Ambassadors 2018

This past Sunday the sermon was built around the fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians, and Paul’s exploration of the role of the Christian as God’s new creation and ambassador.

 

The idea of being an ambassador is part of a long-standing journey on my part: I was part of a year-of-your-life ministry outreach called ‘Ambassadors’ based on this very passage that Paul wrote.

 

The Ambassador program was simultaneously awkward and awesome and provided a valuable lesson: that my calling was not to the hinterlands of Africa. At least not at that time or since, with the caveat that He may call anyone (including me) anywhere at any time in the future.

 

That was 1997 and a lot of proverbial water has churned its way under the bridge. I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t have to be in darkest Africa, that every Believer is called to be an ambassador wherever they are. Imagine being a Christian trying to minister to the swamp creatures in Washington D.C. now as the Kavanaugh-Ford debacle is unfolding…D.C. seems way darker than Africa right now, and it’s more of a crucible and seems infinitely more difficult to walk the narrow path in the back-stabbing halls and conspiratorial ante-rooms of the Senate.

 

And so to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians:

 

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:” (2 Corinthians 5; NIV)

 

We are new creations and no longer simply citizens of earthly countries: we are citizens of God’s kingdom. He is our King; we are His subjects, His people. Not merely in terms of our citizenship, we are new beings in a way we never were before. Where we were naturally alive, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are also now spiritually alive.

 

The King desires that all men are reconciled and so He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

 

I got to thinking about the word ‘ministry’. It denotes something serious, an undertaking of an organisational body like a government that proposes a way to run an aspect of society. There are ministries of serious things like foreign affairs, health, education, trade and industry, and agriculture.

 

There is a British record label that imitates an official government office: the Ministry of Sound:

 

https://www.ministryofsound.com/

 

There is a Monty Python sketch that lampoons the British impulse to organise society with the most trivial matters: The Ministry of Silly Walks:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iV2ViNJFZC8

Ministry of food, one of my favourites

We have been given a ministry, not with strictly earthly parameters, but with a view to eternity, a ministry of reconciliation. A sermon by Stephen Funderburk I found online distills the whole idea as follows:

 

“Paul sees the work of Jesus Christ on the cross as a mandate for all believers to share this good news. He defines it as a ministry of reconciliation. We have the call to share Christ where people who are the enemies of God, can now through Christ be made the friends of God through Jesus.”

 

“…we don’t see ourselves as just church folks, members or weekend warriors. We see ourselves as constantly on the mission field. Everywhere we go we have this treasure in earthen vessels. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world, but across the street, on the jobsite, at school or anywhere you have the opportunity to share the message of salvation. Freely you have received, freely give.”

 

https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/ministry-of-reconciliation-stephen-funderburk-sermon-on-growth-in-christ-105434

 

Wherever we are, there is the mission field.

 

Paul continues: “20 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; NIV)

 

Chris Patton proposes a definition of an ambassador that I like and I think is accurate:

 

“An ambassador is a dignitary whose full-time job is to live for a period (usually years) in a foreign land, intentionally building relationships with the people native to that land and purposefully representing to those people the desires of his king.”

 

https://www.christianfaithatwork.com/ambassador-christ-meaning/

 

I think of those who if they saw the Lord walking down the street, would cross the road to walk on the other side, pretending that they didn’t see Him; those living in sexual sin, Islamic ignorance, atheist apathy. It isn’t hatred to make the observation that people need to repent and leave ignorance, sin and apathy behind. It’s an invitation to grace.

 

That is the very serious and very necessary ministry of reconciliation that we are tasked with as Christians.

 

To those who crossed the road to avoid Him: with Paul, I say, ‘be reconciled to God!’

 

To my fellow believers: stand strong in these days, be deliberate as an ambassador.

Your grace finds me

We have a pharmacy at home, a cupboard devoted to treating and minimising childhood aches, pains, and ailments.

 

We as adults, we take the hits, scowl as we down the medicine, suffer in as much stoic silence as possible, soldiering on.

 

Unless we’re men, and we revert to babies, longing for matronly attention.

 

Or so it is believed by the world of women.

 

A season:

There comes a point in the tail end of winter when colds and flu hit, and one of the kids ends up with a cough that just won’t go away.

 

A week:

And the week is long. And the week after that. We go back to institutional memory and try recall what worked last time. And the recovery is not instant.

