As you may have noticed, Jesus isn’t here anymore. At least not visibly.
If he were, everybody from Jay Leno to Oprah Winfrey to Larry King would be clamoring to have him on their show. He’d be the hottest interview of the season. Can’t you just imagine the questions, as the host leans forward in the chair:
“So tell us, Jesus, how’s your life going these days?”
“What’s going to be the theme of your next tour? What cities have you booked already?”
“What did you think of that last movie about your, uh, rough treatment by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate?”
Studio audiences as well as viewers across the nation would be fascinated. Ratings would soar.
But it won’t be happening. Jesus took off (literally) around AD 30 or so. He didn’t leave us a cell phone number or an email address. He just disappeared—it was the strangest thing.
Do you know anyone else who started a major enterprise—say, a technology firm or an upscale restaurant chain—and then walked away from it at age thirty-three, when momentum was just starting to roll? Wouldn’t you stick around longer to make sure your brainchild stayed on track, met growth projections, and established itself in the cultural marketplace? Maybe after a few decades, when you reached your sixties, you could hand it off to carefully chosen, well-trained successors . . . provided the various important shareholders in the company agreed, that is. Then you could retire in comfort.
Jesus cared passionately about his mission on earth. He had come “to preach good news to the poor . . . to proclaim freedom . . . to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18) and to embody this work permanently in the form of “my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18). Talk about an ambitious undertaking. This was not to be a cottage sideline. This was a global revolution.
And then he split, leaving Peter and John and Paul, and now you and me, in charge. Whatever gets said or done to advance the effort is up to us. Granted, he still advises us in quiet ways, primarily through his Book. But as far as the public is concerned, we’re the spokespeople. We’re the “face” of the organization.
Was this a smart thing for Jesus to do? (Not that we would dare to question his divine strategy, but still . . .) Wouldn’t ordinary mortals mess things up?
An oft-told fable tries to capture what it must have been like a few hours after the ascension, when the Son of God arrived back in heaven from his earthly excursion. Imagine him briefing the angels: “It was a very long time growing up as a human child and teenager. Then I finally got to start what I’d been sent by the Father to do. I spoke to crowds of people about the coming kingdom of God. I told them God loved them and would forgive them for their offenses against him. I healed the sick. I even raised a few from the dead. I battled with the religious authorities who thought they already knew everything. Some of them got pretty upset—which is what led to my arrest and death. It wasn’t pleasant.
“But of course, I wasn’t about to stay in that tomb for very long. Soon I came back to the scene, which shocked a lot of people. In the last few weeks I’ve made it clear that my followers—you know, the disciples—are to carry on my work. They’ve been commissioned to take the Good News far and wide, not just inside their Jewish culture, but everywhere. In time, the whole world can hear and know the way to enter God’s family.”
The longer he talks, the more wide-eyed the angels become. Soon, a few of them look puzzled. Finally, an archangel asks, “Uh, Jesus, but what if these followers—‘disciples,’ I believe you called them—don’t follow through? Did I understand you correctly that you’ve put the whole project in their hands? Everything the Father wants to happen . . . it’s all up to them? What if they fail to do your bidding?”
The Son’s face grows somber. He is quiet for a moment. Then he softly replies, “I have no other plan.”
With that comment, the briefing is over for the day. Everyone leaves the room deep in thought.
So how are we doing? As the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians in Corinth, God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:19–20). We are “field reps” for the King of kings. However we represent him in this world is as good as it’s going to get.
The cause of Christ is at the mercy of human handling. He deserves, of course, the best advocacy he can get, so that his message of wholeness and eternal life will be heard by those who need it most.
Does Jesus ever look down from heaven these days at the actions of us Christians and say, “What do you think you’re doing?! You just made my job 20 percent tougher. Because of this, I’m going to have to employ a different strategy for pushing back the darkness. Everything is going to take longer and will be clumsier. Yes, we can still make progress—but next time, how about thinking about your actions before you proceed?”
