2 Cor. 5: 14For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
You awaken at 9AM, shower, dress and get picked up by a limousine at 9:30, and then are taken to your office, to which you are escorted by armed guards past other armed guards in gilded marble hallways with plush carpet. In your office is a silver pot with fresh, hot coffee, and a silver tray with croissants and fresh fruit. You have some briefing papers to read and some emails to answer before you are then escorted to a power lunch at a swanky, five star French restaurant with some bigwigs from a foreign government. Then its back to the office for another meeting, some photo ops with some visitors from non-governmental organizations, tennis with a visiting Hollywood celebrity, and then home, again by limo and escort, to prepare for a black tie dinner and ball that night with some heads of state and some movers and shakers in international business and multi-national corporations and conglomerations. Home around 2AM, you sleep in till 9. And then the next day is much the same as the one before.
No, that’s not my daily schedule. Its my impression, rightly or wrongly, of the life of some ambassador in some posh, cushy, peaceful foreign posting like I imagine Trinidad, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg might be. In doing a little online research this week on diplomacy and ambassorship, I found a common lament over the fact that such cushy, piece-of-cake postings often go to untrained political loyalists from Congress or business, outside of the usual State Department channels. Such postings are often rewards to someone who supported the campaign of the winning president and party, even or especially after they might have opposed them during the primaries.
But if you rise to ambassadorship over the years, through the ranks of the State Department, starting out at lowly and boring desk jobs in distant, difficult places, all the while proving your loyalty, your skill, your courage, competence and coolness under fire, then, when you finally rise to the top, you’ll get posted to …Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Belarus or Lybia, countries where you’ll have to exercise your diplomatic skills around dictators, in settings of conflict and corruption, where the climate, the environment and the economy can age one pretty fast and take five years off your life, where the first armored limo with bullet-proof windows to arrive at your house in the morning sometimes leaves with your double, your decoy, where you’ll never be out of sight of a dozen armed security guards, and where you’ll learn the different sounds of different kinds of incoming artillery, and know when to dive under the desk or keep working.
As I think happened with the US Embassy agent, not quite the ambassador but one of his higher assistants, who one day walked into our courtyard where we lived in Burkina Faso. We were surprised first of all to hear English, much less with an American accent, then to see someone new with our color of skin. We were even more surprised when we learned he was from the US Embassy and that he had come so far from the capital city of Ouagadougou. He was on a tour of the country, he said, and was just checking in on fellow Americans. After the initial shock and surprise, we warmed up to him immediately. He seemed so genuinely interested in us complete strangers. He was such a good listener. He was so warm, gracious and polite to both us and to the Burkinabe with us. He respected and represented his country quite well, even as he seemed genuinely interested in and delighted by what and who he was finding in Burkina Faso. When he left I found myself wondering how soon he might come again.
I’m pretty sure his first name was Charles, but I can’t remember his last name .Yet I’m fairly sure I recognized his first and last name when, more than ten years later, he was named as President Clinton’s envoy to some trouble spot in the former Yugoslavia, where he would have to deal with warlords like Slobodan Milosavitch and his adversaries. If we’re talking the same guy, our tax money was well spent.
Which all goes to say that, when we talk about being “ambassadors for Christ,” we may think in terms of friendly, courteous, glamorous diplomatic relations among friendly, courteous, glamorous people in Lichtenstein or London, who know the rules of diplomacy and who abide by them. But when Paul describes himself as an “ambassador for Christ,” he is experiencing and describing something more like the rigors of being posted to Kosovo or Kazhakstan. You only have to read some of Paul’s 2nd Letter to his Corinthian disciples to realize that his ambassadorial position was a hardship post in a spiritual war zone. From internal clues in the letter you see that the Corinthian church was divided against itself and estranged from Paul and his missionary team. That’s because they were running after the latest, newest, hottest teachings and teachers, who claimed to be “super-apostles,” with disastrous moral and spiritual effects. When Paul says, “We are Christ’s ambassadors,” urging you to “be reconciled to God,” I get the impression that they had fallen pretty fast and far from grace.
But not so far, not so fast that there was no hope. Because God had already done his part to be at peace with us through Jesus, Paul says. Jesus took the place of sin, or a sin offering, and therefore God is no longer counting our trespasses against us. All that remains is for us to lay down our weapons and accept the peace that God has already made with us. But the new teachings and the new teachers, who were intruding into the work of Paul and the missionary team, constituted a rebellion, a renewal of hostilities, at least from the human side of the peace. So as Christ’s ambassador to the Corinthians, Paul and his associates had a difficult posting in hostile territory.
International law about diplomacy and embassies today is much like it was in Paul’s time, because the need is still the same. If there is to be peace between nations, then someone has to be free enough and safe enough to carry messages between their leaders. So Rome and its neighbors would generally guarantee the safety and security of ambassadors and diplomats, even in time of war.
