Incarnational Mission: Thoughts on Urbana Days 1&2

Love does not reach from afar. It demands incarnation.

– Ruth Padilla

Jesus specializes in surprising people once they truly seek him.

– Ramez Atallah

Much of the first two days of Urbana has been spent thinking and talking about the incarnation of Christ and its implication for Christian mission. We’ve focused our times in Scripture (both through the expository teaching of Ramez Atallah and manuscript study) in John 1. Here are some thoughts I’ve had from today:

It seems to me that there’s a tension between being incarnational ourselves as missional Christians and allowing Jesus to be incarnational, and that tension should be there. I think this is what Ramez was talking about when he referred to the incarnation as ‘means, message, and model.’ On the one hand, we are called to be incarnational. As Greg Jao interviewed OMF’s new director Patrick Fung, he mentioned the examples of missionaries like Hudson Taylor dressing as the people dressed, speaking their language, and seeking to live in solidarity with the people. Likewise, the quote above from Ruth Padilla points out that Christian love cannot be expressed from a distance. Christian love must go beyond sending money to other side of the world with no personal connection. It must go beyond short term mission vacations. Love must be expressed through long-term relationships marked by submission and solidarity.

At the same time, there are limits to how incarnational a Chrisitan can be. If I were to be a missionary to China, I as a white male can only be so incarnational. I could learn and speak Chinese, eat Chinese food, understand Chinese history and culture, and so on. But at the end of the day, I’ll still be a White male and take with me my own cultural heritage and ethnic identity. Unlike the Son of God, who became a Jewish male, I can’t become a Chinese male or female. This is, I think, where the other end of the tension comes into play.

The incarnation of Christ does not only provides a model for mission, but also implies a goal for mission. The incarnation means that it is ultimately not the missionary whom the unbeliever needs to encounter in their culture, but rather Christ. We saw this in the second half of John 1. After Andrew becomes convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t merely try to convince Peter of the same, but instead invites Peter to come and see Jesus for himself (John 1:42). The quote above from Ramez, and the stories he told, served as a good reminder that Jesus still desires to encounter people today and reveal himself to them. Richard Allen Farmer also touched on this in his seminar are missional worship. Inviting our friends to worship is a form of evangelism; we’re inviting them to come and encounter Jesus for themselves.

There’s a sense in which taking the incarnation seriously means getting out of the way. Just as his first followers did, Christ calls us simply to invite those we know to “come and see” for themselves.

My First Christmas Eve Sermon: Peace Begins With Christ

Merry Second Day of Christmas! Two nights ago, I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon. The title is Peace Begins With Christ. The Texts are Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20. The text is below, though when I preached it I added a paragraph or two spontaneously, and those aren’t included here. Soon, though, the audio recording will be posted on the audio page of our church website –

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

It was Christmas Eve in 1914. World War 1 had begun that year when Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That Christmas Eve, British troops and German troops were stationed on opposing sides along the Western Front. Between the two sides was a “no man’s land” that was littered with dead bodies from both sides. The Pope, Benedict XV, had been pleading with national leaders for a truce, at least for Christmas. The British commanders were unwilling to stop the war, though. But that Christmas Eve along the Western Front something happened.

The exact order of things are different depending on which historian you hear from and which diaries and letters those historians read. But things went something like this. The German troops began to celebrate Christmas Eve by decorating the trees around them with candles. The British saw the Germans’ Christmas trees, and the British began to sing Christmas carols. The Germans heard, and began singing carols back. Eventually each side sang Silent Night to the other. And the Christmas Eve celebrations led to a cease-fire.

The two sides began to shout Christmas greetings to one another, and eventually the cease-fire escalated to an all-out truce between the two sides. Some of the German troops traveled half-way into the “no-man’s-land” between the two sides, and some of the British troops went out to meet them, and the groups exchanged Christmas gifts with one another of military insignia, chocolates, cigarettes, and whatever else they had on them. The truce continued into Christmas day.  Groups of British soldiers met with groups of German soldiers for games of soccer. German soldiers helped British troops recover and bury their fallen comrades, and British troops did the same for the Germans. Along some parts of the Western Front, the “Great Christmas Truce of 1914” (as it’s now known) lasted past New Years Day.