 

An evening:

In fact, there comes an evening where the coughing is so extreme that the kid yacks over the covers, cheeks pink with exertion, a look of unfocus in the eyes.

 

A moment:

In fact, there comes a moment when the coughing becomes unbearable. Cough upon cough upon horrible cough. And just in the moment between hacking coughs, there is a great sucking wheeze as air is forced into the lungs.

 

It’s that moment that I think of later, listening to Matt Redman’s song about grace…

 

“There in the very breath we breathe
Your great grace…”

 

https://genius.com/Matt-redman-your-grace-finds-me-lyrics

 

The coughing passes eventually, winter fights and claws as it comes to an end, its influence slowly waning. And I remember that moment of breath in-between coughs.

 

It’s a stunning picture for me of common grace: breath, rain, bread. On a daily basis, to sustain the man, the woman, the child on a moment by moment basis.

 

Grace.

 

I wasn’t looking for grace, but I saw grace looking at me.

 

His grace finds us. The correct response is thanks.

Fixing our eyes

The apostle Paul is one of the most extreme Christians whose writings I have ever read.

 

Even across a time span of more than a millennium, the way he writes can make me feel very small as a Believer:

 

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Corinthians+4%3A16+-+18&version=NIV

 

Paul juxtaposes the inward with the outward, the body with the soul. The body is tactile, present, and measurable. I can gauge different metrics: my weight, height, glasses prescription, muscle tone, % of gray hairs on my head or in my beard.

 

How do I measure my soul? I may think my spiritual life is on an upward trajectory but how can I know for sure? Without observable indicators, how do I know that inwardly I’m being renewed day by day? Wasn’t Paul being incredibly subjective?

 

Especially in the context of troubles (verse 17).

 

On one level I get what Paul is saying: measuring your spiritual life is mostly intuitive; at least that’s how I interpret it. I could easily spend more time in prayer and more time in service but that wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’m further along as a Christian than some time previously.

 

Unless, what Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really have much to do with me. It’s not as clean cut because Paul does tell us to ‘work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12 NIV). We work things out at the same time as God is.

 

It’s somewhat mysterious and not easy to quantify by using reductionism with which we can understand physical phenomena by separating them into their constituent parts and putting back together, thereby explaining the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

I have no trouble understanding the trajectory of my body. I want to understand the trajectory of my soul.

 

Thanks to theologians, by reading a commentary, the answer takes shape: every trouble endured for Christ causes the Believer to grow inwardly. We all face trouble, Believers take those troubles to the Lord and wrestle with Him, mourn, cry and engage with Him. Including the question, ‘Why?’

 

Day by day, trouble by trouble. That’s a lot to take to Him. To ‘bother’ Him with. But He’s big enough.

 

And if you are still standing as a Christian, that’s a metric.

 

I liken it to a guy going through BUD/S (SEAL course) and hell-week, still there fixing his eyes on what is unseen, staying the course, seeing himself as a graduated SEAL when it’s not that clear to anyone else. Attrition rates can be as high as 80% in the SEAL program.

 

https://www.alvinsoon.com/us-navy-seals-tough-times/

 

All a trainee has to do is ring the ship’s brass bell and he gets to go home. It goes without saying that God wouldn’t institute a church with such a high attrition rate.

 

The fact that a Believer hasn’t opted out and rung the bell signalling giving up, is a strong indicator that God is keeping him in the fight. All we have to do is fix our eyes on the end.

The long road

In the above article, force psychologist for the SEALs, Dr Eric Potterat remarks: “They [SEALS] have a strong purpose, which helps them stay mentally and emotionally resilient.”

 

If this is true of spec-ops soldiers, this should also be true of us. We have a strong purpose, a reason to stay in the fight.

 

In the words of an awful advert from the 1980’s: after action comes the satisfaction. After the long night surrounded by the enemy, we will see ‘eternal glory that far outweighs’ the battle we’ve just been through.

 

I like the picture in Isaiah 35, of Believers walking through a tough place – a desert – while on a highway:

 

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10     and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+35&version=NIV

Just thinking…South African thoughts

Watching the Springboks fumble their way to a clumsy loss against the Wallabies this past Saturday I realise now that I didn’t really pay attention to the South African anthem. An anthem is meant to symbolise in song the emotion and rhetoric of what it means to be a citizen of a country.

 

The rugby-watching South African public expects – or used to expect – that the Springboks would give every opposing team a memory. I can recall times past, epic games with indelible moments and I’m sure the opposition does too, even after a few years of water under the bridge.

