The Life of Devotion

Again, we preach best to ourselves, not that one lives up to all that one aspires, and yet there’s value in reminders of the sorts of things most people already know.

The Life of Devotion

Powerful corporate worship hinges upon vital private worship. Jesus departed from the crowds many a time to pray. Think of it; if Jesus set aside times for prayer, how much more ought we to do the same? No deep life of the Spirit, no empowerment from the Holy Spirit, no effective imitation of Christ is possible without cultivating a meaningful life of devotion. And yet, we find it all too easy to pass it over, looking for something more “relevant” or “practical” to be doing. But nothing is more practical or relevant than spending “useless” time with the Master. Between the busied industry of Martha in serving the Lord and the unhurried desire of Mary to spend time with the Lord, the example of Mary is credited in Luke 10:42 as the better way. We might be impressed at the energy and spiritual vitality of George Fox, as though he were exceptional, but William Penn understood the secret of his empowerment:

Above all, George Fox excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behaviour, and the fewness and fulness of his words have often struck even strangers with admiration as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverend frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was the prayer of George Fox. And truly it was a testimony. He knew and lived nearer to the Lord than other men, for they that know Him most will see most reason to approach Him with reverence and fear.

But how do we enter “excel in prayer,” develop “weight of spirit,” express a “fewness and fullness of words,” and “live near to the Lord” in ways that are life-changing for ourselves and reaching others with consolation? Part of it comes from simply following our desire for God and privileging spiritual hunger and thirst over others. As the Psalmist says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) Then again, any sustained endeavor requires devotion and preparation, yet how do we embrace or celebrate a spiritual discipline without becoming slaves to routines and methods? While each of us has must adopt an approach that fits our lives and demands most effectively, Friends have discovered several principles that may help. These are by no means unique to Friends, but they are indeed part of a long heritage of spiritual formation that deepens any who choose to travel the path. Consider a few guidelines:

1.) Make your walk with Christ the center of your life and the priority of your day. If you were to accord equal weight to the life of the Spirit as you do other ventures of life, how would that affect the order of your day? Do you find time to eat? Do you make time for sleep? Most of us can do so, at least if we have the luxury to choose. And yet, when we consider our spiritual needs, how meager we tend to be in the apportionment of our time and energy toward sustaining and deepening the life of the Spirit! All hunger and desire are shadows of the more basic human desire, which is for relationship with the Divine. Paltry apportionments of time and energy for cultivating the life of the Spirit reflect not an ordering of our lives according to our true needs, but a lack of awareness of our most basic needs, central of which is the spiritual.

If making our walk with Christ were to become the priority of our day, what would that mean for the ways we use our time and the quality of our attentiveness to the life of devotion? It could involve some radical changes if we made it a priority. This foundational step is far more important than selecting a particular plan or a method. As one becomes given to Christ, totally and unreservedly, ways of deepening that relationship tend to emerge as we become mindful of our conditions and what we truly need. As St. Augustine reminds us well in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

2.) Set prime times for prime tasks. Each of us has a unique set of energy rhythms and scheduled demands, and we should plan our lives accordingly. These realities get considered as we sketch out daily schedules and routines, but they also should be taken into consideration regarding spiritual exercises. For instance, if one needs to be able to concentrate on reading the Bible or serious study, the morning hours may be most conducive. On the other hand, if one is reading the Bible for inspiration or memorization, reading the Bible in the evening may be profitable. Likewise, praying at the beginning of the day allows one to forethink and foresee the day, lifting its elements to God; evening times of prayer may be more conducive to personal reflection. So, depending on the nexus of one’s obligations and the rhythms of one’s day, setting prime time for prime tasks, and even changing things up to fit one’s personal rhythms and the day’s elements, works well.

Sometimes ways we structure our approaches are more ordered by the demands of the day. Parts of our schedules over which we have no control may provide their own “windows” into the life of devotion, and these can be approached opportunistically. An extra few minutes at lunch, or a brief time before other routines of the day get going—or after they wind down—all of these become windows into deepening the life of the Spirit. So feel free to adjust and seize upon opportunities as they present themselves. And, settle for small and apparently insignificant advances now and then, as well as larger ones, in seeking to deepen the life of the Spirit. Small pieces of thread do indeed a glorious tapestry weave.

3.) Approach the life of devotion with a sense of adventure! Few things kill a venture like the bondage of obligation. Remember, the goal is not to set up a strategy; the goal is to go deep into the rivers of living water and to become a useful conduit of God’s healing-redeeming work in the world. That’s why the preparation is vital. So explore many ways to get there, not just a few. Be courageous! Bold! Risk failure, especially if you can learn something from it. If (no, when) following a discipline falters, waste no time or energy with discouragement or lament, simply pick up where you left off and tune in again to God’s presence and grace. That’s the real goal, which our devotion aspires to prioritize, and yet it also is rooted in grace—not works.

Let your life become a living experiment in the Way of the Spirit, and then be a steward of your discoveries. This is what is behind the spiritual discipline of keeping a journal. One records one’s hopes, disappointments, discoveries and reflections along the pathways of the spiritual adventure with Christ. One’s learnings then become the stuff of experience to offer others, and in reflecting upon the walk of faith, ideals get ground up and tested in the crucible of everyday realism. This is part of what changes a valued notion to a life-changing conviction.

We also seek to learn from others, and the devotional writings and journals of those who have gone on before us bear testimony to their ventures and the faithfulness of God. We do not travel this path alone! Here we can choose as our partners along the way the great devotional giants of the ages, and their learnings become our own as we read the devotional classics. But nothing speaks with quite as much clarity and authority as the personal testimony of God’s leading and convicting work in our lives. Obviously, the focus must ever be on God and what God is doing, and yet we discover a story to tell in the process. The focus, however, is not ourselves, but on the life of the Spirit into which we are extended the remarkable invitation to be agents of primary research. The laboratory is our lives and the world around us, but the subject being engaged is the transforming love, power, and presence of God.

4.) Read the Bible and steep yourself in the devotional classics. Reading the journals of Fox and Woolman makes it obvious that God’s address through inspired Scripture was absolutely foundational to the spiritual formation of these giants. Likewise with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and so many others! What we find when we read the Bible is that the same Spirit who inspired the writing of the Scriptures also inspires us as we read them. At key junctures of our lives, memorized Bible passages become the source of genuine, divine guidance. And, it is self-obvious that ideals developed through early reading of Scripture, as well a pattern of life developed out of adherence to biblical themes, become the stuff of later direction and conviction. If Woolman and Fox had not steeped themselves early on in the Scriptures, the history of the world would have indeed been different!

