Airplane: The Gospel At 30,000 Feet
The exquisite drama which we know as the Gospel according to Saint Matthew ends not with a whimper but with a bang: The glorious commission of Jesus. The last words of the Gospel according to Matthew. “Now, the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him. But some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.’”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh God, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.
It was one Friday afternoon last July and I was taking a flight from Asheville, North Carolina, home to Orlando. I had just completed two weeks of study and conferences at Montreat, North Carolina. And I had a wedding rehearsal scheduled here at the church that Friday evening. The flight would put me in Orlando just in time to make it to the church. The flight began with a short hop from Asheville over to Charlotte, North Carolina, just 20 minutes. But those 20 minutes enabled me to rummage about in my briefcase and gather together some materials to use for reading and studying on the way home.
And then after that brief stopover in Charlotte, as I was fumbling around trying to find both ends of the seatbelt again, a fellow came walking down the aisle and proceeded to seat right in the seat next to me. I thought to myself I had hoped that seat would remain empty so that I could stretch out a bit and be a little more comfortable on the way home. But I took a glance at him and he didn’t look to be the kind of man who would be given to much conversation. So at least the trip would be quiet and I could get my work done. Well, then there was the roar of the jet engines and after that the long taxi out to the end of the runway and the security instructions from the stewardess and then the takeoff. Takeoff so smooth that I don’t know that I would have been aware that we were off the ground had I not been looking out the window.
In my lap at that time there were a couple of books and a stack of papers. And the paper on top was entitled “A New Thrust in World Missions.” I picked up the paper and started to read. “You don’t hear much about missionaries anymore.” That’s not what the paper said. That’s what the fellow in the next seat said. He never even introduced himself. He just said, “You don’t hear much about missionaries anymore.” I thought to myself, “My word, he’s a talker.” I looked at him. He was a young man, relatively speaking. I suppose he was probably in his early 30s. He was well dressed. Had a nicely cut suit on with a regimental stripped tie and a crisp white shirt. He was a young man obviously on the rise. And I realized that I was going to have to respond to him. He said, “I was noticing that paper that you’re reading there. That’s why I said what I did.” Now, it was perfectly obvious I was going to have to respond to him. And to be perfectly honest with you, I wanted to respond to him in such a way as to preclude any further conversation.
Just at that moment though, there came that voice over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. Welcome to flight 91 to Orlando. We shall be cruising today at an altitude of 30,000 feet. Our estimated flying time to Orlando is 1 hour and 12 minutes. That should put us at the gate right on schedule. Orlando is reporting partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 90s. We hope you have a pleasant flight. Thank you for flying Piedmont.” By this time, I had my response ready. I said to him, “You’re right. You don’t hear much about missionaries anymore. It’s a job that’s lost a lot of it’s glamor. As a matter of fact, there are some people who say that in a few years, the missionary will be as extinct as the dinosaur.” I thought that would do it. It didn’t. Had the opposite effect. He said, “Look, I don’t think I would be that severe.”
But he said, “You know, missionaries have always seemed to me to be a little – well, they’ve always seemed to me to be a little strange.” Strange. I thought about that word. Strange. “Yes,” I said to him, “I suppose you’re right. I suppose that’s a good a way as any to describe them. I mean, after all, they go off halfway around the world in pursuit of some dream. And then when they come back, they’ve been gone so long that they don’t know the latest Hollywood gossip and they don’t know who’s in contention for the World Series. And they’ve been gone so long that, well, their clothes are always just a little bit out of style. How long had they been gone? Long enough to have had amoebic dysentery three times. Long enough to have missed all of the festivities surrounding the engagement of a daughter. Long enough to have gotten word about dad’s death before they ever even knew that dad was sick. Long enough to have missed their families way down deep in the center of themselves. Yes, I suppose you could say they’re a little strange. But by whose standards? Ours or God’s?”
“Oh,” the young man said, “I didn’t mean to sound quite that insensitive. I’m not. It’s just that – well, those people have always seemed to me to be rather intense.” Intense. I thought about that word. Intense. “Yes,” I said, “I suspect you’re right. They go off to live in out of the way backwards places across the face of the earth there to give themselves ministering to those who are sick, those who are hungry, those who are dying, those who are ignorant and they do it at great personal cost and they do it for the simple reason of bringing others into the arms of the Savior. Yes, that’s being intense.” I said to him, “I know who a missionary who served for 20 years in the Middle East and not very long ago, one of our major oil companies came to him and said, ‘We want to offer you a salary of $75,000 a year to come work for us.’ You see, he’d been so long in the Middle East that his knowledge of that area and his contacts in that area were so extensive that he would have been a great help to them in their work there. He said no.” Later on they came back to him and they offered him $100,000 a year.
