The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (And all the people who heard this, including the tax-collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) ‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.”
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’
Many church officers will know the feeling that ‘You can’t win!’ The congregation ask for young people to be brought into the church. So we set up a messy church, and it makes a mess; or a cafe church, and people behave like gluttons (and perhaps even drunkards). The congregation says ‘we must reach out into the community’, and we create a church full of tax-collectors and sinners. And the poor church officers get it in the neck. It is reassuring to know that Jesus himself knew the feeling.
Apparently, even John the Baptist had his doubts about the way things were going. Perhaps he expected more young people or families or ‘members of the community’ to be joining the Jesus movement. But Jesus’s own criteria for success are different. He is not in the business of counting his followers. He instead rejoices each time the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. John, says Jesus, preached about all this. At one level John knew that these were the fruits of God’s Spirit, the true signs of God’s presence. But at another level he was prophesying something the true enormity of which even John himself did not really grasp.
I wonder if the same is true in today’s United Reformed Church. If we really believed Jesus’s definition of ‘success’ for the Church, would we not make Church Related Community Ministry our primary ministry, and remove from our Yearbook the obsessive counting of members, children, ministers and churches? People may come to us asking about these things, but we have a message and point to a Kingdom which are more radical – and bigger – than our questioners and even we ourselves seem to realise.
Every time I hear that someone is healed, may I rejoice.
Every time I hear of new life coming to an individual, a family, a community which seemed to have died, may I rejoice.
Every time I worry about the church’s falling numbers, declining income or failing structures, remind me of the signs of the Kingdom which you showed to John, and may I rejoice. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.