Grace and Mission

missionalAny full accounting of the Christian faith has to include a story of grace, and how it works. Grace is a fancy old word for a gift, and it’s one of the most important words in the vocabulary of faith.

The Grace of Life

Most theologies of grace speak primarily of the grace of salvation, and principally mean how God saves us from our sins (and God’s judgement) through Jesus. While I think we still have some thinking left to do about the meaning of the atonement, an emphasis on God’s saving grace is a good thing! A missional theological lens doesn’t abandon this view of salvation, but broadens it—beginning with the beginning. Grace is not a newly developed attribute of God, although it is particularly demonstrated by Jesus. Rather, grace is present in the whole story of God.

In the beginning, we see God’s grace in the generosity of creation. God creates the conditions and space for life, and then gives life—this is how the story starts, and we do well to keep this gifting of life close as we consider what God is doing in the world. The story of grace offered in Jesus is not a departure from the story of God, it is instead the fruit of God’s commitment to stand by the gift of life given in creation. The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death.The core of grace is God’s refusal to abandon the creation to death. Click To Tweet

It is amazing how little Christian theologies reflect on this gift of life, when so much of God’s story revolves around God’s determination to stand by that gift and preserve it. A fully missional theology of grace begins with the conviction that God’s gift of life is good. This is central to God’s story and ours—we live, and this is grace!

The Grace of God’s Reign

God’s grace doesn’t end when human evil breaks the ordered justice that is conducive to life and flourishing. Rather, God acts to heal our brokenness, beginning with our sin and extending to other forms of brokenness in our world. When a fractured community is reconciled, an anxious heart finds peace, or a body experiences healing, these are experiences of grace. People are freed from oppressive powers and lay down their compulsions by the grace of God, and this too is part of God’s plan to redeem creation.

The missional story of salvation begins not simply with Jesus’s death, but with his life, in which the kingdom of God draws near. When we talk about the “kingdom of God”, we’re talking about how God reasserts God’s will in the earth, reordering it by justice and love, o that life can flourish as it was intended to. God’s reign is marked by justice, peace, and wholeness. The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign.

The arrival of kingdom wholeness is a gift—it is the grace of God’s reign. Click To Tweet

The Grace of Mission

A further piece of grace in the missional story is obvious enough, but is the gift of mission to God’s people, both generally and to individuals. It’s often the case that people who receive God’s grace in the scriptures also receive some sort of commissioning, some invitation (or command) to join God’s mission. Peter (Luke 4) and Paul (Acts 9are the most obvious examples here, but those stories are really more normative than you might think—God extends one grace (forgiveness) with another grace (mission). Often, when I’m reading Paul’s letters, he seems to make no distinction between the two kinds of grace. They just represent the way God relates to Paul.

I want to unpack that idea of the grace of mission in a couple of ways, just for clarity’s sake. Think about the graces of inclusion and contribution:

The Grace of Inclusion

The grace of inclusion is the idea that God seems willing to invite pretty much everybody to participate in the mission. Luke’s gospel delights in this, as the religious elites are amazed to see the likes of Levi, Zacchaeus, and some disrespected women become part of Jesus’s movement in the world. Paul himself perceives this element of grace, saying in effect, “I was the worst, but God saw fit to allow me a place in the mission.”

The Grace of Contribution

In a similar vein, the grace of mission is not just that unexpected people are invited to become missionaries, but that God delights in providing the people what they need to participate. God gives gifts, (graces) to people so that they will be able to contribute to the life of the church and to the kingdom’s work in the world. Not only does God give missionary permission or invitation to people, but God provides the means for their meaningful work in the world. This provision is a powerful aspect of God’s grace that we don’t necessarily catch when we use “gift” to talk about something God gives us to use but shift to “grace” when we’re thinking about some theological change God brings about.

It’s all gift, all grace.

Agents of Grace

With these understandings of God’s grace, it’s important to note that a missional view of grace, humans who receive these forms of grace become agents of grace themselves. They become people who generously extend God’s grace to others in all its forms. They help people flourish and live, acting as agents of life in the world. They practice forgiveness, and stand for wholeness. not only do they participate in God’s mission themselves, but they welcome others into it as well. In living generously, the grace of God that has become wrapped into their story is unleashed on the other people around them, seeping into the cracks of the broken world. Missional Christians become people of Grace, modeling in their own lives what they have received from God.

