Boldly Going Where God Goes: Kingdom Risks

John BowenJohn Bowen is a professor at Wycliffe College in Toronto.

At the beginning of Acts, Jesus and his followers already have different ideas about the best way to proceed. Listen to their last face-to-face conversation. They ask, "Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" In other words: Lord, this is really exciting. This really is the end of the world now, isn't it? Everyone is going to see that you're the king any minute now. Right? Right? Remember that conversation we once had about who would sit at your right and your left, Lord? Remember that? Do you think that…

Their focus is the present, on Israel, and on what Jesus will do. When he replies, however, his focus is different: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." He seems more interested in the future ("you will"), in the ends of the earth (not only Israel), and in what the disciples are going to be doing (be witnesses). Clearly a little tension is in store. They are looking for comfort and resolution, he is pushing for risk and ambiguity. This is how it seemed to me that tension worked itself out.

The Risk of Leaving the Nest

The church's evangelism begins in Jerusalem, and, for a time everything goes well. Literally thousands are converted and form the nucleus of the first church.

Then an unbelievable tragedy happens. Stephen, one of the brightest and best of the fellowship, is opposed in his preaching. He is brought to trial, preaches an inflammatory sermon, and is put to death by stoning, the first martyr to the cause. The effect of this disaster is that everybody takes off out of the city, with the exception of the apostles, who stay at home base.

To them, it must have seemed like an unmitigated catastrophe, the destruction of all they had seen miraculously built up. Surely God was with us, yet where is God now? Probably the Holy Spirit saw things differently. While the disciples may have feared that this was the beginning of the end for the church, the Spirit knew that this was only the end of the beginning.

The Risk of Going to People who are Different

If Jesus' first area of concern had been Jerusalem, his second was Judea and Samaria. Now at last, after seven chapters in Jerusalem, the narrative moves on to Phase Two of Jesus' strategy: the Samaritans.

The rumour reaches Jerusalem that Philip has gone and preached in Samaria, and that some Samaritans have become believers in Jesus, yet without receiving the Holy Spirit. Imagine the conversation once the reports have arrived:

    No Holy Spirit? What d'you mean, no Holy Spirit? They simply can't be real believers. Becoming a disciple means receiving the Spirit. Receiving the Spirit means becoming a disciple. Doesn't make sense.

    To be honest, I'm not convinced that Samaritans can be disciples anyway. Could they? There always was something strange about them and their religion, everyone knows that. What do you think, Thomas?

    Well, I remember at least one Samaritan city where the people truly turned to the Master. Come on, Andrew, you have to remember that, too, surely?

    But there is definitely something fishy going on here, I'd say. Someone better go and check it out. Peter, why don't you go? You won't stand for any nonsense. And take John with you. You make a good team.

So Peter and John go, as representatives of The True Church, because what is going on is unorthodox, and they needed to check it out. Even after three years of hanging around with Jesus, watching him break one religious rule after another, they are still nervous when it comes to breaking their own religious rules.

God seems to be drawing the church leaders' attention to the newness in the situation: "Notice what's happening here. Never forget it. You know what this means, don't you? The Gospel is for all people, even Samaritans!"

The Risk of Being Inefficient

Philip continues to have a fruitful evangelistic ministry in one of the Samaritan cities. Hundreds are coming to faith. Dozens are getting healed. Demons are fleeing in terror. A little scary, but also intoxicating.

Then one morning, Philip announces that he has to leave. To go and preach to bigger crowds? Not exactly. In fact, just the opposite. He is going to take a walk into the desert. To our eyes, and doubtless some of theirs, too, it looks thoroughly irresponsible. People are depending on him. What about the crowds of the sick and distressed waiting for his touch? What about the line-ups since before daybreak, waiting to hear him preach? What is he up to?

Imagine the scene. The previous day has been a long one of preaching, counselling, and healing, and Philip is saying his bedtime prayers:

    Lord, this is amazing. It's so exciting to work alongside you. I feel as though my words are quite inadequate, and yet somehow your Spirit makes them communicate to people. Thank you so much. Same again tomorrow, Lord?

    No? You want me to do what? No, honestly, Lord, I'm not telling you your job, but that is a desert road. Yes, I know you know that. No, I didn't think you hadn't noticed. I just thought… Oh, nothing. Yes, of course I'll go. No, you're quite right. There are others who are good preachers who can look after things tomorrow. No problem, Lord. Talk to you in the morning.

