Jesus asked me for my phone number, which I was happy to give. He said he would like to get together some time, so I agreed. About a month later Jesus called, and I was excited to explore this new friendship. I drove to the meeting point (I have a car, Jesus doesn’t) and saw Jesus standing on the corner. I was surprised to see Jesus smoking a cigarette. (I don’t smoke but Jesus does.)
He shook my hand and nervously fumbled through some papers. (Jesus was nervous, while I was calm.) We went to a café together. Jesus ordered coffee, I herbal tea. (I don’t drink coffee, Jesus does.) After a bit of time he revealed the true intent of his calling me. He wanted me to help him find a job outside of Turkey (I am content with my life, Jesus isn’t.)
After his third cigarette, I couldn’t hold back. I said, “Jesus, you have a good name, the best name. Have you ever read about Jesus the Messiah in the New Testament?” He said he hadn’t. (I’ve read the Gospels hundreds of times, Jesus hadn’t touched them once.) I encouraged him, saying he would find it most interesting reading. Blowing smoke from the side of his mouth, I could see his mind was on the paperwork in front of us, namely how to work as a dancer at a European festival. (I don’t dance, Jesus does.)
I haven’t seen Jesus since. Jesus and I don’t have much in common. (Jesus in Turkish is “Isa” and though not as common a name as Mohammed, parents give it occasionally.) But I’ve thought about him many times since that day.
You see, Jesus Christ challenges me constantly: “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me” (John 12:32).The words ring. They sting. They sit on my conscience. They sting because I am heaven-appointed to lift the name of Jesus up in a society aimed to put Him down. They sting because often I fly my Jesus flag at half mast. Oh, I tell people I’m a Christian, and a different sort at that. I tell them I don’t smoke, I don’t eat pork, I love the prophets, and the Holy Books. They applaud. But Jesus said, “If I be lifted up.” Jesus didn’t say, “If the works I do in you be lifted up.” Nor did he say, “If a Christ-filled man be lifted up.”
Jesus—the one who was dead and is alive, who is seated at the right hand of God. Jesus—who created the world, breathed into Adam, stopped Abraham’s hand, and was symbolized in every lamb on the alter. Jesus—who healed the lame and forgave their sins. Jesus, not another prophet but the Unique One—who alone gives rest for the soul. His name is to be lifted up.
Not until I’d been in my host country for several years, being the “good Christian” who “acts like a virtuous Muslim,” did I see how much trouble the self-righteous Christian can cause for the cause of the gospel. It is anti-gospel to let my friends talk about my honesty and clean life without me including the name of the living Jesus. Otherwise, I am reinforcing in others’ mind “that there is a way to be free from this bad-man-inside-of-me if I try. Just look at that foreign guy. He isn’t even one of our faith, and he is doing it and succeeding. Surely we stand a better chance than he if we follow Islam more devotedly!”
That same fearful instinct that crept over Peter on the dark night of Jesus’ trial resembles the motive that keeps Jesus’ name from being voiced more clearly and more often. Where were Peter’s thoughts as he stood by the haunting glow of the fire? Wasn’t he thinking his own future, the possibility of his own shame? Wasn’t it his fear that he would be targeted like Jesus and be physically harmed?
What keeps us from talking of Jesus at the tea house? Of saying who we are when we’re asked? Of presenting ourselves as a child of God? Too often I have had to conclude it is not Christ’s interest, but self-interest. The mouth shares to the limit self is safe.
I live in a country where to be overly religious--even to be overly Muslim--is frowned on by the secular majority. Jesus, my Life, my Light, my Hope and my Joy, has so often taken a backseat. I become “Barnabas, the honest, kind- hearted, Christian, American guy.” I subconsciously reason,“Jesus must wait. Make a friend. Win their trust. If you don’t, they’ll categorize you as a missionary. You’ll get thrown out of the country.” Jesus’ name is shelved, because it isn’t politically correct to bring up the fact that I worship Jesus, I bow to Jesus, I sing songs to Jesus, I believe Jesus is now judging the living and the dead, and I love Jesus. “Do people I encounter get the sense that Jesus is my hero?” That question has haunted me enough to force me to turn about face.
So I determined to do differently. I began to frontload my life and my conversations with Jesus. Believing in Abraham creates a comfort zone for those I meet. Not eating pork startles those around me. But Jesus--letting the ordinary person know that He has wiped away my sins and given me life refreshed in the grace and gift of God—this is where I’m discovering people are really interested. Jesus becomes real when I represent Him as Someone who can be adored and loved. Jesus is attractive when I describe Him as alive and involved. The conversation goes places that it never did when I only talked about pork. I shouldn’t be surprised, because Jesus never said, “If no-pork-eating is lifted up, I will draw all people to Myself.”
Perhaps that little girl, who questioned Peter if he knew Jesus, wasn’t accusing him at all. Maybe she was curious to know more about Jesus! Perhaps Peter’s fear snatched Bread from her hungry hands. What an eternal loss, a tragedy, if my fears and self-protection ever starve anyone of Christ, who loves them deeply and died for them.
Oh, I forgot to mention something about the man I met at the cafe. Yes, his name really is Jesus. And his last name? Korkmaz, “don’t fear.” I met “Jesus Don’t Fear” that day. A good name indeed! BP