 

A Missional Bibliography

Missional Bibliography

As Missional Theology matures, it’s producing a growing body of literature. It can be a lot to sort through, so here I’m collecting those resources that I’ve found helpful, with some comments along the way. I’ll start by providing a handful of foundational texts that I think are indispensable, and then point towards some other useful works along the way. I’ll be updating this page over time, so let me know of the ones I’ve missed in the comments!

Foundational Texts

41B0WZFUGgLMissional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America Darrell Guder and Friends, 1998. This is the mothership, people. It’s a foundational text, and if you really want to study the missional church, you have to read it. The good news is it reads pretty well, even after a couple of decades. For me, reading this was like finding the spring that fed the stream I’d been drinking from for years.

 

51A+xI24b+L Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness by Lois Barrett and friends. This is essentially the same gang of writers as Missional Church (Guder 1998), and in this text they try to put a little more flesh on their ideas. It’s based on case studies, and is a quick read—much less dense than Missional Church.

 

 

713WtZZZHKLThe Missional Church in Perspective by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile, 2011. This another piece from one of the original collaborators (van Gelder) that strikes me really as an extension of Missional Church. Since it’s a fairly easy read, I’d think of this as going into the essential toolkit. Part of what this book does is to frame the how the missional conversation has forked and taken different turns since 1998. Since different people use missional language to mean different things, a book that takes high view of the conversation, mapping it out, becomes very useful. This book is also useful for sending you in new directions, expanding your reading list.

61iIyu7Mm5LThe Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Leslie Newbigin (1995). This is a key predecessor to Missional Church, and no missional reading list is complete without it. Newbigin, upon his return to the Western World, helped it to see its own identity as a mission field, and provided theological language for our engagement with our neighbors.

Other Missional Books

Staying is the New Going by Alan Briggs (2015)

Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. David Bosch (1991) One of the significant predecessors to Missional Church, Bosch gives a thorough account of the trajectory that led to the missional movement.

Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw (2013)

The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church by Michael Frost (2011)

The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (2003, 2013) The revised editions has some pretty useful reflections in the introduction. This is a passionate and useful text, even if I have a couple of reservations about the way they ditch the trinitarian emphasis in favor of a heavy Christology.

Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost (2015) is a great little book that would be useful for a small study group. Very readable.

The Continuing Conversion of the Church, by Darrell Guder (2000) This book provides a perspective on what’s happening inside the missional church, and why that formation is key for the mission of God. I love this text’s fundamental premise.

Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, by Darrell Guder (2015) collects essays Guder published on the missional church after the landmark publication in 1998.

A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (2011). I haven’t read this personally, but my friend Greg McKinzie sent me a note suggesting it’s a worthy contribution from the reformed neck of the woods.

Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (The Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS)) by Michael Gorman (2015). Gorman’s expertise is in missional hermeneutics (how we read and use scripture), and I think they’re fantastic.

Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation by Michael J. Gorman (2011). This is an earlier piece on Revelation, and I love it. It’s very readable, but will leave you chewing.

Missional. Monastic. Mainline.: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions by Elaine Heath (2014)

The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch (2009)

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight (2011) provides the sort of biblical backdrop that fuels the missional movement.

The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann (1993). Moltmann fits the description of a theologian whose writing has deeply impacted the missional movement, even if not explicitly missional.

Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition by Alan Roxburgh (2010) There’s been a lot written about missional leadership—Roxburgh is a trustworthy guide.

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh (2011) this is a pretty central text, and is probably one of the better introductory piece out there. It may end up getting moved to the foundational list above.

The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality by Alan Roxburgh (1997). This is a more academic piece than Roxburgh’s other writing, and is sort of a forgotten little book, unfortunately.

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Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren (2009)

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity Clemens Sedmak (2003). This is a jewel of a book with an unfortunately hokey cover. I advise you to defer judgment.

The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit Craig Van Gelder (2007)

A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf (1996) Volf isn’t explicitly a missional theologian, but his work seems to be an important piece of the conversation, in my view. 

