The Most Important Christians

Here are some Lenten observations from N.T. Wright on Matthew 17:14-20:

Jesus spoke of moving mountains – a regular type of exaggeration, no doubt, though they may have heard echoes of the challenge which awaited them on the holy mountain, Jerusalem itself. But sometimes it seems easier to move a mountain, shovelling it with spoons, than to shift the sorrow or sickness from a human heart and life. When you read the stories of remarkable Christians down the years, and in our own time too, again and again you find tales of people who have stood at that window, gazing out on the landscape of God’s power and love, and gradually bringing the rest of the world, and the people for whom they were praying, into healing focus in relation to it. We need more people like that. The most important Christians are not the ones who preach great sermons and write great books, but the ones who pray, and pray, and pray some more, sharing the quiet but effective victory of Jesus over all that defaces God’s creation. (pp. 66-67, Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A)

This wonderful message is so, so easy to forget. For one thing there are cultural forces telling us a very different thing (not always overtly but in countless subtle and roundabout ways): that reputation and wealth and beauty are what matter, that celebrities are the most significant people, that education and career advancement and a large social following are the chief signs of one’s worth. And within evangelical Christian culture there is a temptation to compare oneself to the marvelous lives of famous Christian authors and preachers (there is a reason that “celebrity pastor” is a term), and consequently to feel a nagging doubt that one hasn’t quite done enough—that there ought to be more to the Christian life than quiet, invisible activities like prayer and service.

This is a grotesque lie. With his blunt words about practicing righteousness in secret (see most of Matthew 5) and how the greatest are those who humble themselves like little children (Matthew 18:4)—to say nothing of that startling business about how the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16)—Jesus has turned every worldly category of importance upside down. Whether or not one has cured cancer or earned a degree has not the least bearing on one’s fundamental worth.

C.S. Lewis captures this idea well in his allegory about heaven, The Great Divorce. In one striking passage a dazzling woman comes onto the scene, preceded by spirits and musicians heralding her coming. She is “Sarah Smith from Golders Green.” (An excerpt of the passage is available on Goodreads; scroll down to line starting with, “First came the bright spirits.”) The narrator observing all of this assumes that Sarah Smith must have been an important personage on earth. The narrator’s guide (George MacDonald, named after a Scottish author and minister who was a great inspiration to Lewis) confirms that she was, but not for the reasons one would suppose. She did not solve poverty; she did not have a PhD or direct any award-winning films; she was not well known beyond her local community. By most earthly standards she was of no repute at all. She was simply faithful to love and follow Christ, and to share her love with those around her; and she affected friends and acquaintances and the people beyond them in invisible yet cosmic ways that far exceed the world’s standards for success. The most important Christians are like that: “sharing the quiet but effective victory of Jesus over all that defaces God’s creation.”

As the guide in Lewis’ story concludes:

It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.

The Fight between Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Bruegel. Source: Wikipedia.