He sat down and wrote them a letter. He said, “Look, the first salary you offered me was far beyond any salary that I ever hope to see in my life. It isn’t that your salary isn’t big enough. It’s that your job isn’t big enough because I am engaged in a job now which is infinitely more important than anything you could ever hope to offer me. I am engaged in the business of winning men and women and young people and children into the loving grip of the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s what he said. And that’s intense. But I want to ask you something, is there anything wrong with that kind of -” “Would you gentlemen like something to drink?” The stewardess said. He ordered a cup of coffee and I asked for a Sprite. And of course the peanuts. You know how on the airplane they always give you those peanuts in that little foil pack which I am convinced it is impossible to open without the help of some kind of a weapon. A pocket knife or your teeth or something. Well, for a while, he wrestled with his peanuts and I wrestled with mine.
And then he said, “Something you said back there a minute ago sort of triggered something in my own mind. You were talking about winning others to Jesus Christ. Well, I want to tell you something. I think that people have a right to their own faith. And I think it’s wrong for us to go to someone else and try to win that person away from a faith which is already theirs.” “Oh.” I said, “You are saying by that then that all religions are equal. Well, if that’s your position I want you to know something, I can’t buy that proposition for a minute. But if you’re saying that all religions are equal, then it’s quite clear that you have never seen what some people in this world do to other people in the name of religion. It’s quite clear that you have never seen the priests of some other faiths tie the remains of dead rats around the necks of little children in order to ward off evil spirits but by so doing condemn those very children to a vermin ridden death. You’ve never seen the mutilations that some faiths inflict upon the adherents to those faiths. You’ve never seen women being used or abused or misused or ignored because of the tenants of some other faith. You’ve never really seen the things that some people in this world do to other people in the name of religion. And so if you’re going to suggest seriously that all religions are equal, I’m going to suggest that you are in essence supporting human cruelty and indifference to human need. And my friend, that’s not tolerance. That’s ignorance.”
I took a few more peanuts. And then I said, “But you know for us as Christians, the bottom-line is what Jesus said. That’s the bottom-line. And Jesus said that he is the only way, I repeat that, the only way to salvation. And Jesus made that claim and it’s in the Bible. And the Bible is the most studied, the most analyzed, the most examined book in all of history and anyone with halfway reasonable intelligence will admit that Jesus actually lived and that Jesus actually made those kinds of claims about Himself. And then that means that if Jesus made those claims and when He made them either He was telling the truth or He was lying or He was a lunatic. And twenty centuries of research into the matter have failed to prove that either He was lying or that He was crazy. And therefore, we as Christians – we as Christians uphold the truth that Jesus speaks. And so we share our faith because we believe that truth ought always to be exalted over falsehood. That’s why we say what we say. That’s why we share what we share.” He said, “Phew, I must have hit a nerve with you when I started talking about missionary. Are you a preacher or something?” I said, “Yes, guilty as charged.” He said, “You sure don’t look like one.” I said, “Friend, you just made my day.”
Just then we encountered some turbulence. And the light flicked on overhead. The voice over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has illuminated the seatbelt sign as we have encountered some rough air. We would request for your own safety that you please remain seated with your seatbelt securely fastened about you.” He then said, “Okay, I’m willing to accept that all religions are not equal. But I think that we’re talking here about something more than faith. Yes, we’re talking here about culture. And when we go off into another country, we are affecting the culture that exists in that country. And I think it’s wrong for us to impose our western culture on the culture of others.”
Now it was my time to chuckle. I said, “You know, you probably won’t believe this but that very same argument is raging white hot all through the church today. But there’s something I want to say to you on that point, I’m willing to say to you, yes, cultures do differ. In one culture, it’s wrong to have more than one wife. And in another culture it’s wrong not to have more than one wife. Cultures do differ. Certainly. But if you are going to say to me that it is wrong to interfere in another culture, then I’m going to suggest that you’re painting yourself into a very perilous corner because you see, if it is wrong to interfere in the culture of the headhunter in the jungles of Ecuador the it is equally wrong to interfere in the culture, the underworld culture of the drug pushers who live in the city where you live. Every time you teach someone who is ignorant you affect their culture. Does that mean you’re against education? Every time you heal someone who is sick you affect their culture. Does that mean you’re against the practice of medicine? If you’re going to be consistent in your opposition to interfering with another culture, then you got to remember that that’s going to apply to your home town as much as to Zaire or Afghanistan or Indonesia.”
