Monday, August 22, 2005

Guidelines for Loving the World for Christ (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 13)

Matthew 10

I was originally going to call this installment of the series, Marching Orders. But that really isn't an accurate reflection of what Jesus says in this chapter.

Here, Jesus does tell His followers how to go about the mission of calling the world to turn from self-destructive sin and turn to the God Who forgives and gives new life.

But as I read His words again, I realized that Jesus wasn't necessarily telling us to travel the world or do earth-shaking deeds for Him. Even in His famous commission--what's called the Great Commission--at the end of Matthew's book, He doesn't really say, "Go, make disciples...," as most of our English translations put it; instead, He says, "As you are going about in the world..." The significance of that is more than simply grammatical: Jesus is calling His followers to be about His mission in the midst of their everyday lives.

A seminary professor of mine used to say, "You may be very heroic in standing up for your faith with a machine gun aimed at your head while being commanded to renounce your faith. But how Christian are you when vying to be the first one to the drinking fountain during a break from class?"

Life is lived in small places. Often people of faith in Christ want to do big things. When we adopt such aspirations, we show that we have failed to learn what Mother Teresa knew. "Small things," she said, "done in great love will change the world." Small things done in Jesus' Name, done to glorify the God we see in Jesus, will change the world, by nudging people closer to Christ one person at a time.

In Matthew 10, Jesus reveals much of His plan for transforming the world. But in spite of His instructions' macro-implications, they all get expressed at the mirco-level.

On the heels of commanding His followers to pray for "harvest hands," followers who would live and work among people ready to receive the new life Christ gives, Jesus calls His twelve key followers to take on this work.

One key lesson of this incident is to remember that if a need is significant enough for us to pray about, God may in fact call us to be part of the answer. Passion and mission may be linked: Often, our passion about some need is an indicator of a God-ordained mission for us.

Jesus proceeds to give His "harvest hands" a lengthy charge.

First: Jesus gives some important foundational directives. These aren't legalisms. But they're good guidelines for anyone who wants to pass along the peace and hope of Christ to others.

Jesus says not to "begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers..." A woman, writing in Decision magazine a few years ago, told about having the overwhelming sense that God wanted her and her family to go overseas to share Christ in a foreign country. She went to her husband and excitedly told him about what she just knew to be their new mission. He was less than certain that his wife had been called to be a missionary.

He suggested that she test her feelings out first. Why not try to pursue her mission to reach others with the love and Good News of Jesus right here first and see where that led?

A little disappointed, she agreed that this might be a good plan. She wracked her brain to come up with some ways she could do this and then hit on an idea. She and her husband lived in a community that was growing. Lots of new neighbors were moving in all the time. She would bake bread and welcome newcomers to their community. No Bible tracts. No religious jaw. Just a welcome from a neighbor.

At first, the woman thought that she was wasting her time on some insignificant activity. But over time, she became friends with a number of these newcomers. When a crisis developed in their lives, they would call her for help or ask her for prayers. Many asked her the reasons for her joy and helpfulness to others and she was able to tell them about Christ. Over the decades, this woman saw hundreds of people who previously had no connection with Christ come to believe in Him, in part because she shared Christ in a simple, practical way.

She came to believe that God had called her to be a her own backyard.

"And don't try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy...," Jesus says. (The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible more literally translates Jesus as adjoining His first disciples from entering into Samaria, trying to make a splash confronting their false religious practices.)

I once heard Henry Mitchell, an eminent African-American preacher, describe the experience of a young black pastor. The pastor, fresh from seminary, tried to mobilize the African-American churches in his southern community to demonstrate against racial injustice. He contacted the media and sent a mailing to all the local churches, announcing a mass meeting.

The appointed day arrived...and nobody showed up. The young pastor was devastated and angry. A few days later, he called one of his mentors to share his disappointment that people in his community seemed so unmoved to do anything.

"What," his mentor asked, "had you hoped to accomplish?" "I wanted to use my influence to advance the cause of equality," he said. "Son," the mentor replied, "that's all very good. But on this business of influence, you can't use what you don't have."

Often, followers of Christ, especially new believers, try to use influence they don't possess to tackle enormous evils or huge projects. I've fought this temptation myself.

Jesus is saying that it's best to avoid showiness. For one thing, our showiness is often motivated more by a desire for personal prominence, rather than by doing God's business. But more than that, when we aim for big giants, we miss all the little munchkin-evils that bedevil people every day.

We're not to ignore big evils, of course. But we must be careful to not be so consumed with those big things that we forget the everyday kindnesses and love we can give to people. In Jesus' famous parable of the Good Samaritan, two religious leaders, apparently bent on performing their religious duties, passed a dying man on the road. Faithful in fulfilling their religious duties for the throngs, they neglected to love God and love neighbor one person at a time. Only a member from an ethnic group hated by Jesus' Judeans took the time to eschew grandiosity and embrace simple compassion.

In the power of God, fortified by humble prayer in Jesus' Name, we can bring a world of good to the little, everyday places we all inhabit.

