Monday, January 30, 2012

Discipleship as Mission

From the beginning of the Christ following movement, mission has been central. Matthew and Mark both record Jesus calling fishermen to become fishers for women and men. The call to follow Jesus is a call to mission because Jesus’ life focused on the mission of God.

All of the Gospels portray disciples as persons who carry the good news about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to others. As the disciples follow Jesus, he does his work of shaping them into persons who can “fish for people.” The disciples’ time with Jesus is not merely preparatory or academic work but real world training. Jesus molds his disciples by modeling mission. It is also worth noting that he deploys his disciples immediately into missional activity. This begins with accompanying Jesus and learning from him, but it quickly becomes deployment as a means of extending Jesus’ reach. In Matthew 9:35–11:1 (cf. Luke 9:1-6 and 10:1-12) , Jesus sends out his disciples on mission. In this text, Jesus authorizes his disciples to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed just as Jesus himself had done. This is the map for all future disciples to follow. Mission is not the work of religious professionals; it is the work of all followers of Jesus. Reading the Gospels missionally involves seeing them as blueprints for contemporary communities of faith to follow. The energy of mission implicit and explicit in the Gospels shapes God’s people into being a missional community that reflects and embodies God’s good news for others. Of course, the Matthean and Lukan accounts end with commissions for world transforming mission (Matt 28:16-20, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:8). But it is vital to recognize that mission is not merely a part of discipleship but that the Gospels themselves are manuals for what a missional discipleship truly looks like.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

What is a Missional Hermeneutic?

I wrote this essay for Catalyst a couple of years ago. It remains a good place to being the conversation about missional hermeneutics.

A missional hermeneutic is an interpretive approach that privileges mission as the key to reading the Scriptures. Missional hermeneutics works across the spectrum of approaches to the biblical text. It takes seriously the historical situation of the text (“behind the text”). It recognizes the influence of the reader’s social location (“in front of the text”). Yet it is fundamentally rooted in a close reading of the text (“the world of the text”). A missional hermeneutic seeks to hear the Scriptures as an authoritative guide to God’s mission in the world so that communities of faith can participate fully in God’s mission.

At the 2008 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, G.R. Hunsberger (“Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation”) reviewed current proposals on missional hermeneutics and organized them into four categories: The Missional Direction of the Story, The Missional Locatedness of the Readers, The Missional Engagement with Cultures, and The Missional Purpose of the Writings. I have adopted Hunsberger’s categories for the purposes of this essay.

Read the rest:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Discipleship as Cross-Centered: Missional Musings

Jesus the Messiah cannot be understood apart from his crucifixion. Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s answer to the disasters of Genesis 3–11. Even more, it is in Jesus’ submission to death on the cross that we see fullest glimpse of humanity as God intended and richest demonstration of God’s love for his creation. Jesus’ death subverts all human claims to power and salvation. Jesus’ death stands as the New Exodus event that liberates humanity for life in God’s kingdom. It casts the final word on injustice, power politics, cynicism, cruelty, disease, transgressions, and all other creation-depleting realities found in our post-Genesis 3 world. It stands as God’s model for resisting the suffocating status quo of the Empire in all its forms. The four Gospels move from their various beginnings relentlessly to the death of Jesus.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper creates a community shaping ritual that centers the Christ following movement on the death of Jesus (Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23). Its links to the Passover in Israel’s Scripture are obvious. The Christ following movement remembers Jesus’ death through the sharing of bread and wine. The focus rests on the Jesus’ death as the sign of God’s New Covenant (Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20) and antidote to sin (Matt 26:28). Additionally, all the Synoptics regard the ritual as an anticipatory sign of the full consummation of God’s future Kingdom. The missional implications are clear. Christ followers witness to the world of the reality of Jesus’ life and work through participation as a community in the remembering of his death on the Cross. This ritual proclaims to the world that this past event holds the keys to God’s future.