So Philip goes off by himself into the desert, not sure what is going to happen and probably feeling a little foolish. He looks all around. Nobody there, just as he feared. Then he spots a small cloud of dust on the horizon, quickly coming closer. A cart? A cart! "Lord, is this it?" "Start running, Philip." So he does.

The Finance Minister of Ethiopia has identified himself with the Jewish religion, though we cannot be sure to what extent. And now he has fulfilled a life-long ambition: he has been to worship and to sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. It has been wonderful.

Yet he finds himself left with questions that nobody has adequately answered, questions that still bother him. The trip home seems a good time to work on those questions: no cell phone, no secretaries, no meetings. He pulls out the precious scroll he's bought in Jerusalem, and unrolls it and looks again at that mysterious saying: "Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…." He's seen lambs led to the slaughter in the temple. It was a poignant sight. But here is a man who is to be sacrificed as a sacrificial lamb. Who can this be?

Deep in thought, he is suddenly aware of a face alongside the cart. Who is this guy and where has he sprung from? "Do you understand what you are reading?" the stranger asks. The Ethiopian shrugs: "How can I unless someone helps me make sense of it? If I give you a ride, will you tell me what it means?" Philip nods. And before the Ethiopian can order the driver to slow down, Philip has already scrambled in.

Sometimes we have a sense that certain encounters take place by divine appointment. As the Ethiopian unburdens himself to Philip, Philip's mind is probably buzzing, "What if I hadn't come? What if I'd pretended not to hear? Lord, thank you, thank you so much." It's as if, by the time the midwife arrives, the labour is over and all she has to do is stand there and receive the baby.

Maybe the Ethiopian would have liked to return to Jerusalem after his conversion. There, after all, he could have sat at the apostles' feet and asked questions to his heart's content. But no. He returns home, the first and (for a time at least) the only Christian in his whole country. Philip the risk-taker, it seems, has delivered a spiritual child with the same spirit.

The Risk Of Physical Danger

Acts chapter nine introduces us to another risk-taker. Ananias is a respectable, law-abiding citizen, a responsible member of the new church, everyone's favourite greeter on Sunday mornings. He is still enjoying the honeymoon of his new relationship with God. Only one thunder cloud looms on the horizon — an evil man named Saul — but he is far away in Jerusalem and not exactly an immediate threat. Ananias remembers to pray for his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

Then God comes to Ananias, inviting him to walk straight into danger, to go looking for that thunder cloud:

    Ananias? Yes, Lord? I have a special job for you. Great, Lord. (Ananias has clearly not had enough experience of the Christian life yet to know that this may not mean unadulterated pleasure.) You've heard of Saul, I think? Oh yes, Lord, I've been praying for your judgment to smite him for some time now. Yes, I know. I'm afraid I haven't been answering your prayers exactly the way you expected. Really, Lord? Well, you know best, of course. I hope you really believe that. Ananias, I don't know how to tell you this. Saul has become a disciple. (Silence.) Are you sure, Lord? I beg your pardon, Ananias? Yes, of course, Lord. It's just that… Ananias, I thought you wanted to know about this special job. Well, sure, Lord, but where does Saul come into this? I'm beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. I want you to go and welcome him into the family. You have this wonderful gift of welcoming people, and making them feel at home, and I just know you would be the best person to do this. Er, yes, Lord, but… No buts, Ananias. Saul is going to have a very significant role in my kingdom, and you are the one who's going to get him started. OK? Yes, Lord. (Pause.) Right now, Ananias. Yes, Lord.

So Ananias goes out, pretending not to hear his wife calling, "Honey? Where are you off to so late?" He leaves his house, closing the door thoughtfully behind him, knowing he might never open it again, and deliberately goes to pay a visit to the one man in the world who wants to kill him.

As he heads for Straight Street, he wonders how to begin. "Excuse me, sir. May I have a word with you, Mr. Saul?" By the time he is knocking at the door of Judas' house, he knows what to say. In his best Sunday greeter's voice, the voice that makes everyone feel welcome, he begins, "Brother Saul." And Saul, who had had a vision of a man called Ananias, is relieved he has come.

The obedience of Ananias plants seeds that, down the road, will produce a flowering of evangelism all over the ancient world. Ananias is never heard of again in the New Testament. But it is right that he should be honoured in its pages as the greeter who went out of his way to welcome the man who wanted to kill him. Too bad there aren't any churches dedicated to St. Ananias the Risk-Taker. Without him, we would probably not be here.

Risk And Evangelism

The fact seems to be quite simply that the kingdom of God does not progress unless Jesus' people are prepared to take risks. This is true in everything that concerns the kingdom; not least is it true in the realm of evangelism.

