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By Ted Schroder,
February 18, 2018

Henri Nouwen wrote a little book of reflections on Christian leadership entitled, IN THE NAME OF JESUS. In it he analyzed the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness after he had been baptized by John the Baptist. The first temptation he characterized by the need to be relevant. The devil challenged Jesus to meet the needs of the people through their stomachs. "If you are the Son of God tell these stones to become bread."

This seems to be a perfectly natural request. Aren't we called to help people, to feed the hungry, and to save those who are starving? Are we not called to do something that makes people realize that we can make a difference in their daily lives? Did not Jesus commend those who fed the hungry in his parable of the sheep and goats (Matt.25:35). As James taught, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:15-17).

But in this instance Jesus prioritized his mission to proclaim the Word of God, "It is written: Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." The Gospel of the kingdom, which Jesus came to proclaim, has to do with spiritual needs and not just material needs. The church is not supposed to be primarily a social agency. Meeting physical needs is the necessary consequence of the Gospel, but it is secondary to the ministry of the Word.

After his feeding of the five thousand Jesus had to rebuke the crowd that followed him. "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for the food that spoils, but for the food which endures to eternal life... I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never grow hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:26-27,35).

Christians and the church to which they belong are constantly being tempted to be relevant to the culture. Psychologists, psychiatrists, the medical community, personal trainers and physical therapists are seen to be more relevant than pastors or preachers. There is more of an attraction to vocations having to do with the environment and non-governmental agencies than to missionary work or church planting. The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, "We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the church, or a pastor. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence. If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent military. God, the church, and the pastor have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions."

In this climate of secularization, Christians are marginalized. Pastors leave the ministry for vocations of practical use that offer more respect and more compensation. But beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world. People cry out, "Is there anyone who loves me and values me? Is there anyone who really cares? Is there anyone who wants to be with me?" Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident and opinionated society. More and more people are suffering from profound moral and spiritual handicaps without having any idea of where to look for healing.

The question Jesus put to Peter after the resurrection is a corrective to our concern for relevance. Jesus simply asked, "Do you love me, do you really love me?" (John 21:15-17) Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know God who has come into your midst? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred. It is a heart that wants only to give love and receive love in response. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance to trusting the heart of God who wants to offer consolation and hope. God is love, and every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.

To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant to the needs of others, which is always held hostage by the demands of the immediate, but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of the love of God as revealed in Jesus, we have to be people of prayer and the ministry of the Word. Our focus needs to be the discipline of practicing the presence of the One who keeps asking us, "Do you love me?" This is the discipline of prayer in the Spirit. Through the discipline of prayer without ceasing we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another.

Our primary need is to be fed with the Word of God, by every word which comes from the mouth of God. As the manna fed the people of Israel during their forty years in the wilderness, the bread of life in Jesus and his words, will nourish us and guide us through the wilderness of this life until we cross the Jordan River and come to the Promised Land. We need to find there the source for our words, advice and guidance. Through the daily discipline of prayer and meditation on the Holy Scriptures we have to listen again and again to the voice of God's love in Jesus and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to us.

Dealing with the burning issues of today, and the desire to be relevant, without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God in Christ, easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of selfish importance is caught up by our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of our life, it will be possible to remain convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft.

The manna in the wilderness had to be collected fresh every morning. The Bread of life comes to us new every morning if we are willing to come to Jesus in prayer and Scripture reading. We cannot live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. We show our love for Jesus by spending time with him every day. We find the food that endures to eternal life. We find that we never grow hungry or thirsty.


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