The Threat of God Incarnate

Posted: December 17, 2011 by J in Mission, Theology

We said in an earlier post that an extreme incarnation – where God in Jesus took on fallen flesh like ours – would be a terrible threat to our comfortable middle class existence.

Why so?

It’s about closeness. We asked, how close has God come? If he has come that close, to become truly one of us, then he’s come all the way. The greatest difference in the universe – the difference between Creator and creation – has been bridged or unified. At the heart of God’s mission plan to reclaim his world, is solidarity. Fellowship. Coming near. Entering in to our experience, in all its sin and misery.

If that’s the mission plan, what does that mean for us evangelical Christians? It means radically redefining mission faithfulness. It means that if we think we can take part in God’s mission to his world, then coming near is going to be at the heart of our activity. Our faithfulness in mission can be measured by this yardstick: did we get close to the people we were hoping to reach for Christ? Did we enter into fellowship with them? Did we share in their experience of life, in all its messiness, moral ambiguity, and downright degradation? Did we share their tears and joys, their worries and hopes and – everything? Did we get close enough to understand how to serve them and show true friendship?

If God in Jesus really became one of Adam’s fallen race, then this is where mission faithfulness is at: are we willing, like God in Jesus, to touch the unclean ones?

Our middle class existence relies on walls of protection which we build up against the outside world. Our neighbours? – our church buildings have walls and no windows. We all go in and boldly declare Christ where no one can bother us or be bothered by the gospel.

Our money? We protect it in bullet-proof banks, so that we can spend it all (or almost all) on ourselves. That’s the middle-class way. After all, our affluence is what sets us apart from them. It’s the mark of a decent life.

The poor and working classes? –  we make sure we live in different suburbs where we don’t meet them. Our children go to schools in nice areas where they won’t meet them. If the schools aren’t effective barriers, we go private.

People whose lives are ‘sinful’ or broken? – we have all sorts of ways of distancing ourselves from them. We’re so good at it we don’t even notice we’re doing it (over-busyness is one classic technique). But the result is unmistakable: by and large our church members don’t form close friendships with ‘sinful’ people.

My time at bible college gave me a taste of this. We spent four years in a suburb full of such people: troubled, needy, sinful. But it was as though they didn’t exist. We were a little island of Christian academia, and who knows what might have been out there in those murky waters? We were certainly never encouraged to find out. For four years our next batch of leaders learnt the art of insulation.

Being so well insulated from the sinners around us, we Christians have developed a style of evangelism which is about getting people to listen to presentations. We seem to imagine that if we can achieve that, if we can have a conversation about Jesus, or bring them to a bible talk, or whatever, then we’ve been faithful in mission. As if God had just lobbed a letter down from heaven, rather than coming to walk amongst us.

But if we’re taking part in the mission of God incarnate, then of course the cost is going to be much higher than that. Mission is going to require us to get involved with people, to sweat and suffer and maybe even bleed with them, to get the taste of the degradation of their lives – i.e. to learn to really love them. Costly love – that’s step one when you’re on mission with Jesus.

So that’s the threat of the incarnation. Now the question is, how many of our middle-class protective barriers will have to come down before we can begin to be faithful to Jesus in mission? How much will it cost us? And will any of us be willing to pay the price?

  1. Mike Wells says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    this is an amazingly good post. I think the third from last paragraph is key.

    “As if God had just lobbed a letter down from heaven, rather than coming to walk among us”

    I remember a chapel at college where Jesus was mentioned twice in the liturgy and the bible (as God’s Word) was mentioned more than 25 times.

    Generally evangelicals rejoice more in the Bible than Jesus.
    We eat the menu.

    I love your diagnostic questions

    “did we get close to the people we were hoping to reach for Christ? Did we enter into fellowship with them? Did we share in their experience of life, in all its messiness, moral ambiguity, and downright degradation? Did we share their tears and joys, their worries and hopes and – everything? Did we get close enough to understand how to serve them and show true friendship?”

    Thankyou, very helpful.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Well, these are just the things I’ve been wrestling with all year here in Canterbury, because we’re, you know, doing mission and so on. I get the feeling mishoes OS get to have a bit of a feeling for these issues, but somehow at home we don’t. So perhaps being consciously missionaries this year has challenged us to think about Jesus in new ways, ask new (for us) questions about him.

    Thanks for your kind comments. I like the ‘eat the menu’ illustration. That hits it on the head I reckon. If the food is a bit spicey, I guess the menu seems easier to digest?

    Have a gracious and joyful Christmas brother!

  3. Jonathan,

    I am loving your exegetical work and I wholeheartedly agree with your views on how the incarnation must shape entire lives of outreach of the love of God.

    I would, however, ask you to be careful with the 1st person plural pronoun. Your interpretation of the theological college experience, for example, appears to have been radically different from mine. I was frequently pleasantly surprised by how many of my fellow students were prepared to be radical in how they shared the love of Jesus with the world. Issues and ideas were shared in chaplaincy groups and trialed on missions and in week-to-week ministry. My lecturers were always encouraging about my own ministry in an inner-city church and it was expressed to me often how important this type of ministry was. It was going on all the time, but it was (rightly) never blasted from the rooftops. I cannot be sure that my experience was the same as others, but I definitely did not spend four years learning “the art of insulation”. If anything, the college experience strengthened convictions about love for the Other that I already embraced going in but did not have sufficient language to express at the beginning. It is right for any of us to critique how the college experience prepares us (or not) for life outside of ministry. However, on this point, you do not speak for us as a group.

    A thought:

    Bible College is to Discipleship as The Denomination is to The Church.

    Keep the Faith,


    • Jonathan says:

      Luke, thanks for your comment. Great to be affirmed, and also challenged! Keep it up.

      It’s lovely to hear you standing up for the college! What a beautiful thing to be able to say ‘the college experience strengthened convictions about love for the other’.

      I was not intending the article to be focussed on critiquing college, it was just an example. So I’ll try to give a brief response.

      I can’t see anything in your experience as you’ve described it that conflicts with the thrust of my post, or my comment about college. In fact my own experience wasn’t that different from yours. Perhaps you heard me saying something broader than I intended. I didn’t mean to say that college was uninterested in mission: not at all! I was meaning to speak about how we evangelicals are trapped in middle-class habits of insulating ourselves from people outside our own class/subculture. My example was the way our college had no vision for reaching out to the (very different) people in its own suburb. So briefly:

      students committed to sharing Jesus’ love with others YES
      college interested in mission YES
      encouragement from college to love the other YES
      any interest in the people on our doorstep NO

      The only exceptions I saw to this were Christian Andersen and his Neighbour Day team, who specifically said ‘Let’s show hospitality to local people and get to know them.’ And also the group that got involved in Newtown Mission drop-in minsitry – again headed up by Christian, if my memory serves me well! But I never heard that the college was promoting this connection.

      By an interesting coincidence Christian is now working with us here in Canterbury. Lucky us!

      Feel free to come back at me, Luke. But that’s all I want to say about college at this point. It’s not nice to criticise, but the best people to do it are us, the college’s friends. I often thank God for the blessings I received during my time at college!

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