Who is the Prodigal God, What is his Prodigal Mission, and How Can We become His Prodigal People? (3)
Fitch and Holsclaw (F & H) continue exploring the four signposts they have identified which lead us deeper into the life of the Triune God. They first helped to see more clearly the world in which we actually live with its challenges and opportunities – a Post-Christian world. Then they immersed us in the Mission of God in that world and showed how God’s people are called to participate in the divine mission. The next signpost draws the lens more tightly around the central figure of this mission, and indeed, the world itself – Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God. To it we now turn.
A speaker I once heard told a conversation he had with some gang members in downtown London a few years ago. He started to tell them about Jesus and it quickly became clear they really knew nothing about him. At one point, a member of the gang said, “This guy Jesus sounds pretty cool. I wonder, though, why his parents named him with a swear word.” Here in North America we may have a few more bits and pieces about Jesus but we no longer know what to do with them and how they make sense. This is no surprise but it does pose a communicational challenge of the first order.
Folks on the right side of the spectrum F & H laid out in the last chapter tend toward retrenchment, as we saw. In face of this confusion about Jesus their fall back is to shout the truth about his being the world’s divine Savior in ever louder voices. An argument ensues with all parties acclaiming their view of Jesus or whatever Deity or power they hold to and these Christians raising their voices to lift Jesus Christ even higher in the public discussion.
Christians on the other end of the spectrum take a different tack. They see in Jesus the supreme example of a human being living a life open to God and modeling for us a way to live into the kingdom of God. Whether they hold strongly to Jesus’ divinity or not, it is his exemplary humanity they focus on. Neither of these views does justice to what the incarnation of Jesus in and as a human being really means.
The incarnation does not entail a past-centered view, even though it has often been presented that way in traditional North American Christianity. This view is that Jesus came in the past to die and rise to effect salvation, which means the forgiveness of sins, which in turn assures us of life with God in heaven in the hereafter. However, this view seems to leave out our everyday lives in the present!
The logic of this view impels its defenders to defend the past event of Jesus and his work (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection) and the reality of heaven as an apologetic for its truth and significance. This logic also tends to turn this Jesus-of-the-past into a concept which removes us another step from the dynamic relationship with him that alone makes us a missional people. “For us then,” F & H writes “the past-event version of incarnation is not prodigal enough.” (1428-1429)
The pendulum swings, as it usually does, and those on the left end of the spectrum have come more and more to see the human life of Jesus as limning a way for us to live into the kingdom of God in the present.
“Jesus, in his everyday way of living, came to be seen as the model of discipleship, of what it is like to live in the Spirit, of the sacrificial love that is the very center of God’s work in the world. Jesus is the ultimate example of a life lived in the Father’s kingdom, and he shows us how to engage the culture for God’s transformation.” (1441-1444)
Now, taking Jesus’ humanity this seriously is a definite and positive gain for understanding the incarnation. Yet even with the gains this view brings, it still falls short of the prodigality of the incarnation according to F &H.
Both the divine but distant (in time and usually in space too) Savior and the human Messiah figure who mentors us in everyday life miss the radicality of God’s presence in our lives through the incarnate Jesus. “It fails to take hold of the way in which Jesus himself has promised to be present in his authority and reign wherever we go and engage in the kingdom.” (1465) Conceiving Jesus as past Lord whose work for us in complete or the present exemplary human who shows us the way into the kingdom “risks domesticating the incarnation, or denying it all together.” (1469-1470) A divine Savior devoid of meaning for our present life or a human “Savior” who has not defeated the powers of sin, evil, and death is a “devil’s choice” we need not make if we have an adequate understanding of incarnation.
The incarnation of Jesus is a past event whose “pastness” we celebrate and from which we take our bearings for participating in God’s ongoing mission to the world. But the event of Jesus is not anchored back “then and there.” It is not even past. As F & H put it “It is also God’s continuing presence with us. The incarnation of God extends into history, our lives, the here and now. It extends into the present, from the past, and into the future.” (1489-1490)
This language of “extending” the incarnation may trouble some readers eager to protect the uniqueness of what happened in Jesus. But I think it better to leave such matters to the side until we have heard F & H out fully. If this issue still troubles some at that point it might be worth pursuing it. But not now and not here.
Through the Spirit Jesus’ own power and authority are given to his people. Thus, God’s presence with us (“Immanuel”) is mediated through the life and ministry of the crucified and risen Jesus. We do the same kinds of things he did and address similar kinds of issues through the presence of his Spirit with us. F & H remind us that though God’s mission climaxes in Jesus (Praise God!) it does not end with him. However we conceive it, what Jesus did is continued in and through his people in the power of the Holy Spirit (note well, the Triune God).
