Incarnation and Imitation
The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example, “Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”
Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.
What’s Faith Got to Do with It?
This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.
“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.
In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).
The Victory of Faith
There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5, “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text (1 John 5) and John 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!
Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.
Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.
It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.
(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself.)
Steven Hovater: Four kids. One wife. Seventeen hobbies. A coach’s whistle. Lots of thoughts about God and food. The spiritual gift of volume. Blogs at stevenhovater.com, and preaches in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
The word “missional” has been terribly abused in its first couple of decades of wide circulation. Theologically, the word simply describes God’s ongoing work in the world—and the church that intentionally participates in that work. There are multiple facets to that work and our participation in it, and perhaps this explains why the word has been stretched around so many different kinds of churches or styles of discipleship. We understand ourselves to be participating in God’s mission as we spread the news of Jesus’s redemptive work in our community and around the globe, as we encourage each other to follow Jesus, and as we pursue the conditions of justice, righteousness and peace. None of these are the full breadth of what God wants for this world, but in each of them we engage with values near to the heart of God!
Our churches pursue each facet collectively, working together for the purposes of evangelization, transformation, and justice—and churches can implement structural shifts to facilitate progress in each cause. We can create systems that create opportunities for faith sharing, venues in which transformation is more likely to occur, and initiatives that push against standing systems of injustice.
Whether we’re the leaders fashioning the new programs or congregants supporting and participating in the moves, we can too easily begin to think that the structural changes mark us as “missional”. However, those structural shifts can only move us so far! Church programming and structure may create the conditions in which we move towards mission, and poor structures can get in the way of such practices or implicitly devalue them. Structure has its place, and should be approached with intentionality. However, creating the structures should not be understood as the heart of the work itself—the work itself is a matter of flesh, blood and spirit.
Flesh, Blood, and Spirit
The missional work of evangelization occurs when flesh and blood humans filled with the Spirit of God reach out to their known and loved neighbors with the good news of Jesus. The missional work of discipleship takes place when people of flesh and blood, acting by the power of God’s Spirit, encourage and teach each other about the way of Jesus, giving testimony of Jesus’s work. Justice progresses as Spirit-driven people stand in solidarity with the oppressed, whom they have come to see and love because of their transformation in Christ.
The heart of missional christianity isn’t a matter of organization, but of embodiment. While the church’s programming might provide the sort of vehicle or venue in which these things happen, the structure itself won’t succeed until it is filled by the right kind of transformed people—the new humanity, formed from the inside out for the purposes of God’s mission in the world. That formation takes places when we, both as communities and as individuals, nurture the sorts of mentalities and habits that encourage people to align with the mission of God and to engage in it.
The inventory of those mentalities and habits is surely diverse and contains some familiar things, like the virtues of faith, hope, and love that the church has long sought to nurture, and the habits of prayer and listening to the word that have been a part of both the gatherings of God’s people and the classical understandings of their individual devotional practices. These are well and good, and contribute to our transformation into people aligned with the mission of God, but I want to suggest a further practice, one that I see both in the life of the early church and in the missional movement of our own time: the nurture of a particular obsession.
Obsessed with the Missio Dei
The Missio Dei is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “the mission of God”. It’s a bit of shorthand meant to point us towards what God is doing in the world—something we train ourselves to discover by drinking deeply of God’s story in the scriptures, and which we prayerfully seek by the Spirit of God in our own time. Becoming obsessed with the Missio Dei means that at every turn in our lives, we are always asking, “What might God want to happen here?” or “How can I join in what God might be working towards by what I say and do in this moment?”.
These are the sorts of questions the early church obsessed over. Missional churches have these questions embedded in their culture, whether or not they ever use the fancy Latin phrase or have super-sophisticated “missional” structures. Missional people can’t help but ask what God wants in the world, and how they can bear witness to God’s desires and God’s work towards fulfilling those intentions.
Each encounter with the word, each gathering with the church, and every moment in the neighborhood is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God’s mission in the world. That obsession is planted deep within our hearts, and keeps gnawing at our souls. Like a deep mystery, it holds us in vigilant tension, so that every moment we are ready to perceive the clues that might shed light on what God is really at work doing. The seed of that obsession grows from the inside out, until its fruit becomes apparent in the world. It is an internal drive that fuels every external step we take.
Steven Hovater is the preaching and outreach minister at the Church of Christ at Cedar Lane in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He loves walking slow with his wife Kelly and running fast with their four kids. Occasionally, he blogs at stevenhovater.com., and loves interacting with people on twitter (@stevenhovater).
As part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
I’m very happy to share with you some comments by Dr James Nored on the topic of spiritual gifts/roles found in Ephesians 4:11-16. James is the minister at the High Pointe Church of Christ located in McKinney, a northern suburb of Dallas. He is also the founder of the Missional Outreach Network, and designer of the Spiritual Gifts Inventory and resources found at www.YourSpiritualGifts.com.
James, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Apostle – the entrepreneur or mission leader who is asking, where are new mission fields? Who has not been reached?
Prophet – the questioner of an organization or church who is probing, pointing out what is wrong, calling the organization/church back to its purpose/God.
Evangelist – the salesperson of the organization/church, who asks, who can I share the good news with?
Pastor – the HR, caretaker person of the church/organization, who asks how to bring peace and stability and healing to the organization/church
Teacher – the systemitizer of the church/organization, who seeks to deepen understanding, asking, how does all of this fit together and make sense?
Hirsch theorizes that the five fold spiritual gifts draw upon these parallel natural gifts found in any healthy organization. It is an intuitive argument that I agree with and have witnessed. I believe that it also has a biblical/theological basis. I would love for someone to do more statistical research on this.
Hirsch advocates that a healthy church will have each role represented in its leadership team. He also says that it is the nature of institutions–and churches–to be dominated by the pastor-teacher role. The apostle, prophet, and evangelist roles all are “disruptive” to the system, and the nature of pastor-teacher roles is to keep peace and prevent disruptions, making sure things get back to “normal.”
On the organization side–who in the record business wanted to have a prophetic voice telling them that they might soon be out of business with the advent of tape cassettes? Or who at Blockbuster wants to hear that it would go bankrupt unless it changed its business model? Think how hard it is for Microsoft to think beyond its cash cow of Microsoft Office on personal PCs to a cloud based Office model that might be less profitable–but in the end, might allow Microsoft to survive the Internet age.
On the church level, think of the bus ministries of the 1970s. They disrupted the local church, and despite the fact that they did reach a lot of people, many local churches were too disrupted by these ministries to continue them.
Hirsch says that the APE gifts (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist) of the APEPT Eph. 4:11 gifts become marginalized in the local church. They have little voice in leadership and the “system” pushes them out due to the disruption they cause. So those with this gifting usually go overseas on mission trips, go into church planting more recently, or become a part of para-church organizations that focus on feeding the hungry, taking care of the homeless or battered women, reaching out to minority groups, etc.
If those with APE giftings are not “in the room” when decisions are made (which historically, has often been the case), then the PT giftings (Pastor, Teacher) will dominate and always advocate the least disruptive path–which will inevitably lead to the church’s or organization’s slow decline and eventual death (businesses do fail and individual churches do close, even if the Church will always continue).
So what do you think?
- Do you agree that church leadership lives with a natural tension between disruptive and soothing voices?
- Have you seen people with APE spiritual gifts squeezed out of leadership, or at least have their voices muffled?
- How can churches launch and maintain “disruptive” ministries while still keeping “peace” within the congregation?
- What characteristics must a church adopt or emphasise to support these “disruptive” leadership gifts?
In the short story told in this passage, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day express shock that Jesus would eat with sinners and tax collectors. According to Everett Ferguson (Backgrounds, 88) the tax collectors were no less honest than other businessmen, but were despised due to their liaison with the Romans. Whatever the nuances, Luke clearly demonstrates that social conventions dictated that religious leaders, such as Jesus, should not fellowship with these unsavory characters.
In addition to vs 31-32, I came across a quote that contrasts the attitudes of Jesus and the Pharisees towards these people. “For Jesus, recovery is the issue, not quarantine.” (Bock, Vol 1, 496) Jesus accepted the hospitality of Levi and got to know his friends. He did this so that he could provide healing, while the Pharisees quarantined themselves from these people who might infect them.
Churches and individual Christians still struggle with this dilemma. We’re like cops in movies who go undercover. How far under can we go before we become one of them? Often the risks convince us we’re better off staying in the safe quarantine zone rather than involving ourselves in the lives of people outside the church. We call people to repentance by standing on the outside with a megaphone pointing at the areas of life that need changing. Jesus went into the house, ate and drank with the community then called them to follow him.
To prevent this posting getting too long, I’ll make several short points and you can discuss them further with me by leaving a comment.
- Jesus didn’t enter this situation alone, his disciples were with him. He didn’t have a group of “righteous” friends and “sinful” friends that he flitted between. He made sure his two worlds collided. What do we learn from that?
- In my sermon I suggested that the Pharisees expected Jesus to be hanging with the “righteous” people at the synagogue rather than eating with sinners. If Jesus came to our towns, where would he spend his time? Are our churches more Godly than the Jews’ synagogues?
- We often have separate groups of church and non-church friends. What are some ways you’ve found or seen to bring the two groups together?
- What can churches do to better mingle with the unchurched “sinners” in the surrounding community? What are some effective missional approaches you’ve seen or heard of?
I’m having a nice quiet vacation, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts arising from Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration (Lectureship).
One of the recurring themes of the various sessions I attended challenged churches to consider their mission. The various speakers questioned whether churches do a good job of engaging their community/neighbours. Maybe we’ve become better at serving ourselves than others.
One of the reasons for this introversion is our understanding of our mission. Sometimes churches become more concerned about maintaining their perceived purity than connecting with those God places around them. Another way of saying this is that “we lose sight of our mission.”
Over my church life I’ve most often heard the church’s mission described in terms of the Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20, & Mark 16:15-16. One of the presenters suggested that Lk 10:1-24 provides an alternative (better?) model for us. While the Matt & Mark passages give more detail as to the message, the Luke passage provides some guidance regarding methods and mindset.
These passages all share the instruction for Jesus’ followers to GO. I wonder if at times we don’t interpret this as “go to church each week” rather than “go and purposely engage the world with the Good News of Jesus.” I don’t think this necessarily refers to doorknocking campaign. I guess I’ll talk more about methodology later, but here’s an interesting article. Although it primarily discusses church giving, it also describes one church’s efforts to serve its community.
For at least 10 Wednesdays this summer, the Morning Star Church is contributing free popcorn and sodas to people attending the concerts in Highland Park. The 400-member church pays for the snacks, feeding up to 1,500.
Other passages that describe the evangelistic mission of the church include Acts 1:7-8. Can you think of other passages of Scripture that describe the mission of the church. I really think this will make an interesting list. Please leave a comment with your suggestion.
One speaker that I really appreciated on this topic was Mark Love from the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. If this topic interests you I think you’ll enjoy the website.