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Miroslav Volf (2013)

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright (2006) Like Gorman, Wright is a significant figure in missional hermeneutics. His focus has typically been in Old Testament Studies, and that provides the backdrop for this book, which is a landmark work for the field.

Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (Revised in 2013) is excellent, and the book makes a fantastic case for a missional understanding of how scripture fits into the story of God. If you haven’t cut your teeth on Wright yet, you should, and this is a great place to start.

Missional Web Hubs

Missio Alliance has one of the best missional blogs around the web. Most of the articles here are at a popular level, though often by respected missional leaders.

Missio Dei is an online academic journal with articles about missional theory and practice.

The Journal of Missional Practice has a vision “to be like a table around which theologically informed practitioners gather with others to share the stories of what they are doing and discerning on the ground and in the local.” I’d say they pull it off.

Mission-Shaped Church (2004) is a church of England publication I’ve heard good things about, and I know it’s been influential in the Anglican Fresh Expressions circles.

Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology Series) by Bevans and Schroeder (2004) is a recommendation I recently got via twitter (hat tip to @MuellerBSSabrina), bu I haven’t had the chance to peruse it yet. Let me know if you have.

Missional Podcasts

Theology on Mission is a regular podcast featuring David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. (iTunesOvercast)

Missional Hospitality with Alan Roxburgh is episode 2 of the Fresh Expressions Podcast.

What is Missional Spirituality?

Copy of WHAT IS MISSIONAL THEOLOGY?

As the missional church movement matures and develops, we may well ask not only “What is Missional Theology?”, but what is the form of life taken up by disciples looking for a missional way of following Jesus? In short, “What is missional spirituality?” This article to sketch a thick description of that kind of spirituality to answer that question.

Missional spirituality begins with the commitment of Jesus’s disciples to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. Flowing theologically from an understanding of God’s intent for the world and the nature of God’s own mission, the church owns a way of life of living into that story, and we call the particularities of this way of life our spirituality—that sometimes fluffy word simply refers to the way we nurture and live out our faith. A range of practices and postures flesh out this spirituality, and these fall loosely into a handful of categories.

1. Practices that form the individual and community of disciples in the image of Jesus.

Jesus models the kingdom, as one whose life represents full participation in God’s mission. He is the new human par excellence, who has restored the possibility of the image of God in humanity.

Practices representing this formative element of missional spirituality:

  • The celebration of Communion, which continually draws the church into the selfless way of Jesus, by reenacting his story. It reinforces the church’s anticipation of his coming, and teaches the community of disciples to recognize the image of Jesus in each other.
  • Practices of Hearing the Word form disciples through the testimony of God’s people in the scriptures. The scriptures nourish our capacity to think theologically, and invite us to live in a larger narrative context by seeing ourselves as living within the story of God. The scriptures provide ways for Christians to understand God’s intentions in creation, the consequences of human evil, and the nature of God’s intervention in the world to save us.
  • Baptism inducts the individual into the community of people who proclaim the Lordship and commit to live by his story and way. It provides a defining memory of the new identity we are given as the people of Jesus.
  • Friendship between disciples shapes them as they extend each other grace and practice companionship.
  • Prayer connects disciples (individually and communally) with God. In prayer, disciples reach out to God, and also listen to God’s leading by the holy spirit. By connecting in prayer to God, disciples both express their own hearts, and expose them to God’s heart. In the process, we allow their wills to be conformed to God’s own will.
  • The discipline of fasting helps disciples separate from the tyranny of their own desires or assumptions about needs.
  • Common Worship gatherings, in which disciples pray, sing, and listen to the word together, allow the church to solidify its fellowship as being based in a common identity before God. The habit of Common worship gatherings, provides a consistent reinforcement of the church’s attention to the substance of its faith.
  • The Giving and Receiving of Teaching is a way of thinking about all of the different ways Christians provide instruction to each other, both informally and formally. Within the community of disciples there are many kinds of teaching exchanges ranging from moral and scriptural teaching, theological and historical instruction, to practical guidance for living wisely. We might even consider the production and consumption of various media as falling into this category, allowing for the spread and reception of more specialized, developed ideas. Technologically, we may supplement (but not replace!) more intimate, face-to-face forms of teaching through these time and space shifted forms of media (like books, online courses, podcasts, or this blog!). It’s important, over time, that the church takes care to nourish communities that provide the more localized forms of teaching.
  • The cultivation of virtue through mutual encouragement and guidance. Several of the things listed above fit into this, but it’s worth saying clearly that much of the best formation simply happens as people in some sort of mutual relationship encourage each other and have the opportunity to provide and receive guidance.

