At Mass last Sunday we heard Jesus call his followers a “little flock” (Luke 12:32).
That can be disconcerting. We like to focus on times in history when outwardly the Church has done well, the ethical thinking and legal systems of our culture have been broadly based on Scripture, and people in general responded positively to the proclamation of the Gospel.
But history shows that at other times the Church has indeed been a “little flock”, in spite of the godliness and faith of her children.
This is a hard truth for those who think of the Church primarily in terms of its “institutionality” . . . whether powerful state churches with their great cathedrals and “civic religion”, the new multi-national networks of “mega-churches”, or even the incredibly inspiring scenes of two million young people with Pope Francis at World Youth Day two weeks ago.
A GLOBAL VIEW
In early 1994 I was staying in Rome with a group from Ballarat on the way to London for the consecration of our new bishop, and spent time with an Australian Roman Catholic priest who for some years had worked in Rome. I asked him whether the experience had changed him in any way. He replied that because so many leaders, students and pilgrims from all over the world interact in Rome, he been liberated from his habit of viewing the Church primarily through the eyes of English-speaking western culture (he had been brought up an Anglican).
He also said he had become less alarmed by the apparent decline of the Church in Western European countries and the English speaking world. He had begun to appreciate more deeply that in the ebb and flow of culture and history, at any given time parts of the Church are flourishing, numerically and in terms of cultural influence, while at least somewhere it is not doing so well. (We see that even in the New Testament.)
THE LITTLENESS OF THE KINGDOM
In fact, Jesus uses different pictures to show us that what looks like the littleness of his “kingdom” - and even its struggle to survive - is never an indication of its ultimate importance. As well as the “little flock”, he talks about the tiny mustard seed that becomes the biggest of the shrubs (Luke 13:19), and the handful of yeast mixed in with 60 pounds of dough (Luke 13:21). These images are as much about waiting with prayerful expectancy and hope as they are about the littleness of the beginning, the hiddenness of God’s work, and the end result of the process.
But it’s not just in the sayings of Jesus. It’s the fact that although there were crowd scenes in his ministry - as there are in ours - mostly what he did was very personal. It was small and unimpressive. It was seen mostly in his one to one ministry with people - especially those on the margins of society - the outcasts, those with no-one to love them, those who had lost hope, the wounded, the sick, the desperate. He touched them with his love as he drew them into that “little flock” around himself - the community of faith and love that has never been completely wiped out even in those places where it has suffered persecution, violence and bloodshed.
Jesus is trying to encourage people like us who, when the pressure is really on, wonder if all our work and witness actually achieve anything. Perhaps he was looking through the tunnel of time to the bloodbath of martyrdom, not just in the early Church, but also during this last hundred years. Perhaps he could see the wiping out of large Christian communities in Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa by militant Islam. Perhaps he could even see cultures like our own, historically built on Gospel values, but in which the Church eventually loses out to the forces of secularism and relativism.
DAVID WILKERSON & GEORGE BOWEN
One of the great Christian leaders of our time was David Wilkerson who started out as a country preacher. Back in the 1960s, he went to New York in order to live among young people whose lives had been torn apart by drugs and violence, and reach out to them with the Gospel. Many were converted through his ministry, and he founded Teen Challenge. He loved to see great crowds come out to worship the Lord and listen to the Gospel being preached (and he certainly drew the crowds!), but the thing about Wilkerson was that - like Jesus - he understood that loving Gospel ministry happens one to one, and regardless of how faithful the evangelist is, results might be a long time coming. He knew that in every ministry there are seasons for sowing, seasons for patiently waiting in travailing prayer, and then seasons of harvest.
Towards the end of his life Wilkerson preached an amazing sermon at a pastors’ conference on the text: “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God” (Isaiah 49:4). He spoke of the frustration in the hearts of many who look back over decades of faithful ministry that seem to have produced so few results. He referred to the tears Jesus wept over the unresponsive city of Jerusalem that “knew not the time of its visitation” (Luke 19:44).
In sharing with typical honesty the anguish he often felt about his own witness to the Lord, Wilkerson told the story of the Methodist George Bowen, who wrote Love Revealed, a book about Jesus in St John’s Gospel. A single man, Bowen had turned from wealth and fame to become a missionary in Bombay, India, in the mid-1800s. When he got there and found the missionaries living well above the poor to whom they ministered, Bowen gave up his mission support and lived among the very poorest in one room of a most humble ramshackle dwelling, sometimes subsisting only on bread and water, supporting himself with a bit of part time work. He shared his life with the people. He shared their burdens and sorrows. Dressed as they dressed, he would preach lovingly and compassionately about Jesus on the streets of that city in sweltering heat, as he gave out evangelistic literature.
