Monthly Letter – September 2019

Dear Friends,

It’s ‘Doors Open Day’ here in Aberdeen this month.

We’re glad of the opportunities the day presents – despite the fact that our doors are obviously open on more than just the one day in the year – because the three-word title which is given to the day is itself so expressive of the gospel we proclaim: it could almost be our ‘strap-line’! ‘Doors open day.’

The whole message of the Bible is essentially about an open door: or at least about a door which had once been closed, being now opened affording access. For our problem as humanity has, from the Garden of Eden onwards, been one of access: or, more precisely, a lack of access.

The door was shut in the face of Adam and Eve (metaphorically at least), when they chose to spurn the word of God: they were chased out of the garden, the gate was closed behind them, and the key was pretty much thrown away.

A big red circle with a broad white line across the middle is the sign we all encounter, whichever way we try and climb or scramble or bribe our way into heaven. ‘No Entry’. The door firmly closed, locked and bolted.

We understand at least in some measure something of the phenomenon, and the reasons lying behind it. The people of Winchester maybe better than most these days.

The very mention of Novichok there, for instance, is enough to trigger an instant, total lock-down: they know all too well just how fatally lethal that wretched nerve agent can be. The doors will be closed. Access denied. Keep out.

Or have a chat with Pauline Cafferkey about the effects of the ebola virus, and remind yourself of just what ‘barrier’ nursing looks like, why it’s employed, and what it entails for infected individuals: a whole series of ‘barriers’ – doors, as it were, firmly shut and sealed, to keep the contaminated person out, and to prevent that potent virus slipping in.

We understand the principle. Sin contaminates: and we’re all infected. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it doesn’t matter who we are, we’re all of us infected. We carry the virus with us.

And the door of heaven stays solidly shut.

Until the thing has been dealt with. That’s why we often sing as we do the great words of Psalm 24 when we celebrate communion and rehearse once more the life and death of Jesus on our part.

Ye gates, lift up your heads on high; ye doors that last for aye, be lifted up, that so the King of Glory enter may.

The drawbridge of heaven is lowered at last, the portcullis at last is raised. At last there’s a Man who can go in. The Man who’s not infected. The Man who’s dealt the thorough-going antidote to sin. No wonder that one of the ways He describes Himself is simply as ‘the door’.

This is now a ‘door’s open’ day. The door has been opened to Him, the sinless, perfect Man. And for those who can say “I’m with Him” .. well, they too get the nod, they too can go in now with Him. They too can draw near and feast with the Father, like the prodigal children we are, because the stain of sin’s been removed, and it’s virility rendered impotent: we’ve been declared no longer infectious.

That’s how we most times think of the ‘open door’. And rightly so in some ways. ‘Come on in!’ we exhort, with a genuine warmth in our words of exhortation and a valid sense of urgency as well.

‘The door has been opened by Jesus: come on in!’  This is “the door’s open” day for sure. We welcome everyone in.

Except the New Testament rather knocks that comfortable notion on its head. Or rather, the New Testament church discovered to their considerable discomfort that God was knocking that notion on the head. Or at least swiveling the head 180 degrees.

Those who’ve come in are now to go out. A whole new ball game ensues. And Jesus Himself, the great ‘pioneer’ and perfecter of our faith, He shows the way.

Remember that famous little episode in Jericho. The wee man, Zacchaeus – little in pretty much every way (and most of the ways weren’t that pretty) – remember how Jesus engaged with him?

Not the way that we’d have likely followed – if we’d cared to engage with the man at all. We’d have maybe put a flier in the wee man’s chubby fingers and encouraged him to come to church, told him the times of services, and assured him he’d be made most warmly welcome. The door’s open to all!

Not Jesus. It was the other way round with Him. “Zacchaeus,” He said, “I must come to your house for tea.” Your house.

If Jesus is indeed ‘the door’, His disciples soon learn that this is more like a revolving door. For the early church would learn very quickly – and painfully too, by means of open persecution – that, yes the door’s open, but it’s been opened by Jesus to send His people out.

It wasn’t an easy lesson for any of them to learn. For centuries past their entire perspective had been framed by the basic conviction that the only door, the one and only access that there was to God, involved you going to Him – more specifically you going off to the house of God, located in Jerusalem. That’s where and how you met with God. The door was narrow; and just occasionally ajar; for once a year, on your behalf, with all due complicated protocols observed, the great high priest could get himself an audience with the Lord.

