Come Alongside Us!
2 Corinthians 5:20 Mark 1:40 2 Corinthians 7:6
When I was a child few things delighted me more than a kaleidoscope. I was fascinated endlessly by the bright colours, the rich patterns, the ever-changing arrangements as the kaleidoscope was rotated ever so slightly. To be sure, each pattern was repeated several times over, depending on how many mirrors the kaleidoscope had in it. Yet whenever it was rotated a new pattern, an unforeseeable pattern, always emerged.
I am no longer a child. Words have become my kaleidoscope, biblical words especially. Word-patterns delight me; more than delight me, they instruct me, enrich me, magnify my faith and my hope and my love and finally my gratitude to God.
One New Testament word that is found in a variety of patterns has helped and encouraged me for years, the word PARAKALEO. Its meaning is easy to grasp. KALEO means "to call"; PARA, "alongside". PARAKALEO, "to call alongside". The root meaning is always to call alongside, to call someone else alongside us. As the one word is used in different contexts its meaning takes on slightly different shades. It means to ask for help, to beseech, to beg, to plead, to urge, to exhort, to entreat; it even means to comfort.
Today we are going to look through the word-kaleidoscope, only to find ourselves helped immensely as we rotate it slightly and are given new riches in our Christian life.
I: -- Let's begin with the apostle Paul's urgent plea in 2 Corinthians 5: "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!" "We beseech you." The "we" are Paul and his fellow-apostles. He is pleading with his readers, "We have taken our stand with Jesus Christ; in his company we have found ourselves reconciled to God. Won't you come and stand alongside us? We are calling you alongside us. Come! Stand with us! We beseech you. Be reconciled to God!"
Actually Paul's urgent plea is his appeal at the end of his declaration of the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is the provision God has made in Christ, specifically in the cross, for sinners who are living at this moment under condemnation. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus reminded his hearers every day ultimate loss is possible; and not only possible, inevitable -- apart from our seizing in faith him who is God's provision for us. "We beseech you. We're calling to you; come and stand alongside us as we stand with Jesus Christ; for then you too will be reconciled to God, and the just judge will henceforth be your eternal Father."
The "standard-brand" churches in North America are declining. Declining? They are crashing! Crashing? They have already crashed and are now burning up.
Is this regrettable? We ought not to grieve at the disappearance of institutions that have used the name of Jesus Christ but have disdained him and his truth. For 100 years the United Methodist Church (U.S.A.) has had a theology so dilute, so anaemic, that it didn't have enough gospel in it to save a humming-bird. The United Methodists also pioneered frivolity that was worse than frivolity. (For instance, a Methodist clergyman "married" two mynah birds, and was left undisciplined by the denomination.) Currently the denomination is a leader in "political correctness" and the myriad causes connected with political correctness -- all of which contradict the gospel. The United Methodists have lost 35% of their members in the last few years and don't know how to stop the haemorrhage.
The Presbyterians in the U.S.A. are going down like a team of sky-divers without parachutes. It was the American Presbyterians who introduced the "Sophia" blasphemy, the feminized paganism -- out-and-out paganism -- that speaks (among other things) of the sacramental significance of women's body-fluids. (Lest we appear to be singling out the American Presbyterians we should note that our denomination sent over 50 delegates to the Sophia conference.)
Speaking of our own denomination, the year I commenced studying theology (1967) my own pastor preached an advent sermon on John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave...". Here he cut off the text. Still, I assumed that the remainder of the text was implied. I was wrong. "For God so loved the world that he gave. And we (Rhodes Avenue congregation) should therefore give cash instead of food hampers to disadvantaged people at Christmas. Food hampers are demeaning; cash isn't. Therefore cash should be given. After all, God gave, didn't he?" I refrained from leaping out of my pew and asking out loud, "Does the text tell us that God gave cash?" But I did go home heartsick and ashamed.
Richard Niebuhr, an American thinker, commented 50 years ago concerning the anaemic pulpit pronouncements of his era, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
We have expected God to sustain a church just because the word "church" appears in the bulletin or on the signboard. Yet I trust we have not forgotten our Lord's insistence that he will deny those who deny him. I trust we are not "lounging" on his promise, "On this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it", for his promise presupposes the "rock" of Peter's confession of Jesus Christ himself. Where the "rock" isn't honoured, there is no promise.
