Antioch church was planted, Acts 11.19. Notice this was not done by apostolic initiative but scattered saints who told their stories and a church was birthed. This was where Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem apostles to see what God was up to, for many gentiles were coming to faith. God knows how to gather people if we are bold enough to share our stories with them.

So what does a gathered company of saints look like? What is like to be in the company of such people? How would we experience such a group? Are there any signs we can look for that suggest we are in the midst of a real ‘gathering’. Let me give you my take on the answers to these questions.

1. The first sign is that those who are involved in ministry do so out of an ‘I want to’ attitude. They are not cajoled into doing things. Guilt is not what drives them. They live out of a sense of calling and purpose. Further, they know when a season of service has come to an end and they can let it go or pass it on to others. Their ministry is not what defines them.

2. True ‘gatherings’ are orchestrated by the Holy Spirit and display a remarkable sense of unity, Ps 133. Out of that unity anointing flows and agreement is possible, Matt 18.19. It’s not that there is never disagreement. There was plenty of that in Acts 15. But there is a discerning of what God is doing and a coming into alignment with Him.

3. Real gatherings have a manifest presence of Jesus. It’s what makes any group of believers who have one heart so different from the Rotary Club or the local Pub. These places have atmosphere but we have presence. There’s a huge difference. “There I am in the midst”, Matt 18.20. Just because we are believers getting together doesn’t guarantee His presence. I have been to many meetings that lacked God’s presence. But a gathered group come with a sense of expectation and they know how to honour God’s presence through worship. This leads into my fourth point.

4. Such gatherings carry a sense of celebration. This was the first thing the Father of the Prodigal in Luke 15 wanted to do on the return of his son. Yet the son who lived in the Father’s house would not enter in. He would not attend such a gathering! It exposed his judgemental heart, for in celebration we have to let go of negative attitudes. We cannot maintain an ‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to’, attitude and truly be gathered. We have to let go of that kind of selfish indulgence.

5. Gatherings initiated by Jesus are diverse. In Acts 13.1 we have a list of the men leading the church at Antioch. Only one was born in Israel and grew up in the household of Herod – a wicked King by any standard. Here was an aristocrat now leading a church. Paul was a Roman and a Rabbinical Jew – a Pharisee. Born in Tarsus (Now Southern Turkey) and educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel – the greatest rabbinical teacher of the day. Barnabas on the other hand is a Levite from Cyprus – an island. The other two are from North Africa, one being Black. They were socially, ethnically and educationally very different, but they were drawn together by the Lord to form the first fully integrated Jewish/Gentile church. And it would be this church God would use to touch Europe. It modelled the kind of gathering Jesus wanted – a diverse one where spiritual gifting and calling was placed on a higher value than social, educational or ethnic background were.

6. In Acts 13.2 we see that a gathered church is also a listening and a sending church. They listen to the Holy Spirit who is in the business of gathering others. In order for that to happen some must be sent – and God will often choose the best. But a gathered church can release others to the purpose of God, believing they will continue to grow, as this makes room for others.

7. Finally gatherings as I’ve described them are a place of prayer and healing. Is 56.7-8 says, “....And make them joyful in my house of prayer.....For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”. The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him”. God’s house is a house of prayer – for all nations. It’s diverse. There is celebration. But notice that it is here He gathers the outcasts. It is a place of healing and acceptance. A place where people find identity and place. Finally they belong.

My sense is that 2009 will be a year of gathering and scattering. Both things will go on side by side. Some scatterings will be good – labourers sent into the harvest. Others will be victim to the attack of the enemy. When we see that happening, my prayer is that we will step in. We will demonstrate through our new covenant community what it means to be truly gathered and partnering with Jesus in His gathering of a wonderful harvest. Take time to reflect on this list. It is not exhaustive. But it is a small portrait of what I believe will take us closer to a model of church Jesus wants to build in these times.