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They must have been difficult words for the Messiah to hear: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” They imply, “We thought you were The Answer To All Our Problems – but now we have more. We thought you’d blow away our enemies – but they still have it over us. We thought… frankly we thought you’d be more impressive.” The words must have hurt all the more coming from John the Baptist, one of the very first to point Jesus out as the Christ.
But John is stuck in prison, and he won’t be coming out in one piece. So a fair question, maybe? We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” But his last sentence has always rocked me: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.”
Think about that: Blessed are those who don’t fall away because of Jesus. Because he is not enough for them. Because he is beneath them.
When Paul wrote to the Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wasn’t merely saying that he wasn’t afraid to speak up publicly. The gospel was causing a lot of problems for the Roman church, bringing together ‘those Jews’ and ‘those Gentiles’ and all sorts of ‘those people’ – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dying, the poor. That in turn meant layers of difficulty and tension. It certainly didn’t make life easy. Paul knew as well as anyone that Jesus can mess your life up. But he also knew this was the way God’s power works. It would bring salvation, upend an empire, change the world and lead to ultimate glory.
So I try to remember this when church is hard work, when ‘those people’ are frustrating, when progress seems slow and when God’s enemies seem to be winning. I hear Jesus saying “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” If those people and that path are not beneath him, they mustn’t be beneath me. Let’s keep learning not to look down on Jesus but to trust him and his way instead.
“In the unlikely event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” If you’ve flown before, you know the drill. And the next part of the safety message: “Be sure to fit your own mask correctly before assisting others.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The faster you get yourself sorted, the sooner you’ll be able to help others.
But it doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us sacred agents. When we share the gospel, we often forget that part. Calling people to a response – to ‘hurry up and get themselves sorted’ with God – seems a bit pushy to us. Aussies don’t like to be pushed. And Jesus isn’t pushy, is he? Is he?
Actually, the urgency of being reconciled to God is all through his teaching. “Reconcile quickly with your adversary, even on the way to the judge.” Won’t a king facing a stronger king “send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace”? And all those parables about being ready because we never know when we’ll face the Master.
Our news is not merely that God loves everyone. If our message can be met with “that’s good to know” or “that’s lovely to think about” then it’s much less than the gospel. Imagine Fred proposing to Helen over and over and getting that response … and then Helen’s agony when she sees Fred finally marry Susan instead! Jesus is not just the pilot announcing “It’s all going to be OK, go back to what you were doing.” He calls people to action – to come and belong to him and join his mission.
The people who do so – who emphatically and publicly say “Yes” to Christ in baptism,getting themselves quickly sorted with God – these are the ones who (masks fitted and breathing in the Spirit) will go on to help others also find life in Christ. For responsibility begins with a response.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5)
Just the word ‘evangelist’ seems to spook so many people. We can handle some people being called pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders and administrators … but the role descriptor evangelist seems especially loaded. It’s in sore need of some demystification.
Scripture calls God’s people the body of Christ. The ministry of Jesus, the mission of God, continues by the Holy Spirit through us collectively. We have each been entrusted by God with a unique role to play and contribution to make to the whole, which is why I’m constantly emphasising that there are no lone sacred agents.
It’s good for us to have the words to describe the different kinds of ministries and ministers of the body in order for us to operate together well. The evangelist, in simple terms, is the mouth. Evangelists are the spokespeople of the church to the world. They tell the good news. Again, I emphasise that the whole body is on mission, that we all are called to be missionaries together. We’re all called to demonstrate God’s kingdom, but we’re not all called to articulate it.
So how do you know who is? Here’s a simple test: If your church was having an Open Day and inviting the whole neighbourhood to come for a look-see, who among you would you choose to say a few words of explanation of what your church is on about? For such a day you have a sense for who is better to be positioned behind the scenes (equally essential) and who is better out in front. Good evangelists have a knack for speaking to those with little knowledge of God, using words and ideas that they can relate to.
Evangelists come in many shapes and sizes. Our Queen is one of the world’s foremost evangelists. But closer to home, take my test and jot down some names. Who would you ask to say a few words explaining what your church is on about? Do they need some encouragement, support and development? And do they need to be released from other duties to grow more in evangelism?
Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the third in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision and Eavesdropping. Stay tuned for Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching still to come…
If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, then you must immediately, not least for the classic Battle of Wits scene between Vizzini and the Man in Black. It’s a challenge: To the death! For the princess! Which of the two goblets of wine has been poisoned with Iocane Powder? (It’s odourless, tasteless, deadly, and apparently an Australian export.) *Spoiler alert* Our hero in Black prevails only because he has built up immunity to Iocane over several years.
