The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
A summary of the sermon Lindsay Brown preached at Michael Green’s funeral on 2nd March, 2019.
This article is a summary of the sermon Lindsay Brown preached at Michael Green’s funeral on 2nd March, 2019.
Good morning everyone. First of all, I would like to offer some words of condolence and encouragement to the family who are present here.
Just 2 days ago, I received this brief anonymous text which I hope will be an encouragement to you: ‘Grief never ends… but it changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, or lack of faith…it is the price of love.’
Even though believers have the hope of Heaven, the Bible still tells us that death is the king of terrors; and we know biblically and emotionally as human beings, that it is difficult to be separated from loved ones. It is acceptable therefore, in God’s eyes to grieve freely for the loss of much treasured loved ones.
Today we will speak of Michael’s legacy – and we will acknowledge his legacy in the many lives of people he influenced, the many who came to trust Christ, his books and his example and perhaps his greatest legacy - you, his family.
He spoke with me of the amazement he felt that the late-born only son of Australian and Welsh parents could leave behind him 4 children and 14 grandchildren… With many great-grandchildren to come! So be encouraged by his legacy of love to you and feel free to grieve.
Benjamin Disraeli was a famous 19th century prime minister. He once said towards the end of his life, ‘Youth is a blunder, manhood is a struggle and old age a regret.’ Michael never experienced that, as we heard from Tim Green’s testimony about his father’s life. He finished well, joyfully and with no fear. He phoned me just 2 days before he died, to say that he was at peace, without fear, full of joy and expectancy. We saw evidence of that not only in the last 10 days of his life, but many of us observed it in the last 10 years of his life.
I well remember being at a conference in Poland, when he was a mere 78 and a half year old. I was standing in a café area when a flash of light went past me. It was Michael! I asked him where he was going. ‘I’m just off to speak at my 3rd seminar of the day’… (just after midday!). I said to him, ‘I’ve only done 1 seminar and I’m tired already – where do you get your energy from?’ He stood bolt upright and said, ’I want to die with my bootstraps on!’
A couple of years later, we were on a university mission later together in Cardiff and at the end of the week, I asked one of the theological students who was helping what he had appreciated most about the week. He pointed to Michael and said, ’See that man over there? If I live to be 80, I want to be like that!’
Well, what helped Michael to finish well? The family have chosen the text for this service as 2 Tim 4:1-8; 17-18. I think the text suggests 3 reasons why the apostle Paul finished well – and all were true of Michael. In reverse order, they are:
a) v 17: the apostle said ‘The Lord stood at my side’. This is almost an exact repetition of Michael’s favourite verse, Isaiah 41:10, which Rosemary read to us. He had an intimate walk with the Lord, sensed his presence and could pray short prayers at the drop of a hat. This sense of the Lord’s presence sustained him to the end.
b) His hope of Heaven: in v 18, Paul writes that not only will the Lord rescue him from all attack… but ‘He will bring me safely to the heavenly kingdom’. Here the apostle is building on his earlier statement (v8) that ‘there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day.’
Michael had a cast-iron confidence in the hope of heaven because of the solid evidence of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, who thus authenticated his claim to deity and so can be trusted to fulfil his promise to bring us safely to him. In his last phone-call to me, he said ‘one day we will meet again in heaven… Thank you for being a heavenly friend.’ In one of his most significant books, ‘World on the Run’, he comments on this Bible passage in the last page of that book and concludes his reflections on Heaven by saying, ‘What a magnificent prospect for runners who finish the race.’
c) But thirdly, in v 7 of the text read to us, Paul writes ‘I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished the race.’ Michael had a clear sense of vocation and focused on completing the task which he sensed God had given him right up to the end of his life. I believe the key to this task is the phrase in v 5, where the apostle exhorts Timothy to ‘do the work of an evangelist.’
- Michael had an extraordinarily fruitful life. He was involved in leading at least 4 churches, in Eastbourne, Oxford, Vancouver and Raleigh North, N. Carolina. He also served effectively in Abingdon in his later years.
- He was involved in leadership positions in 4 seminaries – in London, Nottingham, Vancouver and Wycliffe.
- He published in excess of 50 books….
- But it is illuminating to note that he turned down at least 2 offers of bishoprics because of a deep-seated sense of vocation which one obituarist referred to as preferring to be a ‘free ranging and roving evangelist’, especially in the student world.
From my perspective of having viewed student ministry around the world in at least 120 countries in the last 40 years, Michael, along with David Watson, his close friend, were probably the 2 most influential university evangelists globally in the last half century. Michael’s legacy was perhaps deeper, in part because he lived longer, whereas David died in his early 50s.
