Where will genuine renewal of church and society come from? This contribution to our church blog written by Mark Ashcroft, Bishop of Bolton, presents a thoughtful challenge.
Isaiah 61 has always and continues to shape my understanding of Christian ministry and mission. It was the passage that Jesus quoted and used in his famous sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4 – a passage that summed up his ministry but was controversial on the day, as some of the crowd tried to throw him off the top of a cliff!
In it, God’s servant is sent to bring good news to the oppressed; to the poor. All the people listed by Isaiah here in verses 2 and 3 are people affected by exile, the poor, the broken hearted, the captive, the prisoner – people on the margins of society, people feeling their way back into a new community trying to make it home. Our ministry is good news because it’s not just for the “in” crowd but those on the fringe, not just for those who are sorted and have got it together, but for the unsorted and those falling apart.
But the way that Isaiah develops this thought is truly remarkable. For in the next verses, Isaiah indicates that God’s transforming grace will work in the lives of these people, giving them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, until, verse 3b, they become and are called “oaks of righteousness the planting of the Lord to display his glory”. In other words, an encounter with the living God restores hope and dignity and humanity to people who once were oppressed and broken.
But there is more, for Isaiah goes on to say, “They shall build up the ancient ruins they shall raise up the former devastations they shall repair the ruined cities” Who are these “they”? It is the poor, the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives who are the very ones that God will use to rebuild (literally in Isaiah’s case) the broken community in which they live. This is a warning against creating dependency in church culture. Yes there are broken people out there that God longs to heal but we should never allow church to be simply a place where “my needs” are ministered to, however gratifying that may at first appear to ministers themselves. Nor indeed must we fall into the trap of seeking to do all the ministry ourselves. No, in Isaiah 61 there is a clear progression from poverty and brokenness to being oaks of righteousness who then rebuild the ancient ruins. Our role as priests is to empower all people, especially those on the margins to exercise their God given gifts and ministry and change the world.
In fact, I am increasingly convinced from Isaiah 61 that in all the talk of Renewal and Reform in the church, that it is the poor and the marginalised who will be the agents of any genuine renewal of the church and society under God. To God be the glory!
We’d welcome comments and thoughts on Bishop Ashcroft’s post. Do you agree – or not? If you do what does this mean in practical terms for the church of today? … Why not contribute thoughts below.