I don’t have to remind you sacred agents that there’s a lot of poison going round. On your journey of rescue you’ll face many battles-of-wits, where the binary options of fight and flight look equally unpalatable. Do you keep your head down and avoid the hostility? That doesn’t seem like Jesus. But nor does weighing in with hostility of your own. That’s where we need to be alert enough to see and select a third option Jesus offers us.
This is the option of engaging with hostile people with radical love that turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. It’s a lot easier for me to type this than practice it, because cheek-blows and pack-carrying are both quite painful. But it’s the only thing that will really progress our journey of rescue and redemption. It’s God’s chosen way to change the world.
If following Jesus means getting up close and personal with a fair bit of poison, then we need to build up our immunity to it. Our first battle-of-wits is unlikely to be face to face with IS terrorists or the panel of The Project (not to compare them). It’s in the small barbs we’ll face each day from those we live and work with that we can practice Jesus’ redemptive presence and gradually build up our immunity to evil. It’s as we take to God in prayer the insults and pressures we face that we’ll build the capacity to absorb more.
Every day we can build our cross-carrying muscles, and thus stay in the adventure to rescue the princess and see True Love prevail.
We have lived through an era of unusual peace, compared to the rest of human history. These patches of peace across history have usually occurred when a superpower looms so large that no-one dare rebel. We’ve had Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and more recently Pax Americana.
During Pax Mongolica a common saying was “A maiden carrying a nugget of gold on her head could safely wander throughout the realm.” Whilst a beanie may have been more practical, that short saying does reveal how the fruit of lasting peace are prosperity, security, trust, freedom of migration, freedom of women, and gap years.
But these empires come and go. Each seems invincible and permanent at their climax (before being undone by little things like germs and Facebook). It all reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (another fruit of empires) and Daniel’s interpretation. The statue represented a succession of empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) – and the prediction that none would last. A tiny rock “not cut out by human hands” would strike the feet (Romana), reduce those empires to dust and “become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth.” A very different superpower would emerge, and now has.
So amidst all the consternation that peace, security, justice, freedom and prosperity are all teetering, sacred agents have a role to remind people that these treasures have never been reliably built on the sand of military empires. It’s been a dream all along. Only when the lasting Pax Christi conquers our hearts and dissolves our violence will our daughters be truly safe to hitchhike in cash fascinators.
But it is happening. Still the mountain grows. It will outlast Americana and whatever faux pax comes next. And its borders are open now.
OK so here comes Christmas. Do you love it? Or like me do you sometimes dread December? Fighting your way through traffic, through crowded shops, through awkward gatherings of colleagues and extended family? And fighting the culture wars over whether Christ should be taken out of or put back into Christmas?
Then let’s do something different. Let’s play a game. It’s called Where’s Wally Jesus? First I’ll say why, then how.
Why? Well, firstly, we need to relax. Jesus is a big boy, the Great King in fact. No one’s ever going to erase him. Secondly, if there’s one thing Christians shouldn’t be doing, it’s fighting. If we’re serious about representing the Prince of Peace, we need to unclench our fists, jaws and buttocks; that’s why I’m serious in saying let’s play a game. Thirdly, we don’t get to take Jesus out or put him in anywhere. Turns out we’re not in charge of him. But what we can and do get to do, is to spot him. We get to see where he is and where he’s at work, and to point him out to others. It’s called witnessing.
Here’s how to play: (1) You can’t play it alone. Report to and challenge others – in your family, home group or on social media with some hashtag like #ThereHeIs. (2) Here’s the tricky bit: You can’t rush. With so much red and white everywhere, you never find Wally Jesus if you’re just scanning the page. (3) You need to be onto His tricks and disguises. You might find him in the frazzled shop assistant. Or in the improvised shelter of a homeless person. Have a close look at the overwhelmed young mother and the lonely old man and the wide-eyed child.
This is actually the ancient sport of Advent. Are your eyes sharp? There’s Herod on his pathological power trip. There’s the crowd of religious folk busy with their duties. But over here in the corner are the winners – dear old Anna and Simeon, watching carefully for the coming of the kingdom, and calling out when they spot the King.
So when you see him, bless him, welcome him, point him out, join in with him. Those with eyes to see will notice that he is alive and kicking, and still doing wonderful things. Even in December.