Some people here have been shaped by Michael’s example and encouragement. I knew him for only half of his life, but we worked closely together for the last 10 years and he and his beloved Rosemary were effectively grandparents of an emerging movement of university evangelists all across Europe, who last year alone were involved in speaking at mission weeks in 200 universities in 30 countries. This will probably be repeated this year.
John Wesley, the famous Anglican evangelist of another generation, once wrote, ‘Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or not, they alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth’. Michael has left behind him that number of people all across the continent, spread over 30 countries, who are committed to the proclamation of the gospel. In the last 10 years alone, he preached at mission weeks in universities in Greece, Norway, Belarus, Poland, Serbia, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, Spain, Czech Republic, Malta, Albania and Denmark, in addition to 12’ Events Weeks’ in universities in the UK. In his last communication to these evangelists, he spoke of imagining he was in a plane, flying over Europe, and seeing lights appearing in university cities where these evangelists were at work. Some, he said, were dim, others were bursting into flame. He left a great legacy behind him.
But what were the distinctive features of his evangelistic approach? I’d like to suggest 3:
Firstly, he was courageous – we all know that Michael was high energy. Working with him as like working with an EverReady battery! People who heard him rarely went away saying ‘That was a nice word’, or feeling indifferent. He often said that his goal in preaching was to ‘electrify the fence on which many people were sitting’. Again, he said that his goal was not just to influence fish, but to catch them. There was a punch to his preaching. On one occasion, he wrote that evangelism was not for wimps… ‘evangelists are at the front line; naturally, the enemy does not like it but I say ‘Back off, old Nick’, and I carry on.’ His evangelistic style mirrored his style as an international fencer in his early days. His delivery was rapier-like, sharp, nimble, quick, penetrating, dashing, with a flashing blade. I was reminded of his courage when I visited Spain 2 years ago and met Mike Wickham, a Brethren missionary there. He approached me at a conference and asked me if I remembered him. He had played soccer as a goalkeeper in the Oxford Blues. He said, ‘Do you remember coming to my college, St Edmund Hall, in 1976, with Michael Green? (…Teddy Hall was famous as a sports college)… You both came down to Deep Hall, which was the bar in the college, stood on beer barrels and Michael challenged all the sportsmen there to ‘have the guts to face up to the historic Jesus and come along to hear someone explain why we should follow him!’ Mike said he was petrified, but came along anyway and one of his friends, captain of the university rugby team named Tim, made a profession of faith and went on to serve Christ with distinction in the army and the prison service. Michael was diminutive of stature but he had the heart of a great lion.
Secondly, his evangelistic style was imbued by contemporary and clear communication. This manifested itself in several ways:
He worked hard to ensure that his presentations were jargon-free and fresh. Even when he was here in Oxford, as rector of St Aldates, he frequently asked students, even non-believing students, to read the text of sermons he was going to deliver and to tell him if there were words they didn’t understand. He did that even into his 80s. When he was told there were words which were jargonised or too complicated, he would immediately try to find other ways to communicate what he wanted to say. I saw evidence of this in Cambridge last year, when he was preaching in the mission week there about the person of Jesus Christ, whom he called ‘the man with the vacuum cleaner’ – he came to suck up and dispose of the rubbish in your life – a novel way of saying that Christ died for sinners!
His communication style was like that of a bridge builder. His sermons were often shot through with quotations. In the same sermon, he could offer quotations from Greek and Roman authors such as Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian known as the ‘Father of history’, Seneca and Cicero, as well as Bono, Michael Schumacher and Prince Charles! In fact, I heard him quote all these people in one sermon last year in Cambridge. He took his approach from Paul’s style in Acts 17, when the apostle refrained from quoting any Old Testament texts which his audience did not understand or would be unaware, and instead quoted 2 of their own authorities, Aratas and Epimenides.
I asked him why he thought Paul did this – he said he thought it was because Paul was trying to build bridges with these people by quoting the authorities which they respected and moving on from there to explain the gospel. In this, Michael was an inheritor of Calvin’s style, who, interestingly on one occasion, said that he would ‘take honey, even if it was in the lion’s mouth.’ He did this because, as he explained, these writers whom he quoted could identify aspects of the human condition as well as any Christian could, but they could not provide the antidote which was only found in the gospel. So he moved quickly from the analysis provided by these individuals,- eg Cicero was quoted as saying ‘I am in a pit and I need help to get out’… which Michael highlighted as referring to the human condition we call the Fall and moved effortlessly on from there to explain how Christ gets us out of the pit.