Bowen had gone to India full of hope. He’d given everything in obedience to the Lord - his heart, mind, body and spirit. Yet, in over forty years of ministry there, he had not one convert. When he died, however, the missionary societies realised how much the people loved him. Actually, the life he lived for all those years prepared the hearts of many to respond to Jesus. He sowed the seed, others watered, God gave the increase, and eventually a church was even built in his memory. To this day many regard Bowen as one of the truly great missionaries. He simply lived the life of the gospel in the midst of his people.
Those who read Love Revealed will not doubt that that Bowen was generally content with that vocation. Yet David Wilkerson explained that toward the end of his life Bowen went through a period of depression in which he endured a terrible sense of failure. Bowen wrote, “I am the most useless being in the Church. God bruises and crushes me with disappointments. He builds me up, then permits me to fall back to nothing. I would like to sit with Job, and I sympathize with Elijah. My labour has all been in vain.”
Actually, many western Christians in our day, ordained and lay, feel as if we are sitting with Job on his ash heap, or with Elijah in his cave, as we get used to being the Lord’s “little flock,” especially those old enough to have experienced the short lived post World War II boom in churchgoing, and the renewal movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
WORDS OF PROPHECY - 1975
Speaking of the renewal movements, it is interesting to reflect on one of the most significant and widely reported gatherings of the Charismatic renewal - the Mass celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on Whit Monday, 19th May, 1975, which concluded an historic international conference. Cardinal Suenens of Belgium had been given special permission by Pope Paul VI to celebrate at the high altar of St Peter’s. He was assisted by 12 Bishops and about 700 priests. The Basilica was packed with the thousands who had gathered from around the world. It is very significant that among the prophecies given to the congregation toward the end of the Mass were these:
“Because I love you, I want to show you what I am doing in the world today. I want to prepare you for what is to come. Days of darkness are coming on the world, days of tribulation . . . Buildings that are now standing will not be standing. Supports that are there for my people now will not be there. I want you to be prepared, my people, to know only me and to cleave to me and to have me in a way deeper than ever before. I will lead you into the desert . . . I will strip you of everything that you are depending on now, so you depend just on me. A time of darkness is coming on the world, but a time of glory is coming for my church, a time of glory is coming for my people. I will pour out on you all the gifts of my spirit. I will prepare you for spiritual combat; I will prepare you for a time of evangelism that the world has never seen . . . And when you have nothing but me, you will have everything: land, fields, homes, and brothers and sisters and love and joy and peace more than ever before. Be ready, my people, I want to prepare you . . .”
“I speak to you of the dawn of a ‘new age’ for my church. I speak to you of a day that has not been seen before . . . Prepare yourselves for the action that I begin now, because things that you see around you will change; the combat that you must enter now is different; it is new. You need wisdom from me that you do not yet have. You need the power of my Holy Spirit in a way that you have not possessed it; you need an understanding of my will and of the ways that I work that you do not yet have. Open your eyes, open your hearts to prepare yourselves for me and for the day that I have now begun. My church will be different; my people will be different; difficulties and trials will come upon you. The comfort that you know now will be far from you, but the comfort that you will have is the comfort of my Holy Spirit. They will send for you, to take your life, but I will support you. Come to me. Band yourselves together, around me. Prepare, for I proclaim a new day, a day of victory and of triumph for your God. Behold, it is begun.”
“. . . I will renew my church. I will renew my people. I will make my people one. I am calling you to turn away from the pleasures of the world. I am calling you to turn away from the desires of the world. I am calling you to turn away from seeking the approval of the world in your lives. I want to transform your lives . . . I have a word for my church. I am sounding my call. I am forming a mighty army . . . My power is upon them. They will follow my chosen shepherd(s) . . . Be the shepherds I have called you to be . . . I am renewing my people. I will renew my church. I will free the world.” See HERE
St BERNADETTE OF LOURDES
Periodically the Lord reminds his people that we are the “little flock” and that we are to be faithful to our calling whatever the cost, whether or not we are popular, and whether or not there seem to be any positive results to our attempts at reaching out in love. Remember the desert fathers and mothers; remember the great mystics and spiritual directors raised up by the Lord over two thousand years; remember the messages Our Lady has given in the various places of her appearing. Indeed, I just love the prayer ascribed to St Bernadette of Lourdes (1844-1879), who suffered so much, including at the hands of fellow Christians:
O my God, I beseech you, by your loneliness, not that you should spare me affliction, but that you not abandon me in it. When I encounter affliction, teach me to see you in it as my sole Comforter. May affliction strengthen my faith, fortify my hope, and purify my love. Grant me the grace to see your hand in my affliction, and to desire no other comforter but you.
