Blessed are the Peacemakers: Rediscovering the Power of Getting Along

It seems these days Christians are anything but unified. And no, this is not a post in which I rail against denominations. Most denominations differ not on the ‘what’ of Christianity, but on the ‘how.’ How are we saved? How does the sovereignty of God relate to human responsibility? How do we understand God’s presence in the Eucharist? And so on. ( Of course, this is not to say that the ‘what’ is not also contentions (especially along the conservative-liberal divide).

But in my view, a far bigger threat to Christian unity than denominations is the general inability of Christians, especially evangelicals, to tolerate, much less actually love as we’re commanded, those who differ from us.

I mean, what do we think Jesus meant when He said, “blessed are the peacemakers?”

Many evangelicals tend to interpret passages like this to refer merely to an internal peace that comes from being reconciled with God (Rom. 5:10). But if that was Jesus’ sole intention, perhaps He should have said “blessed are the peace-takers.” After all, that kind of peace is not something we achieve; it’s something we receive as a gift.

Now, I should point out that peace in the Bible is primarily a covenantal term. It has to do with the peace that comes from God by virtue of being a child of God. God is, after all, the God of peace (Judges 6:24; Rom. 15:33). But this aspect of God’s nature is meant to be reflected in the character of God’s people. “The mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). This is why Paul begins every one of his letters by reminding the churches that they are recipients and bearers of God’s grace and peace. And it is why Paul says, “so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

But this quality of the church is rarely seen today. Not only are we not at peace, we often the cause and source of conflict. Christians are deeply divided on everything from politics to entertainment. The problem though is not so much the disagreements as it is the inability to discuss those differences in a kind and civil manner. We have lost the art of civil discourse.

Because of this, there is a tremendous need for the church to rediscover the force of God’s instructions regarding peace, and to learn how to disagree in respectful ways. And I think there are a couple of things we do to accomplish that:

  1. Get to know people personally before you challenge their views. Too often these days we’ve become accustomed to hurling our opinions like rockets into the stratosphere, via the launch pads of Facebook and Twitter, and letting them strike what or who they may.

I have a good friend that I meet with on a regular basis, and theologically, we’re pretty far apart. He’s a Calvinist and I’m an Arminian; He’s a cessationist and I’m charismatic. When we get together we discuss lots of things, from theology to our children, to the challenges of being a missionary, and so on. But we’ve never had a fight or argument, even though we disagree about lots of things. But we can discuss these things without it dissolving into conflict because we care too much about the friendship to let that happen.

  1. Be humble and open to learning new things. You can never have meaningful dialogue with someone who has a different view than you do, if you remain convinced that you have all the correct answers and the other person only needs to listen to you and learn. Learning is a two-way street. We are all broken and flawed people, and we all “see through a glass dimly.” Together, when we’re willing to learn from each other, we all come to see a little more clearly.

The real challenge with this is that we’re often afraid that if we admit to even a small crack in our worldview, then the whole thing will come crashing down, and we can’t allow that because we’ve built too much of our life around that worldview. But all of us are victims of worldviews that have a myriad of influences, some that we are aware of and some that we are not, some that are holy and some that are downright demonic. And because we are so embedded in these worldviews, because we have carried them around for decades,  we can’t escape them unless someone from the outside helps us see the cracks and leaks. This is the essence of community; we come together as mutually broken people and we depart having been made better by the clarity that comes through diversity.

What if, before we argued with someone over politics or theology, we took them out to lunch and got to know them? What might our conversations with each other, and thereby our testimony before the world, look like if we cared more about each other than we cared about being right? We who have received the undeserved peace of God, who have been reconciled to a holy God even when we were rife with sin and rebellion, should understand this better than anyone.

And as we sit down with those with whom we have deep disagreements, wee might just find that we have more in common than we think.

Download two free chapters of “For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions.”

Wipf and Stock has recently made available two free chapters of our book, “For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions.” To download the pdf. click here.

You can order the book at the Wipf and Stock website here. I’d love to hear your feedback here in the comments section, or in any reviews you might post on Amazon.com or other sites. Thanks and hope you enjoy!

*Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Blind Obedience? Some Thoughts on Christianity and Government

What does it mean for the Bible to declare that all authority comes from God? Does that require that all Christians acquiesce to every government authority and never challenge or question presidents or world leaders? Does it mean that even bad leaders are chosen by God? What does the Bible say?

In addressing these issues, there are several points I’d like to make. Importantly, the admonition of Romans 13:1-2, which does say that all authority comes from God, must also be interpreted in light of all else that Scripture says about God, authority, and those in power. I think five things are especially relevant.

  1. Submission to Government authority does not entail blind obedience.

Romans 13:1-2 reads:

Rom 13:1-2   Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (NASB95)

Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is found in the meaning of the word here translated as “subjection” (or in some translations, “submission”). A number of commentators have pointed out that this word (Gr. hupotassō) is less strong that the word “obey,” and that this is likely an intentional move by Paul. As Everett Harrison says, “he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.”[1] As Doug Moo explains, this is because all of our allegiances are subject to our supreme allegiance to God.[2] In other words, “submission” to government is always subsumed in the Christian life under obedience to God. Christians therefore not only have permission to question whether leaders exercise authority in accordance with God’s will, but have an obligation to do so.

  1. God grants authority with the expectation that leaders will be just and righteous.

The Bible is quite clear that God appoints leaders for the specific purpose of carrying out justice and righteousness. Consider the following two verses (among many others):

Gen 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

1 Kgs 10:9 “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”


This of course raises the question of what exactly is meant by “justice” and “righteousness.” First, justice in Scripture is often related to the fact that all people have rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. As Lewis Smedes has pointed out, the Ten Commandments, for example, are inherently rights oriented. Murder is forbidden because people have a right to their own life, theft because they have a right to their own property, and so on. Righteousness then refers to actions that uphold the justice expected of God in all human relationships. Thus, the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together often in Scripture, and refer to what we in modern parlance would call “social justice”—that is just-ness in the way we treat others, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, Jeremiah declares

Jer 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Therefore, basic human rights are not granted by governments, but by God. Governments may protect human rights, but they don’t establish them. All people as divine image bearers are due fundamental protections and provisions. The Bible especially highlights the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan because these are often most vulnerable and therefore most likely to have their rights impinged upon by those that would unjustly take advantage of them.

  1. God-given authority does not guarantee obedience to God.

We should carefully note that justice and righteousness are action words. They relate to what we do and define the nature of our relationship with God. Because God himself is just and righteous, those created in his image are to embody these same characteristics. Furthermore, the lack of these qualities leads to the judgment of God, but the practice of justice and righteousness restores one to a right relationship with God. In Ezekiel we read:

Ezek 18:21  “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

Because people have free will, there is no guarantee that leaders will embody this concern for justice and righteousness that God expects. Perhaps no story in Scripture illustrates this better than the story of Saul. Saul was chosen of God, but failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership God expected. At the end of Saul’s life, he had become prideful, disobedient, and jealous and God judged him for it. He rejected God’s word and chose to go his own way. As Origin said regarding Romans 13:

God will judge us righteously for having abused what he gave us to use for good. Likewise, God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the laws of God.[3]

  1. Humility is a requirement for those in authority.

Remember, it was humility that God desired in Pharaoh during the Exodus (Ex. 10:3). God over and over again judges the kings of Israel for their lack of humility (e.g., 2 Chron. 33:23; 36:12). Throughout the wisdom literature humility is described as a prerequisite for obedience to God and for knowing the will of God (Ps. 25:9; 69:32; Prov. 11:2; Prov. 29:23). And Isaiah declares that humility and obedience to God’s word go hand-in-hand:

Isa 66:2 For My hand made all these things,  Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.“But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.

  1. Those in power must value and stand for truth.

When Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders that can assist him, he told him to select “men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exod. 18:21). Solomon later described his father David as having served the Lord in “truth and righteousness” (1 Kings 3:6). And when Hezekiah pleaded his case before God, he declared that he had “walked before the Lord in truth” (2 Kings 20:3).

