Campus Ministry team visits with Bulgarian children in 2019
“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” –Luke 9:54
While I was directing the Campus Ministry program at (Indiana University) Purdue University Fort Wayne, it was my privilege to take a couple hundred students, and a few older adults, on 26 cross-cultural mission trips to eleven countries on three different continents. In preparation for these trips, I would always lead three orientation sessions to ready the students for what they might experience on their adventure. One theme we always explored during these sessions was the idea that we would be entering a cultural context unlike our own. Depending on the destination, the adjustment the students would need to make could be quite daunting. To serve the Lord effectively, we needed to approach this reality with curiosity, patience, and flexibility. For the most part, the students met the challenge, grew tremendously both emotionally and spiritually, and almost never wanted to come home. But, as I always told them, their parents expected me to return them safely.
When Jesus ascended into heaven following His resurrection, He gave His disciples final instructions. I wrote about those instructions in a previous reflection. But one phrase in Jesus’ parting words was revolutionary, and yet, the significance of it is easy to miss. He told His disciples to go and make disciples, to reproduce themselves, of all nations. (Matthew 28:19) In Hebrew, the word for nations is goyim, the Gentiles or non-Jews. In one sense, this directive would not have surprised the disciples at all. The original patriarch of the Israelites, Abram, was commanded by God to leave his home and travel to a land of promise where the Lord would make him a blessing to “all peoples on earth.” (Genesis 12:3)
But a lot of time had passed since the Abrahamic covenant, a lot of history had been made and invariably, whenever the Israelites interacted with other people, the goyim, they were seduced by the idolatrous and immoral elements of foreign cultures. When that happened, bad things would also happen to them. God’s judgment, the consequent suffering, and finally a return to the Lord’s ways on down the line was the usual pattern for His people. After centuries of this, the Jews became hesitant to engage others unlike them for fear they would cave to the seductive cultures around them. To guard against this possibility, by the time Jesus was born, the Jewish religious elite had constructed a whole battery of self-made and self-imposed laws, a fence really, to keep God’s people from breaking God’s actual Law. It was this legalism that Jesus came to challenge and shatter—and ultimately redirect His people to their original mission of blessing those different from them.
If we want to follow Jesus and be obedient to His commands, we have to reach out to and bless those who are different from us. There is no getting around the centrality of that principle. The problem is that the mission often gets sidetracked, or canceled altogether, due to our selfishness, sin, and pride. Like the Jews of Jesus’ time, we come to fear or hate others either because of what they have done to us in the past or what they might do to us in the future. We throw up barriers all the time—race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, political affiliation or ideology, and on and on. We use these walls to produce an artificial sense of security or superiority. Sometimes we might even pray, under our breath anyway, that the Lord will rain fire from heaven on those we have learned to hate—see the example of Jesus’ disciples James and John at the start of this reflection. But this is, obviously, an unhelpful way to look at the world. Deification of self drives division to defend a self-constructed reality that denies what we all have in common—sin. No one is right. We are all wrong. On the other hand, the Lord seeks to bring us altogether, through the Cross, in the midst of a beautiful diversity of people He created.
The good news is that the reconciliation the Lord is working to engineer between Him and us, and us and each other, is truly cross-cultural. The gospel cannot be contained in mono-cultural boxes and Jesus’ disciples must share it with everyone, not just people like them. Are there specific ramifications? Yes. White Americans better start thinking practically about how they need to change how they do church to communicate with people of a different ethnicity. We stop labeling people, even if only in our thoughts, based on their sexual orientation, race, gender or political inclinations. No one is defined solely or stereotypically by any of these factors. People who voted for Trump better learn how to talk, and listen, to people who voted for Biden. And vice versa. If we want to make disciples of the nations, we need to treat others with kindness, gentleness and compassion. No one who is treated otherwise wants to hear what we have to say. Jesus’ cross connects us to other sinners who are more like us than we are often willing to admit.
At the same time, disciple making is also a counter-cultural process. The Lord wants us to love and serve others, to respect them and try to understand their viewpoints. The way we treat others builds the bridge over which Jesus’ disciples share His message. But, make no mistake, the message itself, God’s Truth as presented in the Scripture, normally challenges the tenets of the culture into which it is introduced. Twice Solomon put it this way: “There is a way that appears to be right (cultural norms determined by human thought and behavior), but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25) It is not loving, accepting or tolerant to affirm any way of thinking or behavior that contradicts a clear reading of the Bible. Respecting and loving someone does not require my agreement with them—in fact, it might demand the opposite. The ancient Israelites ran into trouble when they bowed to the idols of the cultures around them. My fear is that many of us within the Body of Christ are doing exactly the same thing—and the consequences will be the same as well.
Heavenly Father, would You give us Your heart for and Your perspective on people who are different from us. I guess that’s everybody, Lord. Keep us from prejudging others based on all of the “outward” markers that we use to set people apart. Help us to love, encourage and pray for everyone who crosses our path. At the same time, give us the courage to embrace and share Your Truth gently, respectfully, but uncompromisingly with those same people. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.