When I finished seminary I wanted to go back to Hyderabad to serve in the St George’s Church where I had grown up going to Sunday School and church. It didn’t happen because the then bishop knowing that I didn’t know Telugu and was more suited to a city congregation insisted that I would be packed off to a village church. I had felt a need to prove myself back where I had spent most of my life until then.
After 30 years of training for His mission, ordination by the Holy Spirit, and finishing His final exams in the University of the Wilderness, Jesus went back to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. On the Sabbath, He went to the synagogue “as was His custom” (Lk.4:16).
Sometimes Christians think that habits in the practice of faith are bad. They think that since habits are more or less done by rote, they can’t be acceptable to God. He wants heart religion, doesn’t He?
Habit formation is a part of life. Our personal hygiene depends on our having learnt habits and kept them. This is true for our spiritual health too. No doubt some of it will be done by rote, but we still would do it conscientiously—like brushing our teeth. We brush teeth without too much of thought about the process. But we are conscientious about it.
For a Christian, the example of Christ is mandatory. The word “disciple” is usually associated with religion. But it really doesn’t have a religious meaning at all. The word simply means “student” or “follower”. A Christian cannot be one without being a disciple, a follower, one who learns to do as the Teacher. A Christian must have the same “custom” as his or her Master.
If we don’t develop spiritual habits, we will develop habits that are contrary to spirituality. There were people in the Early Church who had formed a habit that was opposite to that of their Lord. They had developed the habit of neglecting Christian fellowship:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb.10:25)
Since habit formation is inevitable, if we don’t develop good spiritual habits, bad spiritual habits will be developed.
The writer of Hebrews argues that once we have entered God’s presence through the atoning death of Christ (vv.19-20), we should be drawing nearer (v.21), and clinging to our hope (v.23). If we withdraw from God’s presence (by our absence in the gathering of God’s people) we proclaim a lack of hope in what Christ offers us. When earthy pursuits and goals keep us too busy to fellowship with God and His people, we show a hidden disbelief in the hope of what God has promised us. Our absence is a discouragement to others, whereas we are to seize opportunities to encourage others to love and do good (v.24). If you follow Christ make Christian fellowship a habit.
When Jesus went to Nazareth, on being invited to read the Scripture to the assembly, He read from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people (Lk.4:18-19, GNB)Ministry of Redemption
When He read this passage from Isaiah, and said that that Scripture was fulfilled that day, Jesus was announcing what His agenda for ministry was going to be for the next three years of His life on earth.
Jesus said that His ministry would first of all pay attention to the poor. When people are poor, they are denied what others take as a right. The way I am dressed, conduct myself, and talk, I’m able to gain entry to all sorts of places. But a poor man is kept out of the same places simply because he is poor. In a world where the rights of admission are far too often denied to the poor, Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God was one place where the poor would not be denied. The Kingdom was open to them.
Next, Jesus said that His ministry would reach out to the imprisoned. When people are confined, so often they are forgotten. The sorrow of those confined is not that they are confined, but that they are forgotten. Joseph was kind to Pharaoh’s cupbearer, but the man forgot him once he was outside the jail. How many have we confined behind the walls we build around them so that we can forget about them and go about our lives?
Jesus said He would give sight to the blind. The blind represent all of the ill, because their blindness shuts them out. They have no idea about colour. They don’t know anything about physical beauty. Standing at the foot of a mountain they have no idea about its height. When people are shut in by their illness, they can so easily be shut out by the world that has no patience for those who are ill and slow and weak. But Jesus didn’t shut them out. And His disciples didn’t. Around the world they have always ministered to the sick.
Lastly, Jesus said He had come to care for the oppressed. These are the people who are cheated, abused, harassed and victimized. The worst blow they suffer is that when they are down and out, they are deserted by one and all—sometimes even by family and friends. There is a need for us to be careful about not being oppressors ourselves. We are largely a middle class community and have middle class values. While people are excited about the pay revisions that have recently been implemented, somehow they do not think that the poor rickshaw puller needs to benefit from that pay rise. If a kind woman gives him more, an observant neighbour will scold her for “spoiling it for others”. The middle class have a way of forming a cartel. Our unions will fight for us to be paid more, but when it comes to paying the poor, we close our ranks so that there is no leakage of benefits. For that matter, even God is denied the proportion of our pay rises.
Methods of Redemption
When Jesus announced the agenda of His mission, He also spelt out the methods He would be using to accomplish His purpose. The first method was that of preaching. The word “preaching” just means “proclaiming” or “announcing”. Today many people show a disdain for this method of doing God’s work. They make jokes about preachers and preaching. For instance, have you heard that preachers preach, and doctors practise?
Though people put it down, preaching is essential to understanding what God is doing. Without preaching, the significance of an event would be lost on us. We would not be able to recognize it as an act of God.