Because of these five things (and one can likely find more), we cannot simply declare based on Romans 13 that all people in authority are so by the will of God or that they are acting in obedience to God. Romans 13 is teaching the broad principle of authority, not endorsing the actions of every person in power. Christians are to be discerning in their obedience to governments and leaders, and evaluate whether obedience to government demands is compatible with faith in God. The true test is to ask whether the actions of governments and government officials are grounded in justice, righteousness, humility, and truth. Nothing, not even concern for our own safety, can justify the neglect or rejection of these fundamental qualities of godly leaders.

[1]Everett F. Harrison, Romans, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 10 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.

[2]Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 797.

[3] CER 5:92–94.

Are Democrats Welcome in Your Church? Some Thoughts on Election Day

During this election cycle, as with all elections I suppose, passions have run high. I get that. We all care deeply about what we believe and we want the best for our nation. Yet, we differ sharply on what “the best” means and on how to achieve it.

But I’m always concerned during election years by the tendency to align the gospel with a particular candidate and/or political parties. What I mean is that sometimes our defenses of particular candidates suggest that one must support so-and-so in order to truly be a Christian. I am especially shocked by the number of pastors who publically declare their support for candidates. Not only is this a dangerous violation of a church’s 501(3)c non-profit, status, but it is (more importantly) a violation of the church’s biblical mandate according to the New Testament. The primary purpose of the church is to provide entrance into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 16:13-19), not to endorse a political agenda. By tying the church to a candidate or party, we risk minimizing the church’s effectiveness among the very people we are called to reach.

Now, before I go further, allow me to come clean. I’ve certainly had my share of public discussions (via Facebook, for example) on the various candidates running. But, (1) I’m not a pastor, and (2) I haven’t endorsed anyone. Yes, I’m a missionary and in some circles we call anyone with minister credentials a “pastor.” But a pastor is (biblically speaking) the shepherd of a flock, one who leads a group of people in their journey of discipleship. So, a true pastor is one who leads (or helps lead) a church. Not everyone who has ministry credentials fits this description.

So, let’s get back to the question. Are Democrats welcome in your church? I ask this because many of the pastors whom I’ve seen defending a particular candidate give the impression that to be a Christian one must first become a Republican. Now I know what you’re about to say, so let me say it for you: They don’t have to become a Republican, but they do have to side with Republicans on a number of issues, like abortion, for example.

But the truth is, good people can have sound reasons for disagreeing on the best way(s) to be pro-life, just as they can have good reasons for disagreeing on a host of other issues. For example, if a person thinks that a candidate is likely to start WWIII, then wouldn’t this also have to be factored into what it means to be “pro-life?” I could go a long way with this analogy, but you get the idea. One could argue that being pro-life ought to mean far more than just trying to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Whatever your take is though on this, the point is that pastors and churches have a primary responsibility to reach the lost. And we do that through one means and one means only—preaching Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. Whatever else we attach to that is not the gospel. It is the gospel—plus. The gospel plus nationalism, or the gospel plus Republicanism, or the gospel plus…whatever. The point is, the gospel plus anything is not the gospel, no matter how good our intentions may be. This is very much the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If the gospel plus Judaism was a corruption of the good news, how much more is the gospel plus Americanism?

Some are sure to interpret this as my being anti-Republican or even anti-American. Be sure, I am neither. I proudly served my country in the Armed Forces and have voted for Republican candidates for most of my life. But we must never confuse the ideals on which this nation is built with the tenets of the gospel. They are not the same thing and any attempt to homogenize the two is to ultimately dilute the significance of the cross.

When we align the gospel with a particular party or candidate, we risk diminishing the gospel when that party or candidate does something that is out of step with Christian values. And I promise you, every party and every candidate will eventually come up short. To paraphrase Greg Boyd, that is the nature of the kingdoms of this world, and why Jesus said, “my Kingdom is not of this world.” In saying this, Jesus explicitly rejected the this-worldly ways of achieving His purposes. So why then do we his followers so often act as though God’s purposes are dependent on worldly forms of government?