I know in my own life that growing in evangelism has inescapably meant taking risks. Let me tell you about the time when this question of risk first confronted me head-on. I had been on staff with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship for eighteen years, mainly doing Bible teaching, pastoral work, and leadership training with student groups. Towards the end of that time, however, I was becoming aware of a deadness and boredom creeping in. I tried to shake it off, but nothing helped.

Then I read Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled. What struck me was Peck's thesis that we grow only through change, that change means leaving behind what is familiar and comfortable… and that it is risky. I knew that was speaking to me. I was doing my job well enough, but the heart had gone out of it. I was not changing, not growing, taking no risks. There was no urgency to my praying. I almost felt I could have done my job as well if God had not existed. Something had to change.

For reasons I am not sure of even now, I decided I would deliver a series of lectures entitled "Ten Myths about Christianity." I would do this in a "high traffic area" of the university where I did most of my work. The Baker Lounge was located between the students' union on one side and the student pub on the other, with the main information desk near by, and the faculty club in front of me. Hundreds of students walked through every lunchtime. It did not feel to me like a safe place to give a Christian talk! With one or two students' help, we booked the space, set out publicity, arranged two rows of chairs, and I did it.

Not many people stopped to listen. I don't know of anyone who became a Christian. Not many Christian students took an interest. But for me it was liberation. Fresh life began to seep into my Christian life, into my relationship with God, and into my ministry in general. Maybe God was telling me something.

The following year, a high school group I was working with were discussing what they could do as a major outreach event in the school. I ran over some of the things I had seen other groups do. I ended with the words, "Or you could do a debate." As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I knew what was going to happen. They loved the idea. I could even suggest an atheistic speaker who would enthusiastically argue the non-existence of God. But what about a Christian speaker? They discussed for a few minutes, but I knew what I had to say. I could almost feel the Holy Spirit breathing down my neck, saying, "Well…?" Finally, I surrendered. "I suppose maybe I could do that." That settled it.

We did the debate. Over five hundred students came out. I looked and felt more confident than I really was.

I wouldn't say I won (and I'm sure my opponent wouldn't say it either), but I was aware that none of the Christians felt I had disgraced them. That was good enough for me. With some trembling, I said, "OK, Lord, what's the next risk?"

What happened next was not immediately relevant to evangelism. It concerned my role as supervisor of the staff in the local area. One of the staff, the one I had spent more time with than any other staff member, burned out. I felt very responsible and guilty and offered IVCF my resignation, which was graciously refused.

Yet I was pretty sure God was telling me that the managerial role was not for me in the long term. Maybe it was time to leave Inter-Varsity. After so many years, that would certainly be a risk. Or maybe there was another role within IVCF that I could fulfill. There were two things people told me I could do particularly well: one was to teach the Bible to Christians, the other (from my experience with the "Ten Myths" and the debate) was to explain the Gospel to those with no church background, but I couldn't do both. I had to choose.

Maybe because of my positive experience with risk-taking up to that point, I chose the latter. My supervisor said, "We may not know for five years whether this will work or not." I was grateful that he had the faith to wait that long! However, I was invited to speak at two evangelistic missions in different universities the following year, four the year after, and six the year after that. The risk was bearing fruit.

Your risk in evangelism may not be like any of the above. Yet risks there will undoubtedly be and, if we are taking risks in following Jesus in general, some of those risks will involve evangelism because Jesus longs for people to come to faith.

I have found it a useful test to ask: Where is my Jerusalem? Where do I feel comfortable and useful and unthreatened? Not that there is anything wrong with Jerusalem, but Jesus is unlikely to be satisfied with that.

Where is my Samaria? Who are the people who in my book are not quite kosher? They probably strike me as OK in some ways, but in others I just don't feel comfortable around them. Sometimes these are people of other races; as Christians, we often feel that way about other denominations.

Finally, who are my Gentiles? Who are those people with whom I feel I have nothing in common, around whom I would probably feel thoroughly uncomfortable? Their lifestyle is quite alien to me. I can't ever imagine being friends with people like that. I can't imagine what common ground we might have.

The Acts of the Apostles continues to be written today. The Acts of Jesus have not stopped. He continues to press us, gently but firmly, into new areas of discomfort and growth and influence for the kingdom. We might as well give in graciously.

[An extract from Evangelism for "Normal" People: Good News for Those Looking for a Fresh Approach by John Bowen (Augsburg Fortress 2002).]