The early church was being called to break the habits of a lifetime. The only working model which they had was one whereby “the open door” meant only that you’re free now to go in. Come. On. IN!

We’re faced by a very similar challenge in these days. For centuries now, and for very good reasons, the primary working model that we’ve had, in terms of how we go about our calling to proclaim the risen Christ, has been one which sees us eager to invite our neighbours in. In to the building, in to the church, in to share in our worship. Come on in – the door’s open!

Well, yes; the door’s open. And, yes, folk are welcome always to come in. But just as the early church soon learned that God had other plans in opening thus the door, so we today are having to break with the patterns of the past, dispense with the working models which have served us well, and learn again what the ‘strap-line’ actually means. Door’s Open Day. God’s opened the door to send His people out.

‘Don’t expect that they will come to you: you go to them. Door’s open – out you go. Go call on wee Zacchaeus and his chums. Go visit them, have tea with them. Their place not yours.’

Door’s open. This is the children of God now coming of age. No longer confined to the home, no longer grounded, no longer housebound. But trusted now to go out, ‘chaperoned’ and indeed empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God, to do themselves what Jesus had been doing from the start – the Son of God who opened the door of His home and went out, out on mission, and came to us. Isn’t that what the incarnation is all about? ‘I must stay at your house today!’

Remember how Paul and Barnabas reported back to the church at Antioch, telling them of all that God had done through them and “how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14.27)? Or how, a bit later on, he writes to say that “a great door for effective work has opened to me ..” (1 Cor.16.9)?

“Door’s open” meant they went. That’s the challenge which we now, like the early church, are facing today. The ‘revolving’ door of grace is turning our model of ministry on its head. No longer a case of people first coming in and then, once in, being roundly and soundly converted, through the preaching of the Word: instead, people only by and large coming in when once they’ve already been converted. Through the spreading of the Word of God out there on the streets, in the homes, and in the places of leisure and work where the swarming mass of humanity live out their every-day lives.

The church at Antioch now provides a far more important model for us all than the church which was stuck in Jerusalem. That church’s story (the church at Antioch, I mean) begins with those who were ‘scattered’ (Acts 11.19): they were kicked, rather unceremoniously, out through the open door. But without a hint of a ‘but-we’ve-aye-done-it-this-way’ complaint, they got off their backsides, stepped into their trainers, and carried right on out.

They ‘travelled’, we’re told, travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Not just out, but way out. So ‘way out’ in fact that the church in Jerusalem got singularly nervous and twitchy about it all, and sent a delegation off to check the whole thing out.

And ‘out’, of course, was the operative word! Disciples were out on the streets of the world: kicked out, or sent out, depending upon your perspective – but definitely now right out on the streets of the world: and the word was out that Jesus was risen, that the King had come, that a whole new world order had started.

A great door had opened to the world at large. For “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord .. a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11.21, 24).

A huge, great centrifugal force had been, in God’s wise providence, now set in train, and an outward-looking, outward-going model had become this ‘scattered’ people’s new perspective in the cause of gospel ministry. A momentum had been triggered by the act of their expulsion from Jerusalem; and Antioch would prove to be not just their landing place, but rapidly their launch pad, too, for more far-reaching ministry which would see the message sounding out and spreading out to peoples far and wide.

It’s a “door’s open” day. We’d better believe it! We’d better learn to recognize and understand the spiritual dynamics of this great ‘revolving’ door!

Because it is just a ‘day’. Not a brief September Saturday; but not forever and a day either. Just a ‘day’, a season, an era, a day of opportunity which does not and which will not last for always. For the Lord who’s gracious in opening such doors, is sovereign as well in His closing the door when it’s time.

Remember what’s said about Noah after all those years of building the ark and preaching the word? “The Lord shut him in” (Gen.7.16). Or, more bluntly, ‘the Lord closed the door.’

Scary, if you were stuck outside and felt the first drops of rain on your head. You’d have had years and years of listening to Noah the boat-builder preaching the Word: and now the heavens opened .. and the door was closed, to the only sort of safety there would be. How dreadful to find too late that you’d missed the boat!

It’s a “Door’s open” day still here: but maybe only just in Scotland now. As we’re wont to say, the nights are drawing in fast. “While it is still day,” therefore, “we must do the works of Him who sent (us)” (Jn.9.4): on the street side of the door.

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton