This passage is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and was one of our readings this Sunday. I’ve always thought it’s a pretty powerful statement about our Christian vocation. To be an “ambassador,” the dictionary tells us, is to be a “diplomatic official of highest rank, sent by a sovereign of one state to be his or her resident representative in another.” We are, then, God’s representative here on earth—in this school, among our friends, on the ball fields, in our neighborhoods. God’s best chance of being influential in these venues is, scarily, us: what we say, and much more importantly, how we conduct ourselves. We are to “Preach the gospel,” St. Francis once famously said, “and if necessary, use words.”
But the word “ambassador” itself holds a clue as to how we are to best be this “gospel”. It derives from the Latin word, “ambactus,” which means a servant or a vassal. Our best way of being Christ’s representatives is to serve others.
I recently listened to a fascinating talk by Ernesto Sirolli, a successful entrepreneur who as a younger man worked for an Italian non-government organization in Africa in the 1970’s. His motives were pure—he wanted to make a difference--but he said that every single project he was involved with in Africa failed. Here’s how he describes it:
I thought, at age 21, that we Italians were good people and we were doing good work in Africa. Instead, everything we touched we killed. Our first project was where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the river, with Italian seeds to teach the people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course the local people had no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes, they showed up. And we were amazed that people in such a fertile valley wouldn’t have an interest in farming. But instead of asking them how come they weren’t growing anything, we simply said “Thank God we’re here, just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.” So everything we planted grew beautifully: we had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy these tomatoes grew to the size of a baseball, but in Zambia, they were the size of grapefruits. We couldn’t believe it. Look how easy this is, we told them. But when the tomatoes were nice, and ripe and ready to be picked, some 200 hippos came out of the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians: “The hippos—they ate everything!” And the Zambians said “Yes, that’s why we don’t grow things here. “ “But why didn’t you tell us? “You never asked us.” I thought it was only the Italians blundering around Africa, but when I watched what the Americans were doing, what the English were doing, what the French were doing, I became quite proud of what we Italians were doing, because, you see, at least we fed the hippos!”
He goes onto say that the mistake that they and every other country made in the 1970’s was one of paternalism: I know what’s good for you, I’m the father, you’re the child, so I am going to teach you. But if we want to make a difference in other’s lives, we must respect them first, and ask THEM, “What is of interest to you? “ and only then, “How can I help you achieve what you want?” So as he got older he realized that the best way to help a country wasn’t to host community meetings where he gave out sage advice to the masses—no one showed up at those meetings. Rather, he began to meet one on one with people in local restaurants and let THEM do most of the talking--about their ideas, about their dreams to start a business or do something in the villages of note—and then and only then, would he advise them and work with them to achieve it. And if he were successful with one person, another would hear of that success and seek him out, and then another, and then another. And he learned he could make a difference in a country, not from the top down, but growing from the inside out, one person at a time.
There’s wisdom in there for all of us. If we want to be an effective ambassador for Christ, if we really want our faith to make a difference, it isn’t a function of us being wise so much as being humble, not about eloquent teaching or preaching so much as good listening, trying to understand what people want and then serving them.
Being Christ’s ambassadors in this way, we can truly make a difference in a world that desperately needs reminding that life is good, not evil, that though the cross may come, that the resurrection is on the other side, and that in the end, God’s love and mercy triumphs. May we have the courage to be these kind of ambassadors!