As John Lennon almost said, mission is what happens while we're making other plans. Our work for God is right in front of us, just where he intends it.
There is no blueprint for how people come to faith. For many it is an incremental process, like waking up slowly from a deep sleep; for others it is more rapid, like the sudden recognition of a face in the crowd. Occasionally it is dramatic, the inception of a passionate relationship. And there then is Paul, the Apostle. If many people experience the arrival at faith like a quiet journey on foot where the destination is a pleasant surprise,
Paul’s conversion was an extraordinary rendition: one moment he is walking along the road and the next he is bundled into the back of car, which speeds away to Damascus. His old life is gone in a moment and he becomes the possession of a perceived enemy who has the power to treat Paul as he chooses.
As a tangible piece of evidence, it is second only to the resurrection in its power to make people stop and think about the Gospel. A highly visible, intense and violent man, implacably opposed to this new cult in Judaism, becomes the new faith’s chief advocate and pioneer. After his encounter with the risen Jesus, Paul was unable to see for three days and could not eat or drink, such was the shock he had endured. Only after the gracious hospitality of a follower of Jesus in Damascus was Paul able to resume the ordinary habits of life again. This was a conversion like no other and was to lead him to perhaps the biggest job description in faith history: the calling to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel about Jesus.
As he describes this calling in the highly personal early chapters of the letter to the Galatians, it is understandable that we see it in a different league to the more limited sense we have of God’s leading in our own lives, yet this is a mistake we have too easily acquiesced in. While few are tasked with duties as grandiose as Paul’s, he gives us implicit guidance in Galatians over how we should each interpret God’s will for our lives.
There are three dimensions to this: Paul was set apart before he was born; he was called through God’s grace; so that he might proclaim Christ among the Gentiles (1:15-16). We tend to see this calling as specific to Paul, but he believed these truths to be universally valid, that God is saying to each one of us: I set you apart before you were born; I called you through my grace; you are to proclaim me.
We find this difficult to believe of ourselves because the idea of being set apart makes us feel uneasy. Human beings have a strong group mentality. From an early age we identify the risks of appearing different to others and we learn to assimilate ourselves into the group’s way of thinking. We prefer to be like everyone else, for it makes life easier for us. Those who claim to be different can be made fun of: Jose Mourinho will always be teased for having described himself as the ‘special one’. When others use such terms, it is usually because they are either deluded or dangerous. We are suspicious of radical language like this, for it does not fit our natural temperament. However, this idea of being set apart by God is not something we claim for ourselves, like an insecure person desperately seeking fame: it is God’s story about us, repeated for effect again and again in the New Testament.
This encouraging truth strongly suggests that God has a purpose for each one of us and he has always understood this. We take for granted that every person is different in life, but this uniqueness is a source of infinite possibility for the God who made us and who called us. It is not just when we begin to express faith in God that he starts to fashion our lives; from our mother’s womb, he is shaping us to be the person he wants, with our personality and our natural gifting. Paul always had exceptional ambition; in our current jargon we would call him ‘focussed’. This natural drive and intensity was apparent in his life before Christ and it was adopted and sanctified in his new life in Christ. In the same way, God takes us as we are, with our distinctive ways and particular gifting and uses us just as he intends. We do not have to pretend we are someone else. The saying: ‘he thinks he’s God’s gift to the world’ is usually a judgment on someone else’s arrogant pretensions. Yet each one of us is God’s gift to the world. He said it, not us.
The related truth is that God has called us through his grace; as Isaiah proclaimed: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43:1). We all know the social risks of not remembering someone’s name because it implies, however unintentionally, that the other person is not significant enough for us to remember. God never forgets our name; it is engraved on his heart. As the world’s population grows larger and local communities lose their coherence, people clamour for personal significance. There is a cruel idolatry at work today which suggests we are not significant unless lots of other people know about us. By contrast, the Gospel tells us we do not have to strive for this significance, it is ours by virtue of God’s work in creation (we are made in his image) and his salvation (he has forgiven us and empowered us in Christ). It is tempting to think that God’s calling is something that happens to other people when it actually happens to us all.
Being set apart by God and called by his grace, we are also to proclaim him among the Gentiles. Some Christians are natural evangelists, because their personality and gifting from birth - allied to their strengthening in the Holy Spirit - make them so. Others might assume they are spared this calling which can be left to an elite to perform. Yet who we are, how we speak and what we do are of deep value to God and get noticed by others. There is no hierarchy here; it is a priesthood of all believers. Clergy may conduct their ministry in dog collars, with the universally understood symbolism this represents, but all those who have faith in Christ have the same visibility and power to influence others for good: by demonstrating the goodness of God, or for bad, in failing to do what we say we believe. We may cringe at the social awkwardness of those who amble round city centres in sandwich boards proclaiming judgment day, but if we are known for following Jesus, we are metaphorically wearing a sandwich board. The question is: what does the board tell others?
The beauty of Paul’s description of the Christian is its inherent universality and equality. We are all set apart from birth; we are all called by God’s grace; we all proclaim – or declaim – Christ, whether we like it or not. John Lennon once said that life is what happens while we’re making other plans. By the same token, mission is what happens while we’re making other plans. Our work for God is not conducted somewhere else or by someone else; it is usually right in front of us, just where God intends it.
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