Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reading the Gospels Missionally

The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus as a means of announcing the kingdom and of shaping disciples for the kingdom building mission of God in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. A missional reading emphasizes rightly the centrality of Jesus’ announcing and embodiment of the Kingdom of God. To put it bluntly, the Jesus of the Gospels did not come to start a religion but rather to unleash the Kingdom of God in words and power. The core of Jesus’ call was a radical exhortation to realign continually in response to the manifestation of the Kingdom. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection incarnate the ethos of the kingdom in ways that subvert human claims to power, wisdom, and influence. To put it simply the message of the Kingdom is good news or gospel because it points to the way of Jesus as the fullest and final expression of hope and love. It is only through the way of Jesus that men and women can live fully as the human beings whom God created them to be.

In their announcement of the Kingdom, the Gospels present Jesus as the embodiment and fulfillment of all that Israel was to be and accomplish. The kingdom language appeals to the expectations of God’s people about God’s end time rule. But even in Jesus’ life we connect with the narrative of Israel Scriptures. In the Synoptics, Jesus is born a descendant of David in Bethlehem. He flees to Egypt in a time of distress and God brings him back to the land of Israel. Before his public ministry in Israel, he spends 40 days in the Wilderness but unlike Israel whose 40 years in the wilderness was a time of failure Jesus prevails over temptation

Thus, the Gospels share the good news about Jesus for the purposes of transformation. Each Gospel in its own way seeks to transform its hearers into a new type of profound people who find themselves in the story of Jesus and open themselves to a reshaping or a realignment into a new humanity that exists for God’s mission. Thus a missional reading of the Gospels understands the Gospels as manuals of discipleship that invite all people into the story of the Scriptures. We read the Gospels not to learn facts about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but so we become disciples true to the name, i.e., we become men and women whose way of life manifests the deep magic of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

The above is a sample of the type of analysis found in my book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2015).


Monday, August 15, 2011

Thinking about the Old Testament in a Missional Hermeneutic

Rediscovering the Old Testament
A key feature of a missional approach to the Bible is that it provides a framework for reading the OT and the NT as Christian Scripture. It sets the New Testament within its full Biblical context and it opens up the Old Testament for reflection.
In the context of the Western world’s biblical illiteracy, the Old Testament in increasingly neglected in teaching and preaching. At best its stories are left for Children’s education. At worst, it is viewed as irrelevant or even naïve.

To be sure the Old Testament contains its share of difficult passages. It shares stories of violence and human foibles. We can find the best and worst of humanity in its pages. John Bright once wrote, “I find it most interesting and not a little bit odd that although the Old Testament on occasion offends our Christian feelings, it did not apparently offend Christ’s ‘Christian feelings’!” The witness of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church was univocal on the significance of the Jewish Scriptures. They were treated as substantive, essential, and authoritative for the Christian life and for engaging the world missionally. We must recapture the Old Testament in our day.

A missional reading of Scripture boldly reasserts the relevance of Israel’s Scriptures for the Christ following movement. The book of Genesis serves as the harbinger of renewed engagement with the theology of the Old Testament with its narratives of Creation, Fall, and God’s calling into existence a new humanity that will serve as agents of blessing to all people. The Old Testament is essential for understanding God’s creational intentions for both the world as a whole and for women and men in particular. It describes poignantly and relationally the problem of lostness and brokenness that confronts us in our daily lives. A missional reading resists the temptation to focus exclusively on the New Testament. Apart from the witness of Israel’s Scriptures one risks distorting the mission and message of Jesus the Messiah as well as that of the Church as the sent people of God. Toward this end, communities of faith seeking to shape identity around God’s mission will consciously teach the whole of the Scriptures because of their necessity in forming a sent people to reflect God’s character to/for/in the nations.

