Acts 14:19-20: “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.”
Yesterday morning, we were on our way to Respite Care, our worksite for Week of Hope, our senior high service project for the Summer. One of the “discussion starters” in our packet was, “Suppose you walked into your local Starbucks, and Jesus was there. What is He wearing? What is He doing?” Immediately, most of the gathered students said something like, “Wearing robes, drinking coffee and preaching.” I pressed further, asking them what they meant, and they persisted. In their minds, Jesus would be wearing a long-flowing robe, and preaching in a corner. Two students, my students in particular, had a different idea. They said that Jesus would “be like Ian.” Who was Ian?
The church that we attended in Longmont this past Sunday was huge. They actually needed a Colorado State Trooper outside at the end of the service to direct traffic. We had just heard an inspiring service and message about living a life wholly-inspired and set apart for God. We left the lot and then made the turn to head north to go to Ft Collins, where we’d spend the week. And there, on the side of the road, thumb out, a bag of kitty litter under one arm, and a Wal-Mart bag in the other, was Ian.
As we came up on him, one of our students made a comment about giving him money. I said that we should give him a ride, and pulled over. Ian had long straggly hair, an unkempt beard, broken teeth, the whole “I look like a total freak” look. We opened the side door, and he looked stunned that we would stop. He hopped in, and he thanked us for stopping. I told him that I felt that with 9 people in our van, if he did something dumb that we could stop him, and then laughed. He laughed too. As we drove him up the road toward his house, he shared that some days were better than others when it came to getting a ride. “Somedays,” he said, “People sucked”. I asked him what he meant, and he stated that he was on the side of the road for over an hour that morning, as people drove by. Our students shared with him what we were doing that week as we drove. As we let him off (we took him right to his house, to his surprise), I asked him what we could pray about for him. As he jumped out, he simply said, “the world” and he was gone, and off we went.
Right next to the church where we had attended services that morning, was another large church, perhaps 200-300 people. At the one that we went to , there was 500-600. Surely, some of those 700-900 people, who had just heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, drove right past Ian. Perhaps, they had events that they needed to rush home to. Perhaps, their vehicles were full because they had invited their friends and neighbors to attend church with them, and they simply had no room. Perhaps, as Caedmon’s Call sings, “the least of these look like criminals to me,” so they “left Christ on the street.” Perhaps, I am a judgmental jerk.
We are a society built around safety, around the examination of risk, around comfort. This is demonstrated through every facet of our lives. We look for the safe bet, the sure thing. We abuse Jesus’ statements about “measuring the cost” of discipleship by embarking on tasks and mission that will “pay off.” It’s why much of our tithes and offerings are spent perpetuating the machine of ministry rather than being the church. Its why mission organizations on the Mexican border can’t get people to come for short-term trips. And frankly, it’s why Ian stood on the road for over an hour, as freshly-scrubbed, happily upper middle-class suburbanites who had just had the Gospel proclaimed to them drove right past him. Ministry to people like Ian just isn’t safe.
Last year as a church, we read Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love.” As a family, we’ve been reading David Platt’s “Radical”. Last night, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the ministry to the “other”, those not like us. She said that as she read Chan’s book, she kept turning the pages, waiting for some challenge to come to her. “Chan,” she said, “is saying nothing new. It was ‘just’ New Testament Christianity.” Leneita is right. The reason that authors like Chan or Platt shock is is simply because we are not living out the call of the gospel. Their words smack and sting because they call us not only to something higher, but to be dispensers of grace in ways that might leave us empty. If we are living out risk-free lives, then I submit that we just might not be living out the gospel at all.
I’ve already heard comments from people that I should not have endangered the lives of our students, and perhaps, they are right. No doubt, I’ll have a conversation when I get home with a church leader about the folly of doing this. And, I will submit, because they are my leaders. So, to be perfectly clear, no more picking up hitchhikers when we are on a mission trip or service project out serving Jesus.
But, I’ll be left with a choice:
Choice 1 is continuing to be a part of the machine that propagates safe ministry. My safe, risk-free youth ministry will simply create adults that will drive by people like Ian on their way home from church. They will neither participate in a mission trip out of fear, nor will they let their kids go. But actually, this won’t happen because, as we are finding out as a church culture, our families really look nothing like Christ. His call to discipleship, to giving up everything for the sake of Christ, is empty and meaningless. Our families look no different that those of the non-Christians next to us. We listen to the same music, watch the same movies, play the same video games, date the same non-Christians, etc. There is no conversion to anything. If their lives are the same with or without Jesus, they will choose door “a” because at least there is no guilt.
Choice 2 is a mutiny against the machine. Choice 2 is proclaiming the gospel to people, rejecting the notion that Jesus would be preaching in Starbucks, wearing a robe. Choice 2 is turning over the tables. Choice 2 is Jesus, as Ian, saying to the reglious masses driving by, “You suck.” Choice 2 is Jesus’ choice. We saw that in the story of the Good Samaritan when Jesus called out the religious leaders on their refusal to ministry to the beaten man. We saw Jesus live this out when he healed on the Sabbath. When He forgave sins and touched the leper.
Paul was beaten for proclaiming the gospel, and dragged out of the city, left for dead. When he came to, he got up, dusted himself off, and went right back in. The gospel…safe?
Maybe your gospel is.