2. Practices that help the individual and community and bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God.

All of the formative practices of missional spirituality prepare us for practices which produce the fruits of the kingdom of God—the results of God’s reign in our lives. In other words, the practices described above develop within us the capacity to act in certain ways, but it remains for us to give an account of the kinds of actions that characterize missional spirituality.

It must also be said that the line between these two categories of practices is a thin one, and we can certainly expect some practices to fulfill both the formative and fruit-bearing functions. For example, prayer both prepares a person by shaping their being, but may also exemplify an obedient responsiveness to God, which is also a fruit of the kingdom. On the other hand, Service, which I’m listing below as a fruit-bearing practice, also reinforces the inclination to serve and helps disciples move into solidarity with the people they serve, and thus contributes to their spiritual formation as well.

  • Hospitality means making space for other people, whether that be physical space where they can come and feel comfortable, or social space where they can come and enter into nurturing relationships. Hospitality in missional spirituality stretches beyond the boundaries of having people in our own homes (though this remains a powerful tool of hospitality!), as we take a mentality of hospitality into the community. We become people who create space for others, everywhere we go. As we practice hospitality, the relational nature of humanity is redeemed, and we become less defensive, fearful of each other, and adversarial —this is all fruit of the kingdom of God.
  • Generosity. Opportunities to share what we’ve received with our neighbors allows us to push back the threat of scarcity that plagues our world. It also loosens our own grip on our possessions, and helps us live out of a perspective of abundance and plenty. This contentment, and the generous sharing that fosters it, are both fruits of the kingdom of God.
  • In Service, we offer ourselves to another person, or to a community. It also demonstrates humility, the willingness to defer our own desires to another person. As we serve, we also make fruitful use of the skills and talents we’ve been given. God’s kingdom is made real and concrete as people offer themselves to each other, and in this way imitate Christ.
  • Reconciliation is the practice of repairing fractured relationships, whether between individuals or groups within a community. This is one of the most difficult missional practices, as people are often deeply committed to their factions and the grievances that they have against others. Furthermore, most disciples (and people!) are woefully inexperienced in the art of reconciliation. Nevertheless, reconciliation is a prime fruit of the kingdom, and bears incredible witness to the power of God’s reign in the world.
  • Simplicity and Restraint demonstrate and cultivate a spirit within disciples that is not compelled strictly by pleasure and possession. Disciples hold these things lightly, and are free to live unattached to the things God entrusts to them, while also giving thanks for the experiences of this life. These practices witness against our cultural obsessions over materialism and the escapist pursuit of pleasure. They are a sign that has gracefully delivered Jesus’s disciples from slavery to these things.
  • Confession and Repentance, in a similar way, demonstrate that we are not defined by or bound to our mistakes. Christians need not maintain a pretense of perfection, rather they freely admit their failures, and try to do their best to correct them. We admit when we have taken the wrong road, and depend on God’s help to return to the way of Jesus.
  • Forgiveness is the community’s complement to confession and repentance. We extend grace to each other, knowing that our relationship with God is built on the Lord’s grace to us.
  • The Giving and Hearing of Testimony allows disciples to speak of the Lord’s grace and action through and around them. It also allows the community to be encouraged, and to give God glory for these things!
  • Honoring the Least Disciples bear the fruit of the kingdom whenever we make sure that we honor those among us who are not honored or treated poorly in the rest of society.

3. Attentiveness to the world through theological lenses such as justice and righteousness, peace, or sacred dignity.

Disciples practice something like a holy watchfulness in the world. They take in what’s happening around them and carefully weigh the times by what they have learned of God. They explore the meaning of the cultures in which they live and carry with them the theological values of justice and righteousness, peace (in the sense of wholeness, or shalom), or the sacred dignity of all people. They look for ways to fruitfully engage with their culture and bring about these things in the communities where they live. They seek out what it means to respond to community problems in a way that can point towards the way of Jesus.