As followers of Jesus, we may find in the stories of the Old Testament easier points of contact between the Gospel and outsiders. First, as we noted, Genesis 1–11 has an international focus. It invites all people everywhere to find their story in the Scriptures. Second, the stories found in Israel’s Scriptures are profoundly human. We find in them all of the foibles and peccadilloes that befall women and men as well as the major life altering train wrecks with which we are all too familiar. The Old Testament narrative include stories of risk and adventure, joy and sadness, success and failure, and liberation and oppression. These are the themes that capture the imagination of us all as they represent the dreams and fears of all people. Last, the Hebrew Scriptures narrate the working of God in human history. The story of God’s mission offers a counter-narrative to those of our day and demonstrate that history is truly moving toward some greater purpose than self-centeredness and the carnage that ensues when self-centeredness as practiced by individuals, tribes, or nations is implemented against those deemed outsiders.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reading the New Testament Missionally: Starting the Conversation

A missional reading of the New Testament recognizes the diversity of the biblical material but recognizes that they center on the life of a missional community that exists to reflect and carry the Gospel to the world. According to the New Testament, the risen Jesus sends forth God’s people i.e. the Church to announce the good news of the Gospel to the nations.  

The New Testament records the advance of God’s mission in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Each of the New Testament documents seeks to shape a missional identity and ethos in the communities that originally received them. Recognizing this is the goal of a missional hermeneutic of the New Testament.

The death and resurrection of Jesus marks the creation of the Church as the fullest expression of God’s people. The decisive difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God is the universal empowering of all God’s people through the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cleanses and equips the Church to function fully as the people of God as they embody the Gospel and testify to its good news in anticipation of the coming New Creation. It is the Spirit that drives the advance of the Gospel.

The principal story of the New Testament is the full engagement of the nations with the Gospel. If the missional ethos of the Old Testament was essentially a preparatory one of a non-engagement and “come to” model, then the New Testament represents a shift as God’s people now practice a true missionary model by carrying the good news about Jesus the crucified and risen Lord across the Mediterranean world. Within the canon, the book of Acts functions to narrate this movement by tracing the Gospel’s travels from Jerusalem to Rome. Provocatively Acts concludes in an open-ended fashion. Acts 28 reports that Paul arrived in Rome and lived under house arrest for two years. During that time, he taught openly about the Kingdom of God and Jesus. Interestingly, the book of Acts ends abruptly. The reader does not find out the outcome of Paul’s stay in Rome nor of any other advance of the Gospel. Scholars do debate the ending of acts.[1] But one key effect of the ending is to suggest that the work begun by the original apostles continues in the lives of contemporary disciples. The story of Acts 29 and beyond remains one to be written by Jesus’ followers today.

The letters of Paul[2] and the General letters represent messages written to discrete communities of faith across the Mediterranean world. A missional approach to these letters reminds us that they are concerned primarily with shaping communities of God’s people into outposts for the advancement of the gospel. Doctrine and ethics are central only as they serve to enhance the mission of God in that particular city. D. Guder has been on the forefront of emphasizing this aspect. He writes concerning the NT documents:
… NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” …To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies. (“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches,” Catalyst 31.3 [2005] 4)

[1]The issues turns on the meaning of “ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8 and the extent to which the Gospel reaching Rome represents the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.
[2]Meaning the full Pauline corpus and not merely the critically assured minimum of authentic Pauline letters.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Welcome to my New Blog

Welcome to my new blog! Thank you for all of you who have read my posts for the last five years on the Real Meal blog.

I plan to maintain the old site until the end of 2011. I will import the best of the past and begin to generate new material beginning with today's post.

Please accept my apologies for the scarcity of posts in recent days. I have endured a difficult past 10 months. I am now re-emerging rested, reignited, and ready to fully re-engage the conversations around missional church and missional hermeneutics. Thus I considered this a good time to start a brand new blog.

I appreciate all of you who have sent notes and prayed for me. I am looking forward to renewed conversation.

Here's to the future that God is seeking to create!

