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“Whatever Your Fears are, Jesus Has Come to Take Those Away”

Stories of the Spirit working, with Carl Medearis

By Hans Shenk

SATURDAY EVENING

Annual Conference 2015’s programs on Saturday and Sunday morning were distinguished from most other annual conference programs by an unusual continuity. Carl Medearis, expert on the Middle East and Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations served as the guest speaker for both programs.

On both days, Medearis inspired, amused, and challenged the people of CMC to dedicate themselves to a life of following Jesus. Along the way, he delivered a number of challenges and talking points, but returned most often to two primary themes—freedom from fear and focusing on Jesus. The challenges were woven into a dense tapestry of hair-raising accounts of God’s work in the Middle East. Medearis presented the intense stories in a winsomely self-deprecating style, framing himself as the reluctant sidekick, constantly being dragged by the Holy Spirit into outrageous situations and plot twists that unexpectedly led to changed hearts and lives, divine appointments, and Jesus being glorified.

On Saturday evening, Medearis’ message was preceded by an acapella hymn sing led by Amber Moser, and the delightful premiere of “A Man Called Stephen: Filled with the Spirit” a modern cantata written by the father and son team of Laban and Laban Miller and performed by a select group of singers and musicians from the broader CMC community.

Medearis took the stage following the cantata, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. He kicked off his first talk by telling the congregation that he prefers telling stories to preaching sermons, and joked that he preferred stories because, “You can’t argue with a story.”

He then launched into a wild, winding story of how he was invited to preach in Palestine in a tent in the street—how the one-evening plan became an extended series of ever-larger meetings, and how even an attempt to go home ended with a miraculous healing, and even more meetings. He talked about how the meetings were temporarily moved from the tent, into a mosque. He told the story of a series of televised debates between himself and prominent Islamic scholars sponsored by Hezbollah, and that instead of arguing, he was prompted by the Spirit to respond in the debate by telling stories about Jesus. He finished by recounting how he told the story of the Prodigal Son in an interview on Hezbollah’s official television channel that took place in the home of Hezbollah leadership.

He delivered a challenge to the people of CMC that sometimes, fear becomes an obstacle to ministry. He ran through a list of common fears and worries and finished with this reassuring truth: “Whatever your fears are, Jesus has come to take those away, if you will just say yes.”

SUNDAY MORNING

After an energetic time of worship reflecting on the presence and power of the Spirit in the weekend, and looking with hope to the future, Joe Showalter opened the Sunday morning service with a reading from Psalms 46. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

Following the scripture reading, Ben Shirk, CMC’s liaison to international affiliates introduced delegates attending Annual Conference from five of the seven international church bodies affiliated with CMC: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, India and Kenya. One representative of the Indian church read Ephesians 3:16-19 in Tamil, and the people of CMC waved to send our greetings to our brothers and sisters around the world.

The international flavor of the morning continued as three couples serving overseas with RMM presented prayer requests, which were lifted up in prayer by the congregation.

After the prayer, the conference children’s choir blessed the congregation with three joyful songs about faithfulness and peace, finishing with an exuberant performance of Let There be Peace on Earth, reminding the people of CMC of our responsibility in bringing peace, as they sang “Let sweet peace begin with me.”

As the choir filed out, Showalter introduced Medearis, who swung into another series of incredible accounts of the Spirit at work. He started the morning by recounting how he had been invited to speak to the Sudanese parliament, and had taken the opportunity to share about Jesus.

“I bring that story up,” he said, “only because, it’s tempting when you look at the new, especially from one angle, to think the world is falling apart? But in the end, God is actually doing stuff, everywhere.”

His next story was about an Emirati woman who asked him to ‘evangelize’ her husband. Medearis explained that what she and her husband both expected was a combative argument. Medearis explained that he refused to argue with the man. He then took a moment to explain to the people of CMC his strategy for sharing the gospel. The strategy focuses on celebrating and following Jesus, exclusively.

“I’m not trying to get Muslims to switch from their religion, Islam, to a better religion, Christianity.” He said, “Because which religion saves you? None. Christianity doesn’t save anybody. Jesus saves people.”“I’m not trying to get Muslims to switch from their religion, Islam, to a better religion, Christianity.” He said, “Because which religion saves you? None. Christianity doesn’t save anybody. Jesus saves people.”