So how do we get into the Bible? Many good ways abound, but the most important thing to remember is simply to do it. Read. Whether spending a good deal of time to focus on a narrow passage, or whether reading broadly—getting a sense of a larger unit, the most important thing is to become engaged with the biblical text tself. I like to take a smaller unit, such as a chapter or a few paragraphs a day, and having read it thoughtfully to ask: “What does God want to say to me through this passage today?” Applications always come, and they often form the nuance and direction of spiritual impressions throughout the day.

Another approach is to read an entire book or a larger portion of a book in a single sitting. Time may force this to be a weekly exercise rather than a daily one, but getting the sense of a writer’s larger message and concern is always helpful. You find themes recurring and issues being addressed from more than one angle when you do this. Further, you get a better feel for the particular message of that part of the Bible, and you become sensitized to its distinctive voice within the larger whole. Getting the sense of the larger message of a biblical passage lends one greater interpretive authority than simply appreciating how it speaks to the individual. In the former instance one can say, “the Bible speaks to me…”; in the latter one can say, “the Bible says…”.

Take notes. Read a variety of translations and paraphrases. Learn Greek and Hebrew if you can; George Fox began learning biblical languages in his adulthood in order to get a fuller sense of the meaning of Scripture despite his concerns over the professionalization of theological study. Consider the context in which the original messages developed and were written, and learn as much as you can about ways the human authorship of the texts converged with the divine inspiration behind them. Learn to discern the heart of the biblical message over and above time-bound setting—in order to better apply the principles and patterns to our time-torn lives today. When that happens, application becomes exhilarating, and God once again speaks.

5.) Get a balanced diet of prayer. Prayer is not simply talking to God; it especially involves our listening to God. It is a response to the saving-revealing initiative of God, and therein lies its mystery. Jesus invites us ask, and yet, even our requests are already a reflection of our sensing of need—a sensitivity rooted in what God is doing first and foremost. Sometimes our prayer lives are exciting and life changing; sometimes they seem dull and drab. Is God at fault? Probably not; the “dark night of the soul,” to use the language of St. John of the Cross, is often a reality for the Christian, calling us to press on in faith, but it is never without the hope of dawn. In the life of prayer, getting a balanced diet may help.

The Bible describes several types of prayer, and yet all of them involve some aspect of the human-divine dialogue. Words may be used if helpful to us, but God looks upon our hearts, and the communion that happens between ourselves and God is itself too beautiful for words. Paul speaks of “unceasing prayer”—that intercessory fluency empowered by the Holy Spirit—describing it as groanings beyond what words can express. Indeed, we are invited into an ongoing relationship with God within which we go through the day immersed in prayer, but also carrying on the business of the workaday world.

6) Develop a meaningful approach to the devotional life as a family or in community. If you live within a family or a community, feel the freedom to develop meaningful corporate devotional experiences. Or, develop a small group or prayer partners in your life that you can support and from whom you also receive support. A family prayer time or a family Bible reading time becomes a foundation for faith development in the formative lives of children, although our fractured schedules make it increasingly difficult. John Woolman’s family used to read the Bible and other good books on Sunday afternoons as a part of their family’s regular schedule, and it was during these times of reading and reflection that Woolman reports having developed a vision of what the people of God should be like—in his sixth year! Also, George Fox studied the Bible extensively, and William Penn declared that if the Scriptures were lost, Fox would have been able to reproduce them from memory. The day of “small things” should not be neglected. Upon these foundations great endeavors are established.

7) Prepare for the meeting for worship throughout the week. The personal life of devotion deserves to be accompanied by regular participation in a community of worship, but participation should not just be haphazard. During the week, preparation for the gathered meeting for worship should be performed conscientiously. Reflecting upon the previous meeting for worship and anticipating the next helps one with this venture, and preparing on Saturday evening for worship the next day quiets the mind and readies the heart for full participation. Developing an attitude of readiness for worship also allows one to make good use of any worship form, or the lack thereof; one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity is the ability to enter into a meaningful worship experience, whatever the venue. In all the ways mentioned above, the life of personal devotion cultivated during the week enhances one’s capacity to be involved in meaningful corporate worship as a participant, not just a consumer. In so doing, we follow not only Jesus’ example; we also become better prepared for following his leadership in the spontaneity of the present moment.

8) Set aside times for spiritual retreat and Sabbath reflection to reset your priorities and re-orient your life. In addition to participation in weekly meetings for worship, spending time in solitude on a regular basis allows us to reflect on our lives and make adjustments as needed. Callings become refreshed and priorities clarified, and the many obligations in life become reordered as we offer them anew to God and allot concerns and commitments their proper place. On monthly, quarterly, and annual bases, time apart for prayerful reflection becomes a means of personal renewal and spiritual refreshment. Bible reading, prayer, journaling are all valuable components of spiritual retreat—contributing, of course, to spiritual advance.

One of the exercises that can be helpful involves writing a list of one’s priorities in a column: God, family, work, education, church, community, hobbies, projects, civic or social involvements, callings, etc. On the left side prioritize them beginning with the highest priority to the lowest; on the other side rank-order them according to the time and energy that you have put into each over the last two weeks or so. Then, note any discrepancies; if family is ranked second priority, for instance, but it ranks fifth in terms of recent time and energy invested, you have a decision to make: either lower the priority or find a way to increase the time and energy invested. Circle any discrepancies that require adjustment and write in the margin how you, with divine assistance, will make changes to reconcile your perceived and actual priorities. Then, make a new column with your re-ordered priorities, and adjust your schedule and obligations if you can in order to live into the life you feel is pleasing to God—our “ordered lives” confess the beauty of God’s peace. With John Greenleaf Whittier,

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

In sum, the life of devotion is one of the great ventures of following Jesus, and it is essential to vital Christian faith and practice. Like daily-given manna in the wilderness, the bread which Jesus offers must be gathered daily, lest it spoil and cease to nourish. It is not the result of baptism; it is baptism—spiritual immersion in the life-Changing Spirit of Christ. It is not the foundation of communion; it is communion—spiritually lived out in unceasing prayer. And yet, as important as the life of devotion is, its value is facilitative, not ultimate. It deepens an intimate knowing God and likewise being fully known. And that relationship is the priority of life itself!

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Transforming Worship

Okay, here’s the first of five essays in Part III on transforming worship, an earlier version of the essay was published in the Evangelical Friend in 1994.

