|Jesus to the World
April 30, 2000 / Mark 16:9-20
Maybe you’ve seen the story in print or on television in the past few weeks about a fellow who answers the question “Who are you?” with a question of his own: “What’s your name?” In fact, responding to his own wish, people have generally taken to calling him Whatsyourname. Part of the fascination of the fellow is that he looks just like You-Know-Who! — at least, like You-Know-Who’s storybook pictures.
The man showed up in the depressed coal-mining area of Appalachian Pennsylvania in October of last year. He was barefoot and wore a white robe. He looks just like those flowing-hair-and-white-robed Jesus characters that we know from movies and storybooks. Major newspapers and national news magazines have told his story.
His real name is Carl Joseph. He is a 39-year-old man who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and who has traveled through forty-seven states and thirteen countries since 1991. He grew up Catholic but insists he is now catholic only in the sense of “universal.” He owns only the clothes on his back, never takes money from people, and subsists on the goodwill of people along the way who feed or house him.
Maybe he’s just a fruitcake — as some claim. He was, after all, arrested on a charge of breaking into an adult theater in May 1991. He admits to it and says it was one of several events that made him realize he needed to make a “serious change” in his life.
Before you dismiss him from your mind entirely as a nut, however, consider just a few facts about the man: When someone talks to him about his “visions” or angels she has seen, he warns against self-centeredness in spiritual experience. A woman asked Whatsyourname to talk to her son — whom she described as “scary, with tattoos and no job” — and they spent three hours together; the next day, the boy got a job and has gone to church regularly since then. A woman who had lost custody of her two children because of drug addiction asked to talk to him; she has stayed clean since their time of conversation and prayer.
Whatsyourname doesn’t claim to be Jesus and only claims to be trying to imitate the Nazarene. But his presence has stirred up the little town of Hazelton. Some dramatic life changes have taken place. Person after person says Whatsyourname has gotten him or her to reading Scripture and thinking more deeply about spiritual matters.
So what does this fellow — whether crazy, devout, or simply weird — have to do with the Gospel of Mark? How does telling his story relate to the final lesson in this sermon series? The second Gospel ends with an acute awareness that something is supposed to be different now that Jesus has been among us, died, and risen from the dead. The church is supposed to be making an impact on the world. Christians are supposed to be exhibiting Christ’s presence to the world.
As the story of Carl Joseph (a.k.a. Whatsyourname) illustrates, anyone thought to look like Jesus will create a commotion. When we are Jesus to the world, people will notice — and be changed by that presence among them.
The so-called “long ending” of Mark says this:
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.
Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
We’re not sure if these verses are the original ending John Mark penned to his Gospel. What we do know for sure is that the earliest Christians knew that something was supposed to happen among Christ’s disciples after his resurrection and subsequent ascension to the Father. If Mark didn’t write these lines, somebody appended them to say in essence: Of course, the story of Jesus doesn’t end here; it continues among humankind through the lives, deeds, and preaching of his church.
The followers of Christ are supposed to do something more than hold warm thoughts of Jesus in our minds. We are supposed to do more than build grand structures in his honor; “Build it, and they will come” is from a Kevin Costner movie, not the Bible. We are supposed to do more than perpetuate his first-century clothing, shaving, or travel techniques; with all due respect to Whatsyourname, God’s call to you likely does not involve being an itinerant preacher. God’s call to you, to me, to this church today is to be Jesus to the world in practical, life-changing, redemption-bringing ways.
We are supposed to proclaim the Good News of what God has done through Christ to save people — offering hope, redemption, and eternal life to people who have been hurt by Satan’s assaults. We are supposed to sow the good seed of the kingdom of God and reap a harvest for our Master. People who have experienced the thrill of being rescued from sin and emptiness are supposed to be Christ’s messengers to others who are (literally!) dying for lack of the same experience in their lives.
Unfortunately, though, being part of the church can wind up being anything but being Jesus to the world and can be isolation from the world. One writer put it this way:
Many churches today remind me of a laboring crew trying to gather a harvest while they sit in the toolshed. They go to the toolshed every Sunday and they study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and then get up and go home. Then they come back that night, study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and go home again. They come back Wednesday night, and again study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and get up and go home. They do this week in and week out, year in and year out, and nobody ever goes out into the fields to gather in the harvest.
Well, I’ll have you know that I have the correct response to such a thinly-veiled indictment. And here it is: Ouch! He got me!
Churches aren’t doing a good-enough job of communicating the gospel to the world. To quote a famous line from the late Karl Barth, “Religion is the great enemy of God.” We spend too much of our effort on ourselves and pay too little redemptive attention to the world. We must constantly take care to distinguish faith in religion from faith in God. That is, we must guard against becoming the object of our own faith. Only God deserves that, and the church must not confuse itself with God.
Loyalty to a particular denomination, non-denomination, or heritage threatens loyalty to God. For some people, a relationship with God is synonymous in all its practical aspects with church activity. If the local church or denomination of which they are a part were to disappear tomorrow, it would amount to the disappearance of God from their lives. The church is not God! Religious traditions rise and fall, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). That’s why I settled it a long time ago that I serve Jesus Christ, not the Church of Christ.
So what should our strategy of “being Jesus to the world” look like? Three words will serve to answer the question: demonstration, confrontation, and proclamation.
