The bi-line of this blog states that this post was written by me, David Achata. Really it’s a collective piece my wife, Amy, and I wrote together. I’m amending the bio for this post to read officially, “Written by David and Amy Achata.”
“Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67)
To me, these are some of the most emotion-filled words contained in the gospels.
Jesus has just miraculously fed thousands. Naturally the crowd loved this and wanted to make Him king “by force” (John 6:1–15). Jesus, however, did not come to be their bread king, a perpetual vending machine. Jesus was on a different mission. So He slipped away.
The next day Jesus made His purpose clearer by saying, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst . . . for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me” (vs. 35, 38). As His listeners grumbled about these words, Jesus pressed them further by saying, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (vs. 54–55).
The Apostle John records that many of Jesus’ disciples heard these words and replied, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it? Soon after, many of them left and no longer followed (vs. 60–66).
It’s in this context that Jesus asks, “Do you want to leave, too?”
These words are emotional to me because His question regularly reverberates in my heart. I want to turn back all the time. Following Jesus is hard, and He’s always breaking my paradigms. I’ve left jobs, cities, friends, and financial stability. As if that wasn’t enough, people have left me too, whether friends who believed the church-planting journey was too hard or family who don’t seem to get me. My life is (and has been) filled with leaving. Do I want to turn back? Regularly.
Then I survey the other options and respond with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (vs. 68).
Followers of Christ are regularly confronted with this question because Jesus always seems to want more. The longer we follow, the more personal things get. As the Spirit presses in to the deepest places of my being, my discomfort grows, and turning away looks attractive.
An institutional faith looks to someone else to make things easier. It looks to religious leaders to interpret scripture the way I like, to organize faith-filled activities that fit into my schedule, or to fix the relational issues that inevitably pop up as I live in proximity to people.
However, I’m convinced the second reformation is rooted in a faith that takes ownership. What is the Spirit convicting me of? How does the Spirit want me to respond in this discomfort? My wife and I joke when we point fingers at one another that “there are three fingers pointing right back at you.”
This idea of personal ownership is just another way of describing the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5–9). We are all called to go straight to God, to listen, to ask, and to obey. Doing that is uncomfortable, inconvenient. Doing so means putting down my agenda, my desires, my trajectory.
Willing to be Led
Once when my family and I had moved to a new city, standing in the midst of boxes I said to Amy, “Look at all we’ve become. If only our friends could see us now!” Of course, this was a joke meant to highlight that God’s plans often take us to the places we do not want to go. Jesus’ words to Peter make more sense to me now when He said, “When you were younger, you went where you wanted. But when you are older, you will be led to the places you will not want to go” (John 21:18, my paraphrase). Maybe one definition of Christian maturity is the willingness to be led to the places we wouldn’t naturally go?
“Will you turn away?” is another way of Jesus asking, “Are you going to turn to what you think will be a better story?” Yet when I reduce it down, I see that being led to the places I haven’t wanted to go has been the best story. My life looks confusing on the outside. Some weeks I’m in the corporate world working with teams on important strategies. Other weeks I’m grilling out in the worst part of town. Our missional community incarnates in a neighborhood that sits next to an empty loading dock in the shadow of an abandoned factory. It’s not the story I would have written for myself. Yet each evening when we go to bed, my wife and I share stories of those we met. We pray for them, and we realize we’re not too different.
Listening to the Spirit
This isn’t just a different model of church (which is what I hear all the time). No, this is a life where Spirit-dependence is required. The reason things are uncomfortable is because we’re always being taken to places beyond our ability. To turn back means going back in to a mode where we can control things. This is why Jesus said that following Him meant dying (Matt. 16:24–26).
In Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t ask His disciples what they thought He should do. If He had, they would have answered with an emphatic, “You can’t die! That’s the worst idea ever!” Jesus didn’t give in to His discomfort. Instead, he went straight to the Father and asked Him what the next step was. For Jesus, living by the Spirit meant saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Missional communities are not rocket science. Really, the only complicated thing about them is unlearning our tendency to control things. Allowing the Spirit to move in to our hidden places feels strange at first, but when we do it, it inevitably results in healing, reconciliation, and new direction. Missional communities then aren’t even the point. The point is forming mature disciples who know how to listen to the Spirit and go into all the world.
Part of the work I do through Saturate is overseeing our coaching communities. When we designed them a few years ago, we wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t prescriptive. Instead, we wanted to create an experience that helped church-planters learn to listen to the Spirit. That’s why we ask questions before we give processes. That’s why we listen more than we speak. This is what it looks like to live by the Spirit. This is what it looks like to live in and lead a missional community. This is what it looks like to plant a church. This is what it means to be a disciple. It’s all about listening.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats once wrote, “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”
“How’s your heart?” This is the question the Spirit confronts us with regularly. Do you want to turn away? I’d like to present a new saying. Submitting to the Spirit isn’t hard. It’s just unfamiliar. The more we do it, the more we can say with Peter, “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Do you battle with wanting to leave the mission of Jesus, too?
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