Part III

Worship and Transformation

“Not by strength of arguments… came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by Life. For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian…”

Robert Barclay, 1676

“The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontime glories, dawned on me one day at Meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to a man [woman or child] by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days; not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer…”

Caroline Fox, 1841

“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” 

George Fox, 1647

“But the hour is coming—and it is already here—when authentic worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for indeed it is those who worship him in such ways that the Father actively seeks. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth!”

Jesus (Jn. 4:23-24)

Transforming Worship

Transforming worship is both impressive and expressive. As we receive God’s love for us and return our love for God, we find ourselves changed, transformed, renewed from the inside out. New insights come as to how we might live in the newness of life. Greater sensitivities emerge as we come to view those around us through the eyes of Jesus. We receive power to overcome life’s challenges and temptations. All things indeed become new, and with the imagery used by George Fox, creation even takes on another smell!

Friends have struggled, however, to find the right balance between impressive and expressive aspects of worship. Where liturgical Anglicans and preachy Puritans sought to influence by means inputs and outputs in Fox’s day, Quakers sought to bring a Word from the Lord: Christ is the one to be listened to through and beyond outward forms, not the preacher, nor the mass, alone. And, as Christ is the One who desires to minister through the worshiper to others, he or she should attend his leadings first, instead of wishing to be seen or heard humanly. That is what makes worship a human-divine encounter instead of an audience-performance event: a mere “creaturely” activity.

As Friends entered their third and fourth generations, however, an overly conservative interest in not speaking beyond one’s leading evolved an age of Quietism. This is understandable; the excess of James Nayler and the suffering of persecution called for a more measured approach to enthusiasm. During this era the expressive aspect of worship was diminished, and quiet waiting on the Lord developed into its classic forms among Friends. Within a century and a half, when young progressives began to use music in worship and emphasized the need for greater familiarity with, and use of, the Scriptures, the expressive side of worship began to be recovered among Friends. For the last century or more, evangelical Quakers have refined the expressive arts of singing, preaching and testifying, but silence has become a distant companion. We don’t want to become quietistic, worshiping the silence; and yet we ponder how recovering its use can be vitalizing, not deadening. An insight or two may help.

First, open worship at times suffers from a devastating mixture of expectations between what Wesleyans might call “testimonials of progress” and what Quakers might call “waiting in holy expectancy.” In the testimony meeting where the query is, “How has Jesus Christ made a difference in your life this week?” Any silence or pause bespeaks spiritual failure. Nobody wants that! So, people search for some account of spiritual progress to share, and the fuller the meetings are, the greater the sense of success. These meetings can be very heart warming and encouraging, especially when the sharing is genuine and the progress real. One can understand how Wesleyans and Friends have historically joined in with others in revivalist ventures, seeking to restore accountability and vitality to the spiritual life of individuals and communities alike.

Conversely, the goal of expectant waiting on the Lord is to create the space wherein the living voice of Christ can be attended, heard, and obeyed. Because silence is fragile, busied contributions may distract the worshiper and frustrate the listening process. It also takes some time for the “chaff” to separate from the “wheat” of one’s life. The rustlings of those with allergies to silence, or the well-meaning offerings of those who misjudge its value, at times insure a minimal level of contact with the streams of Living Water that flow from the deep currents of the Holy Spirit. However, a single taste of that deep refreshment makes one thirst for the true fountain and hunger for heavenly manna. A dozen dry runs can be endured for the memory and hope of the life-changing encounter with the Present Christ, who speaks order into the chaos of our lives, and healing to the agonies of our souls. Silence cannot save, but the One we meet in it and though it, does if we let him.

Because these two wonderful-and-yet-incompatible uses of open worship are often attempted at the same time, frustration inevitably occurs. The enthusiast speaks too often or too long for the meditator, and each misunderstands or undervalues the other’s aspiration. One way forward is simply to be clear what kind of open worship is being cultivated during a particular time and setting. Friends may even wish to designate special times for testimony sharing and expectant waiting, if both are desired. Then, with a bit of teaching and modeling by elders, the rest of the meeting will follow, and the Lord will bless.

One more thing; why save the life-changing invitation for the last five minutes of an already full service? Why not make the entire meeting for worship a time to receive and respond to the living voice of Christ? “Just as I am…I come.” is sung far more powerfully at the beginning of a meeting than at the end alone. Oh, that Christ would have an entire hour—or more—to melt our pride, lift our eyes, and mold our character on a regular basis! Few need silence more than those least comfortable with it. In silence, our props for distraction and symbols of worth come crashing down, until we are left with the naked truth about ourselves, if we dare face it. But out of the painful truth comes the power of life, and seeing our true dependence upon God for everything is the secret of recovering one’s spiritual first love. That is where spiritual rebirth happens…again and again.

We evangelical Quakers have grown adept at doing expressive worship meaningfully, but to recover the fire of Pentecost and the glory of the burning bush, we must recover the impressive side of worship. However, such will not come by mastering formlessness as a new form. Our only hope is in the real thing: transforming encounter with none other than Jesus Christ, himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He has promised to be present in the gathered meeting, and prayerful preparation during the week imbues the meeting with holy expectancy. If we really believe that Christ is present where two or three are gathered in his name (Matt. 18:18-20), let us create the space to attend, hear, and obey his life-producing Word. Jesus offers us manna from heaven… and he is that which he offers.

What Canst Thou Say?

What Canst Thou Say?

Margaret Fell describes one of her first encounters with George Fox as an experience that caused her to sink into her pew and to weep as one who had been “cut to the heart.” She later reported (in 1694), “I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves.’” Several were “convinced of the truth” that day, and despite attempts to arrest him, George Fox continued in his evangelistic ministry. She commented later: “I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it…but I desired the Lord that I might be kept in it, and I desired no greater portion.” The message she reported hearing from Fox was this:

“Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”

From this encounter we see something central to spiritual authority. Rather than being a factor of citing second-hand authorities (religious officials, authoritative texts, prescribed creeds—even witty quips or engaging illustrations) spiritual authority is a direct factor of personal spiritual experience. It cannot be otherwise. It is not knowledge about the Deity that matters; it is intimate acquaintance with God that counts. Of course, thinking about what it means to know God and to live in ways pleasing to God (theology) is important, and it may even deepen and enhance our relationship with God; but there is no replacement for a deep and abiding experiential relationship with God when it comes to authentic spirituality.

On this score, Friends have borne faithful witness to the immediacy of Christ—present in the world, drawing all persons to himself, if they would but allow it. In so doing, they follow the example of the apostles, whose ministries were effective because they had spent time with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Likewise, Jesus came teaching directly a prophetic message from God, and the exclamation of the crowds was that he taught not as the Scribes and Pharisees (citing human authorities or religious legitimation), but that he spoke with spiritual authority. In calling for first-hand spiritual experience, Friends sought to uphold the teaching and example of the Lord. Describing his first-hand encounter with the living Christ, George Fox testifies: “…and this I came to know experimentally.”