Furthermore, descriptions of discipleship are intimately linked with the cross. Jesus calls disciples to follow him. But all four Gospels emphasize the potential and real cost of such following by linking it with cross bearing. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record some form of Jesus’ radical invitation/warning about discipleship: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and continually follow me. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ restoration of Peter, which includes a statement about Peter’s future death as a result of following Jesus. The power of the Cross in a disciple’s life is that it relentlessly calls for God’s people to die up front to our human inclination for self-preservation as the key to unlocking a true power for living. The Cross of Jesus is an affront to all human mythologies of status, honor, power, and authentic living. By dying, disciples find true life. Moreover the Cross is a radical challenge to status and honor. In the ancient world, crucifixion was reserved for those of low status (slaves) or rebels against the Roman empire. In other words Jesus’ death on the cross was more than only a sacrificial death on our behalf—I am in no way marginalizing this tectonic reality. But Jesus’ death represents a subversive challenge to the power structures of our world by defeating such claims by Jesus’ willingness to embrace a lowly status as the means to discovering an authentic power that comes through God alone.

But we must also connect Jesus’ death with his resurrection on the third day. The cross is a powerful symbol on its own, but it is God’s raising of Jesus from the grave that fully demonstrates its power and announces God’s triumph over evil, death, and sin. The resurrection makes it clear that Jesus’ death was no mere martyr’s death but rather the true announcement and way to God’s future. A missional hermeneutic understands the cross and resurrection as the dual sided testimony of God’s ultimate victory for all creation. All four Gospels reach their climax in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases and themes but all move relentlessly and purposively to the crucifixion and resurrection. The word is clear: Jesus cannot be fully understood apart from the cross and its vindication through the empty tomb.

What does a cross-centered discipleship ultimately mean? To offer the lens of Matthew from 16:24 we discover that embracing the cross is the means to freeing God’s people to live fully for the values and mission of the Kingdom of God. A missional reading emphasizes the moment-by-moment nature of following Jesus into the world on mission. The cross becomes the symbol of the movement. The call to self-denial and taking up the cross is more than merely embracing an ascetic mode of living. It is rather a radical and steadfast refusal to value one’s own life before the mission of God. It is the opposite of Peter’s actions on the night of Jesus’ betrayal that permitted him to save his life at the expense of his relationship with Jesus. To take up the cross is a rich metaphor that described the last action taken by condemned persons on their way to their execution. Embracing the cross truly frees a person because once a person is dead to self, he or she is fully freed to follow Jesus audaciously into the darkest places on earth to announce the good news of the Kingdom.

In sum, the backdrop of Matthew’s view of discipleship is the death of Jesus on the Cross. The Cross is paradigmatic for the life of discipleship (Matt 10:38; 16:24). The cruciform life defines the essence of following Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ground of salvation. Matthew does not provide a detail discussion of the “how” of atonement, but instead simply states its reality (e.g., Matt 1:21; 8:17 [cf Isa 53:4]; 26:28). Modern Christ followers must resist any pragmatic or theologically driven attempts to whitewash or marginalize the centrality of the Cross. Jesus’ call to “deny oneself and take up the cross” is a counter-cultural and revolutionary. It envisions a movement of Christ followers who live as dead (wo)men walking—persons who have died up front to self so that they can follow Jesus into the world to bring the Gospel to those who desperately need it. Mission assumes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the defining reality for our world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Discipleship as the Good News of the Kingdom

To put it simply¬ Jesus did not come to initiate a new religion or some political program. He came to announce the in-breaking of God’s future. The Gospels call this the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” To miss this is to misunderstand fundamentally the message of Jesus.

The kingdom language is coded speech that announced the inauguration of God’s end time reign or rule over Creation. This spoke to the expectation of God’s people in the 1st century. By announcing the Kingdom, Jesus was alerting those with ears to hear that God’s long-awaited era of salvation had arrived. This connects the Gospels with Israel’s story in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills the expectations raised in the Prophets and offers the fullest answer to the problems raised by the Exile and its aftermath.

We must never lose the power of the “good news” of the Gospel. In his words and actions, Jesus proclaims the good news of the Kingdom. In Matthew 11:3-5, John the Baptist questions whether or not Jesus is truly the long expected Messiah. Jesus responds provocatively with a thick theological statement rather than a mere "yes" or "no." What is Jesus' answer? He says to John's followers, "Go and tell John what you are seeing and hearing: blind people are receiving their sight, lame are walking, deaf people are now able to hear, dead are being raised up, and poor people are having the good news proclaimed to them." Jesus is using the language of Isa 61:1-3 to describe his activities. In other words, Jesus answers John’s question with an unambiguous “Yes!” by appealing to his Kingdom advancing actions. In the life and ministry of Jesus, God is establishing the Kingdom. Jesus’ words and actions were received as good news. Provocatively Jesus subverts some of the expectations of the elite and religious insiders by engaging the masses and reaching out especially to the outsiders (the poor, the unclean, women, collaborators with the Roman empire, and foreigners). Such persons received the Gospel with gladness whereas the religious leaders of Jesus’ day often found themselves at odds with the good news of the kingdom.