I have long been haunted by my failure to declare the gospel as unambiguously and as forthrightly as the master himself insists it should be. In the days of his earthly ministry our Lord's opponents faulted him and his followers for not observing all the ritualistic niceties around ceremonial hand-washing. "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?", they asked Jesus venomously. As always, Jesus didn't answer their question; instead he replied with his own question: "Why do you fellows transgress the command of God?" Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, fully in the hearing of his opponents, "Those fellows are blind guides; leave them alone."
Our Lord didn't hesitate to state directly, starkly, even confrontationally, that there are individuals and groups and organizations who are so far from being spiritually helpful as to be no more than blind guides. Are we so bent on being inoffensive that we have lost our capacity to distinguish between gospel and gobbledegook? Would we rather appear to agree with an unbelieving world than appear to stand with Jesus?
A parishioner in Streetsville who cherishes me told me if the preaching here became any more stark it would sound shrill. Perhaps it would. But I am willing to take the risk.
Others have complained that the gospel (not my preaching, now, but the gospel itself) is narrow. I admit that it is narrow. After all, according to the apostles Jesus Christ alone is the incarnate one. He alone is the sovereign one, ruling over the entire creation. Through him alone and for him alone there has been made all that exists. The apostles are therefore entirely consistent with all of this when they cry, "...there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
Narrow? The effectiveness of a knife depends on the narrowness of its cutting edge. Only the narrowest-edged scalpel can do life-saving surgery; no surgeon can operate with a crow-bar!
Do I sound shrill? narrow? The gospel is razor-sharp! Only such a gospel, says the book of Hebrews, penetrates profoundly and cuts curatively.
"We beseech you, we implore you, we plead with you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. We are calling you to come alongside us. For we, like Philip and Nathanael, have found the Messiah. Oddly, he's from a one-horse town, Nazareth. But don't let that put you off; he is God's provision for a world lost apart from him. Come alongside us, stand with us and find out for yourselves."
II: -- As we turn the kaleidoscope ever so slightly a subtly different pattern appears. The root meaning is still "to call alongside". In the new pattern, however, the word isn't used to call neighbours alongside us to stand with Jesus; now the word is used to call Jesus himself alongside us, to call Jesus alongside us who are believers; to call Jesus closer alongside us who have already taken our stand with him and now know that we need him more urgently than ever. In the new pattern the word means to ask for help; any kind of help.
In the written gospels a Roman officer is found beseeching Jesus on behalf of his paralyzed servant. People bring a blind man to Jesus and beg him to grant him sight. A leper comes to Jesus beseeching him to cleanse him.
Of course help is sought for physical complaints: leprosy, paralysis, and so on. Nevertheless, everywhere in the written gospels physical distresses are also symbols of spiritual distresses. Deafness is a physical distress that our Lord relieves, to be sure; at the same time it is a symbol for that spiritual deafness which is an inability to hear and obey the word of God -- a much greater distress. Blindness is terrible in itself; worse still is that spiritual blindness whereby we cannot even see the kingdom of God (says Jesus -- John 3:3), much less enter it.
When people beseech Jesus, beg Jesus, call him alongside, regardless of what they call him alongside for initially, ultimately they are calling him alongside for spiritual relief and restoration. They are calling him alongside themselves inasmuch as they can no longer endure their own spiritual deformities and disfigurements, believers that they are.
How do we know what spiritual defects and deficits beset us? The longer we spend in the company of Jesus the more surely they are pointed out to us in any number of ways.
After a church meeting one day a man put his arm around my shoulder and kindly said, "Victor, you have many gifts -- and gentleness isn't one of them. It is a fruit of the Spirit, you know; it is a characteristic of Christ's people. Think about it." I didn't need to be told any more.
The man who put his arm around me and told in the proper context for such telling wasn't suggesting for minute that I turn wimpy or faint-hearted. He simply knew that unnecessary abrasiveness has nothing to do with quiet strength. The word that is most commonly translated "gentleness" or "meekness" in the New Testament is used in classical Greek of a wild horse that has been tamed but whose spirit has never been broken. A wild horse is of no use; a tame horse whose spirit has been broken is also of no use. A wild horse, however, now tamed, but still spirited: this is what the New Testament has in mind when it speaks of Jesus himself and his people as "gentle" or "meek".
When the man of whom I have spoken acquainted me with a spiritual deformity that had gone unnoticed for too long, I knew I had to search my heart, go to my knees, and fall on my face before God in repentance. At the same time I knew that there are -- there must be -- so many other defects and deficits that shouldn't be ignored.
