Friday, February 24, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part Two

In the previous post, we described Paul's exhortation to live as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In this second post, we can unpack it more fully in light of Jesus' example.

The call to live as citizens of heaven is a profound and radical shift in one’s understanding of status. We can see that Paul prepares his readers for this shift in his self-description at the beginning of his letter. In Philippians 1:1, Paul and Timothy take the title of “slaves of Christ Jesus” for themselves. On first glance, this may not seem significant, but his is the sole place in Paul’s letters where he only identifies himself as a slave without further qualification. In Romans 1:1 and Titus 1:1 Paul describes himself as "slave of God" or " slave of Jesus" respectively but also adds "apostle". Adding the powerful title “apostle” speaks of authority and subverts in some ways the use of slave. However, in Philippians, Paul and Timothy are simply "slaves of Messiah Jesus." This is important to Paul’s word to the Philippians about a new understanding of citizenship. The only other use of doulos in Philippians occurs at 2:7 and describes Jesus as one who “emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." Philippians 2:7 records Jesus' action/demonstration of not considering equality with God something to be clung to or exploited. The use of slave language for both Paul (the founder of the church in Philippi) and Jesus (the crucified and risen Lord) is subversive in the Philippians context. It is a call to the Philippian Christ followers, many of whom had privileges as Roman citizens, to willingly embrace a lower status in imitation of Paul and Jesus for the sake of the advancement of the Gospel. The Gospel moves forward not by selfishly clinging or exploiting one’s own status, but by valuing and serving others.

Don’t miss the profound challenge contextually to the Philippians of Paul’s description of Jesus as a slave. Slaves sat at the bottom of the status ladder in Roman society. Paul’s subversive use of slave is a key element in his teaching about living as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In 2:1-18, Paul offers Jesus as the first of three examples. At the center of this section is the Christ hymn (2:5-11). This poetic text unpacks what it means to embody the mind/attitude/intentions of Jesus. Jesus is described positively for his own renunciation of status for the sake of advancing God’s mission. Philippians 2:6 marvels at the reversal of expectations over the issue of Jesus' status. This text affirms that Jesus was divine and equal to God. Despite this reality, Jesus did not take this position of being equal with God as a privileged position to be exploit for his own gain. Jesus does not regard his status of being equal with God to be a collection of rights and prerogatives to be exploited for his own benefit. Instead, Jesus took the form of humanity. This announces the incarnation of Jesus into our world as a human. Notice this is announced first by the phrase “taking the form of a slave (Grk doulos). This establishes the full force of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians about a new kind of citizenship. Their model is no longer the status quo of Roman social norms. It is Jesus. It is not merely that Jesus assumes the role and status of a slave. He identifies with it fully by embracing death on a cross. Don’t miss the subversive power of this statement. Christ followers are too used to thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross that we can easily miss its message in context. Jesus could have died an atoning death in a variety of ways. Why death on a cross? Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest classes of society. Roman citizens could not be crucified except as a penalty for treason. So to the Philippians, Jesus’ death on a cross demonstrated the extent to which Jesus was willing to renounce his status and identify with his adopted status of slave for the sake of God’s mission.

The last half of the Christ hymn records the results of Jesus’ willing embrace of a new status. 2:9 announced dramatically that as a direct result of his humble embrace of low status, God highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name above all names.In other words, Jesus has his lowly status reversed. Jesus moves from the bottom of the status ladder to the highest possible one. He is LORD (2:11). This is no mere honor. There is no status above it. By identifying Jesus with the Name, i.e., Yahweh of Israel's Scriptues, Jesus moves from the bottom of the status realm to a status above Roman citizenship, above the Roman emperor, and even above the Roman gods. Jesus alone is LORD and all others will bow before him. The message to the philippians believers is clear. They may cling to their status as Roman citizens, but if they willingly embrace a lower status, they will be raised up by God in Christ Jesus. The only status worth attaining is one given by God. The implication also that any temporary loss of status for the sake of God's mission is infinitely worth it. As the Philippian Christ followers, realign themselves for God's mission they position themselves to reach others for the Gospel through their witness by moving from a way of life that values putting the self and its status first to focusing on lifting the status and honor of others (2:2-3). By doing so, the Philippians will "shine continually as stars in the world" (2:15). Stars have functioned as navigation points and signs for millennia. In like manner, the Philippians will serve as clues to the world about true God. Such a life is nothing more and nothing less than a rediscovery of what God intended for humanity at creation (Gen 1:26-31). The status that Christ followers embrace establishes the limits of whom they can reach with the Gospel.