There’s something about Christmas that increases our desire for peace. The carols we sing, the candlelight…. the ambiance invokes a longing for peace. Christmas songs on the radio express this longing for peace. Even beyond the traditional Christmas carols that make it on the radio, you can also hear John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing “War is Over if you want it.” You can hear Bing Crosby singing a duet version of Little Drummer Boy with David Bowie, in which David sings “Peace on earth, can it be.” Even the completely banal song “Here Comes Santa Claus” includes the lines “Peace on earth will come to all, If we just follow the light, So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” (What Santa Claus coming down ‘Santa Claus Lane’ and giving toys to children has to do w/ peace on earth I’m not entirely certain…)

This desire for peace goes back to the first Christmas. We just read the story of the angels coming to the shepherds. The angels conclude their announcement to the shepherds by singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

And the longing for peace goes back to the prophecy we just read from Isaiah. The Messiah will be called, among other titles, “Prince of Peace.” And, “of the increase of his government and of his peace there will be no end.”

At the time when Isaiah first gave this prophecy, there was a longing for peace among the Jews. The condition that Isaiah uses at the beginning of this passage was an apt description – “People walking in darkness”; “People dwelling in the shadow of death.” (The phrase of “shadow of death” – it’s the same that appears in Psalm 23 – is a phrase that in Hebrew means “deep darkness.” It’s the kind of darkness that’s so pitch black you can’t even see your hand in front of you. You can’t see where you are, and you don’t know which direction to take your next step.)

That’s the situation Judah was in, they didn’t know what to do next. They were surrounded by stronger nations, the strongest of them was Assyria. So, they decided it was in their best interest to work a treaty w/ Assyria, so they formed a covenant with the Assyrians. The problem was that the Assyrians demanded that the covenant include the Jews accepting the idols that Assyrians worshipped. So the Jews were left with a choice, relative safety through a political allegiance, or faithfulness to YHWH.

The situation led them into captivity and oppression. The situation left them asking questions like, “Is our God truly Sovereign over history if the godless nations are stronger than God’s nation? What is the role of God’s people in the world? Does divine judgment mean divine rejection? What does it mean to trust God? Are the Assyrian idols stronger than God and therefore superior to him?”

We know this darkness. We know this longing for peace. We’re still in a world plagued by war that leads to a cynicism that peace could ever exist. Yesterday, I was sitting in Te Cafe writing this sermon, and WYEP was on, and the DJ played the John Lennon song I just mentioned. After the song, the DJ said, “That was John Lennon and Yoko Ono with ‘War is Over’… or… at least we wish.”

In our personal lives we experience a sense of darkness and uncertainty. In my own life this past year, I’ve been coming to terms with my singleness, and not knowing where a r/ship will come from or if it will come. Others in our community are preparing for marriage, and (if they’re honest) have no idea what to expect. Others are preparing to become parents for the first time. Others are facing career decisions. Some of us may be facing financial hardship. All of these things can lead us to a sense of darkness and uncertainty that leaves us longing for a sense of personal peace.

And into this darkness, a light shines. Into this context of confusion and longing for peace, God shows up. Isaiah says that God has given the people joy. And the source of joy is peace. Isaiah describes yokes being destroyed. The Assyrians had a cruel practice of placing heavy yokes on their vassals and captives for no other purpose than to humiliate them. Isaiah says that the Messiah brings an end to such oppression. He describes an end of war, as soldiers burn and destroy even their boots and battle garments, let alone their weapons. That’s how complete this peace is. It’s not merely a “cease-fire” or a stop to violence, it’s the military essentially saying, “Well, that’s it” and destroying their uniforms.

It’s this end of oppression and beginning of peace that’s the heart of the Christian gospel. Christ redeems us from that which burdens us; whether it be personal sin or emptiness or social injustices.  Christ longs for us to experience the grace of forgiveness and redemption.

Chris and I meet weekly to pray together and to intentionally share with one another what God is doing in our lives. In those times together, there have been times when each of us has confessed sins to the other. And what I appreciate about confessing to Chris (and what I try to do when he confesses to me) is that the first words out of his mouth are almost always, “You’re forgiven.” That’s an experience of grace and of freedom from any guilt I feel, and I wouldn’t have that experience if I didn’t confess.

This is why in every one of our worship services here at Upper Room we take time for confession of our sin. When we come into God’s presence in worship, God longs for our encounter w/ Him to be an experience of grace, and to open ourselves up to the possibility of grace, we have to make our sin and guilt known.