But not always. Two hundred years before Paul, the Carthaginians declared war on Rome and made their point unmistakably clear by executing Rome’s diplomats. As a Roman citizen, Paul may well have known that story. It was the justification that Rome claimed for razing Carthage to the ground and sowing salt in its soil. Surely Paul knew that he was claiming the title of what could be a very difficult and dangerous job.
For one thing, ambassadors have a different nationality and loyalty than the country in which they reside. They are, in effect, voluntary exiles, for the sake of their country and its government. Paul saw himself in a similar way, as a representative of Christ Jesus and of his kingdom. He was technically and legally a Roman citizen, yet Paul here claims a prior, higher loyalty to another homeland, and when he told his Philippian disciples, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from there we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
If we would follow in the faith and the mission of Christ and his apostles, then the same primary loyalty to Christ and his kingdom is required of us. The worst genocide after World War II happened in one of the most allegedly Christian countries of the world: Rwanda. Students of Christian mission often cited Rwanda as Exhibit A of how to do Christian mission, because so much of the population claimed the title, “Christian.” But for mostly Christian Hutus to massacre mostly Christian Tutsis, millions of Christians evidently placed their loyalty to their tribe above their loyalty to Christ and his kingdom. They either never understood, or forgot when push came to shove, where their primary loyalty and identity lay. As the spiritual scars of that genocide slowly heal, one thing you hear over and over again is that forgiveness is indispensable to healing. And forgiveness and coexistence are only possible in that setting, with that history, when you remember that you are a Christian first, a Rwandan second, and a Hutu or a Tutsi third.
That is the basis of our peace stance, in the Mennonite Church. Not that we would think or even guarantee that peaceful means will always succeed and get us what we want more quickly or more certainly than will war or violence. Although war and violence have pretty poor, self-defeating track records. Our peace stance is based on our loyalty to a king who died for his subjects and his enemies rather than kill them, or send them out to kill, and on our loyalty to a kingdom that exists only when and where risky, costly, love is practiced, for friend and foe alike. The job description of an ambassador of that king and that kingdom would have at the top, “being a faithful representative of your king and your country in conduct and character.”
Even though their primary loyalty lies elsewhere, ambassadors are also expected to respect the people and obey the laws of the country in which they live. And to display some interest in the people, and love for them. Like the American diplomat who visited Becky and me. Unlike the diplomats at the United Nations a decade ago who used their diplomatic immunity to rack up, all together, millions of dollars in unpaid parking fines that they owed to the city of New York. Because they had diplomatic immunity from the jurisdiction of local courts! If we would join Paul as “an ambassador for Christ,” it falls to us to likewise show love, respect and interest in the people among whom we are posted.
In a few weeks, Mark Peter Lundquist and I and some other leaders of some churches and agencies will be hosted to a meal at a local mosque, with some leaders and members of their community, to build up relationships and trust toward the possibility of some sort of community work together. This is in response to their invitation, on their terms and their turf. Pray for us, that we would represent Christ and his kingdom faithfully, respectfully, that is, in ways that are respectful of our hosts and respectful of our king and his kingdom. I hope we go as humble, interested learners, even while we are solid and secure about who we are and whose we are.
Which can be a difficult juggling act sometimes. Sometimes the law of your host country can be at odds with the laws of the country you represent. If so, then the ambassador has to take some heat, pay the price, and suffer some consequences. The Saudi Arabian ambassador has to turn down invitations to pig roasts and Happy Hour. Some recreational drugs that are illegal here are legally available in some other countries. Yet American ambassadors there are probably not allowed to buy and consume them. They’re better off anyway. And the ambassador for Christ must be prepared for those costly moments when the values of his kingdom are at odds with those of his host country. We face that every time one of our young men turns 18 and is expected to register for the Selective Service Agency.
That tension is also at the heart of our peace position: that when the difference between the values of Christ’s kingdom and those of our host country gets us in hot water, we are willing to pay the cost, like Jesus did, or share the cost with those who pay it, rather than inflicting the cost on others.
Which leads to another thing about being an ambassador for Christ: Ambassadors carry out their country’s policy, but so they do while unarmed and vulnerable. Foreign agents in another country who carry weapons and who use them to enforce their own country’s policy are not ambassadors nor diplomats. They are soldiers in an army of invasion or occupation. Nothing could be farther from Christ-like diplomacy.
That’s why ambassadorship requires some trust. For the political ambassador, trust that the host government will observe the rules of diplomacy. US embassy staff may have some tough-looking Marines at the doors and gates, but they’re no match for a concerted mob action against the embassy, like what happened in Serbia and Iran, in recent memory. Embassy staff are really relying on the host country for safety and immunity. That’s why so many countries don’t have an embassy in North Korea.