This style of communication came through in many of his evangelistic books, most notably in those of the 60s – ‘Man Alive’, (published in 1967) and ‘Runaway World’ (published in 1968). Many previous evangelistic books were clear, biblically orientated and worthy, but sometimes somewhat dull, lacking illustration and quotation. Michael’s books were of a different genre and were copied by many subsequent evangelists and writers who tried to connect with the modern world.
Together with his friend David Watson, Michael initiated the use of the creative arts as a supplement to the spoken and proclaimed word, especially from the 1960s onwards. Though a great wordsmith, he saw the importance of the visual and the testimony in Christian witness. He understood the changes taking place in British culture from the 1970s on and the fact that we were becoming a ‘verbally saturated culture’, to quote his friend David Watson, and in that context, it was important to balance the spoken word with the visual, so he initiated the use of drama, music and poetry. Later on in his life he would make use of rap artists, illusionists (as a basis of speaking on the question of ‘Is God an illusion?’) and even film clips. In doing this, he never played down the primacy or centrality of the spoken word, because he saw these approaches as helping the evangelist to engage the whole person, but also in order to supplement but not to supplant the spoken word. In that he leaves a unique legacy which is for others to build on.
Thirdly, Michael’s evangelistic content focused on the centrality of the person of Christ. Whenever he spoke of Jesus, he spoke with freshness, excitement and warmth. In that respect, he reminds me of John Wesley. When I was a student here in Lincoln College, Wesley would have been a Fellow for over 250 years ago. I was reading history and went into the library in order to read some of the journals and diaries of Wesley. I found some statements there which are found more frequently in Wesley’s journals elsewhere. At the end of each day, it was common practice for Wesley to write in his diary exactly the same words – ‘I offered Christ to the people today… I offered Christ to the people today…’ Sometimes he might replace that with the phrase, ‘I offered grace to the people today’.
That was Michael’s goal – to offer Christ to the people today. I saw him do that in Cambridge last year when memorably, using all his communication skills, Michael said ‘Christ came as God among us… and if he was not God, he deserves an Oscar! For no-one else dealt with wickedness as He did; no-one else smashed the barrier of death as He did; no-one else offered to come and live inside us…
The root of spiritual satisfaction comes not through creeds, or ceremonies, only through an individual encounter with Jesus Christ.
Before I close, I want to mention 2 illustrations of how Michael tried to do this. He told me that on one occasion he was at a prison in East Asia. When he turned up at the prison, he was wearing a beautiful clean white surplice, but when he was introduced to the inmates, they were all wearing dirty rag-like prison uniforms. Michael wondered how he could communicate the wonder of the cross and the resurrection of Christ to these men? Then he came up with a brilliant idea. He called one of the prisoners out of the crowd towards him, asked the man to take off his rag-like shirt. Michael then took off his own white surplice and put the man’s rag-like shirt on his own body, saying that all our righteousness is like filthy rags and Christ has taken them upon himself. In return, he has transferred his own righteousness to us and made us clean before God… And then he put his own white surplice on the prisoner. The place erupted as many understood what he was saying and cheered.
He often closed his sermons by referring to the painting shown on the screen behind us – the Light of the World, painted by Holman Hunt, which can today be seen in Keble College, Oxford. It is based on a verse in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says that He stands at the door and knocks. If anyone opens the door, He will come in and sup with him. This was a verse which clinched Michael’s own conversion and he would regularly say ‘Notice in this painting that there is no handle or latch outside on the door – it has to be opened from the inside. It is for the individual of the house to open the door to Christ. Then he would plead for individuals to open the door of their heart and let Christ in. And he would implore us today, if he was here, to let Christ into our lives if we have not done so.
So, let me close – there is a beautiful phrase in the Scriptures which says ‘He being dead, yet speaks’. I don’t know exactly what Michael would say if he were here today, but I think he would say the following 3 things:
Don’t be bitter – as he says in one of his books – ‘100 metre sprinters are no good in this marathon.’ Bitterness is like a one-way street with no exit, or like a bottomless pit. Many Christians may be bruised, especially later on in life, but turn to God and follow the exhortation of the apostle in v7, to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith, as Michael did.
Take up the baton, which he has laid down. We need a new generation of Timothys. Michael would implore us to take up the baton of the evangelist. Remember what Wesley said – we need 100 such people in this next generation to take up Michael’s baton to proclaim the gospel not only in universities but in our culture as a whole.
Trust Christ -open the door of your heart to him. What better time is there, than to give your life to Christ at this time of thanksgiving for one of God’s great evangelists in the 20th / 21st century. He once said ‘I only have one life. I want to use the whole of it to serve Christ.’
May that be true for all of us today.
Lindsay Brown, Head of the Fellowship of Evangelists in the Universities of Europe (Feuer).