This extension or continuation of the incarnation is for F&H not a matter of each of us becoming “little Jesuses”. Rather it
“is something profoundly social happening in the incarnation that is more than individual. Christ’s inbreaking authority becomes present in people in their life together as they submit to his reign. As we meet around the Table or reconcile our disagreement together, a new order of creation is bursting forth and breaking in, a new way of being together is beginning, a foretaste of the kingdom itself. Jesus himself as Lord is present among us. This is church. This is mission. God’s coming in the Son sets forth a chain of events— through a people— that looks like a nuclear reaction but can best be called a people revolution that is changing the world.” (1667-1672)
The prodigality of this “people revolution” or “church” carries important and radical implications for us.
“In this new reign, we are sent (“Go!”) into the far country. We go not into a church building but into the whole world to bring his very presence and authority. In essence, we extend the incarnation (his “with-ness”) and bring his kingdom (what already exists and is at work in the world) into visibility before the rest of the world. The world is thereby able to see glimpses of the kingdom. We become witnesses. (1692-1695)
And that ushers us on the fourth signpost of Prodigal Christianity”: witness.
But what is witness? How do we extend the incarnation into the myriads of needs and issues that best our neighborhoods and world?
First, F & H talk address the notion of witness itself. “Witness communicates that we are participants in something big happening in the world. This something must be bigger and greater than us, or else why would such an event require a witness? It will change how we understand the world.” (1852-1853) I think this is crucial. Lacking awareness of the magnitude and drama of what we are caught up in saps the passion and urgency needed to sustain the church in its witness.
For many of us, two models of witness have been dominant in our churches. In the first, the (senior) pastor would address an issue usually through a sermon telling the people the “truth” and how they ought to respond to it. People would agree and stay or disagree and leave. In the second model, a committee is formed to study the issue. All voices are heard and respected. Little is decided and usually nothing is done. Each member is left to respond (or not) according to their own lights. Both of these models leave much to be desired.
The first model privileges “truth” over the act of witness. Bold pronouncements can alienate and forestall future relationships with those we seek to reach. We do not and/or cannot listen to others, discern where God might be at work in their lives, or learn from them. It becomes a disincarnate witness.
With the rise of the emerging church movement a new model, forged in reaction to the first, emerged. Its key word is conversation. Humility, vulnerability, and chastening characterized these conversations. Yet in spite of the undeniable good this more incarnational kind of model put into play, F & H believe it too is not prodigal enough.
Conversation is great, but sometimes clarification is need. Discussion usually needs to lead to discernment if they are to impact people’s lives. Thus, witness must also include “how we live in Jesus so that his kingdom becomes present and visible in and through us in the neighborhoods. More than a pronouncement of the truth or a conversation about the truth, the church is called to embody a witness to the truth.” (2053-2055)
Witness, according Darrell Guder is the umbrella terms that gathers underneath it proclamation, community, and service. It is an entire way of life that both speaks about and lives according to the reality of kingdom in the world.
The Holy Spirit is, of course, the agent of such witness. “It is something we live together in Christ for God’s mission in the world. In the process, our lives give credibility to what we say.” (2113-2114) Part of that credibility, so often lacking today, is that such witness is non-coercive. The love of Jesus, to which we witness, demands it.
F & H, drawing on their own church’s experience, describe well the quality of this witness.
“This, we discovered, is what witnesses do. This is what Christians do. We are present with people, dirty laundry and all, and share everyday life so that others can catch a glimpse of a different reality. We do not need to make anyone or anything a project. Instead we are witness to the hope, hospitality, and healing that God is bringing into the world. Our lives, our friendships, our entire way of life together point to something beyond ourselves: what God is doing to redeem the whole world in Jesus Christ.” (2152-2156)
Again, the authors remind us that witness of this kind is a corporate, social reality rather than an individual one; it also material and practical as well. Sharing resources, extending a helping hand, “giving a fish” as well as “teaching a person to fish,” as well as “working to assure their access to the seas, rivers, lake, and streams,” are all a part of witness.
So far we have learned that it is in the world where belong, that this is the arena of God’s mission, and that God goes there with and through us as we live together in Jesus. By “walking the talk,” F & H conclude, God’s kingdom breaks in . . .The kingdom bleeds from every area of our lives into all parts of the world. This too is witness: the Holy Spirit as empowered extension of the Incarnation.” (2197-2198)