What do you think?

I offer a full missional reading of Philippians as an example of how to deploy a missional approach to Scriputre in my latest book:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part One

Paul penned his letter to the Philippians to encourage and shape them for God’s mission in the world. Reading Philippians missionally involves hearing the text. In Philippians Paul models an incarnational and missional approach to proclaiming the Gospel.

The principal exhortation in Philippians is found in 1:27 “Only live as citizens worthy of the gospel of the Messiah.” The main body of Paul’s letter is 1:27–4:1. After Paul makes this exhortation in 1:27-30, Paul then offers three examples of what this sort of lifestyle looks like: Jesus (2:1-18), Timothy/Epaphroditus (2:19-30), and Paul himself (3:1-16). Paul closes out this teaching section by calling for the Philippians to imitate these models as the means to living and standing as citizens of heaven (3:17–4:1).

The wording of the wording the initial exhortation is important. The main verb (politeuomai) in the 1:27a is an imperative that means “live as a citizens.” Its noun cognate (politeue) is found in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Paul’s other writings, he uses the Greek work (peripateo) meaning “walk/live” (1 Thes 2:12; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1) in similar expressions. Why does he use this particular exhortation “Live as citizens of the Gospel of the Messiah” in his letter to the Philippians?

First, the missiological setting of Philippi set the stage for this vocabulary. Philippi was a Roman colonial city where many veterans of the Roman army resided. Many of its residents (including some of the Christ followers) enjoyed Roman citizenship. This was a significant and important status in the Empire. Roman citizens enjoyed rights and privileges as a favored minority in the Empire. Being citizens of Rome was central to the ethos of Philippi. The Philippians were a privileged citizenry. Thus, by using the language of citizenship, Paul captures a meaningful word for Roman citizens and deploys it skillfully to call the Christians of Philippi to embrace a different sort of status and citizenship. Paul begins with what the Philippians understand as the epitomy of life: living as a citizen of the Empire and subverts this by replacing allegiance to Rome as the highest calling with the ethos and vision of a different way of life: living as a citizen of heaven. A fundamental insight of the book of Philippians is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the Gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God through Jesus that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others.

Second, Paul is clear that this is the key command in his letter. Most of our English translations begin v. 27 with “only.” The idea here is this: pay attention to this one thing or only one thing. In other words, if the Philippians can embody this one exhortation, they will be living well. This is emphasized by the framing use of “our citizenship exists in heaven” (3:20) near the end of 1:27–4:1. Paul begins and ends this large block of teaching with a reference to citizenship. Paul is challenging the Philippians to rethink their notion of citizenship with its privileges in the Empire and embrace to new citizenship with Kingdom of God as God’s missional people in the world.

Third, the nuance of the imperative “live as citizens of the Gospel of Christ” is emphatic. It stresses this way of life as a continuous action. We may capture this by translating the clause “live continually as citizens worthy of the Gospel of the Messiah.” Paul is stressing that this calling is a moment-by-moment existence. It is not a one time or occasional activity. It is the essence of being Christ followers in Philippi. The shift is one of allegiance from being citizens of the Roman Empire to being and living as a citizens of heaven.

