Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, August 22, 2015
I got my first passport when I was 17 years old and about to go on a mission trip to Russia. It was 1992, and the Soviet Union had just collapsed, so we really were going to “Russia” and not the Soviet Union. I had been out of the USA several times on mission trips to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but at that time passports weren’t required for these North American locations. I was crossing several sorts of boundaries on this trip: the Atlantic Ocean, political ideology, culture, and even continental borders. It was an exciting time to visit Russia, and to meet Seventh-day Adventists from the place whose stories of persecution and hostility to the USA had been the bread and butter of my childhood and adolescent education.
While I had participated in short-term mission trips before, as a budding young adult on this journey I found myself paying more attention to the mechanics and characteristics of cross-cultural relationships and mission. I learned several hard lessons. First, finding support and connections and making plans to travel across borders for mission was more complicated and fraught than any of our initial planning could have anticipated. Just showing up in a place has challenges and requires locals to help make it happen. Second, the plans we made for what the needs of the people might be were inaccurate and less than helpful. It was clear that the local Adventists were working hard to help us feel useful. Crossing borders often means being ignorant of the local realities. And third, opportunities to make connections came from unexpected corners and required creativity and flexibility in the face of these openings. While the trip was eye-opening and useful and expanded my heart and mind in many ways, I began to feel that international or cross-cultural mission might be more difficult than I had understood in my adolescent experiences.
Fortunately, Jesus has given us a model for how to handle these issues. I owe my insight for how often Jesus crossed borders to Dr. Ganoune Diop, the Adventist liaison to the United Nations. He has pointed out how often the gospels use the phrase “crossed to the other side” to describe Jesus’ activity—and that whenever Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee in this way, He was crossing cultural borders. Our stories for the lesson this week show Jesus working on the boundaries between Samaria and Galilee, with their ethnic and theological differences. He also interacted with Greeks who came to Jerusalem, and ministered to a Roman centurion. These stories only touch the surface of the many times Jesus engaged in cross-cultural ministry and His model is one we should follow and be inspired to adapt in our own time.
Our current understanding of mission and cross-cultural service must wrestle with the fact that service on the part of North Americans (and Christians from other wealthy or powerful nations) has too often been harmful. Its frequently-short-term nature, accompanied by ignorance or cultural arrogance, means that we sometimes have brought with us the gospel of prosperity. Certainly most of the young Russians I met in 1992 were much more interested in making US American contacts than in hearing the gospel. We may look for activities that make us feel good in the short-term, but are of less long-term use to those we want to serve. Still, these realities of the weaknesses of our service should not stop us from following Jesus’ mandate and example.
The stories for this week offer a corrective to some of my own concerns and cross-cultural weaknesses. First, Jesus absolutely showed up where people who were different from Him were. And the encounters he had were awkward and confusing sometimes. I’m not sure what is going on in the story with the woman to whom Jesus says “It isn’t good to take food from the children and give it to the dogs,” in spite of the great effort many commentators have made in trying to shed light on the nuances of that encounter. However, clearly the fact that she wasn’t an Israelite (a chosen one) was at play here. But in spite of the confusion and awkwardness, Jesus kept showing up.
Second, He listened to the spoken and felt needs of the people He was serving. They asked for the help they needed. I realize that sometimes I go looking for mission, and invent what I think others need. This prevents me from listening to the Holy Spirit as Jesus did, and through the course of conversation or work, speaking the Word of truth or acting as the hand/helper of Jesus in their lives, if possible. My sense of wanting to help also sometimes prevents me from learning from those whom I am crossing cultural borders to interact with. I have much to learn, and if I don’t listen, I can end up much more stilted in my mission and even in my view of God and the traits of His Kingdom.
Finally, Jesus also allowed other cultures to expand the vision of the Kingdom. When he interacted with people who weren’t of His culture, we can almost hear the wonder in His voice as He said “I have not found such faith in Israel,” “many will come from East and West to sit down at the kingdom” and “I will draw all men to Myself.” This was hard for His disciples to envision and understand, but as the Holy Spirit descended after Pentecost, they began to practice what He was talking about. The Kingdom, begun in the Body of Christ at the time of Jesus’ first Advent, though not complete till the New Earth, would be something different than either Israelites or the Gentiles understood (they will worship at neither place, He told the Samaritan woman, but in spirit and truth) and so should transcend our cultural differences. But that means we need to see and experience the Kingdom with and in other cultures in order to imagine it as something more than our own society. Jesus knew this and encouraged us to celebrate the Kingdom with our brothers and sisters across the borders.
I find cross-cultural relationships challenging. I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to be culturally arrogant. Sometimes I literally don’t know the language and so feel inept and mute. But I like being pushed to see God and my fellow humans differently, to have a bigger sense of what humanity made in God’s image can be. The lesson for this week makes me braver, as well as wiser. If Jesus went to new places and listened to the people He met, that’s the least I can do. The Holy Spirit will guide me into what my next steps should be.
I have no idea if we were a blessing to the Russians we met in 1992. I know I learned a great deal about the world, about how global economics works, about the capacity for humans to be generous while (from my standards) poor. I learned not to be scared of those who I had seen as my enemy. In many ways, the cross-cultural mission work that was happening was Russian Adventists (and the non-Christians we also met) reaching out and helping me learn to be more like Jesus. I was the one being evangelized. And I was definitely given more tools to learn better how to serve and share the gospel with those who are different from me, in my own city and when I travel around the world. Those Russian Adventists were the hands and feet of Jesus to me, feeding, housing and educating me as I learned to cross cultural boundaries. I continue to thank God for their ministry.
What makes cross-cultural service, sharing, and friendship challenging for you? When have you been blessed in a cross-cultural encounter? What can we do to better follow Jesus’ example of listening to others in order to find out what their needs and challenges are?
Lisa Clark Diller is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University.
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