[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
When I started writing this column, it was national election time in South Africa. In my first piece, I urged us as South Africans to engage in the public sphere with a Biblical lens. I deliberately entitled it “Why bother with politics and all that other stuff?” in a plea not to limit ourselves to a cocoon of church activity. What I am about to write about may seem like quite the opposite of the first article, but I really believe both are valid.
Zoom back to the book of Acts, chapter 1. Acts1:3-9 reveals a conversation between the resurrected Christ and his disciples. Luke records it as follows: After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Immersed in the world
The disciples, like Christians today, were saved but immersed in the world around them. For the disciples, it was a Jewish world, and this Jewish world had one burning socio-political issue: When will the Messiah come and remove the shackles of Roman rule? When will the Messiah come to give us political freedom? Spare a thought for the disciples. Having seen Jesus’ death and resurrection, for them it was a no-brainer.
Immersed in their Jewish world, they were thinking: Jesus, now that you’ve proven that you are Messiah, when are you going to do this for us? In his commentary on this passage, John Stott observes that the apostles “were still dreaming of political dominion, of the re-establishment of the monarchy, of Israel’s liberation from the colonial yoke of Rome. The apostles still cherished narrow, nationalistic aspirations.”
They must have thought that their problems were because of their Roman rulers, but were they to be overthrown, everything would turn out fine. Sound familiar? In response, Jesus brought them back to the central issue: the gospel that transforms the human heart, and he gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit to make that possible. He shifted their focus from their issue to His ultimate issue, from a Jewish cause to a global cause.
In this regard and others, we are very much like the disciples. We might be saved, but far too often we are so immersed in the world around us that the issues of the world crowd out the most important issue.
Delving into Facebook, Twitter, mainstream media and the chit-chat over a braai, the local conversations will most likely turn to the topics of race, affirmative action, the government and perhaps even the poor. Why do these topics receive such constant airtime? Surely it is because popular opinion believes that these are the most important issues of our day.
The main issue
Like the disciples, we become so immersed in our world that we try to make these issues bigger than the issue Jesus raised. For Jesus, there was one issue that trumped all others: the gospel. Were we to ask Christians at point blank whether they think the gospel is the most important issue, they would probably (and hopefully) say yes. But we need to look at our thoughts, actions, lifestyle, Facebook posts and tweets to reveal what we really think is most important.
We need to ask ourselves: Am I more vocal about socio-political issues than about the gospel? In fact, is there any evidence of my life and words sharing and living the gospel with the urgency it deserves? When was the last time I mentioned the gospel? Looking at my tweets and posts, is there any evidence that I am a Christian, or do I simply sound like other people in my social bracket?
I’m not done yet. Similarly, the apostle Paul had to remind the church at Corinth of what was of first importance. Like you and I, there were burning socio-political issues of the day that the Corinthians were surrounded by, and they need a good reminder of what was the main thing.
The Apostle thus wrote: 1 Cor 15:1-3, 58 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
Having thus re-affirmed that which is of first importance, he ends the chapter with this directive: Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
In a year when South Africa is fixated on race, am I moved from the seeing the gospel as that which is of first importance? In a climate where the causes of environmentalism, personal health, political movements and more are vying for our attention, are we standing firm, letting nothing move us as we give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord? Regardless of how, the enemy is determined to do one thing: move us from placing the gospel as of first importance.
At the centre and foundation
While the gospel also has obvious eternal implications, it is also at the root of lasting social change today. Those issues we frantically tweet about cannot truly be solved without the gospel at the centre. Jesus was not blind to the problems of our day. On the contrary, He knew that they cannot be truly solved without having His gospel at the centre and foundation.
Pastor Brett Fuller, an African American pastor in the DC area of the US, recently wrote about this in an article entitled E Pluribus Duo: Out of Many, Two. Speaking into the open wound of race and especially unarmed black victims of police shootings and the revenge attacks that followed, he argues for the greater, not lesser, urgency of the church to preach the gospel at this time.
He writes: “At the core of any misuse of authority is the heart of a person who is making a decision. The influence of the gospel upon the heart can make a man back a racist policy in favor of treating his fellow man well. The power of the gospel can make a man less fearful of the unknown, allowing him to be a better decision maker in crisis. The heart-changing Good News can even stop a man from retaliating against his enemy while aiding him to make a friend out of a foe. The gospel will help legislators craft better laws, help business people create companies with inclusive environments, and help the offended forgive. The Good News of Jesus Christ makes people the best version of themselves they could ever be. Dear Christian, if there is a more pointed time to do what we are crafted and called by God to do, I know it not. America desperately needs the Message Jesus died to deliver. If our nation can be healed, the prescription God is writing is the gospel.”
Furthermore, he contrasts the importance of social activism versus the gospel, declaring: “There will be many marches, protests, and speeches in the coming days. Most of which will be constructive, well-intended men and women doing all they can do in their generation to address over twenty generations of pain…While social activism is important, its most hopeful result is reformation.
The Church is earth’s only institution that possesses the message of personal transformation, the kind of heart change that inspires unparalleled reconciliation relationally, cross-culturally, and cross-ethnically. We will come closer to seeing “E Pluribus Unum” become reality if the Church will “preach the gospel to all creation”. God help us help America!”
The same could be said for our nation. Conversations about race and a shared future on our campuses can be a lot more effective, peaceful and considerate if our primary identity is in Christ, not our ethnicity. A world conference on how to tackle HIV/AIDS would be immeasurably benefitted by a people who are committed to a monogamous, covenantal relationship between a man and wife, of which the gospel is absolutely central to achieving this.
Politicians who see their accountability beyond the limited scope of a Public Protector and rather ultimately to the Eternal Judge of every action and motive, will act differently with the public purse. Can you not see? The biggest problem in South Africa today is not race, inequality, government or any other secondary issue we often read about in social media.
These are just the fruit of lives outside the Lordship of Christ. Our biggest problem, like those in the world of the early disciples, is the broad sweep of humanity living outside of the gospel. While voting and other social concerns are important, let us not forget, the gospel is of first importance. This is the most important issue in South Africa, in Zimbabwe, in the DRC, in the UK, in the US, in Syria, and in everywhere else in the world.