First comes demonstration. The church must demonstrate for all the world to see that there is a way to treat people that is Christ-like. His command to love one another as he has loved us is taken very seriously. So we live by the rule of mercy and grace: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). If we can’t live with simple, everyday, compassionate care for people — beginning with one another, but not stopping there — we are mocking him. On the other hand, if we imitate his example of affirming the worth and dignity of people, food, housing, health, literacy, counseling, marriage therapy, AIDS ministry, drug- and alcohol-treatment programs are high priorities for us.
How do we show we believe Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan without being concerned about these things? (cf. Luke 10:25ff). Are some concerned that the church will become just another group of humanitarian do-gooders? The church must be a group of do-gooders who are humane and caring, but it will never be “merely” human goodness at work so long as it consecrates all its activities as expressions of the redemptive love of God that transcends all human kindness or goodness. Thus our Counseling Center. Thus our children’s ministry. Thus children’s school supplies, Harvest Sunday, our Christmas Wish Tree, and dozens of other compassion ministries.
Second comes confrontation. Holiness to the Lord requires not only that the church engage in ministries of compassion but challenge the wicked, God-defying, and dehumanizing activities that are Satan’s tools to destroy people made in God’s image. Injustice, racism, abuse of power, greed, exploitation of the poor and weak, mistreatment of children, insensitivity to the handicapped, inequity in the institutions of society — all these things are enemies of Christ and thus the enemies of his spiritual body, the church. And we are nothing but cowards if we choose to abandon the world in order to live in our sheltered little “church ghettos.” God calls us to take up the fight for uprightness, fairness, and decency in our world. We need not turn the church into a political action committee in order for it to be an instrument of God’s righteousness.
When Karl Marx declared that religion was “the opiate of the masses,” he was indicting the church for being an instrument of the rich and powerful in oppressing the poor and disenfranchised. By promising people heaven in the bye-and-bye, they were doing little more than keeping them content with nothing in the present. Thus the church became simply one more oppressive power that propped up the rich on the pain of the poor. The church will look like Jesus if and only if it speaks for the weak, serves as an advocate for the weak, and empowers the weak to be less reliant and more self-sufficient for daily living. Thus Joan’s work. Thus Christian Community Services, Inc. Thus our prison ministry, Room In the Inn, financial counseling, Divorce Care, and other ministries that stress fairness, equity, and social justice.
Third comes proclamation. More often than not, this is where we think sharing Christ begins. Thus we offer words first. A church wants to become evangelistic, so someone leads a pep rally to encourage everyone to be conscious of the lost, to pray for their salvation, and to be ready at the right moment with the right Scriptures to share the gospel with them. Wrong! Without a background of love and compassion, righteousness and integrity, words fall dead and powerless. Until someone knows you and your church for its likeness to Christ, neither you nor it has credibility. Before we have the right to talk about Jesus to people, we must be Jesus to them.
Remember how Jesus broke down all the barriers of religious tradition and social propriety to minister healing to people whose hearts and lives were broken? (cf. Luke 4:16-21). He didn’t call press conferences and astonish people with astounding miracles. He lived among people and embodied God’s holiness and compassion. He acted first — and then talked. If we honor him as his people, it will be because we have learned to minister to some of his least brothers (cf. Matt. 25:40, 45) and to share the words of grace on the credibility of actions of grace. Thus preaching. Thus the Billy Graham Crusade. Thus books, videos, small groups with empty chairs, trained workers to contact people with the message that creates faith, and other ministries of teaching.
The long ending to Mark’s Gospel records Jesus’ Great Commission and a summary statement of the earliest church’s faithfulness to it. And while much of the theological battleground we have staked out in these verses has to do with the possibility of the tongues, healing, and other supernatural signs, I suspect their true theological challenge is to our natural gifts.
Do you care about the lost in other countries? Preach to them in miraculous tongues, if God gives you that gift. Otherwise, give your money, your children, and your own time to take them the message. Do you really care about the sick? Then heal them with your prayers and loving touch, if God gives you that gift to his glory. Otherwise, clean up the vomit, pay the hospital bills, and spend time with those who are dying. Take care of their families afterward.
Even if you don’t have special or supernatural gifts, you can ask God to give you the heart that is necessary to being Jesus to the world. And he will. And you will be! And the gospel will be heard, and people saved!
The famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler, discovered an exquisite violin on one of his concert tours. He wasn’t able to buy it at the moment but quickly set about to raise the necessary money. When he returned to purchase it, he learned to his great dismay that it had been sold to a collector of instruments.
Kreisler made his way to the collector’s home and offered to buy it. The man told the great musician that it had immediately become his most prized possession and that he would not part with it. Keenly disappointed, Kreisler was preparing to leave. Then he had an idea. “Could I play the instrument just once, before it is consigned to silence?” he asked. The owner agreed.
Such powerful music filled the room that the collector was deeply moved. “I have no right to keep that to myself!” he exclaimed. “It’s yours, Mr. Kreisler. Take it into the world, and let people everywhere hear it!”
To sinners such as myself, the gospel is the joyous music of heaven. We have no right to keep it to ourselves.
“Nomad Carries Spirit of Hope to Pa. City,” Washington Post, February 6, 2000, p. A1.
Fred Mogul, “Appalachian Apostle,” Time (February 14, 2000).
Paul W. Powell, The Complete Christian (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1982
provided, designed & powered by|