The ambassador for Christ, however, knows something about the fallenness and fickleness of human nature. So our trust is in God, to protect us, or to make redemptive use of our sufferings, should ever the world treat the ambassadors for Christ the way Iranian militants treated US embassy staff some 30 years ago. Don’t take that analogy too far, though. We don’t have any papers to shred or secret agents and informers to hide.
“Ambassadorship for Christ” connects with our Biblical theme for this year: Jeremiah 29:7, from the letter which the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the first waves of Jewish exiles in Babylon: “Seek the peace and well-being of that city to which I have sent you.” After a series of revolts and uprisings against their Babylonian overlords, the Babylonians deported citizens of Judea and Jerusalem en masse into their own cities in modern-day Iraq and Iran. Soon, the Jewish community in what is now Baghdad became an important center of world Judaism, and actually remained that way until recent history. But always the majority of them always considered themselves aliens, exiles, strangers and citizens of a Jerusalem that did not exist anymore, or which was yet to come, when the Messiah came.
For some, this status of exile took on features of ambassadorship like what I have described this morning. Think of the prophet Daniel, a Hebrew exile who served as a counselor to several kings and administrations, first for the Babylonians, and then for the Persians, who invaded and replaced the Babylonians. In Daniel’s long career we can see some of the features of ambassadorship that I’ve just mentioned.
Even while he served and helped worldly kings and kingdoms, whenever a choice between loyalties had to be made, he was loyal first to God and to God’s kingdom. He was helpful, gracious, friendly, polite and respectful to his captors. He was genuinely interested in them and in their well-being, giving counsel that proved honest, helpful, courageous and wise. But he would not accede to demands that he betray his God and his laws. Nor would he bow down and worship anyone else but his God. For that he paid the price in opposition, suspicion, prison and even a death sentence, when he was lowered into the lion pit for a night. He had no guarantee, before that door was shut, that he would live to see the morning, but for him, faithfulness unto death was a victory in itself.
In Daniel we see the characteristics of godly ambassadorship that I have mentioned: 1) that we be clear and steady about who and where our primary loyalties are invested, where our true and enduring citizenship lies; if we would be ambassadors for Christ, then our primary loves and loyalties are for him and his kingdom;
that we fairly and accurately represent the king and the country of our citizenship in the country of our service and our sojourn. That means that our speech, our behavior, our values take their cues from Christ and his kingdom, and not from the world in which we serve. Christ and his kingdom informs our engagement and relationship with the world, and not vice versa.
That we don’t let the differences and tensions between our citizenship and that of the world make us hostile, withdrawn or fearful, but rather, that we show genuine interest in, and love for, the citizens of the realm in which we are stationed. Because such indiscriminate and unconditional love and care are hallmarks of the king and the kingdom we represent. Yes, we wish to share Christ with the world, yes, we wish to see the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And we wish to see change in this direction even now. I hope so. But people are only changed by a love so warm and wide and deep that it doesn’t need to change them, in order to love them more. This is what I’ve discerned about relationships and friendship with people of other faiths and of no faith. I’ve heard it said that “Christians are quite friendly until they figure out that they aren’t going to convert us; then they forget us and move on.” You’d think that, when people have shared most deeply what’s on their heart, at the risk of disagreement and rejection, that is the start of true friendship, not its end. Just hanging in with someone and being there for them, in spite of some basic differences about what they hold sacred, is already a sign of kingdom transformation happening, the only kingdom transformation that we are capable of and responsible for. Only the Holy Spirit can transform people into lasting, Christ-like ways. So a stick-to-it, whatever the cost, unconditional love for and interest in the people among whom we are posted is a key feature of our kingdom ambassadorship.
That to fairly represent Christ means that we do so lovingly and peacefully, remaining unarmed, non-retaliatory and vulnerable, because our trust is not in the reliability of those among whom we serve, but in the reliability of God to protect and deliver us, in this life or the next.
I hope these are helpful thoughts as we find our way and our place in a new community and a new worship location. We’re here, in this neighborhood, and in this world, as exiles and aliens from a city and a kingdom that we have only glimpsed from afar. As Hebrews 11 puts it, “Here we have no enduring city, but rather, we look forward to that city which is to come, whose builder and founder is God.” That makes us ambassadors of the future.
As difficult as that may seem at times, with our posting and position come the honors and the dignity of the one whom we represent. Christ Jesus is God’s ambassadorship to the world. Christ has declared on the cross, and demonstrated by the resurrection, that God is at peace with us. That’s the One we represent. And the message we bring. If we share his hardships and reflect his policies and interests faithfully, we shall also share his honors and his title.