Different missional communities and individuals will understand these theological values in different ways, and emphasize some over others. Our attention to scripture and our engagement with the community will lead us into new understandings—I think it might be a mistake to prematurely cement our current understandings and priorities as the complete missional identity of the community. After all, continual growth and movement towards maturity is part of the missional way. However, what is unavoidably missional is that we take those theological values back into the community around us. They deeply affect the way we perceive what is happening in the world, and lead us to act and engage in particular ways that resonate with those values.

4. Responsible Stewardship of Vocations, understood as a broad range of callings given to individuals and communities.

Missional theologies lean towards the exploration of spirituality within a brand range of vocations for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the commitment to a holistic vision of God’s plan for humanity, in which God is concerned with the entirety of human life, (social, economic, political, familial, etc) certainly involves a person’s work. God’s creational intent is for humans to be in the development, ordering, and cultivation of creation—we are more than widgets, but we were created to be productive and to participate in God’s creation work of filling the world with life and goodness. Furthermore, as God works to recreate the world, our life of work is redeemed as well—not made irrelevant.

Second, Missional churches are already focused on being as intentional about what happens outside the walls as inside the sanctuary. Concerns about the work lives of Christians employed in secular environments follow naturally, as faith moves back into the public sphere—although it is expressed in a different way than in the public environments of the Christian majority assumed in Christendom.

This move towards exploring the spirituality of work finds multiple expressions beyond the simple ideas of being a witness to the faith by conversation and being a good example. This begins with the church’s public conversation about work, but distinct spiritual practices follow.

  • Missional communities are learning to practice vocational Discernment, in which the individual shares vocational leanings and receives encouragement or guidance from others. They may receive confirmation from those who have seen gifts and skills that support their vocation, or who perceive spiritual guidance in that direction.
  • As an extension of discernment, missional communities may practice vocational Celebration, in which the community recognizes and commissions people into their callings. Few places do this formally, although it’s easy to imagine a church that celebrates the sorts of work transitions people make and from time to time highlights and celebrates how people are finding their vocation (including, but exclusive to work!) and how that contributes to (or flows from) the wholeness they have in Christ.
  • Disciples pursue excellence and diligence in the workplace, understanding that how they do their work matters. Most work worth doing is worth doing well and excellently, and fulfilling our work roles as well as we can reflects on our own higher master. However, Christians pursue excellence in their work not only because of the testimony of good workmanship (though that deserves a thought as well), but because work itself matters, and diligence is a matter of character.
  • Missional spirituality also points towards the intentional use of skills and resources to contribute to the community. Good work is not only a way of providing income for a family unit, but also provides ways for the individual to contribute to the good of the community. Sometimes the ways this take place may seem obscure and ambiguous—at times disciples may need to look deeper for ways of understanding their work and its role for the community, or may need to investigate other ways of contributing. What am I contributing? Is an unavoidably important question, even if troubling. Missional spirituality takes on this challenge.
  • Missional disciples also pursue their callings with Vigilant Ethics, knowing both that righteousness is a fruit of the kingdom and also a witness for the Lord’s reign.
  • Occasionally, work environments create the occasion for Spiritual Conversation, which is a way for the followers of Jesus to engage their coworkers who may have insight from other ways of life, and also open to hear a perspective informed by the way of Jesus.

Where do I start?

It might be helpful to provide, after such a set of lists, a couple of helpful pointers for where people interested in this sort of life might get started.

  • Engage a community of mission…and if you’re not already part of one, it only takes one or two friends to begin one. So start having the conversations about what this kind of life might loo like. You can’t do it alone, and the community begins with conversation.
  • Try experimenting with different elements described above, and journal your experiences. So take a few weeks and really try to attend to the way you practice hospitality, or your sense of vocation, and write a little bit every day about how the experiment is going.
  • My podcast Spiritual Steps offers bite-sized steps towards developing your spiritual life. I generally work out of a missional perspective, so those >15 min episodes might prove useful to you, and provide concrete next steps.
  • You might want to begin by taking something of a spiritual inventory of your life. Instead of adding a bunch of new practices out of nowhere, begin by reflecting one where you are, then just focus on the next step in front of you. Steady and intentional growth is the way, and being honest about where we currently are is the edge on that.
  • You can always do a lot worse than by simply starting with prayer!