Fourth, Paul’s goal is missional. Paul’s wants the Philippians to embrace this new mode of life so that he may hear about the Philippian’s Gospel shaped actions (1:27b-28). The principal witness according to Paul will be the Philippians “standing unified (“in one spirit”) contending for the Gospel without being intimidated by foes. The stress on unity as a witness will weigh heavily in Paul’s subsequent argument. The people of God in Philippi are to present a corporate witness to the world that is vital and powerful. The shift from living as citizens of the Empire to living as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is the key means of reaching the city of Philippi with the good news about Jesus.

Last, Paul does not shy away from the reality of suffering and hardship due to the Gospel for the Philippian Christ followers (29-30). This is not suffering in general or suffering due to ill chosen actions. The suffering Paul is describing is suffering because they are allied with Jesus the Messiah. Paul’s initial entry into Philippi stirred up opposition (Acts 16:16-40). The Philippians Christ followers are now experiencing similar troubles as Paul. If Paul’s current troubles were with the Empire (1:12-26), it may be that the Philippians were also running into conflict with Roman citizens in Philippi who honored the Emperor alone as Lord. The confession “Jesus the Messiah is LORD” (2:9-10) is a bold and daring one in the context of an Empire that crushed all opposition. To have an allegiance above the state was risky. But profoundly the Philippian’s ability to stand together as the body of Christ serves as a sign to the very ones seeking to do them harm (1:28).

Read Part Two

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: Models for Engaging the World Incarnationally

The book of Acts also models an incarnational mission as part of its global and cross-cultural vision. The model has three key elements that invite our reflection. (1) The mission of God is a cross cultural one and Jesus has bridged the divisions that exist between insiders and outsiders. (2) Gentiles did not have to become Jewish with respect to the Torah in order to follow Jesus. (3) The Holy Spirit deploys various methods of advancing the Gospel depending on the context of its audience including use of Scripture, miracles, and the utilization of Gentile cultural and religious symbols (i.e., extra-biblical ones).

First, Acts demonstrates decisively that the Gospel is transcultural and that it can be translated into different cultures. The gift of tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2) demonstrated the good news could be delivered in languages outside of the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek of 1st century Palestine. Moreover, the reality of the Spirit falling on Samaritans and Gentiles served as a tangible demonstration of the Gospel’s inclusiveness. Acts 10 narrates the remarkable story of Cornelius and Peter. Both men receive visions that prepare them for an encounter that will change both of their lives. Cornelius who is a god-fearing Roman Centurion receives a vision in which God tells him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter receives a vision in which he learns that God has pronounced the formerly unclean clean. When Cornelius sends for Peter, Peter realizes that the vision was God’s way of preparing him for a mission to the Gentiles. He goes to Cornelius and presents him with the Gospel which Cornelius and his friends and relatives receive. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit fills the Gentiles and thus marks their entrance into the people of God (10:44-48).

Second, as Gentiles became Christ-followers, the Jewish Christian leadership faced the issue of how the Torah’s laws affected these new believers. The question in its most basic form was this: Did a Gentile have to become a Jew in order to live as a follower of Jesus? In particular, there was a dispute over the question of circumcision. Did male converts to the Christ following movement need to be circumcised. Acts 15 recounts a remarkable conference involving Paul, Barnabas and the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas shared the fruits of the Gentile mission including all of the signs and wonders that God was doing to advance the Gospel. James, speaking on behalf of the Jerusalem leaders, discerned that God was indeed doing a great work among the nations in fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. Gentiles did not need to embrace fully the Mosaic law. In particular, they did not need to be circumcised. James wrote a pastoral letter that boiled down the Mosaic laws to avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality. This episode affirms that Gentile converts to the Christ following movement did not have to become practicing Jewish Christians. The key lesson here is that the Gospel can be contextualized into new cultures. Acts 15 also affirms that there are transcultural principles of moral conduct that establish a core ethos for Christ followers.

Last, Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization or some mixture of these options.

The book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and god-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethopian eunuch in 8:26-40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.

The book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.

Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16-34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus not as Israel’s Messiah but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32-34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The good news of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100% conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reading Acts Missionally: A Spirit-Drenched and Driven Movement

Acts completes the story begun in the book of Acts by narrating the spread of the Gospel from Jesus’ ascension to heaven to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. The book of Acts contribution to understanding the missional nature of God’s people is self-evident. A missional reading of Acts listens to the story of the emergence of the Christ following movement in the 1st century Greco-Roman world as guide to 21st century mission.

The central insight of Acts is the empowering role of the Holy Spirit in the advancement of the Gospel. The book of Acts is Spirit-driven. So much so that it is more appropriate to think of the Book of Acts as “Acts of the Spirit” rather than “Acts of the Apostles.”

The book of Acts opens with the Risen Jesus prepping his disciples for their post-resurrection mission. This is a new era for the people of God. Jesus’ words are powerful: But you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). This text is full of meaning.

Fundamentally this text reconnects the mission of God’s people explicitly with the Genesis 1–11 world. If the Gospel story from Genesis 12–the life and ministry of Jesus focused primarily on the creation of a new humanity to reflect God’s character in the world, the post-resurrection era of the Church shifts to a “go to” ethos in which the people of God now engage actively and intentionally the world with the good news about God’s abundant and transforming love. Notice the language of Acts 1:8. It assumes that mission will continue in the area of the disciples current geographic reality: Jerusalem and the wider land of biblical Israel. These had been the area in which Jesus himself had served. But now there is a push beyond these regions to the rest of the world. The Gospel came to its initial fulfillment in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Now it is to spread to the nations in anticipation of the New Creation. This reconnects the Biblical story line with God's universal mission to all Creation. God had originally intended for creation to be filled with image bearing women and men who reflected God's character. Under the power of the Spirit, God's New Humanity the Church re-engages this mission with the hope of reaching the nations with the Gospel.

The Spirit is the catalyst for this new movement of God’s work in the world. With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah, God sends the Spirit into the world to unleash his new humanity the church to serve as witnesses to the coming reality of the kingdom of God. The empowerment of the Spirit is the qualitative difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The Church is a people of the Spirit. The book of Acts demonstrates this in dramatic fashion.

Acts 2 famously recounts the Spirit’s dramatic arrival to unleash Christ’s followers on the Day of Pentecost. Devout Jews as well as Jewish converts from all over the known world had gathered in Jerusalem. In the morning on Pentecost, Jesus’ followers had likewise gathered together. Suddenly the Holy Spirit arrived on them in the form of tongues of fire. Each Christ follower present (perhaps as many as 120 cf. 1:15) was instantaneously empowered to speak one of the native languages of those present. This reality reversed the confusion of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) and demonstrated the translatability of the Gospel cross-culturally. This is a key element as Jesus’ followers could have spoken in Greek and addressed the crowd as a whole, but the mission of God is for the nations and thus addresses the nations contextually in each one’s native tongue. Peter addresses the crowd and announces that this miracle of speech is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28-32. God’s future age of the Spirit as inaugurated by Jesus has now come. The immediate result of Spirit’s coming was the addition of 3000 persons to the Christ following movement.

The book of Acts narrates the spread of the Gospel as marked by the baptism of the Spirit. In contrast to the Old Testament where only select individuals were filled with the Spirit, New Testament affirms that all of God’s people receive the Spirit. Acts records the apostles performing miracles and preaching in the power of the Spirit. As the Gospel reaches a new area in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the Spirit fills believers in each regions.

In subsequent chapters the Gospel advances through the work of the Spirit. In Acts 3 Peter heals a lame man and boldly proclaims the Gospel in Solomon’s portico. After Peter and John are arrested in Acts 4, the Spirit fills Peter (4:8) and enables him to share a powerful word before the council.