The primary role of pastors (and arguably, church members too) is to proclaim, not a party platform, but rather that Jesus says to a world searching for genuine hope and enduring love, “if anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”

Let’s then do our best to ensure that “anyone” really does mean “anyone,” and not “anyone who agrees with my politics.”

From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-Cultural Missionary Bands

Next week I will attend the national meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) in Dallas. The theme of this event is Missions and the Local Church, and I will be presenting a paper titled “From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-cultural Missionary Bands.”

In this paper, I argue that compassion constitutes a vital component in the development of indigenous missions movements and that because of this, missionaries should focus compassionate efforts on training and equipping local believers.

You can download the full paper here. I welcome your comments and feedback!

Conference details and program information are available here.

Link

Review: Impossible Love by Craig and Médine Keener

Yesterday I had the chance to read the new book by New Testament scholar Craig Keener and his wife Médine. It was so good, I read it in one sitting. What especially gripped me about this story–this story of many stories that intertwine to form one amazing testimony to the faithfulness of God, was what great story tellers both Craig and Médine are. As I read, I laughed at Craig’s description of learning how to tie a tie and becomekeener1 a Baptist, and I wept at the horror of Médine’s ordeal in western Congo. And, I found myself deeply challenged by the practical, charismatic faith of these two scholars (Médine has a PhD from the University of Paris). Their story is a story about the triumph of love and faith over racism, war, bureaucracy, and doubt. That is to say, it is a story in which God is the hero.

As someone who lives and ministers in Africa I was reminded of (yes even for missionaries), how easy it is to become complacent about things like racism, or being desperate for God and wanting above all, His will and presence.
Many of us have learned a great deal from Craig Keener’s scholarship. His two volume edition on Miracles is one of my favorites. But the world also has something to learn from the way Craig and Médine Keener live their lives in the real tension between the present and coming Kingdom, between miracles and doubt, between human frailty and divine intervention, between violent war and inner peace, and between impossible circumstances and a mighty God who intervenes in dynamic ways simply because He loves us.

Impossible Love is worth a read and I highly recommend it. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Impossible-Love-African-Miracles-against/dp/0800797779?ie=UTF8&keywords=Impossible%20Love&qid=1459761260&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

*For full disclosure, I should mention that Craig sent me a complimentary copy of this book.

Burdens

My wife came across this poem I wrote a few years ago in Zambia and I thought it was worth sharing. Merry Christmas friends!

Burdens
By Jerry Ireland

Cornmeal and cases of orange drink.
Eight foot long poles of sugar cane,
babies, laundry, groceries, charcoal,
crates full of live chickens.
Water buckets and buckets
full of rocks, dirt and sand.
Iron beams, lumber and dirty dishes.
Things to sell, things to clean,
things to gather, things to throw away.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The small ones upon their heads
and upon their shoulders.

Death and funerals.
AIDs, malaria, children, orphans,
alcoholism, battered wives,
broken lives, jobless, hungry, cold.
Mosquitoes, flies, dust – dust all the time.
Dry and hot. New season. Rain, wet, damp,
drizzle, muddy, soaked. Bogged down.
Things to mourn, things to heal,
things to comfort, things to protect,
things to love.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The big ones on their minds and in their hearts.

Manger, baby, king, miracles, ministry.
Bread, Life, Way, Truth, Hope.
Arrest. Mocking, spit, fists, beaten.
Thorns, blood, cross, nails, flesh, death.
Sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection.
Salvation to bring, captives to set free,
liberty to proclaim, healing to give.
Work finished.
This is what Jesus does.
He bears burdens.
All of them on the cross.

Full stop.

If You Care About Abortion, Do Something About Gun Control

It’s really that simple.

Evangelical Christians are losing credibility by the day when we declare out of one side of our mouths that we are “pro-life” and yet, over and over again reject any and all measures to make it more difficult for people to buy semi-automatic weapons like those used in San Bernardino that are designed, marketed, and sold for the purpose of taking human life. As was said in the first NY Times editorial to appear on that paper’s front page in almost 100 years: “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”

We cannot continue, with any credibility at least, to say we are ‘for’ life, and do absolutely nothing to prevent it being taken by gun violence.