Jesus also warns against putting "on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don't need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment." In some African nations, people who have gone there tell me, thousands of people gather for hours on Sundays in buildings made of sheet metal, to hear the Good News of Jesus and to worship Him. Of course, there are differences in our respective cultures. But I wish that we in North America could take an approach more similar to Jesus in sharing Him with others. We don't need advertising campaigns, elaborate rituals, or expensive equipment to share Jesus. Jesus' followers are the most important equipment for sharing Christ with the world. People are the church, not bricks.

Second: Jesus says that when we do travel for him, don't insist on staying in luxurious places. What a rotten witness for Christ is presented by people who insist on having luxury suites.

Third: Don't argue with people about your faith. Nobody was ever won into surrender to Jesus Christ through hostile argumentation. People can only be loved into Christ's kingdom.

Fourth: Beware of temptations. The closer you are to Christ and the harder you work for Him, the greater the temptations that will be strewn in front of you. Pray that God will protect you from temptation and enable you to withstand them.

Fifth: Jesus says that only the naive believer will think that everybody is going to be pleased with your allegiance to Him. After all, He was nailed to a cross. His followers can expect no better treatment.

But, Jesus says, even when we're dragged before authorities who have the power to put us away or end our lives, we shouldn't worry. "The right words will be there," Jesus promises, "the Spirit of your Father will supply the words."

I've never been called to give an account of my hope in Christ by hostile officials. But I have often been confronted with daunting situations: a woman mired in pain, hostile to God, and certain that faith in Christ was nothing but a crutch for weak people; a man who has just received word of a horrible health prognosis; the family whose loved-one has just died. When confronted with such circumstances, my prayers are always pretty much the same, "God: Give me the right words and the right silences." He always answers that prayer.

Sixth: When we share His love with others, Jesus says, we will encounter hatred. This I have experienced many times. But, as Paul says in the New Testament book of Romans, nothing can separate those with faith in Jesus from the love of God that comes to us from Jesus.

Jesus culminates this section by telling His followers not to "be bluffed by the threats of bullies. There's nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, Who holds your entire life--body and soul--in your hands."

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke out against the injustice of apartheid in his native South Africa, he faced daily death threats. How, people asked him, could he deal with this day-in and day-out? Tutu responded that he could not refrain from speaking out: injustice was wrong. Besides, he said, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

The follower of Jesus places her and his whole lives in the hands of the God we know in Jesus Christ. We can stand with Him and let the chips fall where they may. (Of course, this is very easy for me to write and I have failed to follow Jesus many times in my life. But the wonderful thing about Jesus is that He is the Lord of second chances, Who hears the prayers of the repentant and gives us fresh starts on lives of faithfulness.)

Seventh: Jesus drives home how significant each person is in the eyes of God. If God cares about birds, He will most assuredly care about us!

Eighth: I love the passage in which Jesus says, "Stand up for Me against world opinion and I'll stand up for you before My Father in heaven. If you turn tail and run, do you think I'll cover for you?" This doesn't mean that followers of Jesus should spoil for fights, as so many contemporary Christians seem bent on doing these days. It means, as Peter writes in his letter to the churches of Asia Minor, "Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy" (First Peter 3:22).

Ninth: Jesus issues a warning, telling those who would follow Him not to expect our lives to be "cozy." Our grimmest opposition is likely to come from our own families. Jesus will be like a knife, cutting families apart. But our call is to put Him first. As Pastor Rick Warren likes to say, God is more interested in developing our characters than in making us comfortable. Our characters will last for eternity; the comforts offered by this world are fleeting, lasting as long as we live here, at most. Our characters may be developed by the fires of adversity, something that cannot happen if we're more bent on being popular than we are on being faithful.

Tenth: Jesus discusses one of the most interesting--and I believe, true--paradoxes of life. "If your first concern is to look after yourself," He says, "you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to Me, you'll find both yourself and Me."

In the United States, we speak of "the pursuit of happiness" as an "inalienable" right. Whether such a right inheres in our humanity is something I can't assert with certainty, though I am sure that each of us is obliged to afford our neighbors the very same considerations we ourselves desire. But I can say this with absolute certainty: People who make the pursuit of happiness a major life aim have adopted the wrong goal for themselves. It's been my observation that such people, at the very least, make themselves miserable. Their selfishness often causes them to take others along on their miserable rides with them.

Happiness comes by the indirect route, Jesus says. Make the love of God and the love of others your aim and happiness will be the byproduct. In brief flickers of cogency and insight in my life, I have found this to be true.

Finally: Jesus underscores the importance of faithfulness in the small places and in the smallest acts of kindness and love, rendered in His Name. See my message of a few months ago here.

[Check out the previous installments of this series:

Long-Awaited Savior

Scholars from the East

The Freedom to Be Weird

This is a Test

Trusting What You Can't See

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression

Explicating the Beatitudes...and More

Authenticity and Trust

Jesus' Radical Ethics

Friend of the Outcasts...

The Conflict Deepens]

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