The Fruit of Hope: Mission

mission-2

The first post in this series looked at nurturing hope. Here, I want to think about its fruit.

It’s not an accident that people into the missional church movement are also often rooted in the sort of eschatology emphasized by theologians such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Jurgen Moltmann. These theologians focus on God’s intent to bring about the redemption of creation—the reconciliation of all things to God. The sort of hope that this kind of theology cultivates points towards mission as its natural fruit. Here are four ways that a robust sense of hope moves us towards mission.

1. Hope helps us deal with the brokenness that we experience in ourselves. Hope allows us to see our own conversion as something that has begun but which is not yet completed. Our own discipleship has a trajectory, even if the specific turns and twists along the way remain mysterious to us. In hope, we see ourselves as in the process of being formed, and that takes place for and by God’s missionary work in the world. Thus, mission is no longer something that we only see as being given to the elite super-spiritual, but is something for all of us. It is not for those who have already arrived, but is a part of the journey towards God’s future, the source of our hope.

2. It allows us to engage in broken systems. As hope grows within us, we we have new energy to struggle against the dark powers of the world, knowing that God will indeed defeat them in the end…their ability to crush and grind people is destined to fall, and when they are defeated, the systems they use to break people will crumble to. That knowledge allows us to actively subvert those systems through story and action, even while facing the frustration that comes from facing their current powers. I know this particular point sounds super nerdy and theoretical, but there’s one last one that we meet every day:

3. Hope sustains our ability to love people. People are tough to love sometimes, and there are moments when our frustrations with their behavior can overwhelm our loving desires for their well-being. That’s just speaking about the people we already have affection for—we still have to deal with the surely strangers who rub us wrong from the beginning! Hope can help us deal with those frustrations. It provides us the resources to be able to see people for what they can be, rather than only as they already are. Realizing that everyone we meet is on a journey frees us to think about how our relationship with them, even the smallest interactions, might move them along the way towards wholeness. I think this is part of Jesus’s own way of dealing with people, an imitating it is a step on the path of discipleship.

4. Hope broadens our vision. It’s perhaps most obvious how this happens temporally, as we expand our view from the present moment towards a long view. However, hope properly conceived also contains within it a vision of how God reconciles all of creation, and so we find it broadening our field of vision spatially and relationally as well. We begin to see how God’s mission, and perhaps to some extent our place in it, relates to all humanity and the wholeness of God’s world. Hopeful people see beyond themselves.

Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

Over
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11

We humans invest. We invest our time, energy, and money in projects, people, and plans for profit. We’re looking to get all kinds of things back from those investments, but most of us end up making a mix of good and bad investments along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re going to turn out.

Lots of people invested in Jesus while he was on earth. For some of them, it was the investment of time in trying to go hear him, or just see him pass by—Zaccheus started out like that, even though he ended up much more heavily invested by the time the story was over. Some were invested in things Jesus was opposing—the religious and political elites of Jerusalem were heavily invested in the temple, and no doubt felt that investment was threatened by the way Jesus talked about the temple and acted when he came to visit it. Others were invested in different ways: Peter talked about having left everything behind to follow Jesus, and one time Jesus told him he was going to end up with a pretty good return on that investment.

But I don’t know if anybody was more invested in Jesus than John the Baptist. It seems like John could have had pretty good life following the priestly calling that he was in line for. But instead he spent most of his life in the wilderness—Luke tells us that he was living there even before he started preaching (1:80), and if anything the Bible says about John is to be believed, it was anything but a plush, cushy lifestyle. Jesus says as much here in Matthew 11—John lived the prophet’s lifestyle in the desert, far from the fine robes people would have found if they had gone looking in the palaces. He was out in the wilderness, living a life of denial, decked out in rough looking clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, and all of it was investment in the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11”