It is salutary when on pilgrimage to Lourdes and seeing the huge crowds joyfully praising God and reaching out for blessing and healing, to contemplate the anguish and pain this young woman prayerfully endured, which was such an important building bock of the subsequent ministry of that holy place. We shouldn’t be surprised, for in her various apparitions Our Lady generally speaks of redemptive suffering as well as the joy of the Gospel. She, herself, had stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, sharing his suffering and pain in fulfilment of old Simeon’s prophecy “a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). We, as the “little flock” often find ourselves huddled at the foot of that Cross with Mary, as St Paul describes the experience “sharing koinonia in the sufferings of Jesus” (Philippians 3:10), sometimes for our sake, but always in intercession for a wayward world.
WORDS OF PROPHECY - 1969
The quotes I have given you from St Peter’s Basilica on 19th May, 1975 are not the only indication of the darkness for which God had begun to prepare his people. I believe that back in 1969 a young theologian, Josef Ratzinger spoke a truly anointed prophetic word when during a radio talk he predicted the coming crisis and the renewal of the “Little Flock”:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true centre and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.
The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritual and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. Her real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death (Benedict (2009), Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), pp. 114-115)
THE ANGLICAN PROBLEM
Thank the Lord for the continuing influence of the Church. Indeed, the paradox is that while so many local parishes struggle to survive in western Europe and places like Australia and New Zealand, the crowds attending cathedrals and flocking to places of pilgrimage have never been bigger. It would be foolish to deliberately collapse the mission in places where the old paradigm of the parish church and school is still “light” and “salt” in its local community. But we need to nurture the “new movements”, “fresh expressions”, “new monasticism” and other ancient and modern ways of being the Church, to embrace the vision articulated by Ratzinger, and be more open to the Lord, the real builder of the Church (Matthew 16:18).
It grieves me, however, that so many Anglican leaders - including some of my friends! - are losing their nerve as they manage numerical decline. It’s not just that in order to prop up “the system” they embrace a flawed and bureaucratised managerialism. It’s also that they have been frightened into making any stand at all for Gospel values and Catholic truth, lest the culture disapprove. More than anything else, what they fear is unpopularity. They have allowed diocesan and general synods to be turned into magisterial bodies that can endlessly alter the faith of the Church without any reference to the fact that our formularies commit us to the Catholic faith “as this Church has received it.” Reflecting widespread attitudes among the clergy, not just traditionally from the “liberal” centre, but also - unbelievably - many with catholic and evangelical origins, some of them seem intent on recasting the distinctively Christian revelation.
WHAT JESUS SAID
Jesus, on the other hand said that the community of faith and love gathered around him was not to fear, even when it seems such a “little flock”, for the Father has given us the kingdom. We are to become more loving as Christian fellowships in which we are accountable to each other. We are to worship, learn and serve. We are to love as Jesus loves. We are to reach out to others. And we are lovingly to stand firm, whatever the cost. Ours is the Church of martyrs, ours is the Church of whom Jesus said,
“This I command you, to love one another.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me . . .
“I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them.” (John 15:17 - 16:4).
In many parts of the world, the Church is doing really well. People attend Mass in their tens of thousands. The gospel is preached and the people live their faith. It is no exaggeration to say that in Africa and Asia the numerical and spiritual growth of the Church has been explosive. Praise God.
But in other parts of the world, although we dream of that kind of response to the Gospel, it is really hard work, and we are such a “little flock.” It is for us to allow the Holy Spirit to do whatever work within and amongst us that he wills during this time, even as we continue to dream of great harvests. And while we do that, we remember the faithfulness of those who like George Bowen sowed seeds that grew only after he had died, with the prophetic words of Josef Ratzinger and that Whit-Monday Mass in Rome ringing in our ears. As orthodox Anglicans we might even feel as if we are “a little flock within a little flock”! . . . but we have been promised the Kingdom. And we live in the Kingdom, which is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17); the Lord “works with us” confirming the preached word “with signs following” (Mark 16:20). We are those who even in this world have “tasted of the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4), who in the Mass are swept into the glory of the heavenly worship with Jesus our great high priest who gave his life for the world and who ever lives to intercede for us (and with us).
Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock.” Later in that passage he tells us to be ready for his coming, like servants who patiently wait through the night for their master’s return. Do you remember how it was in the night, that the Lord came to free his people in the Exodus (Wisdom 18:6)? Do you remember how it was in the night that Jesus rose from the tomb? Do you remember the prophecy that it is in the night, when things are as bad as they can get, when “deep darkness” covers the people, that the Lord will arise upon them and reveal his glory (Isaiah 60:1-2)?