Last year my eldest brother gave a speech at my father’s funeral. My other siblings and I had rhapsodised about Dad’s virtues. But my elder brother talked about Dad’s imperfections. He recognised that Dad was flawed like the rest of us. But the thing that impressed him about Dad was Dad’s determination to be a better man. He was a good man, but he wanted to be more than a good man. He wanted to be the best man he could be.
A few years before my brother’s speech Indian novelist Ahrundati Roy gave a speech titled “Confronting Empire”. She spoke of the way powerful countries and corporations were manipulating the world’s economy to achieve their own interests and in the process were marginalising and hurting the world’s poor. But she also spoke of her determination to build a better world. She called her listeners to join her in refusing to bow to the whims of the powerful. She closed her speech with these words:
The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling: their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
People ask me why I am a follower of Jesus. And at one level the answer is simple – I was raised in a Christian home so there was some inevitability that I would be a Christian. The more interesting question is why am I still a follower of Jesus. When I was a child the world seemed quite simple. Faith was easy. But as I have grown older my life has been touched by tragedy and challenge; I have travelled to poor countries and seen the immense deprivation and suffering of the poor. So in the face of all this, why am I still a follower of Jesus?
For me the answer is bound up in the words of my brother and of Ahrundati Roy. The Jesus I encounter in the Christian Scriptures makes me want to be a better man and makes me believe in a better world.
I don’t know what image of Jesus you carry in your heart. Maybe it’s an image of a dying Saviour. Maybe it’s an image of a good man who taught good things. Maybe for you Jesus is the baby in a manger that you think about at Christmas time. For me, Jesus is the leader of God’s revolution.
This is how the Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus:
Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”
If you read through the bible’s stories of Jesus that phrase, “God’s kingdom” is repeated over and over again. It’s the theme that unites everything Jesus says and does. His miracles? Signs of God’s kingdom arriving. His teaching? A telling of what it means to be part of God’s kingdom. His death? The attempt of the Roman Empire to snuff out God’s kingdom. Jesus resurrection? The triumph of God’s kingdom.
That phrase, “God’s kingdom” is shorthand for what happens when God breaks into our lives and world. For centuries the prophets had spoken of a time when God would break into our lives in a new way; when God would show us the type of people we’re created to be – loving, gracious, strong, good, purposeful; when God would work in our hearts and minds to help us become the people we’re created to be. They spoke of a time when God would break into our households in a new way; when God would lead us in crafting homes that are safe, nurturing, welcoming and strong. The prophets spoke of a time when God would break into our communities in a new way; when God would help us shape communities that nurture our humanity, are equitable, are fair, are safe and good. The prophets spoke of a time when God would break into our world in a new way; when God would bring an end to violence and war and greed and poverty and exploitation; when God would shape a world marked by peace and respect and sufficiency for all. The prophets spoke of a time when God would break into our environment in a new way; when God would bring an end to natural disasters and disease and death. And when the bible wants to sum all those hopes up into a single phrase it speaks of God’s kingdom.
So back to the story of Jesus. Jesus sweeps into Galilee with a revolutionary message – God’s kingdom is on it’s way. The time when God would break into history in a new way has arrived. Let me give you an example.
In the Gospels Jesus pretty much does three things – he performs miracles, he teaches about God’s kingdom, and he has meals with people. His miracles are controversial, his teaching is controversial and his meals are controversial. Each one of them challenges the status quo and casts a fresh vision of who we can be and what our world can be. So how could eating meals be controversial? Well it all depends who you eat with. Jesus made a habit of sharing meals with all kinds of people, including tax collectors, prostitutes and other people looked upon as the worst of ‘sinners’ . That was something that just wasn’t done. It wasn’t a case of snobbery. Many people in Jesus’ day felt that it was important to keep the community pure by keeping out those who were living impure lives. So when Jesus has meals with the very people others wanted to keep out he’s being very quite deliberate. He was sending the message that God’s kingdom is about welcome and grace and forgiveness; that God is interested in us despite what we do; that God wants to be involved in our lives no matter who we are.
And that teaches me who I’m meant to be. I discover that the person I’m created to be is someone who welcomes everyone. And for me that is more likely going to mean welcoming the socially difficult person at work, or the emotionally wounded person at the footy club. Jesus teaches me the sort of community we’re meant to create, one that is welcoming and inclusive, that deliberately reaches out to include those on the margins. That teaches me who God is. A God who welcomes tax collectors and prostitues and sinners right alongside the good and the upright.
Christian speaker Tony Campolo captures this wonderfully in a story he tells:
If you live on the East Coast and travel to Hawaii, you know that there is a time difference that makes three o’clock in the morning feel like nine. With that in mind, you will understand that whenever I go out to our fiftieth state I find myself wide awake long before dawn. Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while almost everybody else is still asleep, but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed–which is why I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu at three-thirty in the morning, looking for a place to get something to eat.
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name “greasy spoon.” I mean, I did not even touch the menu. I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?’
I told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.”
He poured a cup of coffee, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, then grabbed a donut off the shelf behind him. I’m a realist. I know that in the back room of that restaurant, donuts are probably dropped on the floor and kicked around. But when everything is out front where I could see it, I really would have appreciated it if he had used a pair of tongs and placed the donut on some wax paper.
As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at three-thirty in the morning the door of the diner suddenly swung open, and to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.
It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”
Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”
“Come on!” said the woman next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.
“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her–right here–tomorrow night?”
A smile slowly crossed his chubby face and he answered with measured delight. “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her–right here–tomorrow night!”
His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”
“Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about two-thirty and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake.”
“No way,” said Harry (that was his name). “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”
At two-thirty the next morning I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes. . .and me!
At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready (after all, I was kind of the MC of the affair) and when they came in we all screamed, “Happy Birthday!”
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted. . .so stunned. . .so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to one of the stools along the counter we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her. As we came to the end of our singing, “Happy birthday, dear Agnes, Happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles lit on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I. . .I mean is it okay if I kind of. . .what I want to ask you is. . .is it okay if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s okay. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”
“Can I?” she asked. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home and show it to my mother, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left.
When the door closed there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?’
Looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at Honolulu at three-thirty in the morning. But it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter, and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at three-thirty in the morning.”
That’s just one example of the sort of thing that happens when people take Jesus seriously. They get a fresh vision of themselves, of who they’re created to be, of what their communities can be, of what the world can be. For me it’s meant getting involved in global poverty relief. I am inspired by Jesus’ vision of a world where justice prevails, where poverty has ended and everyone enjoys the fullness of life God intends. Embodying that vision has meant pouring a significant amount of my money and time into helping people halfway across the world and I’m convinced it’s been worth every last cent. I have been fortunate enough to travel to some of these communities and hear their stories and it blows me away every time.
This is why I am still a follower of Jesus. If I became a follower of Jesus as a result of growing up in a church-going home I remain a follower of Jesus because in Jesus I see the sort of human being I want to be and in Jesus I see the sort of world I want to live in and in Jesus I have the hope that this is God’s revolution, a revolution that started with Jesus, continues in me and will one day extend into the heart of every human being and to every corner of the planet. In the words of Ahrundati Roy, another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.