All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:18-20)
I’m not sure “ambassador” is a word that has much contemporary cachet. If we think about that position at all, it’s probably with cynicism, since American presidents of both parties have often used ambassadorial appointments to reward wealthy donors who may or may not know well the language, culture, and politics of the country to which they’re dispatched.
The Apostle Paul certainly doesn’t think that it’s our merit that makes us worthy of being Christ’s ambassadors. But then “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). By calling us as ambassadors, God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation” to sinners who have been reconciled to him in Christ (5:19).
So how do we bear Christ’s embassy well? Encountering this familiar passage in today’s lectionary reminded me of a book I read over the summer. Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London tells the story of the Americans who helped facilitate the alliance between their country and Great Britain before and during World War II.
Some of Olson’s Citizens remain familiar, like journalist Edward R. Murrow. But I had to reach back into memories of my grad school training in diplomatic history to recall the name of John Gilbert Winant, the history teacher-turned-governor of New Hampshire whom Franklin D. Roosevelt sent to London in 1941 (replacing future president John Kennedy’s father Joe, a staunch supporter of appeasement). Though a Republican who was seen as a potential contender against FDR, Winant had supported the New Deal (serving as the first head of the Social Security Board) and then represented workers’ interests as the American representative to the International Labor Office.
Arriving in March 1941, after British cities had suffered through four months of night bombings by the Luftwaffe, Winant proclaimed that “there is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.” For five years, he lived out this attitude, becoming an enormously popular figure who lived humbly and got to know Britons from all walks of life.
So there’s a first challenge for us. We represent the kingdom of God, not any earthly authority, but there should be no place we’d rather be than the place we’ve been sent with Christ’s embassy. This is a challenge for any ambassador. If even an Anglophile like Winant sometimes longed for the U.S., how much more homesick will we feel, who “groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling… while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (5:2, 6). But “the love of Christ urges us on” (v 14), to love the neighbors to whom we bear Christ’s message.
Knowing that Christ “died for all” (v 15), we cannot limit our embassy to any elite. While Winant spent much of his time with Winston Churchill (even falling in love with the prime minister’s daughter, Sarah), he also acted as ambassador to the ordinary people of Britain. Seeing the Blitz as “a human tragedy,” Winant would go out in the middle of bombing raids to offer help to everyone from firemen and air raid wardens to those huddled in shelters. When he traveled beyond London, he often visited working class Britons in factories, mines, and trade union halls. “Most people in this country feel that well nigh any problem in this country could be satisfactorily settled if we could assemble in the conference room men of his quality,” reported one Labour MP in Wales.
In the process, Ambassador Winant was presenting an appealing image of his country, bearing witness amid the threat of Nazism that democracy and freedom endured in the New World. How much more important that we convince the battered and weary around us that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (v 17)? But we can learn something from an American ambassador who saw himself as the ambassador to a people, not a place, and determined to know their problems. Likewise, we ambassadors for Christ must seek to speak God’s message of reconciliation in terms that make sense to the particular people around us.
It’s no easy task. His rigors of wartime work wore heavily on Winant, and his career went into a tailspin after he left London in 1946. Suffering from depression and badly in debt, he committed suicide a year later, on the same day his ambassadorial memoir was published.
That book was subtitled “An Account of a Stewardship.” So even though Winant’s life is shrouded in tragedy, he reminds us that the work of ambassador does not belong to us, or depend on our power. We are only stewards of a responsibility that is from, by, and for the same Christ who has sent us a helper. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God,” Paul reassured the ambassadors to Corinth, “who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (v 5).