And these personal experiences of grace are what will lead to the type of peace described in this passage from Isaiah. Personal experiences of redemption lead to justice. Imagine what would happen if Joseph Kony of the LRA – the group that’s kidnapping children in central Africa and turning them into mercenaries – imagine if Joseph Kony encountered Jesus and was driven to confession that led to an experience of grace. Imagine the peace that could come. (This doesn’t mean that knowing Jesus immediately solves all of our problems. Remember that the Germans and Brits at war in World War 1 were both predominantly Christian nations. But, the great truce of 1914 probably also would not have been possible if one or both sides was not Christian…)

This is the heart of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, gives us peace through the forgiveness of our sins and peace from oppression.

Then, in this passage, and in the story of Christmas, there is this great paradox. This passage says that God is among his people, that his people are going to rejoice at his coming because he’s going to bring peace and salvation from oppression, it describes the coming of a great king who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That his government/dominion will have no end to it’s increasing. And what’s at the center of this:

A Child is born. In something has vulnerable and helpless as a baby, Isaiah sees the guarantee of God’s sovereignty and God’s might.

This is a strange king. First off it says that the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. That’s uncommon. Usually if a government is increasing it means that there is no peace. In our world, “peace” usually means that no governments are increasing. Usually, if your saving people from oppression, your exercising violence on the oppressor.

God, though, is going to end oppression, increase his dominion and bring peace, by coming into the world as a baby.

And this, is the great lesson we learn from Christ. This is the light we’re given in the darkness – the darkness of our own personal uncertainties and the darkness we experience as a people longing for peace in a world of violence. The light for our path that God gives us in our darkness is the way of humbling ourselves and giving ourselves away.

There’s no greater example of someone giving themself away than the Son of God leaving his throne and coming as a baby, and eventually dying a criminal’s death.

Yet this is the way that leads to peace. Christ coming as a baby brought a stop to gunfire in 1914. The way to peace for us is giving ourselves away in humbleness.


Augustine, Genesis and Feeding the Hungry

A few weeks ago, I finished “rereading” St. Augustine’s The Confessions. I put “rereading” in quotations because it was really only the first 3/4 or so that I had read before. It was my third time reading the first portion, which I like to call “the ultimate diary.” In the final quarter or so of The Confessions which was new to me, Augustine meditates on the opening of Genesis.

I found it somewhat hard to understand Augustine for this final portion, mainly because his method of interpreting Scripture (allegory) is so different from how I’ve interpreted. I’m still not certain how Augustine gets from God creating the ‘vault of heaven’ (i.e. sky) to the authority of Scripture. And God creating the sea creatures and birds being a lesson on the sacraments is still not something I see intuitively in Genesis 1. Nevertheless, one piece of Augustine’s interpretation really jumped out at me.

In the midst of meditating on God assigning the fruit of the earth as food for living creatures, Augustine concludes that the fruit of  the earth allegorically represents acts of mercy that come from the “fertile soil” of a persons faithfulness. Augustine then thinks of the acts of mercy Christians in Macedonia showed to the apostle Paul, and the lack of mercy other Christians showed Paul on the day of his trial, according to 2 Tim 4:16. Augustine says that these latter Christians owed the fruit of mercy to Paul simply on the grounds that Paul was a living creature, and that it was God’s will for every living creature to eat the fruit of the earth.

Even if we don’t follow the allegorical jump that Augustine makes in interpreting the creation accounts of Genesis, his interpretation still shows an important ethical imperative implicit in Genesis 1 that we often miss. God commands the first humans and every living creature to eat from the trees of the garden. God desires people to eat. Hunger is not a part of  God’s original created order.

I’ve often heard people criticize conservative evangelicals who defend creationionism but then fail to take seriously, and at times even argue against, the call to environmental stewardship that should logically follow. It’s true that affirming that God is the creator of the earth should lead Christians to care for the environment. However, I don’t recall anyone pointing out that a faithful reading of Genesis 1 leads us to feed the hungry. The implication: tolerating hunger in our world is not only a failure to follow the teaching of Jesus and the example of the early church, but it is also a denial that God is creator.

