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.