While recovering from knee surgery, I had time on January 20 to sit back at home and take in the inaugural day activities. I heard America’s new President proclaim two related inaugural themes: America First and Make America Great Again! Politically and patriotically, I can see why our new President sounded a notion of prioritizing our own people. I confess, however, the themes make me a bit uncomfortable. I believe in being a loyal citizen but also a world Christian. How does one properly balance American patriotism with compassion for the world’s suffering refugees and orphans? Yes, I do want America to prosper yet I believe greatness is contained in humility. The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim recently commented, “How about America helps the world to become great?”
Working for a global missions agency, I have learned to reflect on ideas with missional eyes. I cannot help but care for other nations and peoples. My wife and I pray regularly for the world’s hungry and oppressed. I read international news daily to guide my prayers. I give financially to help refugees and to send the gospel to those who have never heard. I believe you can cheer for your own nation and care deeply about all God’s children. And my job is to push and prod church folk to notice the rest of the world and to care about those who have little or no access to the Good News. So here are four of my favorite reasons for developing such a global perspective:
The first great crisis in the early church had to do with the question of including Gentiles. First century Jews divided the world into Jew and Gentile, us and them. Gentiles were uncircumcised and mostly non-religious. It was a stretch for a Jew to see them in any way incorporated into a believing community of Yahweh worshippers. But the coming of Christ broke down the dividing wall in the Temple. The apostle Paul lobbied the Jerusalem elders for full inclusion of Gentile believers and that argument won the day. The Gospel is for all peoples, all languages, all tribes and all nationalities. Praise God. Yes, there is room for you and me too.
The Bible teaches again and again that the Church is called to carry the Good News of Jesus everywhere and to everyone. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 bids the disciples to make disciples of “all nations.” Jesus’ commissioning words according to Acts 1:8 remind the disciples they will become witnesses from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the world. In Genesis 12, we read a covenant promise to Abraham that the patriarch and his descendants will become a blessing to all nations. And in Revelation 7:9 we see an end-time picture of all kinds of people (every tribe, language, people) gathered around a throne worshipping Jesus the Lamb. The Church lives in between Jesus’ first and second advents, going forth as witnesses to the Good News among all ethnic groups. Yes, there should be access for all.
The Least of These
In Matthew 25, Jesus describes a picture of suffering and needy people, linking them to himself. The hungry, the naked, the sick, the strangers, the prisoners…when you help these hurting people, it is as though you serve Jesus. What a radical identification Jesus makes with the poor, the downtrodden and the lonely people on earth! His compassion for hurting people is an identity marker of Jesus as Immanuel—God with us. Jesus also reminds us that the first will be last and the last will be first. And such radical compassion is a value our Lord passes on to his disciples then and now. So we cannot turn away from the poor in America, Albania, Afghanistan or anywhere.
Are unreached and unevangelized peoples to be counted among “the least of these”? Are the spiritually hungry and the not-yet-included ones needy people because they don’t share in the blessings of the covenant?
Paul wrote to the Romans (11:25-26), “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”
Paul’s theology suggests the other becomes more important to us than ourselves for the sake of ourselves. For the Jew (Paul), the way to salvation for his own people (the Jews) was through seeing the full number of those other than himself coming into the Kingdom (the Gentiles). Yes, we learn to see Jesus in all hurting and excluded peoples.
Learning from Each Other
In the letter to the Ephesians we read a reference to the Church growing to “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (4:13). And that “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:15-16).
The body imagery employed in these texts suggests that all Christians, no matter what denomination, nationality or ethnicity, are joined and knitted together in Christ. The implications of that idea are profound. Unity and diversity belong together. As followers of Christ, we then belong to each other and learn from each other and help one another. The Body of Christ is incomplete without all the parts.
The Body of Christ is like a multi-faceted jewel that shines through every people group that belongs to it. No part is complete without all the others. The other facets can show us and teach us about the full stature of Christ the Head. The mission historian Andrew Walls sheds light on this insight:
“The Ephesian question at the Ephesian moment is whether or not the church in all its diversity will demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments, the interactive participation that is to be expected in a functioning body. Will the body of Christ be realized or fractured in this new Ephesian moment? Realization will have both theological and economic consequences. Perhaps the African and Asian and Hispanic Christian diasporas in the West have a special significance in the posing of the Ephesian question, and the United States, with its large community of indigenous believers and growing Christian communities of the diasporas, may be crucial for the answer that will be given to it.”
Yes, we need each other.
In one of the gospel narratives, the disciples James and John asked Jesus for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hand in glory. “Can I be closest to you? Can I be first or second in the ranks of the disciples?” Do you recall Jesus’ answer? First, he asked if they were worthy. Could they truly follow him into suffering? Of course they said yes. Secondly, Jesus told them such honor was not for him to bestow but it would come to those who were worthy.
I wonder if American Christians will be surprised at what they encounter in glory. So many other people groups have suffered in being faithful to Jesus. They have known what it is to be “last” and one day may experience being “first.” Representatives of these other ethnic peoples show faithfulness to Christ in the midst of suffering and they have become great in the God’s kingdom. Yes, we need them to help us grasp the mysteries of Christ. Yes, we need their perspectives to glimpse more clearly the full stature of Christ.
I’m grateful today to be an American Christian. I give thanks for my comfort, freedom and national heritage. I’m proud of the enormous American contributions to missionary service and mission scholarship. But I’m even more grateful for my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m profoundly grateful to be included in the Body of Christ. I pray that my allegiance to Christ provokes me to greater love, charity, kindness and compassion for all of the “least of these.” I pray that the American Church will embrace this kind of humble greatness.
And I’m praying for the whole Church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world. No nation can reach the unreached by itself. No agency can feed all the world’s hungry people by itself. Let’s affirm that we need each other to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
—Richard Haney, Executive Director