Excerpted from Seasons of Christian Spirituality: Kingdomtide
I am the living bread which came down from Heaven: if any man eat of this
bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will
give for the life of the world.
King Abgar Ouchama V of Edessa was one of the first Christian kings in history. But his
conversion story is weird. Many Eastern Orthodox believers consider some version of the story to be gospel truth. Many of the details have been historically verified and all persons involved were actually alive and gave testimony to the events. But I’m not yet ready to nominate this one for the solid gold integrity award. For now, let’s continue to call it a fanciful Christian legend, useful in illustrating a point.
Abgar lived and ruled in Syria during the public ministry of Jesus. He had heard of Christ’s miraculous powers and his claims to divinity and was quickly convinced of both, despite being separated from Jesus by several hundred miles. Abgar got mysteriously ill about the time that Christ’s persecution by the Jewish religious leaders was heating up and getting violent, so the king wrote to the King of Kings and offered him political asylum in exchange for a prayer of healing.
Abgar had his court archivist, Hannan, visit Christ and deliver the message in person. Jesus declined, but when Hannan returned to Edessa he carried with him a portrait of Jesus that he claimed was not made by human hands. According to Doctrine of Addai (4th part two: how to lead a mission 717 century AD) this portrait was crafted by God Himself, and when the archivist placed it in front of King Abgar, it spoke these words:
Happy are those who believe in me, but have not seen me…When I have ascended to my Father I will send you one of My disciples. He will heal all your sufferings and your city will be forever blessed because of your faith.
Some time passed before anything else happened, and Abgar’s condition continued to worsen. After the ascension of Christ Thomas the Apostle sent Thaddeus (one of the 70 followers of Christ, from Luke 10) to Abgar. Abgar was promised in a vision that salvation was coming, and when Thaddeus entered into the royal court Abgar fell on his knees and cried out, ”Are you really one of the disciples of Christ?” To which Thomas replied, “All your desires will be fulfilled if you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
“I have come to believe,” Abgar said, and was healed instantly.
After this, Thaddeus worked his way through Edessa putting his hands on people, blessing and healing them in the name of Christ. Pagan temples and brothels alike were closed or put out of business. And although no one was forced to convert, many thousands accepted Christ that day and each day after.
It’s a cool story, and very old which, if nothing else, demonstrates that the purpose of the church is to go out and actually make a difference in the lives of real people. We have been called and commissioned to heal the sick, to cure disease, to fight the power of evil, and to bring the good news of the gospel into every corner of the world.
Somehow our contemporary church has overlooked all of that.
Maybe it’s because we find the supernatural bits of the Bible difficult to rationalize.
Or, maybe it’s because telling others about the gospel seems somehow colonial,
intolerant, or pushy.
Or maybe it’s because we have no real control over the outcomes of the kind of
encounters and that kind of risk is uncomfortable we have gotten away from the
fact that the gospel works in two directions – Heaven later on, but also Heaven-
In this life, not just the next.
Abgar didn’t call out to Christ to gain entrance into Heaven. He called out to Christ
because he was sick and miserable and wanted life to be better and to live well.
We need to reacquaint ourselves with the gospel priority of telling others about
Jesus Christ and what he can do for them and through them and in them and with them.
I understand why we’re reluctant to promise healing, a better life, or better circumstances.
We don’t want to pander to people’s base desires for material comforts or sell the lie of
easy living. Neither do we want to mislead them into thinking that everything will be
better once they become Christians. But to leave out the promise of the gospel to make
a difference in real life – to fix our relationships, to empower us to overcome adversity,
to bolster us to withstand temptation and persecution and trial and misery, to heal our
bodies and restore our flagging spirits – is to leave out the good news.
The church is an agency of healing, working to reconcile us to God, to others, to our true selves, and to the world. Healing the world is comprised of three key facets:
Charity – our service to the world, which is called diakonia in the Second Testament.
Hospitality – our community in (but not of) the world, called koinonia.
Storytelling – our proclamation to the world, called kerygma.
I encourage you to take some time to confess
your reluctance to share the gospel
your insecurities about how people will respond
your fears about whether or not you’ll tell it well.
Come before God with a humble heart and repent for narrowing the scope of the gospel to something purely about life after death, for narrowing the scope of the gospel to something purely about the quality of earthly life.
And then turn around and tell everyone you see the good news that God isn’t just trying to give you metaphysical fire insurance, but abundant life in the here and now, that God isn’t looking to punish you, but to reward you with something better than what you’ve been able to provide for yourself, that God’s plans aren’t just limited to a few special people, but include the redemption of the world, every culture, tribe, nation, language, city, country, and ethnicity, that God’s plans are not merely His, but ours, too, as we participate with Him in healing the world.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com