I took a quick sip of Sprite at that point. But then I tried to turn the conversation into a more positive direction. I said to him, “You know, there are two very basic facts about Christ and culture that you’re overlooking. Number one, the church of Jesus Christ is not identified with any particular culture. As a matter of fact, there are more than one billion Christians in the world today and of those more than one billion Christians, the vast majority of them are part of non-western cultures. Oh, yes, the church in the west has sent its mission servants out around the world but the fact of the matter is that those mission servants have not in any way sort to impose western culture upon the other cultures of the earth. As a matter of fact, the reason that Christianity is the only faith to exist in every nation on the face of this earth is because Christianity is the only faith on earth which is harmonious with every single culture on earth.”
“That’s number one, the church is not identified with any particular culture. And here’s number two. When the mission servants of Jesus Christ seek to change certain elements of another culture, they do so only when those elements ran contrary to Christ.” And I went on to tell him about the story of Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India who related how on one occasion he was ministering in India at a time of great famine. He was walking down the street one day and he saw four people collapse in the street. They were dying of starvation. Immediately he ran over to them to assist them. And just as he did he noticed that there were two Hindu holy men walking by. He called to them and asked them to help him minister to these stricken people. Do you know what those holy men said? They said, “We are holy men. We do not help anybody else.” And you got to understand that that kind of attitude is basic to Hindu thought and it’s also basic to aspects to Buddhist and Islamic thought.
Religion for so many of those faiths is a matter of self-centeredness. It’s ego-centered. It’s I-centered. Your own personal needs, your own personal desires, those are the things that religion is all about. Faith seeks to minister to you inside to build an inner sense of perfection. You help yourself. You don’t help anyone else. And that kind of attitude has cut the nerve of progress in human concerns in many cultures on the face of this earth. And I don’t see any reason to apologize for the fact that sometimes the mission servants of Jesus Christ in the midst of those cultures have to hold up and uphold the God-given worth of every single individual and the sanctity of ministering to human needs where they occur. What I’m trying to say to you my friend is this, that the record of the church in dealing with other cultures is quite good. Oh, it’s not perfect. Not by a long shot. I’ll admit that. But it’s far better than any other group or organization or institution on the face of this earth.
Just then there was a dinging sound and the light clicked on over us. The voice came over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has indicated that we are now cleared for our final approach into Orlando International Airport. Please extinguish all smoking materials and return your seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked position. We shall be on the ground shortly.” He said, “I understand what you’re saying but you said something just a minute ago. You said the church has made mistakes. The church has done things that are wrong. You’ve admitted that. Now, how do you justify that?” I said, “I can’t justify that. I wouldn’t even try. The fact of the matter is that the church of Jesus Christ has the highest moral standards on the face of this earth. And it shouldn’t come as any surprise to anybody that sometimes we fail to live up to those standards. But just because we sometimes fail that doesn’t mean that we stop doing what Christ calls us to do. And so when you look at the Church’s mission, don’t -” Just at that moment the wheels hit the ground with a thud and there was the great roar of the jet engines in reverse to slow our speed. And then we moved off the runway and onto the apron area and then headed toward the gate.
I said, “When you look at the church’s mission, don’t look at the church’s mistakes. Look instead at the church’s Master. Look at the church’s Christ. Look at what He says. And what does he say? It’s written plain for all to see. Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world.'” We were at the gate. I gathered my belongings and got up to leave. I said to him, “You’re going here to Orlando?” He said, “No. I’m going on. I’m just changing planes here.” We walked up the jet way together. I was thinking to myself, you know, the Lord sets before you an opportunity and you never know if you said the right thing to the right person at the right time. When we reached the concourse we shook hands and said goodbye. And he walked one way down the concourse and I turned and headed the other way toward the shuttle.
What was that he said? He said I’m going on. I wonder – I wonder if he will notice as he goes that he is flying through skies that are a whole world wide.
Let us pray. Gracious Lord, call us anew to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world that we may carry that Gospel in word and in deed to the people of this earth, the people for whom He died and for whom He was raised again. Yes, Lord. It is in the name of this Christ, this risen Christ that we pray. Amen.