One of the ways George Fox put this concern was to declare that that being “bred at Oxford or Cambridge” does not fit one to be a minister of the Gospel. The point is not the theological education is irrelevant; it often is. The point is that it can never be enough. Jesus called his first followers to be “with him” (Mk. 3), and such is the first priority of discipleship in every generation. Likewise, Robert Barclay’s “Apology” was for the “true Christian divinity,” and this authoritative power results not from having a graduate degree in the subject, as important as rigorous preparation for ministry is, but from a transforming encounter with the risen Lord. There’s no substitute for that! Jesus’ words in John 17:3 provided the biblical basis for Barclay’s Apology for authentic spirituality, affirming that the source of spiritual Life is the intimate knowledge of God; such is the true source and subject of all religious authority.

Another feature of the question, “What canst thou say?” is to take seriously our personal stories of how God has been at work in each of our lives. As mentioned earlier, God has no grandchildren; each of us must encounter anew the life-changing workings of the Holy Spirit in the here and now. Of course, this implies that God has indeed been at work in our lives and that we are aware of it. Each of us must therefore be receptive and responsive to Christ as the initial launching of an intentional journey of faith; yet, every day also bears within itself the opportunity for renewing that commitment in an ongoing way. This is what it means to become an authentic Child of the Light.

The question thus becomes one of how well we do at walking in the Light, building on initial responses of faith, and continuing into Christian maturity. As we seek to follow Jesus in a first-hand adventure, we walk by faith, not by sight. No matter what other questions people may raise with us, we testify with lived authority that Christ has indeed been at work within us, and this experiential witness becomes evidence that demands a verdict within the faith quests of others. It becomes our personal testimony that Christ can change, and is changing, the world one life at a time—beginning with our own.

All of this relates to the source and character of what we have to share. Is it simply from us, or is its root the prompting and workings of the Holy Spirit within us? Is it inwardly from God, or is it of creaturely origins? When experiential encounter with Christ becomes the measure for what we offer as a witness, that narrows it down a good deal. The leadings of Christ rightly supplant human agendas and interests, and what we share freely is what we have freely received from Christ, for he is both the source and the goal of all authentic Christian witness and ministry. The focus ceases to be upon ourselves, and it remains fixed upon what Christ is doing. After all, knowing what the Master is doing, and following attentively his lead (John 15:14-15) is what makes people Jesus’ Friends!

Friends and the Great Commission

On Being Great-Commission Quakers

Soon after George Fox preached a life-changing three-hour message on top of a large rock on Firbank Fell, the Valiant Sixty set off to reach the world for Christ. They came armed with nothing but the message that Christ is come to teach his people himself! The days of the Apostles were alive again, and Christ was calling any and all who would be faithful to go and to be agents of the gospel. Later, when Fox was challenged by Lord Falconbridge, Governor of Tinmouth Castle, while he was imprisoned in Scarborough Castle in 1665, to respect political and religious leaders—members of Parliament, bishops, and priests, he said that he did indeed respect all ministers who were truly like those that Christ sent:

“…such as were qualified, and were in the same power and spirit the apostles were in. But such bishops and teachers…I did not acknowledge; for they were not like the apostles. For Christ said to his ministers, “Go you into all nations, and preach the gospel;” but you members of parliament, who keep your priests and bishops in such great fat benefices (payment for services rendered), have spoiled them all. For do you think they will go into all nations to preach? Or will go any farther than a great fat benefice? Judge yourselves whether they will or not.”

Note that Fox here distinguishes authentic ministers of Christ from imposters as a factor of being willing follow the Great Commission of Christ and to spread the Good News around the world, making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:20). Indeed, the greatest growth of the Quaker movement is characterized by two primary epochs: the first generation of the Friends movement and the Friends missionary movements in the 20th century, which have led to larger numbers of Friends in Africa and Latin America than in Britain and North America. In both cases, Friends were willing to become Great Commission Quakers.

As we explore the similarities and differences between the four gospels in the Freshman Bible class I teach, just about every semester one of my students will ask, “Why is the ‘Great Commission’ mentioned in all four Gospels?” Normally in the charts we use, when the same miracle or teaching is included in more than one gospel, it appears in a list other than those containing material unique to a particular gospel, but not so with the Great Commission. It occurs within each of the four Gospels, and yet in fascinating, different ways.

Rather than hearing a “monophonic” recording of Jesus’ command to his followers, it’s like listening to a “quadraphonic” rendition of it, as each of the gospel writers complements the others with his own distinctive perspective. This also means that one’s understanding of Jesus’ Great Commission in the New Testament will be fullest if one explores its renditions in all four gospels, rather than just one.

First, however, let’s consider similarities of the Great Commission in all four Gospels. Notice the same features in all four accounts. a.) First, the Great Commission is declared by the resurrected Lord. This means that it reflects early Christians’ understandings of how the Church was to continue the very work and ministry that Jesus had begun. Further, it represents their understandings of Christian discipleship in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Often we read in the gospels that the disciples were a bit “fuzzy” (my paraphrase) about what Jesus meant—until after the resurrection—when all things became clear. The Great Commission is a prime example of that clarified understanding. It represents the early Christians’ understandings of how they were to continue the work of Jesus as commissioned by the risen Lord.

b.) Within all four gospels, Jesus’ command is portrayed as a “last will and testament.” It motivates Jesus’ would-be followers by declaring his final intention for their lives. Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity or second-guessing. His words are directive. Clear. They call for responsive obedience to his mandate. In that sense, the articulation of Christian mission becomes a “commission,” as the hearer of the Word “comes alongside” Jesus as a partner in furthering his mission.

c.) Notice that in each case, the commissioning message of Jesus is “translated” for a specific Christian audience, reflecting the understanding of the gospel writer and the specific needs of his situation. As Everett Cattell has said:

“It is clear that before his ascension and in different places he discussed this subject and the whole of those discourses has not been recorded. Different disciples were struck by one or another part of his message and preserved those portions which impressed them most.”

This is one of the things that makes Bible study exciting! As we explore the similar—and yet distinctive—ways in which the Great Commission was articulated within the early Church, our understandings of Christian mission today become enriched. We may even detect a progression of theme that clarifies for us what the Lord’s commission involves for his followers today. Now for a look at the distinctive elements in the four gospel renditions.