In Acts 7-8, the church comes under intense persecution. Ironically, the persecution serves to advance the Gospel by pushing it out of Jerusalem into surrounding regions. This is an important insight for a missional reading. Persecution does not mark the end of witness, but is often a conduit for increasing the effectiveness of Christian witness. This is true in the book of Acts. The persecution in Jerusalem causes Jesus’ followers to scatter and through their movements the Gospel arrives in new places. It arrives first in Samaria (7:4-25) under the work of Philip. When reports of the conversions of Samaritans arrive back at Jerusalem, the apostles send out Peter and John to investigate and resource the new community of faith. When they arrive, they pray for the Spirit to come upon the new believers in Samaria (7:15-17) and it does. The Spirit’s arrival marks the advance of the Gospel. This occurs also when the Gospel reaches Gentiles in Caesaria (10:44-48). The outpouring of the Spirit marks God’s acceptance of new believers into the kingdom regardless of whether they are Jew (Acts 2), Samaritan (Acts 7), or Gentile (Acts 10). This is a further fulfillment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). The gift of the Spirit is thus indiscriminate. It is for all God’s people: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female.

The Spirit is the driving force in the Gospel’s advance from Jerusalem in Acts 1 to Rome in Acts 28. The early apostles and witnesses were sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. For example, in Acts 8:26-40, Philip is prompted by the Spirit (8:29) to engage an Ethopian eunuch in a conversation that leads to the man’s conversion. Saul (later Paul) is filled with the Spirit (9:17) after his Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus (9:1-9). Paul shifts from being a persecutor of the church to being the person whom God uses to carry the Gospel to Rome.

Acts 13–28 narrates the movement of the Gospel from the regions of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Syria into Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, and eventually Rome itself. Acts 13:1-4 fully credits the Spirit with the advance of the Gospel. Paul is not merely an ambitious and visionary missional leader; his exploits are the product of the leading of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit himself commissions and sends out Paul (Saul) and Barnabas to preach the Gospel in these new lands. Paul and Barnabas ultimately separate (Acts 15:36-41) but Paul continues to advance the Gospel. Under the guidance of the Spirit (16:6-10), Paul crosses out of Asia Minor into Macedonia and Greece. The Gospel continues to move forward until Acts ends in Acts 28 with Paul preaching about Jesus in Rome the capital of the empire. The story ends abruptly without informing readers of what happens next. The implication however is clear. Since there is no Acts 29, we are left to dream under the Spirit’s influence about how we are to participate now in the Gospel’s movement in our day.

The book of Acts serves an important role in developing a missional hermeneutic through its emphasis on the work of the Spirit. God advances the Gospel through the Spirit’s empowerment. Our hermeneutical reflection is vital but the good news is that the Spirit continues its work.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Discipleship as Critique of the Religious Status-Quo

Jesus’ ministry involved frequent confrontations with the religious status-quo of his day. Ironically this included friction with the traditionalist Sadduccess and the reform minded Pharisees. A missional reading of the text is interested in the ways that Jesus' engagement with religious insiders serves as a warning to modern Christ followers lest we fall into the same traps of the insiders of Jesus' day.

Part of Jesus’ critique is the implication that outsiders may be in a better position to hear God than religious insiders. If the core call of God is (re)alignment, then there will always be a danger that insiders may choose not to realign with God’s contemporary mission. Over time, what began as a vital movement crystallizes into a suffocating status quo that ends up hindering God’s work in the world. New life may be added to God’s people by the inclusion of outsiders but this inclusion often comes as the cost of conflict with religious tradition especially religion’s calcified leaders.

Matthew 9:9-13 records Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector along with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over Jesus’ dinner with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus’ inclusion of Matthew into his band of disciples is a clear example of boundary breaking and a profound statement about mission in itself. The Pharisees who in many ways reduced the Torah to Sabbath keeping and table rules were incensed that Jesus would risk ritual contamination by choosing the company of persons who any decent religious leader would know to avoid. Jesus’ rebuke is classic and cuts to the heart of Jesus’ critique: “Those who are strong have no need of a doctor, but the ones who are ill do. Go and learn this: I am desiring mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call righteous people but sinners" (9:12-13). Since the Gospel is for the world, God’s people must be willing to move out of their own circles to interact and engage people who are desperate to learn and experience God’s grace and mercy. This text is also vital for reflecting on the relationship between holiness and mission. Holiness as Jesus models it is a holiness that engages the world with an understanding that a true holiness can infest the world rather than be infected by the world. Holiness often comes with calls to separate from the world, but Jesus points the way forward to a missional holiness that carries light into places that the merely religious people consider to be dark and void of hope. Dining with tax collectors and sinners ran counter to the religious status quo of the Pharisees, but Jesus values the reaching of new people over the misplaced religious sensibilities of insiders.

