by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
Among the many occasions that have caused me to feel immense gratitude for being a part of St. John the Divine, none has made me more appreciative than the Friends and Neighbors Service we hosted early this spring on the evening of March 26th. The goal of that gathering was to offer a simple, warm-spirited “taste and see” worship experience for invited guests and to share a meal and fellowship afterward. I could not have been prouder of SJD. Over 300 people attended, including at least 100 non-member friends and neighbors of parishioners.
That event was a great encouragement. It was also a compelling reminder that the church’s missionary calling into the world begins at the most local level: with our friends and neighbors. While I am always impressed by those who come to SJD through their own independent initiative, the primary way people come into the church is through an introduction from believers they already know. I am convinced this is as true today as it was in the early New Testament churches.
St. John the Divine is an unusually warm and welcoming Episcopal parish among those I have known. What if God wants us to utilize this special charism of our congregation to further the Kingdom? In response to that question, we are developing opportunities to help SJD strengthen our invitational culture. As I have shared before, I am thankful that in the ongoing development of a renewed vision for St. John the Divine (“SJD 2030”), parish leaders have articulated a goal of equipping our members to understand “common encounters” with others as the primary arena of Christian mission.
If we want a friend or neighbor who does not attend church to start coming to SJD, how do we encourage that? The answer depends on our real goal. Our primary desire should be for our friend or neighbor to develop a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, regardless of where he or she decides to go to church. Our influence with the friend or neighbor will most likely be due to the character of our personal lives and relationships more than the corporate attractiveness of SJD’s programs, staff, or campus.
I have recently been reading through the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Zechariah is one of the “minor prophets” of the Old Testament, but he is a major influence in the gospels. His book is written after the Babylonian exile and dates to 520BC onward. It is a time when the returning Jewish exiles are reintegrating with those who had remained in the land. These are the years when the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians is being rebuilt and Israel’s religious life is being restored. Despite the end of exile, there were many reasons for discouragement and an ongoing need for repentance. Chapter eight is a beautiful and instructive section of the Book of Zechariah. It is the word of the Lord that comes to the prophet revealing a vision of coming blessing for Zion. What will characterize the people of God when the Lord restores them in full? I count five aspects:
The very end of the chapter offers one of my favorite Scriptural images. The Lord describes the vision of an unnamed Jew making his way to Jerusalem for a festival. The character of his life is apparently so bristling with divine energy, so different and compelling, that “ten men from the nations of every tongue take hold” of the Jew’s robe, asking him: “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23).What a beautiful vision! As we make our pilgrimage into the years ahead at SJD, may the character of our lives be so bristling with the abundant life of Jesus that friends and neighbors will be compelled to “take hold of our robe” and follow us to the source, the place, and people where God is known and worshipped.
"If God supplies you with some gift, beg him that he might teach you how this gift can help you progress in humility… Or else beg him to remove the gift from you so that it might not become the cause of your downfall." —Isaac of Nineveh, 7th century bishop and theologian
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller (Zondervan, 2015 edition)
I recently mentioned this devotional book in a sermon. Keller was born to Christian missionary parents in Kenya and grew up around native sheep herders of East Africa. Later as a young man, he made his living as a sheep owner and rancher during which time his wife also died from illness. Originally published in 1970, this beautiful book on Psalm 23 is something of a 20th century classic in Christian devotional writing. Few, if any, resources I have read on this most beloved psalm have been as helpful unpacking its manifold riches.