No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

Five loaves and two fish

A mosiac of Jesus feeding the 5000 in the Basilica of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna

A mosiac of Jesus feeding the 5000 in the Basilica of Sant’ Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna

John tells an interesting story about a boy who gave his lunch to Jesus (John 6:1-14).  The synoptic gospels all record the story, but leave this lad out, which is a shame because he’s not got a big part in John, despite providing dinner for over 5,000 people.

The story is familiar to many of us, and is often told in Sunday School.  The people are hungry and there are no convenience stores nearby.  Jesus says to the disciples “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13) but they realise they haven’t got enough money and the boy’s lunch, (which we hope he gave freely), is all they’ve got.  So Jesus takes all they have, and multiplies it.

There are several lessons which mission workers can learn from this.

What we have is enough. So often it seems that there is never enough, be it money, people, resources,  or equipment.  Whatever we’ve got, we always feel we need more.  We ask for it and pray for it.  Yet in this situation what was clearly not enough in the disciples’ hands was enough for God.  If we are experiencing shortages, let’s not try to solve the problem themselves – let’s take the problem to Jesus.  Which leads us onto point 2:

We can solve the problem – if we change our thinking.  Jesus told the disciples to feed the people.  So they could have done… if they’d had the imagination and the faith.  What are the big challenges in our ministry?  How can we see them from God’s perspective?  How can we increase our faith so that we can believe for God’s miraculous provision for us?

We come to God just as we are.  We know nothing about this boy – his age, his intelligence, his social status.  It is not relevant to the story.  The point is that what he had, he gave to Jesus.  We can often fall into the trap of thinking we need more skills, knowledge or qualifications before God can use us.  This boy came to Jesus just as he was and gave him everything.  That was enough.

Being willing gets us used by God.  This boy could have sneaked off by himself and eaten his supper.  But he got involved and offered Jesus a solution.  We don’t know what happened to him, but I expect he kept on telling that story for the rest of his life.  Perhaps he became a disciple and taught others about being available for God.  Having seen Jesus at work in his life, surely he couldn’t just walk away!  His faith would have increased as a result of what he’d seen.

Jesus cares.  He didn’t just shrug his shoulders and say that they should have planned ahead.  He was concerned about their hunger.  Which is why we can come to him with confidence when we tell him what we need.  He’s not going to give us a stone or a snake, but bread and fish (Matthew 7:7-11).

It makes a great story when we get home.  Can you imagine that boy telling his mother that he didn’t eat all his lunch but shared it with thousands of others?  Telling the big stories of God’s provision for us is an opportunity to be a witness to those who don’t yet know him.

So this week let’s not bother about what we haven’t got, or what we think we need.  Let’s come to Jesus in the confidence that in his hands, what we already have is adequate, and what he will do with it is more than enough.

They had been with Jesus…

Jesus' last message

Jesus’ last message

In the book of Acts, there’s quite a lengthy story about the trouble that Peter and John get into for preaching the resurrection of Jesus after the healing of a lame man in his name (Acts 3-4).  The ructions go all the way to the top, and they end up being hauled before the authorities to account for themselves, where Peter preaches a bold message.  And then as the national and religious leaders begin to debate what to do with them, Luke adds a delightful little phrase:

They recognised them as having been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Of course, it may just be that realising they were Galileans they remembered seeing Peter and John with Jesus.  But I like to think it was more.  I wonder if they saw something in their boldness, their integrity and eloquence that reminded them of Jesus.  Had Peter and John begun to resemble Jesus?

After three years of living with Jesus, it’s highly likely that some of his mannerisms and expressions had begun to rub off on them.  Even subconsciously, we emulate key authority figures in our lives.  But this could have been so much more.  Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised them in John’s gospel) they were beginning to undergo inner transformation.  They were being reminded about what Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  They were doing what he had done, and saying what he had said.  They were becoming like him.  And it showed.

They had been with Jesus

They had been with Jesus

The great mystery of this is that the Father and the Son have set up home with us (John 14:23).  Not merely that they moved into our neighbourhood, or visit our church on a Sunday morning, but that they have settled in.  Most of us fail to actively cooperate with them.  We treat them like lodgers, who live in a room at the back of the house.  We see them occasionally, and sometimes we may have a chat, but effectively they live separately lives while under the same roof.

They want more.  They want to be treated as part of the family.  They want to belong with us.  Jesus says he wants to come in and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).  Note that he says this not in an evangelistic way to unbelievers, but as an offer of deeper fellowship to Christians.  This is an intimate relationship, living together cheek by jowl, talking things over, doing things together, just like Jesus would have done when he was living with his disciples.  And when we cultivate this intimacy, we become more like him.

Do the people you work with see Jesus in you?  Not merely the Christians, who might be looking to see him in us, but the non-Christians.  The policeman at the roadblock, the customs official, the taxi driver or the shop worker.

If they don’t, it’s probably because we haven’t been with Jesus.