The following is a talk given by Jennifer Chan (Missional Church Director, City to City NYC) at Movement Day NYC 2021 and broadcast to leaders in over 150 host sites throughout North and South America. We are thankful to Movement.org, LEAD.NYC, and their ministries to connect, equip and transform leaders to make a spiritual and social impact in their cities.
Turning Sorrow into Joy
In John 2, at a wedding about to turn into a social disaster, the water of religious ceremony—water used to separate God’s people from the world—is turned into the finest wine you can imagine, wine of friendship and celebration.
Fast forward 18 chapters to John 20, where the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, afraid for their lives, when to their astonishment, Jesus shows up, breathes the Spirit on them, and sends them out to be his ambassadors.
Fast forward again to Acts 4 where Peter has gone from denying in the dark that he knows anything about this man, Jesus, to proclaiming in the full light of day that the Jesus the rulers rejected has become the cornerstone. He and John, unschooled, ordinary men, speak with so much courage and confidence that the religious leaders are shocked and they take note that these men had been with Jesus.
Turning Information into Transformation
What do these great reversals mean for us in a time of coronavirus and climate change? We know that the water of separation was turned into the wine of friendship. The materials of stifling ritual were transformed into the stuff that makes for the best kind of party, where everyone is welcome. There is joy where Jesus is.
You and I, with a few taps on our phones, have access to more data than any generation before us. Every day, information threatens to toss us around from bad news to worse. But there is life-saving, world-changing information in the fact that Jesus transformed water into wine. As his family members, can we be data analysts, information translators with this good news? There is a deeper, better reality than what the algorithms serve up. Even now, in our mess of a world, there is joy where Jesus is.
My spiritual but not religious friend goes through a breakup. Her heart tells her, “No man is ever gonna love you. You’re not worthy of love.” Can I, through my presence with her in pain, interpret the data with her differently? “You are deeply loved, sister. You’re longing for love that lasts—you were designed for that.”
My neighbor, who was raised Catholic, loses all his clients in COVID. His heart tells him, “Years of AA and getting sober? Lousy ideas. Might as well start drinking again. There’s nothing better out there.” Can friendship with my family, in the loneliest months of pandemic, be life-saving information for him?
Over the summer in New York, we saw storms destroy the lives of people living in basement apartments, flood subway stations, and entire blocks. In certain areas, while other areas were mostly fine. There’s information there. The conditions on Rikers Island, the fact that there are fewer trees, and fresh food is harder to find in neighborhoods where many children of color live—is information. The frustration and anger we may feel as we try to engage systems that leave the most vulnerable worse off with every calamity—is information. So, can we be the kind of people who sift through life’s data, and our society’s data, with hurting people? And, in the power of the one who saves the best wine for last, do the hard work of joining hands across tribes in repair and renovation?
Turning Our Weakness Toward His Strength
The great turnarounds of the gospel power us to live as people who’ve been sent. As the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends us. I love the word, “sent.” And I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live as “sent people.” Here’s what I know it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean having all the answers or knowing every move to make.
In my work with churches to develop disciple-making, evangelism teams, I get to walk with leaders who love God, AND say things like, “I can’t do evangelism. I’m not—fill in the blank—not extroverted, not great at talking, I don’t have a good track record.“ “I can’t be the one God sends right now. I—just started a new job, I’m more comfortable with the already-Christians, I just had a huge fight with my sister-in-law. There is NO fruit of the Spirit in me.”
One leader began praying more consistently for her neighbors and family. She listened for how God might be drawing them to himself. She asked questions that got them thinking about our purpose as humans. One night, as we gathered on Zoom, she broke down and confessed to her team that living a lifestyle of mission was kicking her butt. She was tired. She doubted the goodness of God. She did not like his timeline. But the beautiful thing is that as she spoke openly about running into her very human limits, we all felt the Spirit move, and her pastor spoke truth to her heart right then and there: “Before you are ‘successful’ in evangelism, before you serve dinner to the hungry next Friday, you are already loved, and accepted. There’s nothing you can do to earn more of God’s favor and smile. You have been sent to be and share really good news. But not alone. We’re in it with you.”
Living as sent people means straight up accepting that we’re going to make mistakes as we open our mouths about our hope in Jesus, and when we put our backs into being good neighbors. But, look! In the New Testament we see God’s healing, restoring, and reconciling purposes being fulfilled as followers of Jesus go to uncomfortable places, get asked questions they weren’t ready for, and grow in love and understanding of the gospel as they fumble, and fail, and keep on walking.
Expertise and perfection are not requirements for the job of sent living. But paying attention to what God is already doing is: maybe it’s your friend’s disappointment that that big promotion did nothing to improve his life, or the heartburst a new dad feels holding their baby, or learning that Afghan refugees are being settled in your area, and local nonprofits are looking for help to welcome them. Are we paying attention to how God is at work around us? Paying attention, being quick to admit our human limits, and being willing to follow him into uncomfortable, disorienting places are part of the job of sent people.
In Acts 4, the religious leaders cannot believe the words and power coming out of Peter and John’s mouths. These men had been with Jesus. What had they experienced over 3 years that transformed them so drastically?
They had been with him when on his way to heal a local VIP’s daughter, he stopped everything to ask who touched his cloak. His disciples are like, “You’re crazy, man. Look at this crowd! Everyone is touching your cloak!” Despite the urgency of the moment—Jairus’ daughter is dying after all—Jesus stops to look his daughter in the eye. His daughter who’d been isolated, cut off, for 12 years. And he says to her, “You took a risk of faith. Now you’re healed and whole. You belong here with us.”
And again, with a kind of tenderness you’d use only with your own children, he brings Jairus’ daughter back to life with the words, “Sweetheart, it’s time to get up.” The first thing Jesus does after is ask her family to give the girl something to eat. For an Asian person like me, where food is always the primary love language, This is the God for me. And while we’re at it, I spent a few years working with activists who fight every day to make life better for women and girls facing violence and trauma. As I re-read this story in Mark 5, I have felt the Spirit nudge me to say to survivors and my fierce activist friends alike: “Do you see the way this man treats women and girls? This is why I follow Him.”
Turning Stories into Movement
So I keep asking groups of leaders the same question: What story of Jesus most moves your heart, and why? People talk about the breakfast Jesus served on the beach, where, instead of condemning Peter, Jesus invites him to feed his lambs. People talk about how he surprised the woman at the well, and ate with both the outcasts and the establishment. They all needed a new way to relate to God, to one another, and a new way to be human.
As small groups of us get to talking about our first love for Jesus, I can picture the walls we’ve built up to protect ourselves from the risky business of evangelism and the inconvenience of good-neighboring—those walls begin to shake. I imagine the cocoon of Christian-clubby-coziness deflating as people realize, as if for the first time, that Jesus has the power to take our breath away. And having been with Jesus, we too can speak confidently and courageously about him. We too can have the power to spend our lives on behalf of others.
Friends, how are you and I “with Jesus” now? Are we staying near him, so we can be the kind of people that live a gospel turnaround lifestyle where the way up is down, and the way to save our life is to lose it? Can we re-commit to staying near him, immersing ourselves in the gospels, so we can be refueled to to join what he’s already doing and keep translating information about a new, already started, but not yet fully come world, where everyone is welcome to the party?