Another danger for religious insiders involves viewing the world through a self-justifying framework that finds pride in the contrast between us and them. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both men enter the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer is a profoundly self-serving one that attempts to elevate himself before God on the basis of religious practices in contrast to those of outsiders including the tax collector in his presence. The Pharisee’s words demonstrate a scarcity understanding of God’s grace and reduces life to the mere performance of correct actions detached of any sense of mission or the values of God’s kingdom. It takes pride in one’s performance in contrast to “sinners” rather than in understanding one’s spiritual life in light of God. The tax collector on the other hand simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, of the two men only the tax collector went home justified before God.

Even knowledge of the Scriptures is no guarantee of hearing and discerning God. For example, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, pagan astrologers from the east are contrasted sharply with Herod and all Jerusalem (including the chief priests and scribes). The astrologers have come to Jerusalem looking for the Messiah in response to their interpretation of astronomical phenomena. Herod calls on the religious leaders to provide insight and appropriately they cite Mic 5:2 identification of Bethlehem as the place to find the Messiah. But astonishingly enough no one travels to Bethlehem to find the newly born Messiah except for the astrologers. Instead Herod and all Jerusalem (including the religious establishment) are “frightened” at the prospect of the Messiah’s birth and ultimately respond to the Messiah’s announced birth in Bethlehem by murdering all boys under two. In contrast, the astrologers find the baby Jesus, worship him, and give gifts in symbolic surrender to this newly born King. This episode in particular is a warning to God’s people today of taking care lest one’s knowledge of Scripture actually blind one to God’s desires and intentions in and for the world.

Nothing is more suffocating or potentially harmful to God’s mission than a status quo religion that is more concerned with protecting its own power base, propagating tradition in anachronistic and legalistic ways, exalting itself by criticizing others, or promoting ideology over relationship than it is with declaring God’s eternal “Yes” to those women and men desperate for the good news that God has called us to share. The Gospel is for outsiders. God leads outsiders to God’s people. Those religiously inclined must not be blinded to this reality lest they find themselves on the outside of God’s kingdom.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Discipleship as Movement

Jesus lives out his ministry as an itinerant teacher, preacher, and miracle worker. He does not abide in any one place for long but continually moves to the next town or city. The baseline call of Jesus to others was “Follow me.” The Gospels model for the people of God the necessity of a dynamic movement. Jesus is on the move in the stories that the New Testament preserves for the Church.

In many ways Jesus’ encounters with people appear random. But randomness is part of the method. As Jesus moves from place to place people come to him hoping for a miracle or to hear his authoritative teaching. Jesus embodies his own sense of “sent-ness.” A missional reading highlights this ethos. Following Jesus involves moving around with eyes to see and ears to hear the needs of the world. The Gospels portray Jesus as one who is ready, willing, and able to minister to all those who come to him. Jesus’ movement from city to city offers a key message to the Church. The movement of following Jesus involves embracing this same sense of sent-ness.

The itinerant nature of Jesus’ public ministry invites modern Christ followers to reflect critically on present day practices that often focus on the building of buildings, the attraction of crowds, and the preservation of existing communities. There is obviously a place for such goals but it is crucial to evaluate them in light of Jesus who dismissed crowds who gathered to hear him so that he could move to the next destination on the journey (Matt 15:32-39). Jesus embodied a willingness to leave the ninety-nine to go after the one who was lost (Matt 18:10-14).