1.) The Great Commission in Mark is described like this: Go and Preach the Gospel to All Creation. Mark was the first gospel written (probably around 70 C.E.), and it usually gives us a good impression of Christian understandings about Jesus in the middle first century. However, the Great Commission in Mark appears in Mk. 16:15, which is included in a section (Mk. 16:9-20) not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts. Nevertheless, despite significant differences of style and nuance, the commissioning words of Jesus here are remarkably similar to Mark’s emphases upon being sent and proclaiming the Good News.

John the Baptist “kicks off” the ministry of Jesus, having been sent by God to prepare the way for the Lord (Mk. 1:3). After John was imprisoned, Jesus’ ministry comes into its own (Mk. 1:15): “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Good News.” He calls his first four disciples to leave their nets and to follow him (Mk. 1:16-20). He appoints the twelve to be with him and to proclaim the gospel (Mk. 3:14-19) and then sends them out by two’s to preach repentance, to drive out demons and to heal the sick (Mk. 6:7-13). It is not surprising, therefore, that even in Mark’s “second ending” the command to “go and preach” is central. It represents the apostolic sense of urgency the first Christians must have felt in their mission to spread the gospel. Regardless of the receptivity of the “soils” or the fate of the “seed” (Mk. 4:3-20), Christians are to broadcast the Word—the seed of the Gospel—thus continuing the mission and message of Jesus.

2.) The Great Commission in Luke/Acts goes like this: Stay [tarry] Until You Are Filled With Power…Then You Will Be My Witnesses. To the mandate to go and preach, Luke adds the indispensable factor of divine empowerment. The closing scenes of Luke dovetail into the opening scenes of Acts—like a feature movie and its climactic sequel! In Luke 24:48 the disciples are commanded to wait, to tarry in the city until they are clothed with divine Power from on high. After leading them to Bethany, Jesus lifts up his hands and blesses them before ascending into heaven (Lk. 24:50-51). At once, their response is to become consumed in worship, joy and praising God (vss. 52-53). Indeed, they are filled with and immersed in the Holy Spirit (Ac. 1:4-5).

The book of Acts, however, adds the implication of such encounters—to be changed by Christ is to be commissioned by Christ. “But you will receive Power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” (Ac. 1:8) Indeed, the rest of Acts documents the fulfillment of this prediction. The Christian movement grows with unassailable force—first locally, then regionally, then nationally and finally, globally. But the central factor according to Luke is the empowering force of the Holy Spirit.

Without the Spirit the church is impotent. How often well-meaning Christians are tempted to start into a missions project, well-strategized and fully enthused, but without having waited on the Lord until being filled with power from on high. Luke reminds us that the success of spiritual mission always hinges upon spiritual empowerment, and this comes from prayerful waiting on the Lord.

3.) The Great Commission in Matthew declares: Go and Make Disciples of All Nations. Just as Luke contributes the empowerment of the Spirit, Matthew adds the community-building motifs to Mark’s terse “Go and preach.” As Luke and Acts were probably written in the 80’s of the first century, Matthew was probably written around 90 C.E., as the church was faced with making the transition from being a growing movement to becoming a larger institution. The church-building interest of Matthew is clear from several examples: a.) Only in Matthew’s gospel is the word, ecclēsia (church) mentioned. b.) One of these passages (Matt. 16:17-19) outlines the institutional means by which Peter (and Jesus?) will be succeeded. c.) The other emphasizes the importance of accountability, proper church discipline procedure, and the necessity of seasoning authority with a spirit of forgivingness and grace (Matt. 18:15-35). It is therefore not surprising at all that Matthew is interested in the discipling work of the church. Rather than simply going and preaching, the Christian emissary is commanded to go and “make disciples of all nations.”

Notice that the discipling process is described as having two basic functions: induction and education. New believers are to be baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and the main point here is that by means of Christ’s authority (vs. 18), their admission to the new community is confirmed with divine finality. To interpret the emphasis to be water baptism here (a Jewish ritual adapted somewhat variably by early Christians), instead of what it symbolized (meaningful inclusion in the Christian community), is to miss the point and to reduce the Great Commission to ritualism. John’s baptism signified the turning from the world and repentance from sin. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, involves being immersed in the Holy Spirit (Ac. 1:5; 19:1-6; Jn. 1:33; 3:5-8), and this is what confirms one’s membership in the family of God (Jn.1:12).

It is often wrongly assumed that Quakers don’t believe in baptism. But we do, and radically so. One cannot live the Christian life without being transformed by the baptism of Jesus, which is with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 11:1; Mk. 1:8; Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:26-34; Ac. 11:16). Water prefigured this spiritual immersion, and even came to symbolize it within the Christian movement. But Jesus apparently did not employ water baptism (Jn.4:2), and it should never be confused with the “real thing”—an abiding immersion in the Spirit, which Christ alone can offer. This spiritual reality is what Paul described as the “one baptism,” the baptism of Jesus, which is elsewhere contrasted to that of John (Eph. 4:5).

After initiation follows education. Notice that Jesus is not portrayed here as simply extending “best wishes” to the spiritual infant before abandoning him or her to the task of maturation. No. He commands his followers to teach, just as they have been taught by him. In this way, the new believer grows into maturity, and the church becomes strengthened in its conviction. Virtually everywhere the church thrives, it is because it has become able to introduce new Christians into the community of faith successfully, and because it has learned to prepare people for ministry effectively. This is what it means to make disciples of all nations.

4.) The Great Commission in John is emphatic: As the Father Has Sent Me, So Send I All of You. John’s is the “apostolic gospel.” Rather than leaving the role of apostleship to an “office” or to a church hierarchy, John takes great pains to emphasize Jesus’ imbuing all of his followers with apostolic mission. The Greek word, apostolos, means “one who is sent,” and Jesus extends his own divine commission to include his followers. To be an apostle is to have encountered Jesus Christ and to be sent by him. Thus, the invitation to follow him is, at the same time, a calling to be sent by him—as his “friends”—who both know the Master’s business, and who are responsive to his leadings (Jn. 15:14-15).

