I took a great course at Fuller Seminary that explored the significance of the cross in the New Testament. In one of the final lectures for the course, our professor summed up how she has come to understand the death of Jesus: “The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”
If there is one element of “the missional church” or “missional theology” as I understand it that at once compels and terrifies me, it is the invitation to live an incarnational life. Philippians two tells me that my “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” and then it describes the most terrifying emptying of all power, privilege and self-preservation imaginable. An emptying that leads to death, and not just any kind of death but one so humiliating and horrific that it would not have been discussed in polite company.
I think if there were one thing I would want us to remember today as we consider all things missional, it would be that as we talk about incarnational living and incarnational ministries and being incarnational wherever we live, we are talking about a way of life that leads to the cross. It did for Jesus, and if I read Philippians correctly, it should for us as well.
My church here in Los Angeles began with the calling of four people who moved to the end of the street where we now live seeking an answer to this question: “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?” And when I think of the stories that have filled sixteen years of following Jesus here, it is remarkable to see how very consistently our community has been called to die. And not in the “Oh, there will be some suffering from time to time” kind of way but in the day to day, hour by hour choosing of other over self.
There is a fondness in missional circles for speaking of how Jesus came and dwelt among us and how we too are called to “come and dwell”; to incarnate in our communities; to “move into the neighborhood” so to speak. Coming from a church context where all members live within two miles of one another and most within walking distance, I can testify to the ways that committing to dwell in a place powerfully impacts witness, community transformation, and discipleship.
The commitment to making one’s family of faith something that does not involve a commute is radical and offensive to many, yet it is truly the thing we appreciate most about our church. It is also the thing that, in so many ways, continues to press for us the death of self-love. When your parish is blocks and streets and not a given social or ethnic or age demographic, the mission field surely holds a hefty does of the people you would not readily choose to invite to your table. As my denomination’s president once so aptly put in response to a well-known church-growth expert saying that pastors should build their congregations out of people who they would most enjoy spending a vacation with or playing some leisure sport: “Who wants to play tennis with Lazarus?”
I think too of my church in Portland where a black pastor had every reason to plant a black church in (at the time) a mostly black part of town. But he kept bumping into white folks who lived in the stately homes the next community over, and God nudged this minister toward recognizing a call to be their pastor as well. Everyone encouraged him against planting a multi-cultural church: it will be slow to grow; the white people will try to take over; there will be too many conflicts. But Pastor Henry was faithful to God’s invitation to embrace a community over a demographic and so our church was born. And that was a choice that resulted in all manner of struggle and sacrifice that he could have politely declined and been affirmed for his “church-planting wisdom.” But he chose to suit up and hit some balls with Lazarus instead.
The consequence of the incarnation is the crucifixion.
A few months ago, my three-year old daughter was painting and as I walked by her easel I exclaimed happily: “Mercy, you painted a cross!” She stepped back from her paper in horror, and looked at me with confusion and even fear. For her, the cross is something terrifying; gruesome. And here I was praising her like she had painted a pretty rainbow or a happy butterfly. Mercy understands the scandal of Jesus’ death, and I hope that those of us seeking to imitate an incarnate God really understand that that means following a crucified One.
Listed below are the forty-nine other bloggers participating in today’s global synchroblog answering the question: “What is Missional?”
Cobus Van Wyngaard