He went on to describe how, instead of trying to “evangelize” his Emirati friend through an argument, he simply told him the familiar story of Adam and Eve, and related the shame they felt when they ate of the fruit of the tree of Good and Evil to the man’s native culture of shame and honor.

“Is it not true that the issues with the human race are shame and aloneness and fear?” Medearis asked, finishing the story. “Jesus came to restore honor, instead of shame, to bring communion with God and others instead of aloneness, and to bring love instead of fear. That’s why Jesus came—he came to restore honor to a shamed human race.”

“And that’s the gospel,” he told CMC, “that’s the gospel in some other words.”

Medearis added that it’s not any better or worse than presenting the gospel in terms of innocence and guilt. But, he said, the United States is a “fully post-Christian” nation, in which the message that Jesus has come to restore honor and communion and love to people who are fearful, alone and ashamed particularly resonates; “God has prepared this nation for these days for you, right now, to go out and pick fruit. The fruit is very, very ripe.”

The harvest is ripe, according to Medearis, for hearing about Jesus; not necessarily ‘Christianity.’ He talked about how Jesus attacked the self-righteous religious leaders of his day, and admonished CMC: “Jesus was on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and the outcasts of society. And if you’re not on that side, if you’re on the side of the strong and the rich and the empowered, you might find yourself on the opposite side of Jesus, and I don’t think you want that.”

To conclude his talk, Medearis told the story of how he was invited to the 2013 Arab League Summit held at the Republican Palace in Baghdad, to present a paper about injustice. In response to the invitation, Medearis wrote a paper about Jesus’ views on injustice that was circulated anonymously at the summit. According to Medearis, the paper’s call for Palestinians to imitate the example of Jesus by forgiving those who have hurt them stirred up considerable controversy at the summit.

Medearis summarized the paper briefly for CMC, explaining that while all religions, religious leaders and political parties claim to support justice, contrasting interpretations of justice lead to an endless cycle of competing claims and conflict about what ‘justice’ is. Where Jesus’ view is distinctive, said Medearis, is that Jesus forgave injustice, and calls on his followers to forgive, as well.

“Forgiveness trumps the whole debate,” said Medearis. He added that he wrote the paper encouraging Palestinians to imitate the example of Jesus because “The Palestinians can win the day if they choose to forgive the ones who hurt them, the Palestinians will set their hearts free.”

Medearis explained that after he informed the attendees of the Arab League that he had written the paper, he shared with them again Jesus’ example of forgiveness, and explained how forgiveness sets the heart of the forgiver free. After that speech, he said, two Palestinian mothers, still in the process of mourning for their young sons who were killed by Israeli troops, approached him at the end of the Arab League Summit, in tears, to thank him for his plea for forgiveness.

As he finished his stories for CMC, Medearis addressed what can only be considered a natural response to stories like the ones he told: why aren’t such incredible things happening in our midst? Why aren’t we seeing such inspiring works of the Spirit?

There are two possibilities, said Medearis, and the first one is that sometimes we don’t know Jesus. “We don’t know Jesus; we know our religion, but not Jesus,” he said, and pled with the congregation to focus on coming to know Jesus, and the power that is in the name of Jesus. “Be intimate with him. Know him,” said Medearis. “When we know Jesus, when he’s changed our lives, when we follow him and his ways and his teachings and his life and we are regenerated by his Holy Spirit…he changes things. He changes nations and communities and cities and churches.”

Secondly, said Medearis, echoing again his theme from Saturday evening, sometimes we don’t see extraordinary works of the Spirit, because we’re afraid. “Fear has stopped us from seeing God do amazing miracles by the power of his Spirit, and I think we should repent of that. The number one command in the Bible is ‘Do not fear.’”

Medearis brought the sermon, and the weekend’s teachings, to a close, inviting anyone in the congregation who felt a deep need to be freed from the inhibitions of fear to simply stand where they were. He warned those that responded that their commitment would be tested, and ended the weekend with a reminder that living in freedom is a matter of daily struggle, and saying “yes” to the Spirit, over and over again: “Later today and tomorrow, you’re going to be challenged to walk in freedom, and then you have to choose if you’re going to be afraid…or if you’re going to be bold.”