Sometimes Jesus’s friends are terrific. Other times, they’re his own worst enemies. Frederick Buechner writes with astonishment about God being willing “to choose for his holy work in the world . . . lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs and milquetoasts and closet sensualists.”1
How God must cringe sometimes at the ways we who bear his name botch his message, get sidetracked in arguments that don’t really matter, and fog our presentations to people who would love to know God but can’t make heads or tails of what we’re saying.
In my earlier years, when asked on an airplane or at a social function what kind of work I did, I would reply, “I’m a journalist.” I was, after all, proud of having earned a master’s degree at a well-known journalism school in the Northeast, and I believed wholeheartedly in the value of a free and vigorous press in our democracy. Without the benefit of information and opinion, even uncomfortable opinion, how would voters ever know how to govern the republic?
Well, I still believe all that. But I’ve stopped calling myself a “journalist.” I’ve found out the hard way that the title irritates people. If I say instead that I’m an “author” or a “writer,” it goes down a lot more palatably in America today. Polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, among others, show a precipitous drop in public regard for the news media. Back in 1985, the percentage of Americans who said news organizations generally “got the facts straight” was 55 percent. Today that number has dropped a full twenty points.
A Gallup Poll in late 2004 measured “honesty and ethical integrity” among twenty professions. Television reporters came in fourteenth, and newspaper reporters fifteenth—far below nurses (in first place), pharmacists and military officers (tied for second), doctors (fourth), police officers (fifth), and clergy (sixth).
Every time a high-profile, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter gets busted for fabricating his or her story, I cringe. Every time a network news anchor spins a feature to match his or her personal politics, I am embarrassed. As much as I want to defend my chosen profession, I have to admit that it has a disturbing share of incompetence and distortion.
Perhaps you too have found yourself part of a group—professional, ethnic, national, or otherwise—that smudges its reputation, and you feel bad about that. All Americans can remember the sickening feeling in their stomachs when the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad first appeared. This betrayed everything we believed to be good and decent about ourselves. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen called the pictures “a dagger in the heart of our hopes for Iraq and the wider Middle East. . . . The Americans who did this are idiots—and one just doesn’t know what to say about those who thought it would be a good idea to snap photos.”2 She worried, as we all did, about human nature’s way of looking at the deeds of a few people and generalizing to their entire group.
So it is with the group called “Christian.” We do not live as individuals. We are a collective body whether we like it or not, and what we do reflects on the entire group, including its leader, Jesus Christ. After all, his name gave birth to ours. We are inseparable in the public mind.
On the other hand, there is a bright side to this discussion. Certain actions by the Christian community deserve genuine applause. Some moves are downright intelligent. We’re doing at least some things right.
In this book, I want to look at both sides. I don’t plan only to criticize and critique. While I will honestly examine the ways we hurt God’s cause without realizing it, I also want to showcase the good things being done by today’s ambassadors—the smart moves, the wise endeavors. I hope that, as a result, we can all become more of the solution and less of the problem.
In preparation for my writing, I conducted an informal survey that asked people to name three specific ways Christians were currently representing Christ well. “In other words,” I wrote, “what makes you proud to be a Christian?”
The answers were encouraging. Several respondents mentioned ongoing programs of help for the needy, the sick, the disadvantaged. Others spoke about bravery and endurance in the face of persecution, especially among Christians in the developing world. Some said there is less denominational partisanship these days than in the past. Some pointed to efforts to reduce racism in American life. Several talked about the trend among many churches to make the gospel more understandable in today’s language, less obscure and “religious.”
So we should not give ourselves an F for our efforts on behalf of the cause of Christ. Maybe a C-minus?
If this book can help us raise our grade into even the B range, we’ll be making headway. And Jesus will be pleased. That, after all, is the main point, isn’t it?
At the end of the day, being a Christian is not really about my tradition or my subculture. It’s not about preserving my comfort. It’s not about fitting nicely with my generation. It’s not about safeguarding my denomination.
As Max Lucado says with simple eloquence in his book title, It’s Not About Me at all.
Being a Christian is about Christ. If he is noticed and honored, if his message is listened to, if his influence is expanded, we will have done what “good and faithful servants” were meant to do.