And let me add this. The president is right. If a person is on a terror watch list that prevents them from boarding a plane, then they should not be able to walk into a gun shop and buy an assault rifle. And yet, immediately after the attacks in San Bernardino, every Republican senator except one voted against measures that would have made that very thing hard to do. Yes, that is correct. Republicans in the Senate decided NOT to ban people on a terror watch list from buying guns. Their reasoning: such a law might accidentally keep somebody from buying a gun who is not a terrorist.

That is complete idiocy! I mean after all, accidentally keeping someone from buying a gun seems to me far less serious than accidentally executing the wrong person, something these same people seem completely unconcerned about doing. There are just inconsistencies piled upon inconsistencies here and its time we take stock of them if we are to be taken seriously in public debate (And no, I’m not unilaterally against capital punishment, nor am I a pacifist – in case you were wondering). Rather, It seems to me that this is an argument of convenience, and not one built on firm moral convictions (or else it would be applied broadly, no?).

No, stricter gun laws won’t prevent every atrocity, but they will most likely prevent some. That certainly seems to be the case with conservative-led Australia, and it may work here. In Australia, “There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.”

Even if one mass shooting is averted, is that not better than none?

So what does all this have to do with abortion? I am appalled by the callousness of the pro-choice movement and its cry for abortion-on-demand simply because a baby would be inconvenient. Yet, I am becoming almost equally appalled by the unwillingness of gun owners and politicians to even budge on the issue of stricter regulations, regulations that would almost certainly curb SOME of the violence that is racking our nation. There can be no doubt that this unwillingness by certain politicians to give even a little ground is driven by an immoral gun lobby whose primary concern is their own financial gain. As far as I’m concerned, the gun lobby and the NRA in America have become the immoral equivalent of Planned Parenthood. Because of the gun lobby, Congress refuses to restrict the sale of body-armor piercing bullets and refuses to expand background checks. They are therefore morally culpable for the current wave tsunami of shootings.

At what point will Evangelicals become so fully “pro-life” that giving up a cherished privilege will not be too much to ask (like owning an assault rifle or purchasing “cop killer bullets”). When we will start caring enough about human life that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to reduce gun violence?

But what about the 2nd amendment? After all, I have a constitutional right to own a gun, don’t I?

Ok. If that’s your argument, here’s my (tongue-in-cheek) proposal.

I say make black powder rifles the only legally obtainable guns. First, this would allow gun enthusiasts to exercise their 2nd amendment rights in the most literal way possible, as that was most assuredly the type of gun in mind when the amendment was written. Second, for the sport enthusiast, it would make hunting even more enthusiastically sporting. I mean, if you only get one shot at the bear before it comes after you, you better have darn good aim right? Third, these rifles require so much effort and hard work to use and maintain, I suspect it won’t be long before we’re back to pre-Civil War numbers on gun ownership in America: Somewhere around 14% of the total population.

But what about the fear factor? If only the criminals have assault rifles, and everybody else only has muskets, won’t they run roughshod over the country, raping and pillaging while we haplessly and helplessly stand by?

Ok. That’s a valid point. I’m being slightly facetious about the musket thing (only very slightly). But I’m doing so to make a point. We don’t need to ban all guns except black powder rifles. But why, though, can’t we keep a guy on a terror watch list from buying an a rifle designed for mass destruction? Because it might keep Bubba from getting one too? Give me a break!

The point is that our choice is not between a total ban on all guns and doing absolutely nothing. Its between doing absolutely nothing and doing something that may save even one life! And the something we can do is force our elected representatives to either enact stricter laws or lose their jobs.

So, back to my main point. If we have any hope of winning the argument against abortion in America, we need to start doing something about gun control. It is too late now to sit idly by and declare that this or that won’t work, when we haven’t so much as tried. Human life, all human life, from infants to adults, are too precious to do nothing. And if we are going to be credible in declaring that we oppose abortion because we are pro-life, then we must do at least something to show that we are consistent in this. Laws making it harder for people on no-fly lists to buy assault rifles would be a good start.

