It’s a massive decision to submit yourself to Jesus and become a Christian. Just think about the sheer magnitude of that event: It impacts one’s work and career choices, family and partner relationships, one’s finances, calendar, and deeper still, one’s very sense of identity. Indeed, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!2Co5:17
As sacred agents move among those to whom we’re sent, we can sometimes despair that any of them would be willing to make such a giant leap. They seem so entrenched in their way of life. This week has reminded me that people do make giant life shifts, and more often than we think. A daughter of one friend is leaving home and across the continent to move in with her boyfriend in a new city. Another friend has a job opportunity on a Caribbean cruise ship and could fly out any day. And another friend (who knew I had three?) is eyeing off a career in the armed forces.
I’m not saying any of these are good choices. But they’re all giant choices. Leave-behind-life-as-you-knew-it choices. Each one is rather sudden. Each one is leaving family and friends scrambling to come to terms with this seismic shift. So I’m reminded that just because someone is entrenched doesn’t mean that they like their trench; many dream of a new start. In these three cases, the dream has come within reach, and they value it so highly that they’ll pay the price of giving up their old life. Cheerfully, even.
It’s all raised one more big question for me. In each of these three cases, the new life can be quite clearly imagined. They might be starry-eyed, sure, but they pretty much know what’s involved, what needs to be organised, and where to sign up. It’s challenged me, as a recruiter for a greater adventure than the military, a deeper peace than the Caribbean, and a better lover than the interstate boyfriend – do the people I’m reaching have a clear idea of the phenomenal thing that is a Christian life, and how to access it, and where to sign?
Just as the Kerrigans at No.34 were sitting down to dinner, in that moment of silence before saying grace, a knock was heard at the door. Their eyes opened wide in surprise, and they looked to each other. “Did you invite anyone?” “No, were you expecting anyone?” Considering it such a rude moment for someone to interrupt the family, they decided to ignore it and continued their dinner.
The Ridleys at No.42 had just called their kids to the table, and they were jockeying with one another for their favourite chairs when the doorbell chimed. The youngest, Jenny, was still on her feet, having been beaten to the end seat by Simon. Tentatively going to the door, she opened it to find Josh, the teenager from two doors down. “Um, come in, I guess,” she stammered, and he stood in their kitchen, shifting from foot to foot. “Good thanks Mrs R,” he replied to the standard question that was put – although the mother’s eyes said to her husband’s, “Who drops in at this time?” Sustaining conversation with teen boys can be difficult at the best of times, and eventually some leftovers and scraps were put on a plate for him, and he picked at them while sitting on the kitchen bench, to the Ridleys’ further annoyance.
It was after dark before the Sampsons at No.23 finally sat down for their meal, and they too were startled by a knock. This will make us even later. It turned out to be second-cousin Ruby, from way out in the country. “Ruby, what a surprise,” said Mr Sampson. “We’re just having dinner, we can probably make some room.” After an awkward sideways shuffling of chairs, plates, glasses, cutlery and Sampsons, Ruby was perched at the end corner of the table with an almost-matching dinner set. The food was served, and politely, no one complained of the slightly smaller servings. “This really is a surprise, Ruby,” Mr Sampson reiterated. “What brings you here?” “Oh, I’m sorry, she said, but remember, you’d said when I started uni to drop in any time? The front gate was jammed, and I see your outside light is broken. But I thought I recognised the house and luckily I was right … I guess.”
Hours earlier, at No.5, the Walters had enjoyed some quick toasted sandwiches together around the kitchen bench. They’d need the energy for the next few hours. “OK, are we all set?” asked Janet for the third time. “Yes Mum! Stop fussing!” said Darryl. “I’ve got the BBQ, Susie’s on drinks, Pete’s made the playlist and will watch the volume.” “But we’ve invited so many. Do we have extra…” “Yes Mum, extra chairs are in the storeroom, extra meat is in the fridge, extra drinks are in the mini-fridge. The front lights are on, and the balloons on the letterbox are still intact.” The whole family rolled their eyes as they saw Mum’s motto coming. “Hospitality is making your guests feel right at home, even if deep down you wish they were.” But deep down they smiled, knowing that strangely, these nights were when their family was closest.
Is your church family the Kerrigans, Ridleys, Sampsons or Walters?
God sets the lonely in families.
I was a stranger, and you invited me in.
In my Father’s house are many rooms … I am going there to prepare a place for you.
It can be pretty stressful being a sacred agent, a missionary, ambassador, priest or whatever you call it. Sacred agents are used to never quite having the right words for things, you see, it’s all part of the difficulty of being caught in between two worlds. Representing one kingdom whilst inhabiting another. Speaking two languages, never feeling like you’re quite pleasing anyone, caught between a Rock and a hard place. If that’s you right now, step back for a minute. I want to show you something. Two things actually.
Firstly, I want to show you a little smile. Travel with me to the future and see the faces of the people you’re currently serving. They are so grateful. Not now, perhaps, but in the future. If you don’t believe me, travel back to the past – take a minute to look back on the people whom God sent to you. Did you ignore them, take them for granted or even despise them? But now you consider their feet beautiful; you’re so glad for every step they took. (Why not tell them?)