Notice the apparent correctives to rising institutionalism within the late-first century Christian movement (Jn. 20:21-23). a.) Apostolicity is extended to “the many,” not just “the few” (vs. 21). Far from an elitist appeal for a few super-Christians, or a martyr-plea to labor in the fields of service “unrewarded,” John here portrays Jesus as involving all of his followers in Christian mission. In this sense, Apostolic Christianity lives today! To encounter the Spirit of the risen Lord is to be commissioned and sent by him, and this is the spiritual essence of true apostolic succession.

b.) Jesus “breathed on” (inspired) them and declared, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22). Rather than imbuing an “office” or a ceremony with God-breathed authority or efficacy, Jesus fills them with His Spirit by the mere fact of his presence (see also Matt. 18:20). He also promises to lead them into all truth through his comforting and convicting presence within the gathered meeting, and this is the basis for their sense of peace (Jn. 14:25-27; 16:7-15; 20:19).

c.) Jesus gives them the responsibility—not just the privilege—to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world (vs. 23). Just as the role of apostle is expanded from the few to the many, so is the priesthood of believers. As a contrast to Matt. 16:19 and 18:18, the privilege/responsibility of extending God’s saving forgiveness is given to all of Jesus’ followers, not just Peter and his successors. In this sense, the healing/saving work of Jesus is multiplied times the number of his followers who heed the call and accept the commission.

Just as George Fox saw the willingness to embrace the Great Commission as a measure of authentic Christian ministry, a sense of mission is what makes a difference in the vitality of the Church. As Emil Brunner said, “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.” When we consider the Great Commission in all four Gospels we get a fuller picture—or a quadraphonic rendition—of what our Christian mission ought to be like today. It involves going and preaching; waiting on the filling of the Holy Spirit; making disciples of all nations; and embodying the apostolic, inspired and priestly ministry of Jesus himself. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he declared that “all creation groans in eager expectation for the revelation of the children of God” (Ro. 8:19). As we encounter the risen Lord and are commissioned by him to continue his saving-revealing work in the world, the Incarnation happens anew. We indeed become Jesus’ hands and feet—furthering work he came to do.

Answering “That of God” in Every One

Answering “That of God” in Every One

Are people sinners because they sin, or do they sin because they are sinners? The first view (argued by Pelagius around the turn of the fourth century) calls for people to resist sin and thereby overcome it; the second view (argued by Augustine) affirms that the fall of humanity is real and that there is no hope for humanity outside of God’s provision of grace. Put otherwise, Pelagius called for abandoning the first Adam’s rebellion against God in exchange for imitating Christ’s faithfulness; Augustine argued that the sin nature of Adam is real for all people, and that humanity’s only hope is believing solidarity with the Second Adam—Christ, becoming a new creation, which comes by receiving grace alone through faith.

The second view won the day in the early church, leading to a doctrine of “original sin,” pointing to humans’ absolute need of God’s saving grace. Or, “it is possible not to sin” lost, and “it is impossible not to sin” won. While the fall of humankind is real (in Adam’s sin so sinned we all), humans are also first created good (in the Divine Image of God), and this biblical doctrine is often missed. Note the tension between human incapacity to live up to God’s righteous standards—therefore requiring the gift of God’s grace, and the belief that God is at work within the individual—therefore affirming “original goodness” as well as the reality of the fall.

John 14:6 declares that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, and yet John 1:9 affirms that the Light of Christ, enlightening all, has come into the world; any who respond to God’s Light and Love receive grace and become the children of God. Romans 3:10 declares that none are righteous—not even one, and yet Romans 2:14 affirms that even the Gentiles have a law unto themselves, pointing the way to God if they would but follow it. So, the reality of our needy condition before God stands, as we cannot attain God’s standards or merit God’s love on our own. Yet God is also at work—at least potentially—within the lives of all people, so that makes a difference as to how we receive, understand, and share the gospel. Here Friends make a valuable contribution to ways we think about God’s saving-revealing work in the world.

When George Fox coined the term “that of God” in people’s consciences, he often made reference in the surrounding passage to the Light of Christ within, or God’s Law written on the hearts of Gentiles. While some might speak of “the inner light” or “my light” as a way of affirming individuality, Fox and early Friends did not see illumination as originating with the individual; it was the “Light of Christ” encountered inwardly (hence the correctly used term—“the inward light”) that they connected with the saving, revealing, and guiding work of Christ. Likewise, appeals to God’s workings within the human conscience build upon Paul’s teachings on the natural law within, although Paul’s main point in Romans 1-2 is that all stand convicted and in need of God’s grace—Jew and Gentile alike—so that all are in need of God’s provision of grace through Christ.

So how do we “answer that of God” in the lives of others? For one thing, it helps us see others as having real access to God’s truth—even the Light of Christ—within, assuming that God has already been at work within the other’s heart and conscience. Therefore, whether or not they know the outward story of Jesus, the divine Light of Christ has gotten there first, and the calling of God’s Love for the world connects God’s Love within us to Christ’s Light within the other. That’s what directs conversation and concern as we seek to be extensions of God’s presence and grace to those we meet. A youth minister I knew would simply ask kids he met, “So, how are things with you and God?” Out of hundreds of conversations, no one ever failed to understand the question or rejected it; many found the conversation helpful in leading into a deeper relationship with God, which most people want. So, regarding all persons as having access to, and in some ways engaging, the enlightening work of Christ within allows outreach and contacts to be rooted in loving concern for the other, making us first listeners rather than speakers. That in itself is a miracle of grace! Answering always follows hearing, and hearing usually follows listening.

A second thing that happens as we seek to “answer” that which is “of God” in the other is that our focus changes from agendas or human strategies to simply focusing on the spiritual heart of the other. Beyond words, we find ourselves attending the feelings of others. What are their concerns? How are they feeling led? How are their callings and hopes in life being fulfilled or thwarted by inward and outward challenges? God is at work in all of these concerns—within others and within ourselves. In that sense, we share a common pilgrimage as seekers of the truth and believers that God’s provision and guidance are real. Even conversation with a so-called “enemy” is transformed radically when we address that person’s engagement with God’s truth within his or her own conscience. At the heart of effective peace work is believing that persons on all sides of all conflicts have access to the God of Peace, who works in people’s hearts—at least potentially—providing ways out of conflicts and impasses if we will but attend his leadings.

Finally, as we seek to answer that which is from God, at work in the consciences others—all people, including those with whom we serve on committees or meet in the marketplace—we find our discourse and witness changing. What we have to share thus becomes less about ourselves and more of a testimony to the grace and power of God working within us—a deeply humbling consideration. As William Penn said of early Quaker ministers, “They were changed men [and women] themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them.” A calling to share about God’s Love involves first a calling to abide in that Love, being willing, then, to speak from first-hand experience about what one knows personally.

When that happens, according to Fox, faithful witnesses to Christ will not only be a blessing to those around us; they will also be a blessing to God: “Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you; then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savor, and a blessing.” May it ever be so!

