The Lookout | 8.29.10
By Alan Dowd
God has always been a change agent. Creation, after all, was a big change—a change from nothing into everything, from the “formless and empty” to the beautiful and bountiful. Adam and Eve represented a change—a change that literally affected heaven and earth. God’s promise to Abraham changed the world, as did the Law handed down to Moses. And of course, Jesus embodied change. In fact, his entire message is infused with change.
Again and again, he calls on seekers to change their ways, to start anew, to choose a different path, to open a locked door. And once they become believers, he calls on them to change the world.
That’s what we—the Body of Christ, the Church—are supposed to do. But change for the sake of change—haphazard, zigzagging, disruptive change—is not what Christ wants. “God is not a God of disorder but of peace,” as Paul reminds us. God doesn’t want us to bring chaos or confusion to our world, but peace and clarity. To do so, we need to be guided by a mission, a vision.
Like it or not, our vision determines our destination in life. For the person focused on nothing more than getting to the next weekend or getting the next paycheck, that will be his destination.
The same is true for a congregation or for the entire the Body of Christ. When our vision is small—sifting through the sermons to find a mistake, looking for a reason to find another place to spend Sunday morning, building a new worship center to serve the saved, creating figurative walls to keep the world out—our destination is small. And not much about our world will change. But when our vision is captured and shaped by Jesus, he somehow uses us to change his world.
“God is love,” as John writes, and love is his vision for us (I John 4:8). It has always been this way. Drawing people back to himself, their first love, has guided everything. Indeed, some have called the Bible one long lover letter to humanity. So as we set out to change the world, we should make his example of love our guiding vision, “as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Positives and Negatives
Any of us who have encountered the living God know that his love transforms the heart. It turns sinners into saints, losers into leaders. And anyone who has read or heard the Gospel message knows that everyone Jesus encountered was changed. They were changed because he showed them love.
Lepers, untouched by the world, were loved by the Lord and made clean. Paralytics, abandoned by the world, were accepted by the Lord and made whole.
Jairus’ daughter was given a new life, and Jairus himself was given a glimpse of the abundant life. Lazarus, on the other hand, was given a brief glimpse of eternity before Jesus called him back from the grave.
Jesus spared the prostitute from death by stoning, offering her salvation and a second chance. The woman at the well became an evangelist after talking to Jesus, and John reports that many in her hometown of Sychar became believers because of her.
Jesus turned a kid’s lunchbox into a buffet feast for 5,000, because he had “compassion for these people,” as Matthew quotes him. He loved them and felt for them. “They have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way” (Matthew 15).
He turned a widow’s tears into joy, a hopeless thief’s last moments on earth into an altar call, and, in the words of author Philip Yancey, “a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists” (The Jesus I Never Knew).
Peter, one of those who was radically changed by Christ, put it this way: Jesus “wants all people to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).
But not every change brought about by Jesus brought positives.
When Jesus revealed deep spiritual mysteries to his followers—hidden truths that could transform their hearts—John reports that many disciples “turned back and no longer followed him.” Jesus’ reaction was heartbreaking and human: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” he asked the Twelve (John 6).
When the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” and then showed him a pathway to eternity. But the young man “went away sad” (Matthew 19 and Mark 10).
An encounter with Christ forced Pontius Pilate to contemplate the notion of truth, something bigger than himself, and this left Pilate “afraid” (John 19).
In other words, being the sort of change agent God wants—even when we’re guided by love—may paradoxically mean causing pain, losing friends and facing hard choices.
Jesus accepted these unhappy side effects because he was a man on a mission. He changed people, and he changed the world because he stuck to that mission.
So if the Church is supposed to carry on his mission and vision of love, what does that look like in a practical, day-to-day sense?
In most instances, it will look like the opposite of what the world does. As Paul challenged his readers in Rome, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12). He wrote this because the world is generally at odds with Christ’s kingdom.
What was true in Paul’s day is true in ours.
For example, the world doesn’t want to identify with Christ. It may seem self-evident, but those of us who call ourselves Christians must identify with him in word and deed. As Jesus explained in John 15, he wants us to show the world that we are his disciples.
The best way to do this is to show the world his love, and that actually starts inside the Church. “All men will know that you are my disciples,” according to Jesus, “if you love one another” (John 13). Not if we practice communion or baptism the same way. Not if we sing the same songs. Not if we wear the same clothes. Not if we all vote the same way.
Jesus knew that when his followers fight amongst themselves, a broken world turns away from the only thing that can heal it: his love.
We are called to take his love into the entire world, and we’ll be much more effective at loving our fellowman if we love our fellow believers.
Loving our fellowman means dying to self, and that’s something the world doesn’t understand. After all, the world says, “Look out for yourself.” But as Christ’s followers, we need to imitate our savior and king, who became our servant. He stooped low to wash our filthy feet and filthier hearts, to feed our souls and our stomachs.
So are we doing that for our fellowman? And I don’t mean in some theoretical, arm’s-length sense, by paying taxes or tithing or saying prayers for the poor. I mean, are you serving your fellow man, those outside the walls? Are you helping the single mom who makes the right choice? Do you support her and her little one with more than bumper stickers? Do you help the homeless and jobless?
Or are you listening to that voice in the back of your head that tells you they’re all getting what they deserve. If so, you’re forgetting that, thanks to Christ’s mercy and grace, you and I aren’t getting what we deserve. As Solomon put it, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is maker of them all”—and savior of us all.
Loving our fellowman also means imitating Christ by sharing the truth with the lost. From Pilate down to our own pop culture, the world says, “Truth is relative, and as a result there are many paths to God.” But we Christians believe in someone who made an outlandish, breathtaking, exclusivist claim about himself—that he alone is the path to God, that he is Truth. To make it crystal-clear for us, he added, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
To be sure, in his infinite mercy, God judges each person according to the grace he or she receives. In other words, God knows what’s in the heart. All we know is that God asks us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4)—and that Jesus is Truth. To believe this and to practice this will offend some of our neighbors, but to do something less will offend our savior.
Our Savior’s Smile
When we put all of this into practice—identifying ourselves with our savior, loving our fellow believers, serving our fellowman, speaking the truth in love—our vision will improve, our world will change for the better, and our savior will smile.