The Missiological Necessity of Presence: How Being Gives Purpose to Our Doing

In all honesty, I don’t always love being in Africa. I do love the people we work with and I love the work we do. But Africa itself can be a taxing place to live. This past week was a good example of the challenges, ranging from the mildly frustrating to the somewhat terrifying. On Tuesday I spent hours trying to stay online long enough to do something as seemingly simple as book airline tickets. Then, we spent the next two days running back and forth to the clinic because our daughter had malaria. In the midst of all this, I found myself asking…

…Could we not be more productive in a country with slightly better infrastructure and a little less malaria?

After thinking about this for sometime, I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity is perhaps the least important reason we should pack up our family and move to a foreign country as missionaries.

In missions, we are often driven by the need to do. Sending churches want regular updates telling, not about what we have thought about, prayed about, or read about, but rather what we’ve actually done. Because of this, cross-cultural missions work tends to be action-oriented. Plus, I think as Americans, we’re sort of wired that way to begin with (at least the adult versions of us are).

But Jesus taught that presence is more important than productivity. And I think there is a significant missiological implication to this.

In the Gospel account of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), we find a discussion that well captures the importance of being. While Martha is busy making preparations, she becomes agitated with her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening carefully to what He has to say.

The point of the story is not to make Martha out as the bad guy for being productive. Productivity is a good thing and is commended in Scripture (Prov. 10:4). Rather, there is a cultural dynamic that one might easily miss in this passage. In Jesus’ day, women were not usually considered worthy of receiving religious instruction, and instead were usually confined to domestic tasks. As one commentator observes, “Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”[1]

Jesus though transforms this cultural norm. Martha, in her busyness, has missed a golden opportunity. She was looking for her sister to provide a little temporary relief from her domestic burdens, not realizing that Jesus was offering that very thing in far greater measure!

Mary would surely at some point return to her domestic chores. But she would do so as one who had sat at the feet of Jesus, heard his words, and been transformed by them (cf. Luke 6:47–49). She would never again be simply a woman going about her duty in a society that had little regard for women. She would be a woman forever born along by the transformational Words of her Lord. She would return to her work knowing that her work did not define her as it seemed to define Martha. Rather, Mary would be defined by the radically different door to self-understanding that Jesus had opened to her. She was now one worthy of instruction in the things of God, and not just somebody who set out the coffee and doughnuts for others.

So what is the point of the story then? I think it’s this: Presence gives greater meaning and greater significance to our productivity. Otherwise, we can be very productive in a lot of things that really don’t matter very much. But spending time with Jesus transforms us and gives us clarity about who we are and what we should do. This is true of us spending time with Jesus, and its true of Jesus’ disciples spending time with each other. Our being with Christ should compel us not to busyness, but to community:

“By entering into fellowship with Jesus, who emptied himself and became as we are and humbled himself by accepting death on the cross, we enter into a new relationship with each other. The new relationship with Christ and the new relationship with each other can never be separated.”[2]

So what precisely is the missionary implication of this? I believe the key is exactly the point made by the story of Mary and Martha: effective doing depends first on effective becoming.

What I mean is that when we spend time with Jesus and with fellow believers, we become defined (like Mary was) by his transformative words rather than by cultural definitions of success or significance. For cross-cultural workers, this means we cannot know our task or even ourselves until we know Christ and the faith community to which we belong.

Remember, Jesus’ missionary commission to the disciples was followed by the promise of His presence: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Likewise, Paul frequently spoke of the necessity and importance of being with those he served. To the church in Thessalonica he said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Therefore, we need not only time in the presence of Jesus through personal devotion, but time in his presence through fellowship with the saints. We need to be with each other in order to be truly for each other.

Whether living in West Africa or the West Bank then, our reason to be there must first be about who we become in the shared reality of togetherness. Only when we have through the power of community become who Jesus wants us to be, can we then begin to do what Jesus wants us to do.

[1]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), n.p.

[2] Henry Nouwen, et. al. Compassion (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 48-49.