Missional and Incarnation Life part 2
Towards a Missional and Incarnational Theology
This post is part 2 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation.
Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods – there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love does not exist and is not expressed in isolation, it is expressed in community.
This God, this Community of Love was not incomplete; the Trinity is the definition of completion. Community needed nothing, Love lacked nothing. Love was eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.
While the Community of Love was not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep indescribable love, felt compelled to create. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates expansive opportunity for love to be expressed.
So God, the Community of Love created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an unbelievably expansive and expanding universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint with beautiful strokes a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed.
This is the first thing we know of God’s actions. I suspect that this is not the first thing that God has ever done, but when it comes time to tell the Great Story to the children, God begins with the episode of creating the universe.
The storytelling is masterful. We don’t often recognize it because we’re too busy trying to determine the age of the earth from the geneology or determine where dinosaurs fit in. Or we argue whether or not the order of creation could in fact be suggesting evolution since the progress tends toward increasingly complex life forms.
Meanwhile we miss the amazement of eavesdropping while the Transcendent Other speaks a universe into existence and then immediately are invited to watch as the Immanent One walks in the garden, kneels in the dirt and breathes life into nostrils.
This is the astounding Story of the One who is completely other and yet is the image in which we were created. This is the Story of the Originator of all life, showing not a sense of detachment from this creation project, but rather a profound posture of love and care.
This is the Story of the Community which has existed since before time, making room within the Community for others to exist and find a home. This is the Story of the God who comes near.
This is The Story.
When we begin talking about developing a missional theology, this is where we begin: in the beginning. We don’t have to begin with modern ethnographies or cultural studies, we don’t even have to begin with the Incarnation of Jesus (we’ll get to that in a moment), because from the very inception of our universe the Lord has revealed a missionary nature.
Speaking of theology through narrative is more than just a device for communication; the medium is part of the message. God as a Community of Love is understood best by participation in the Story. Story is relational; it is communal. This language of community is essential to begin grasping the centrality and reality of Love in the character of God.
Over the past few years, my theology has become increasingly Trinitarian. That is not to say that I would have denied the Trinity before, but rather that it was merely something to which I assented without treating as practically essential to understanding and experiencing the life of faith. All importance of faith was found in Jesus.
However, by focusing on the existence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternal Community of Love I am able to appreciate that the Trinity is “not a piece of ‘high theology’…but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to the Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of…the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be.”
The Trinity is a starting point for theology because it says something essential about the nature of God, as revealed to us by God. The One who created was not in isolation but has existed since before time as an eternal community of mutual love and submission. We cannot understand the Father apart from the Son nor the Son apart from the Spirit. It is in the relationship between the Three-in-One that God is experienced by humanity.
We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of God, the Community of Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Love in action.
This understanding of God teaches us how to receive one another, to speak of salvation, to engage in mission and even to praise the God who has come near to make Community possible.
Missional theology is not, for me, simply the latest fad in how to “do church.” It is a way of talking about the very nature of who we are as followers of Christ. It may be that in the future we’ll use different language for one reason or another – I don’t really care about that. The point here is that we understand some very essential components of our life of faith.
When God came near to Abraham (or really Abram, Genesis 12) it was made clear that God had chosen this man and his family to be blessed. This blessing was not just the equivalent of a spiritual lottery. Abraham was being called to serve as God’s instrument of blessing for the whole world – all peoples on earth were to be blessed through him.
When God came near to Moses it was for the deliverance of the oppressed people crying out in Egypt. When the people were given their covenant and called God’s people, their very calendar was set up to serve as a source of hope and deliverance for all people, especially the poor, overlooked and mistreated folks at the margins of society. Check out the description of the required festivals in Deuteronomy 16 – celebration was mandatory and even the poor and strangers were to participate. This meant that the wealthy were to make sure that everyone had something to bring to the table and something to eat when they got there!
When God spoke through the prophets he rejected religion which was based on a transactional adherence to rules, laws and doctrines. We like to scoff at those legalistic Israelites…but there’s no difference between what they were being chastised for and the modern day expectations that people dress properly on Sunday, sing and worship in the prescribed way and attend the proper numbers of services while we walk past the poor, make disparaging comments about the politicians and supporters in the other political party and generally complain about not “getting something out of church today.”
I’m not trying to single anyone out or be hateful, but I do want it to be clear that we have very little room to feel superior to Israel – our sins tend to be quite similar.
Probably the most disheartening sin of Israel is that they forgot the meaning of their calling. They, like the Church, were called to be sent; blessed to be a blessing. Rather than serving as a light to the nations they went about building their own empire…which crumbled around them.
The Incarnation of Jesus is a seminal event in history to be sure. It is not the first time that God has come near and it is not the first time that God was pleased to make his dwelling among us nor will it be the last (compare Leviticus 26:11-12; John 1:1-14 and Revelation 21:3 – same word for dwell, “tabernacle,” in all three).
But it was and is the pinnacle that history points to from the past and future. Jesus made flesh (bringing it very close to home for us) the very nature of this God, which had been modeled to humanity since the beginning. It is at this point that for the first time (that we’re aware of) God not only dwells among his people, God dwells among the people as one of them.
God’s might is not understood in spite of Christ’s emptying and becoming vulnerable (again, not the first time that God has risked pain…read the prophets, especially Hosea). As Karl Barth said, “He is distinguished from all other powers by being able to do what He wills to do.”
God’s power is seen in Jesus’ free decision to set aside the splendor of heaven on behalf of his creation. Love, the concern for the other for the other’s sake, showed itself in power precisely through the choice to descend in weakness.
Our very existence is predicated upon God’s concern for others and thus demands our concern for the Other and others. We cannot have a faith which is truly Christian and claim that it is, “between me and Jesus” or merely about me being able to do what I want to do in the way that fits my personality. Such a statement is pure nonsense in light of a God who exists as community, who regularly extends outside of that Community to invite others into community and who has created us in this image.
Missional life is essential because it is the only life that can be truly human; it is the only life which functions (be it ever so elementary and clumsy) as Christ. The Church is not the Church if it exists merely for itself, to protect its own institution, or even to privately worship God. The Church is only the Church if it serves as the lighthouse to all the world; a banner declaring that God’s redemption is coming, let the oppressed rejoice and the oppressors tremble!
*The references for quotes in this essay are available upon request.