Romans crucified thousands of people during the time that their empire existed. How could anyone know that when three men were crucified one Friday two thousand years ago, the one on the cross in the centre was the Son of God giving His life for the salvation of humanity? He was a stripped and battered wretch, no different than the others who hung on either side of Him. From Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, to modern preachers, all say that that man on that cross on that day was different from all the thousands crucified before Him and after Him.
It is the preacher who says that there is more to life than what appears. It is the preacher who announces that when someone is healed, it is because God took charge of the doctor, the medicines, the whole treatment. It is the preacher who says that an event is an act of God. That’s all a preacher does. He announces, “See the hand of God, for this is nothing less than an act of God.”
Of course, preaching alone will not do. Words will not make a difference to someone who is hungry and miserable.
Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? (Jas.2:15-16, GNB).Our Lord said that healing was part of His ministry. Just like our Lord, there is a need for us to touch people’s lives. We need to comfort them and bring relief to them in their time of need. Sometimes people hide behind slogans like, “I would rather teach a man to fish, than give him a fish.” But we need to recognize that people need to eat while they are still struggling to learn to fish. There is a need to do something immediately to help them in their hour of need.
Healing is not just the healing of illnesses and disabilities. It is about touching people’s lives. While some need healing for their bodies, there are many who need to be healed of emotional traumas and hurts. There are people who need to be healed of fears and hang-ups.
Touch was the way Jesus healed people. Touching has a healing effect. The person suffering from leprosy approached Jesus hesitantly. He wondered if Jesus would heal him. He cringed as Jesus reached out to touch him. Jesus said, “I will.” That was not just about being willing to heal the man, but also about touching one whom human society had cast out as an untouchable (Matt.8:1-3).
Wilf Wilkinson in his book To Me Personally (Fontana, Great Britain, 1972) quoted the following from the autobiography of Werner Pelz, a Jew born in Berlin whose parents died in the Holocaust, became a Christian reading the Bible, and later became a minister of the Church of England:
How much heartbreak, perversity and barren promiscuity we could avoid, if—like children, the favoured candidates for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven—we could learn once more and feel free to peck and cuddle as the fancy takes us…and who knows whether the genitals will not clamour for much less of our attention once we have learned to satisfy the craving of the whole of our skin?...I have often sat next to a man or woman, old or young, sick or lonely or bewildered, and I knew that had it come naturally to us, I could have helped them infinitely more by taking their head into my hands and kissing them, or by hugging them or stroking their hair, than by my wise and penetrating words. After all, this is what I long for in my distress (p.55).People are starving for a human touch to give reality to the love of God they are to believe in. The invisible God takes flesh and blood in a fresh reincarnation when any one who serves God touches someone today. Our touch can give them the strength to go on living and overcoming their problems, because the love and the power of God flow from our fingers into their hurting bodies and souls.
The third dimension of Christ’s ministry was that of freeing people from their bondages. If healing is like first aid for the short run, then this is about recuperating them for the long run.
We have a tendency to concentrate on the short term ministry because often it brings us the satisfaction of some quick results. We can concentrate on taking scalps that we don’t help people to last the distance. At first people who followed Christ were identified as belonging to “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Jesus said He was the Way (Jn.14: 6). The Christian life involves a journey, a long run.
It is not enough to bring people to birth in the New Birth in Christ. Life must follow birth. There must be a going on. There must be living. Birth happens in a moment, but a living takes time. But it is not only the living of life that takes time. Equipping people to do the living also takes time. There are no quick fixes for this. People in ministry have to be ready for the long haul.
Men & Women Respond
When Jesus preached, common people listened. They were amazed because He taught with authority, unlike other rabbis who skirted questions and controversies, or would quote someone else’s opinion rather than assert their own view (Matt.5:28-29). And since everyone loves stories and Jesus was a master storyteller they loved listening to Him. It was obvious to them that Jesus loved to talk to them with utter simplicity. The people were glad too when Jesus cleverly turned tables on His baiters and tripped them up (Mk.12:37).
Some of His listeners became disciples. As I said earlier this is what it means to be a Christian. A Christian has to be a “student” or “follower” of Christ. Only those who follow the Teacher and do as He teaches them are Christians. For them His Word is their command.
Among those who listened to Jesus were those who showed that they cared. They dipped into their purses to support an itinerant preaching band that didn’t have the approval of the authorities or belong to any guild of teachers (Lk.8:1-3). Jesus and His followers were doing things that didn’t have any sanction. The women who supported Jesus risked their standing in society.
Not all listened with eagerness. Everyone who listened didn’t respond favourably. Some were against Jesus. They rejected Him. They shut their ears to His teaching. But to all who received Him, to them He gave the power to become sons and daughters of God (Jn.1:12-13). Where do you fit when you hear the Lord speak to you today?