When Paul and Barnabas passed back through Asia Minor where they had spread the gospel in their first missionary journey, they reminded the new Christians, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Surely becoming a Christian is a great joy. For the first time in your life you feel loved, forgiven, and right with God through the grace of your Savior. Nothing can compare with the freedom of faith! But the apostles were telling these new Christians that becoming a Christian in a world led by Satan puts us at war with him on several fronts.
When I think of this truth it reminds me of a dear Christian friend, Denise Hunt. She is a beautiful Jamaican woman whom the Lord moved to the neighborhood next to our church. Denise is extremely extraverted, energetic, infectious, and downright charming. On the island of Jamaica, she is a celebrity. You can google her name and read all about her. But before she visited our church, she did not have the peace of Christ that passes understanding. For her, all faith—even the Christian faith—was a work of her own heart. She struggled; she wanted to be worthy. She had been taught a lot of good Christian moralism, but very little grace.
But she came to church, and she listened. She studied, prayed, and strained to understand. Hours of discussion with our pastoral team eventually paid off. One day, when she was praying, she realized deep in her soul that Jesus really did love her, that he alone died for her, and that there was nothing she could do to earn such love or deserve it. She trusted God’s promises in the gospel. It has changed her life for an eternity.
Now this ambassador of Jamaican fitness and entertainment is also an ambassador of the gospel. She wants everyone to know the peace of Christ right here and right now. She began to take territory from Satan as she shared Jesus with family and friends. That’s when life got a little tougher. Her struggle to believe morphed into a struggle to share the faith.
We’ve all been there. We live on the island of faith where Jesus feeds and waters our soul in his oasis of love and truth. And we see restless souls passing our island like dark, pirate ships filled with people trying to pillage the world for treasure that cannot satisfy the soul’s craving. So, we beg them to come and taste the gospel with us. Not everyone takes us up on it. Instead, they even might argue with us, reject us, or insult our sincere trust in a God who both confronts and forgives at the same time. Denise has religious friends who challenge her about the idea that Baptism saves or that Christ’s body and blood for forgiveness are really present in the Lord’s Supper. For her, Baptism seals her identity as a forgiven child of God. She knows all of her sins are washed away. She won’t let the devil guilt her. When she goes to the Lord’s Supper she knows she touches Jesus in a miraculous way. She attributes her overall wellness to the Lord’s Supper as much as to her exercise and diet. She has unbelieving friends who snicker at her vehement testimony about Christ and his sacraments. They are people she cares about, and it hurts that they reject the love of Christ. In addition, she faces the daily attraction to return to the world where she was very good at getting attention, praise, and admiration. Sound familiar? Her struggle is our struggle.
Recently, Denise joined us at the WELS South Central District Grow Conference, a conference that brings together pastors, teachers, and lay leaders to grow in God’s Word and in their various roles within the church. There she had more epiphanies. She gained new spiritual ammo to defend herself against the temptation to envy others and their lot in life. She still talks about how Jesus has custom-made her cross to bear for his name. As Denise will tell you, the cross every Christian has is unique to them. While our crosses are all different, they come from our faith in what Christ has done on his cross. By his sacrifice we are freed from guilt and fear; we have forgiveness, life, and salvation. Trusting in his cross we take up our own crosses and endure ridicule and hardship.
Denise is not just defending herself with the gospel. She is using it to claim territory that Satan once ruled. Through the Holy Spirit, her mother, Angela, and her sister Sasha have come to faith in Christ, trusting God’s pure grace. It’s fun to watch Jesus pluck people out of the devil’s grasp and firmly establish them in his body. Denise and her family are changing the congregation too. They are boldly different than our monocultural heritage. They challenge our thinking, awaken excitement in our Sunday morning worship and Bible class, and push us to challenge all of our assumptions about people and culture. As a pastor, I am deeply refreshed and happily improved by their presence.
When Paul and Barnabas told those baby Christians in Asia Minor that they would have struggles as they entered the kingdom, they weren’t talking specifically about struggles in the church. But becoming part of a church that originated in a different culture is a big struggle for Denise. She will often say, “I just don’t get it! Uhhhhhh!” And she asks, “Why can’t we do that?” or “Why does this church stand for this or that?” My old filters for discussing truth and practice are shattered as I struggle to see the world from her perspective and learn what she thinks, feels, and understands. It’s a great adventure. God is using Denise and her family to change us just as he used us to change them. Jesus works that way. As members of the body of Christ hang in there with each other with durable love and grace, we morph into a something new and better without giving up any truth. But it’s a struggle. Jesus helps us with that too.
When I see Denise, I think of Paul’s words in Philippians: “You will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life” (2:15,16). For years Denise Hunt was just a star on the silver screen on the island of Jamaica. Now she is a star that shines on God’s screen for the world to see.
Donald Patterson, president of the South Central District, is pastor at Holy Word, Austin, Texas.
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © May 2017 reprinted with permission.