Convincement versus Coercion

Convincement versus Coercion

Jesus says “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Truth liberates precisely because our bondage to darkness, sin, and self is overcome by it. Darkness is extinguished by the mere flickering of light, and Jesus’ coming as the Light of the World brings the crisis of revelation into our lives. But Jesus liberates because he is the saving-revealing initiative of God—a contrast to everything that is of human origin—including religious platforms and schemes. In that sense, evangelism is foundationally a matter of convincement rather than coercion.

Several years ago, I attended with other pastors a “how to” seminar on increasing the membership of the local church. The motto was a tongue-in-cheek slogan, “by hook or by crook,” which expanded upon the “fishers of men” (thus, the fisherman’s hook) and “shepherd of the sheep” (thus, the shepherd’s crook) imagery of the gospels.

The seminar actually made some very helpful points about how to share the gospel effectively, especially for unchurched audiences. The slogan, however, traded on a truism in a way that, while amusing, also made me uneasy. Too often evangelism is perceived or experienced as coercion. “By hook or by crook” evokes impressions of pressured attempts to “get” someone else to do something against his or her will; as in physics, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Who knows how many would-be believers have been repelled from the true gospel because of such misrepresentations of God’s saving love? My belief, though, is that Christ shows us a better way.

God sent us his Son because he loves us. Paul was constrained by the love of Christ to broadcast the Good News (2 Cor. 5:14), and such has been the central motivation of truly effective missionaries, from David Livingstone to John R. Mott to the missionary outreach of Friends over the last century and more. Likewise, authentic and effective evangelism ever is motivated by a sense of God’s love for another, which alone energizes the faithful evangelist’s initiative. The focus is always on God’s love and its object—the world—rather than the channel—the evangelist—when evangelism is done well. Otherwise, if outreach becomes coercive it ceases to be “news,” let alone “good” news.

Convincement, on the other hand, relates to truth: God’s truth. It implies the absence of human force, or even agenda, although thoughtful planning and organization are always in order. Authentic evangelism has to do with the revelation of God’s saving-redeeming love and the human response of faith to it. When that happens, the evangelist has “succeeded,” but she or he cannot take credit. It is God’s truth that has prospered, of which human efforts are but a facilitative part.

So, how is one convinced of the truth, and how does one become a convinced believer? On one hand, convincement of the truth involves simply receiving the good news that God has acted in history, lovingly, toward us extending the gift of grace, received alone through faith. When we take it personally, believing that God’s love and grace are extended to us individually, in particular as well as globally, a new birth begins. According to John 3:3, one cannot see the Kingdom of God unless one is “born from above” (sometimes translated “born again”). So, being born from above begins with acknowledging God’s saving-revealing work toward us—saying thank you—receiving that unmerited gift by faith.

Another feature of being convinced of the truth is seeing our own condition as standing in need before God. The Apostle Paul reminds us that all have sinned and come short of God’s (Ro. 3:23), and that the wages of sin is death (Ro. 6:23), but most people need not be brow-beaten into such an acknowledgment. Rather, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—was sent by Christ to be with us and in us (Jn. 14:17). The Spirit of Truth testifies to the words of Jesus as they are needed in our lives, guiding us into all needed truth (Jn. 15:26; 16:13). More particularly, the Holy Spirit convicts (convinces—the same word in Greek) us of sin and of righteousness, so that we have no need of human measures—whether of others or our own (Jn. 16:13). Because the Spirit of Christ, the Inward Teacher, leads us into truth about our true conditions—both challenging and affirming—we are opened to the liberating truth of Christ within.

Because spiritual convincement of our authentic condition—needy before God, and yet beloved of God—comes by revelation rather than human argumentation, the most effective evangelistic outreach is less a matter of apologetic bluster and more a factor of facilitating a transforming sense of the Divine Presence. Indeed, the Apostle Paul was not “converted” on the road to Damascus by fine-sounding arguments; he was transformed by a direct encounter with the Risen Lord, whereby the error of his legalistic-though-zealous way was seen (Ac. 9). Like the callings of the prophets in Hebrew Scripture, an encounter with the Living God leads to a spontaneous and humbled appreciation of one’s woeful condition, which is then followed by God’s redemptive action and the individual’s receiving a mission and a message.

The gospel is thus not a compromise to offset God’s otherwise stern set of legalisms. It is a grace-filled remedy to the human realities that no one has seen God at any time, and that despite the Light that illumines all coming into the world (Jn. 1:9), we often languish in darkness until we see the Light clearly enough to embrace it. To use Gurney’s imagery, whether the seeker has glimpsed a flickering candle or has beheld a noontide ray of the sun, the task of the evangelist is to add more Light to Light, and in doing so, to offer a gift rather than delivering an imposition.

This does not mean, however, that all who receive light will respond to it believingly. Some prefer darkness rather than light, lest their deeds be exposed. But God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved (Jn. 3:17-21). And while his own received him not, those who believe receive the power to become children of God because they are born out of responding to the Divine Initiative, not the wiles or schemes of human ingenuity (Jn.1:11-13).

The obligation of the evangelist, then, becomes not the devising of an ingenious plan, but attending the leadings of the Holy Spirit as to how one is to share and “be” the Good News most effectively. The Spirit provides openings no program ever could, and as the source of the Spirit’s promptings is the redeeming love of God, evangelism rooted in the Spirit’s movements of love will therefore be rooted in love.

Becoming a “convinced” believer in the truth of God is the essence of spiritual transformation. The Light of Christ reveals, convicts, purifies, comforts, instructs and empowers the believer as Jesus becomes Savior and Lord. The Truth sets us free, and just as Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, he also is that Light which illumines all who come into the world (Jn. 14:6; 1:9). In that sense, the Good News ceases to be an abstract notion to be considered, and it becomes a person to be encountered. When that happens, we not only are confronted with the truth; we become convinced of it in a life-changing way.

The Power of the Good News

Part II
Evangelism and Convincement

“Let all nations hear the word by sound or writing. Spare no place, spare not tongue nor pen, but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth upon earth; tread and trample all that is contrary under….And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
George Fox, 1656

“In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.”
Thomas Kelly, 1941

“They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them. . . . And as they freely received what they had to say from the Lord, so they freely administered it to others. The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God, regeneration and holiness, not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds and new forms of worship, but a leaving off in religion the superfluous and reducing the ceremonies and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part, as all upon a serious reflection must and do acknowledge.”
William Penn, 1694

“But you shall receive Power when the Holy Spirit descends upon you, and you shall be my witnesses, even in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and even unto the ends of the earth.”
Jesus (Acts 1:8)

The Power of the Good News

The subject of Quakers and evangelism might come across as a shock to some, as it is sometimes claimed that Quakers to not proselytize. Evangelization, however, is not proselytization. Evangel means “good news,” and Friends have always been about the sharing of good news. Indeed, the beginning of the Quaker movement in 1652 is recognized as the day when George Fox preached to a crowd of over 1,000 for three hours, standing on a rock on Firbank Fell in Northwest England, proclaiming that Christ is come to teach his people, himself. From that time on, the Valiant Sixty set off across Britain and to different parts of the world, traveling in twos—like the original followers of Jesus—sharing the Good News of Christ with all.