Now don't think all of this depresses me. On the contrary, it cheers me; after all, I'm being helped; I'm moving ahead in my discipleship. Continued repentance doesn't spell chronic depression. Just the opposite: continued repentance spells constant improvement! It is in this spirit that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, 1517. It is in this spirit that Luther penned his first thesis: "When our Lord said `Repent' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
Now to say that continued repentance spells constant improvement rather than chronic depression is certainly true. At the same time, I shouldn't want to say that as the mirror is held up to us a tear or two is never in order. When the hymnwriter cries,
-- when I hear this I know the hymnwriter is right. When Peter wept upon realizing how shabby his treatment of Jesus had been in the courtyard are we going to say that Peter ought not to have wept? that his response was exaggerated? that it was a sign of mental ill-health?
Frequently in sermons I mention my favourite 17th century Puritan writer, Thomas Watson. Watson, I find, is the most helpful spiritual diagnostician I have come upon. He is also master of the pithy, penetrating word. Concerning our ongoing repentance Watson writes, "Such as will not weep with Peter shall weep like Judas." Myself, if I have a choice between weeping with Peter or weeping like Judas, it will always be with Peter. Peter, restored, became a leader whom people so venerated that they counted it an honour just to have his shadow fall on them. Judas, on the other hand, was said to have gone "where he belonged".
When a friend, (or an enemy, for that matter) or our spouse, or any gospel- sensitive puts the finger on our lingering depravity (which lingers despite our having stood with Jesus) we can only call out for the Master to come closer alongside us, since like the blind man and the leper and the paralytic we need help.
III: -- We rotate the kaleidoscope slightly once more and a slightly different pattern emerges again. The root meaning of the word is still "to call alongside", but in the new context it means "to comfort".
Scripture everywhere makes plain that the profoundest comfort comes from God. Paul speaks of him as "the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort". (2 Corinthians 1:3) Yet even as Paul says that God is the God of all comfort he also says that he (Paul himself) is comforted by the presence of any number of Christians. Elsewhere in his correspondence Paul says it is God who comforts the downcast, while in the same sentence he writes that God comforted a downcast Paul through the visit of Titus. (2 Corinthians 7:6)
Hasn't this been your experience a thousand times over? To be sure, occasionally when I have been downcast the person who proved to be the vehicle of God's comfort "mysteriously" appeared at my door or at my office or on the telephone. More frequently, however, when downcast I have deliberately "called alongside" me another person whom I expected to be humanly helpful -- only to have found this person an unknowing vehicle of the comfort of the One who is the God of all comfort.
When Paul found Titus to be a comfort it wasn't merely that Paul was feeling a bit lonely one day and thought it would be pleasant to see a friendly face. On the contrary, when Paul found Titus a comfort Paul had been speaking of himself as "afflicted at every turn: fighting without and fear within". Every day the apostle had to struggle. Every day he was immersed in conflict: conflict with political authorities who wanted to abuse him, or imprison him, or even execute him (which they did eventually); conflict with his own ethnic group that looked upon him as a traitor; conflict most painfully with fellow-Christians whose immaturity, pettiness, and failure to grasp all of the gospel and all of its implications sandpapered him. "Fighting without and fear within": it sounds unrelievable! And yet relief! the comfort of a fellow-believer whose presence, manner, word, affection were everything! A fellow-believer who came alongside and -- without ever intending to -- became the vehicle of God's own comfort.
I don't wish to illustrate my own experience here, for to do so would embarrass several people who are here this morning. But I am unembarrassed to say that the apostle's word rings true with me just because his experience with Titus and my experience with those I cannot name are identical.
I am no longer a child. I rarely pick up a kaleidoscope today. But I constantly pick up the book that testifies of Jesus Christ and testifies of the experience of so many of his followers. The words in the book are like a kaleidoscope to me: brilliantly coloured patterns that change slightly as settings shift.
PARAKALEO: it means to call someone alongside.
We call others alongside us to take their stand with Jesus. This is evangelism.
We call Jesus himself to come alongside us -- closer alongside us -- for we need help with our residual depravity. This is serious discipleship.
We call fellow-believers and our Father himself alongside us when we are beset with "fighting without and fear within", only to find that fellow-believers are the vehicle of our Father who is himself the God of all comfort.
I have moved beyond childhood; but the child's delight, the child's amazement, the child's thrill -- this I never want to get beyond. For the word of God is as endlessly rich as you and I are endlessly needy.
Victor A. Shepherd October 1995