The Heart of the Matter: Reading Deuteronomy Missionally

The book of Deuteronomy articulates cogently the whole being response that God desires from God’s people. Israel’s life responds to God’s saving actions with faithful obedience. The book of Deuteronomy functions to shape a missional people by concluding the Torah with a cogent call to faithful obedience and a strong warning against disobedience. The Shema captures the essence of Israel’s response to God: “Hear O Israel. The  LORD is our God, the LORD Alone. You will love the LORD your God with the whole volitional center of your being, with all that you are as a person, and with everything else.”[1] The Shema calls God’s people to establish allegiance to the LORD as the grounds for a life with God. The Shema calls people into a whole being relationship of total devotion. The Shema’s tripartite call is not about uniting three aspects of the human person (mind, soul, body) but about a commitment best described by the sports cliché of giving 110%.  Allegiance to the LORD involves recognizing that the LORD alone is one’s god. But this is not a mere intellectual achievement is involves a reordering one’s life and priorities under the lordship of the God who delivered God’s people from Egyptian bondage. All competing claims to divinity and lordship must become subservient under the absolute claims of the LORD.[2]
Thus, faithful obedience involves turning away from idols and fully (re)aligning with character and ethos of the creator of the world and liberator of God’s people. Deuteronomy 5–11 serves as a retelling of the Ten Commandments as the foundation for an exhortation to obedience. Olson suggests that 6­–11 offers warnings again three broad categories of idolatry: trust in the gods, trust in militarism, and trust in one’s standing with God apart from faithfulness. Deuteronomy 12–26 unpacks this ethos in more specific terms for God’s people as they prepare for life in the land of Canaan.[3]
A missional reading gravitates to at least three elements within Deuteronomy:
First, Deuteronomy uses a recurring series of relational verbs to describe the life of faithful obedience. These cluster in Deut 10:12-13 – “So now Israel, what is the LORD your God asking of you? But only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all of his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with your entire volitional center and all that you are, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and his statutes which I am commanding you today for your good.” Elsewhere Moses also exhorts God’s people to cling/hold fast to the LORD your God (10:20 et al). The force of these verbs is to remind God’s people that the Torah is about its life with God and not the grounds for creating a relationship. This is a vital distinction. God has acted for Israel by delivering God’s people from Egypt (Deut 5:6 et al). Israel’s life with God is thus a response to his prior grace. God’s people practice and embody faithfulness on a moment-by-moment basis as the means to serving as a holy people before a watching world.
Second, Deuteronomy reminds us that the call to holiness is a summons to the good life.[4] In Deuteronomy, God offers a “good” land to God’s people (1:25 et al). Moses’ closing exhortation to God’s people in which he calls on them to make a decision centers on the good that God desires to work. Moses’ exhortation to engage fully with God reaches its zenith in 30:15-20 – “Look. I have set before you today life and goodness, and death and evil...Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (30:15, 20b). We must resist the human temptation to read God’s promises through a prosperity hermeneutic but nevertheless it is vital to recognize that God’s call to God’s people has good as its end. This was hinted at in Genesis 1:1–2:3 in the movement of creation from chaos to Sabbath. The lesson of the Scripture is that God can be trusted and that the God of the Bible has our ultimate and best interests at heart. Part of the witness of Deuteronomy is an emphatic affirmation of this. But it must be noted that this comes on God’s terms and not on ours.
Last, Deuteronomy proclaims its call to faithful obedience with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Faithful obedience to the LORD is not a theoretical proposition. It is a way of life to be embraced today.[5] Moses concluding call discussed above includes the word today (30:15). This rhetorical device functions to make every contemporary generation the one addressed by Moses while at the same time pushing the hearers/readers of Deuteronomy to recognize the urgent necessity of realigning with God daily on a moment-by-moment basis. Every day is the today of Deuteronomy.
In its essence, the Torah concludes with a call to total devotion and allegiance to the LORD alone. This involves a whole being commitment to the mission of God. This contrasts with the portrait of humanity that we discovered in our engagement with Genesis 3–11. Devotion and allegiance to the LORD alone involves turning from all competing claims of divinity including devotion to self and allegiance to any of the “gods” of the nations.
© 2011 Brian D. Russell

[1]This dynamic translation attempts to capture the meaning of the Hebrew words: lebab (“heart”), nephesh (“soul”), and mo’ed (“strength”). In each case, these words have been misunderstood historically because they were not translated culturally. For a masterful discussion of translation issues, see S. Dean McBride, Jr., “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4­–5” Int  ___
[2]Hirsch and Hirsch Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship (Baker: 2011).
[3]For a terse but sublime discussion of this material see S. Dean McBride, Jr., “Polity of the Covenant People: The Book of Deuteronomy” Int 229-44.
[4]Hebrew tov recurs 29x in Deuteronomy.
[5]Heb hayyom. Literally “this day” = today. See  1:10, 1:39, et al.
[6]Torah = law. The traditional translation “law” is retained in order to capture the authoritative and normative connotations of the word.