**As we approach Christmas, a time when when we celebrate God entering his creation in the incarnation of the Son (and a time when most of us eat far more than we need to), consider taking steps to fight hunger in our world. World Vision has a great gift catalog that enables you to buy farm animals for villages in the developing world (as well as other means of meeting basic needs). If you’re in Pittsburgh (or if you just like Pittsburgh!) and are looking for a more local opportunity, East End Cooperative Ministry gives the opportunity to purchase meals for the elderly, homeless, and vulnerable. **

An Optimistic Skepticism: My Take On the Manhattan Declaration

In late September, a group of Christian leaders from the Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the Church gathered in Manhattan and drafted a document now called the Manhattan Declaration. The document was released a couple weeks ago on November 20, signed by a number of Christian leaders representing all three of the branches of the Church. The Declaration is a call to Christians and non-Christians to join the signers in affirming and defending three “fundamental truths.”

1. the sanctity of human life.

2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.

3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Since it’s release in November, the Declaration’s website has invited other Christians to sign the declaration. As of my writing this, the document has been signed by more than 208,000 Christians. I’m not one of them…. yet.

When I read the Manhattan Declaration, there was much that I found commendable, but I also thought that too much went unsaid, and I remain skeptical of its effectiveness.

First, I appreciate the emphasis on unity among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox voices. The signers from all three branches claim a common heritage. The Declaration begins:

Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering.

The Declaration then goes on to give concrete examples of this common tradition. It recalls Christians in the Roman Empire rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps and remaining in cities to tend to the sick and dying rather than fleeing, like many did. It celebrates the role monasteries played in preserving literature and art, the role of Christians like John Wesley and William Wilberforce in ending the slave trade in England, and the Christian women who headed up the suffrage movement in America. It even celebrates the Christians who participated in the Civil Rights marches of 50s and 60s (something many evangelicals are less-quick to stand in solidarity with). I think this is easily the best part of the Manhattan Declaration, as it highlights some of the greatest examples of faithfulness and commitment to justice in the Church’s history.

The Manhattan Declaration also very evidently seeks to be honest, thorough, and compassionate. Even as the document celebrates faithful Christians through the ages, it also acknowledges “the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages.” When speaking of issues of life, the Declaration doesn’t only address abortion and euthanasia, but also says that genocide, human trafficking, exploitation of laborers, and innocent victims of war are all symptoms of the sam problem. When speaking of homosexuality, the Declaration says,

“We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter.” (emphasis my own)

In spite of its strong points, I’m still skeptical for a number of reasons.

First, when speaking of marriage, the Manhattan Declaration falls short of fully addressing the problem. The document laments the erosion of the dignity of marriage, evidenced by increasing divorce rates, increasing amounts of sexual co-habitation outside of marriage, and an increasing inability to consistently define marriage. It also confesses the Church’s failure to uphold the dignity of marriage within the Christian community. This is only half of the problem, though. Our culture, and even more so the Church, has lost a healthy view of singleness. The reason so many co-habiate or are sexually active before marriage is not only because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of marriage, but also because we’ve failed to uphold the dignity of singleness. The word “single” or “singleness” isn’t once mentioned in the Manhattan Declaration.

The main source of my skepticism, though, is in the expectations of those who have drafted and signed the declaration. The declaration does a fine job of articulating the three ‘fundamental truths’ and the threats that are challenging them today. It’s less strong in articulating concrete next steps that we’ll take as Christians.

In his book The New Christians, Tony Jones notes that a critique of the liberal church (those Christians on the opposite side of the theological spectrum from the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration) is that they’ve gone from being “revolutionaries” to being “resolutionaries.” In other words, the liberal Christians who fought for social justice at the turn of the 20th century by the century’s end had gained the reputation of addressing justice issues by (un)simply passing resolutions at denominational meetings instead of getting their hands dirty. It seems that the conservative side of the spectrum has gone in the same direction. Paul Louis Metzger has noted this trend in his book Consuming Jesus, as has Tony Campolo in his book Can Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback?.

I hope  that the Christians signing the Manhattan Declaration will take seriously the heritage the Declaration claims for the Church of Christians through the ages tending the sick, serving the poor, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed and outcast. I pray that they’ll take seriously the problems and threats to justice that the declaration identifies, and that their response will go beyond merely signing a document. The Manhattan Declaration will only bear good fruit if it’s followed by concrete actions. May we be found faithful.