But now let me show you a bigger smile. I want you to get a glimpse of the delight that God takes in you and His pleasure in your earnest efforts to represent Him. If you feel inadequate, never quite nailing it, or even a complete failure, you’re actually standing in a long line of God’s masterpieces. If you feel caught between a Rock and a hard place, I want you to remember that our Father is not that kind of rock – certainly not impassive. He delights in you. Your efforts and your sacrifices are an incense of worship to Him. Picture him beaming at you, so pleased that you would take the same hard road as His Son. Let his Spirit come alongside you once again and comfort and encourage you.
Be spurred on by the words “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness” and indeed these ancient ones: May the LORD bless and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you… Can you see it?
Walk tall, sacred agents. Even when you feel you’re wasting away, do not lose heart but be renewed day by day.
For meditation: 2 Corinthians 4
It’s remarkable how many Bible passages about gospel proclamation also mention peace: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace… (Isa 52); When Jesus sends his disciples on mission their first words are to be Peace to this house! (Lk 10); All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5); we’re to have feet fitted with the readiness that comes from gospel of peace (Eph 6). And plenty others.
Sacred agents do well to meditate on this. We can often think of the world (and specific individuals) we’re sent to as hostile; let’s bear in mind the fear so closely linked to that hostility. Our challenge is to be faithfully present to them, neither buying into their hostility with a ‘fight’ posture nor withdrawing timidly with a ‘flight’ reflex. It’s not easy. But cheek-turning, enemy-loving, open, vulnerable witness to God’s kingdom opens up amazing possibilities for powerful transformation.
We could all do much worse this Advent than to memorise 1 Peter 3:8-16. It outlines a community life dedicated to peaceful witness in a hostile world, determined to take the stance of Christ and sharing about his coming kingdom with the gentleness and respect that’s worthy of him and most likely to win over those he loves.
For a ministry of reconciliation will never be effective from a safe distance (flight) or a position of strength (fight). Instead, we share the vulnerability of Jesus, his heartache and his joyful reward. Let’s not be afraid to come in peace!
I meet a lot of down-hearted Christian leaders – passionate for Jesus and his kingdom, diligent in sharing the gospel message, but saddened and bewildered by “hardly any response”. Let’s talk about evaluating gospel ministry, for their sakes and for those to whom they’re accountable.
It’s hard to measure mission, but we must try anyway. Hard, because of time-lag between sowing and harvest, and because it’s not in the power of missionaries to generate responsive hearts. We must nevertheless try, because stubborn, unreflective, unaccountable ministry wastes so much time, energy and resources.
So how to measure mission? Here’s one suggestion: Look for the potency of response, not just the amount of it.
The NT – the whole Bible – makes it clear that there’s a whole range of responses to God. Rarely do you see a message shared, and 100% of the hearers respond appropriately. If you feel like you’re speaking, but hardly anyone is listening – well, welcome to Jesus’ world. Welcome to the world of the prophets. Jesus sums it up in the Parable of the Sower, but also elsewhere where he speaks of the kingdom working like yeast through dough.
God’s kingdom transforms a family – a neighbourhood, a city, a nation – not usually though instant, en masse responses, but through a small-but-power-filled minority: the yeast. If just 2% of the farmer’s seed falls on good soil and produces “30, 60, 100 times what was sown” then the farmer will be in profit!
If you only reach one person for Christ, and they turn out to be a Mother Theresa or Billy Graham, isn’t that better than getting a thousand empty ‘decisions’ or ‘Jesus likes’? So before getting too downhearted, or indeed uphearted, perhaps let’s ask some better questions: If only a few are interested, Who are they? How can we water what IS growing? What is their potent-ial? Who are they, in turn, connected to? And also ask Is there a reason why the message connected with them and not others, apart from simple heart-responsiveness?
It’s all part of discerning wisely What is God doing here? Believe me, it’s never nothing!
Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the fifth and last in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. So far we’ve discussed Peripheral Vision, Eavesdropping, Iocane Tasting and Rat Smelling.
As the episode comes to a dramatic close, we’re grateful for the thoughtfulness of the villain in putting a handy digital count-down display on the bomb. But which wire to cut? The red, the yellow, the green or the blue?
Whilst I’m not a professional electrician, I’ve seen enough TV to know the answer. You just wait until the display falls below 5 seconds, and then cut any wire at all. At least, no one’s ever told me that this advice didn’t work for them.
God’s kingdom is down-to-earth and Jesus is a hands-on Messiah. It’s a worthwhile exercise to follow his hands and list all the things he touches in the gospels. And as the episode comes towards a dramatic end … Pilate washes his hands and steps back while Jesus steps forward and grabs the cross.
Sacred agents are called to the same kind of courage and character. Lord Jesus, give us the mettle to grasp nettles, handle hot potatoes and defuse tensions in your name. Give us the grace to be hands-on in serving the sick, the troubled, the poor, the weak, all in absolute purity. Renew in us the power to lay on hands for the filling with your Spirit, that your kingdom may tangibly come.
Let’s repent of the whole Christianity-as-mere-philosophy thing and keep asking the Lord how we can be his holey hands and feet right here today. Are there situations in your coming week where you can be less Pilate and more Jesus?