 

After every loss or uninspired victory in these familiar lean times, the public has been asking the question as to what the Springboks have lost and how to get it back.

 

There are many theories.

 

I have my own and it derives from a small scene from 1995’s ‘Braveheart’ where Robert the Bruce is speaking with William Wallace and explains as follows:

 

“…from top to bottom this country has no sense of itself. Its nobles share allegiance with England. Its clans war with each other…”

 

In the words of a screenwriter who penned a movie about Scotland hundreds of years ago, I believe we have as good an answer as we’re ever going to get.

 

As South Africans we are not united. We have split allegiances, the government has continued to separate us into racial clans, and the top (the elites) are separate from the bottom (the poor). By their own design, and for their own comfort and self-interest.

 

All of this has the effect of taking the energy, belief, direction and synergy out of all of our endeavours. Especially team sports.

 

When the anthem is sung, I will admit that the words and melody of Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikieleli Afrika do not stir me at all, because it is a song about Africa, a more general concern that Mzansi – South Africa. In the same way many others will not be stirred at all by the portion of the anthem taken from C.J. Langenhoven’s Die Stem.

 

A clue to the state of our country lies with the One to whom the appeal is made in Nkosi Sikieleli Afrika: God.

When the first free and fair elections took place 27 April 1994, many people feared violence and retribution and it didn’t happen. The general feeling was that this was in part an act of providence, an act of mercy. Since that time, my impression is that in the minds of those in power, God has been asked to step further and further aside.

 

Why should God bless Africa? He may yet, since there are many people who are living lives of faith. Angus Buchan certainly thinks it’s possible.

 

Amidst the fierce debate presently about land expropriation where no-one is listening and digging into their ideological trenches, a snapshot emerges of life in the hinterland: a black farmer relates on Twitter how a fire started on his farm and his neighbours all pitched up in their bakkies to help. His white neighbours.

 

I admit that there seems such hopelessness with every political impasse and word spoken in anger by children in parliament, that it seems difficult to have the heart to pray…

 

…May I just pray: May God bless South Africa, her people, her leaders and her future. May we the church repent of apathy and seek Him afresh and trust Him.

Of souls and Psalmists

I like the emotional immediacy of the Psalms.

 

It’s great to dive into Paul’s theology outlined in the New Testament and Paul was nothing if not practical. So with Paul you get theology and then in the same epistle later on you get practical hints and tips, instructions on how to apply what he’s writing about.

 

It’s not like the Psalms are impractical or lacking in theology – far from it – however I have a deep appreciation for words, language, and the use of them in poetry and psalms; using language to convey an emotional state of mind as it pertains to the soul’s relationship to God.

 

I can read a psalm and feel on a gut-level what the psalmist is writing about. For all their derision by the mainstream media in the United States, the people of Russia have a national gut with a taste for poetry (or so I’ve read) and if I use my imagination, it could easily be true that they are into the psalms.

 

I wondered this week about a psalm of David, Psalm 103:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103%3A1&version=NIV

 

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name. (Verse 1, NIV)

 

It almost sounds – from a certain point of view – that David had to talk his soul into catching up with the imperative to praise God. Almost like praise is not always the most natural thing.

 

Natural

I came across an article from www.desiringgod.org by some guy light years ahead of me in a study of the Scriptures who takes the reader through David’s thinking in this psalm:

 

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/psalm-103-learning-how-to-talk-to-yourself

 

The author, Professor Griffith, tells us something that we know all too well: “Sin, pain, or sorrow can blind us to God’s present working and, occasionally, even the miraculous ways he’s worked in our lives in the past.”

 

In seasons of low affection then, when the soul lags behind the imperative to praise God, it behoves the Christian to remember in the same pattern that David does.

 

Firstly, we should remember redemptive history, all that God has done in the past to redeem everyone – the cross, the empty tomb – and our share in that.

 

And then, we can remember time-worn, yet timeless, verses that we keep coming back to. As useful as some leather shoes that look for all the world like they’ve walked a thousand miles, but they endure and fit our feet like a glove, and they’re still perfectly fine for walking another thousand miles in.

 

Or like a classic hymn that never goes out of soul-style. In thinking about this Psalm, and David’s prompt to his soul, I circled back to an oldie but goodie…we have so many reasons to praise:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXDGE_lRI0E