Jesus’ presentation and embodiment of God’s Kingdom is central to the Gospels. The good news of the drawing near of God’s long awaited end time rule and era of salvation stands at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ followers exist to carry on Jesus’ kingdom work in the world and to embody the hope of the kingdom for the watching world.

A missional reading challenges us to keep the good news in the Gospel. The Kingdom has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The call to (re)alignment offers good news to the world and challenges God’s people to assess the extent to which its proclamation of the Gospel is an announcement of good news to those desperate for what only God can do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Discipleship as Boundary Breaking

Discipleship as boundary-breaking
Jesus’ kingdom embodying mission cut across the boundaries that commonly divide humanity. The model of Jesus is of a mission that embraces all humanity and one that tends to be offensive to the religiously minded.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew has skillfully constructed Matthew 8–9 into a series of mighty acts of Jesus. The initial segment (8:1-17) is instructive for seeing Jesus’ kingdom signifying actions as involving the shattering of religious and cultural boundaries. Jesus performs three explicit miracles in this segment: cleansing of a leper (8:1-4), the healing of a Centurion’s servant (8:5-13), and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15).

It is significant to reflect on the reason for Matthew reporting these initial three events as he does. All three of the persons whom Jesus engages in his mighty actions represents a group marginalized in some fashion in the pious circles of first century Judaism. The leper was ritually unclean and forced to exist on the fringes of society as an unwanted outcast. The Roman centurion represented the hated Empire and was a tangible reminder of the ongoing Exiled condition of God’s people evening their own land. Likewise the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is significant because women enjoyed much lower status than men in the culture of the time. But throughout the Gospels, Jesus associates freely with women. This was uncommon for a spiritual leader.

The importance of boundary breaking is not merely symbolic or politically motivated. It is central to the values of the kingdom. The Gospel is for all humanity. Moreover the Gospel advances through its introduction to outsiders. When former outsiders become insiders through the Gospel, they become new conduits of God’s grace to previously unreached people. Jesus’ boundary breaking created new mission driven people. Reflect on the three groups mentioned in Matthew 8 (lepers, Roman centurions, and women). All of these groups serve as unexpected witnesses for the power of the Gospel. Jesus sends the leper immediately to the priest to serve as “a testimony to them” (8:4). Immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross, the centurion’s present at the crucifixion exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.” This is profound in that their confession mirrors Peter’s earlier declaration at Caesaria Philippi (Matt 16:16), but unlike Peter who balked at an understanding of Jesus as Son of God that involved death on a cross (Matt 16:21-23), the centurions recognize the reality of Jesus’ identity after watching how he died. In essence, they are the first truly public witnesses of Jesus and they are outsiders. Likewise (and perhaps unsurprisingly in light of God’s mission) women serve as the initial witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Matt 28:1-10 cf. Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1–18). Deploying women as heralds of the good news of God’s victory is profoundly significant and subversive. Women were unable to serve as witnesses in legal disputes yet God unleashes them to be the first proclaimers of the Resurrection. Their message ultimately changed the world.

Thus, by engaging such persons actively and without reservation, Jesus models a cross-cultural and boundary exploding mission that can run against the current of societal prejudice and injustice. The Gospel is liberating and egalitarian in outlook. God’s mission involves extending the message of the Kingdom to all people, especially to those marginalized by society or by religious insiders. Boundary breaking mission also keeps social justice on the front-burner. Jesus demonstrated through his life that God is radically for the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the dying, the foreigner (even representatives of the privileged empire), and the outcast. Christ followers of today would do well to heed this model as they plot to launch to communities of faith.

Perhaps reflection on these question: Where would Jesus establish new communities of faith today? What people in our social location represent outsiders? A missional reading reminds God’s people that a biblical model of missional outreach will always include persons different from us.