Note the similarities with Jesus and his mission. Jesus began his ministry declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand, calling for people to take notice, tune in, turn around, and believe in the Good News. Following his death and resurrection, the apostles continued to proclaim that the power evident in his ministry, and which raised him from the dead, was available in the here and now, not only in the there and then. Likewise, as with all attempts to recover apostolic Christianity, George Fox and early Friends proclaimed the advent of “the Everlasting Gospel.” The power-imbued message has never been about what Quakers can do or have done; it has always been about what God has done—and is now doing—through the risen Christ. George Fox introduced his collection of pastoral letters with these words:

And I was sent to “turn people from darkness to the light” (Acts 26:1), which Christ, the second Adam, did enlighten them withal; that they might see Christ their Way to God with the Spirit of God, which he pours upon all flesh, that with it they might have an understanding to know the things of God, and to know him, and his Son, Jesus Christ, which is eternal Life; and so might worship the living God, their maker and creator, who takes care for all, who is Lord of all; and with the Light and Spirit of God they might know the Scriptures, which were given forth from the Spirit of God in the saints, and the holy men and women of God.

We all too easily confuse the messenger with the message. When we think of great evangelistic movements, we often focus on bold individuals and the ways God used them and their efforts. Sometimes we are reminded also of their frustrations and failures. However, the issue is not simply one of daunting ventures or keen training. These certainly help, but the power of the evangelist is never to be equated with the Power of the Evangel. The former implies human giftedness; the latter involves the ultimate Gift of God.

Let’s unpack those words a bit. The Greek word for “power” is dunamis—the same root as the word, “dynamite.” On one hand, it simply means ability—the capacity to effect. On the other, it bears with it associations of explosive power, which cannot be contained. To consider the power of the Everlasting Gospel is to be mindful of the explosive effect of God’s breaking into human history with finality and life-changing effect. And this relates directly to what to what it means to be “evangelical,” whether one is a Friend or not.

Further, the Greek word, evangelion, comes from two words: eu, meaning “happy” “pleasant,” or “good,” and angelia, meaning “message,” or “news.” A common association in ancient contemporary literature involves the empowerment of receiving of the “good news” that a battle has been won, complete with its implications for allied individuals and communities. Receiving news of the completed action makes all the difference for the hearers. It means lives can be lived differently and that new outlooks and ventures can be taken up. In short, “good news” orders a new way of being based on a world-changing declaration of what has happened in history, and implicitly beyond it.

May I introduce yet another word? While “kingdom” language feels out of date for us in our democratic societies, and it might even seem sexist to some, or despotic to others, the Greek word, basileia, had a much broader meaning. It also meant “government” or “reign,” or better yet, “leadership.” It is the saving-revealing activity of God’s leadership that Jesus came to inaugurate, and which Fox and others rediscovered many centuries later. As testified in Jewish Scripture as well, God is at work in the world, wanting to lead, heal, order, and restore all people to places of ultimate wholeness and joy. And, carrying out that mission on the Father’s behalf, the Jesus of history continues to be at work in the world, even now, though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and in the changed and changing lives of Jesus’ followers.

This Good News changes everything in its path. It creates a new reality merely by its having been spoken. It addresses not “how” something has happened, nor “why,” nor “where,” nor “when.” It simply declares THAT God has acted on our behalf—and is at work—making all things new. To put it in the words of George Fox, “Christ is come to teach his people himself,” and “the Power of the Lord is over all!” So, what difference does the mere announcement of the gospel make for our lives today?

First, notice that it is not we who have acted or merited God’s saving-redeeming action; it is God who has taken the first step towards us—an action rooted in divine love. As Paul puts it, it is of grace, not of ourselves, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). This means that the Everlasting Gospel is not a function of anyone’s deservedness; rather, it is solely a factor of God’s unmerited gift of grace. To consider this fact leads one to a sense of awe and humbled gratitude, welling up within anyone who takes notice, tunes in, turns around, and believes.

Second, the action toward us is loving, accepting, and healing—the sort of thing our lives need in order to be whole. None of us is complete within ourselves; rather, God’s saving love completes us and brings us into a state of wholeness and well-being. Receiving the divine embrace, however, not only changes our lives; it also enables us to embrace others with the same unconditional warmth and love, which we have received from God.

A third thing happens when we consider the Good News that God has acted in ways saving, revealing, and healing toward us: we begin to anticipate unexpected ways God may be at work around us and within us. George Fox called these events moments of “visitation.” As C.S. Lewis puts it in the first of his Narnia Chronicles, “Aslan is on the move!” God is at work. Christ is here. The Kingdom of God is upon us, among us, within us. Are we ready for moments of Divine Visitation? They may be closer than we think! As Francis Howgill testified of his experience,

“The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will he take up his tabernacle among the sons of men, as he did of old?’”

Of course, any sort of human-divine encounter may throw us into a flurry of inward questions: Is my house in order? Am I attentive to Christ’s secret and subtle presence in my life—leading me away from sin and toward the ways of God? Do I heed the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit—readily and faithfully? Am I sensitized to the awesome Power and Presence of God, which surrounds and fills us even more than the air we breathe? Do I find it easy to respond to God’s saving/redeeming initiative in faith, trusting in what God has done rather than lesser alternatives? Are our lives becoming an ongoing YES to the leadership of the present Christ, even now at work within us as we read these words?

If some of these queries seem to take root in your heart, you are experiencing the Power of the Good News—even now! God is never absent but is here, waiting to be engaged. Throughout history, God has been at work—decisively and transformingly—and God is at work even now, in the present, making all things new. The business of our lives becomes the arena of God’s redeeming action. When God’s saving-revealing presence is felt, our lives change. As the hymn-writer said, “Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, Center of unbroken praise.”

The original message of Jesus and early Friends then and now is: “The present, powerful, and active leadership of God is upon you, among you, and within you. Turn and believe in the Good News.” May we thus allow our lives to become an ongoing YES to God’s YES to the world, whereby not only hear the news, but we also embrace its transforming power and love. When that happens, we have not only heard the Good News; it is something that to those around us we become.