I am convinced that as Christians we’re not about programs. We’re not about bigger or better blessings. We’re about responding to people who call for help because their world is falling apart. These individuals aren’t looking to be converted – – they’re looking for help! Being their help – – by being the presence of Christ in their lives – – is the only thing we’re about. Everything else we do is secondary and can even detour us from carrying out the true purpose of the church.
In examining Jesus’ life we have seen that he was a complete incarnation of God’s wisdom and compassion. In conducting his life the Master exhibited these traits consistently in thought, word and deed. These twin foundations of Christian spirituality, wisdom and compassion, are not ends in and of themselves. Instead, wisdom and compassion are the means leading to another end: sacrificial service.
Even the most cursory examination of Jesus’ life, from his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, right on through his washing of his disciples’ fetid feet and his death on the cross, we see clearly the consistent theme of sacrifice. Indeed, the Master’s life was one continual incarnation of his teaching that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground” and his words to the rich young wanna-be, “ go and sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor.”
Yet this kind of sacrifice does not come natural to us. At least I know it doesn’t come natural to me. I have within me a fibrous root of self-centeredness that, without divine assistance, will rule my life and in the long run, bring me to ruin. Scripture teaches that we all have this selfish core and left unchecked by the Holy Spirit, can infiltrate and poison all aspects of our being. Tyler Edwards, in his excellent book entitled Zombie Church, describes how this tendency toward self-cherishing can even get its tentacles into our prayer lives:
It sometimes seems like we want God to be a genie in a bottle. Sometimes we pray asking God to do everything for us and then expect it will just magically happen. We pray for patience and want to wake up a more patient person. We pray for wisdom and expect that God will just download it into our heads. We just want to put it on the Almighty Santa list and wake up with it under the tree. Then when God puts us in a situation where we can learn the very things we asked Him for, we get upset. We don’t want to have to work at it; we just want God to make it happen. I know I’ve tried to use Him like this………………..I have tried to make my faith a spiritual investment where I get as much out of it as I can while putting in as little as possible. Ever done that? This attitude degrades the church. Oftentimes we show up looking for what we get, not what we have to give.
“Ever done that?” I know when Tyler Edwards asked that question in the quotation above, it hit me right between the eyes. Yes, I have done that, many times over. Thank God I am less prone to do that than I once was. Increasingly, I have come to see the Christian walk of faith, contrary to what many of the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers will tell you, is more about what I can give than what I can get. The fact is, if you really deep down get what the gospel is all about, you fully understand that you can never give enough to equal what you have already been given by God. When I truly and prayerfully reflect on what Christ’s mission to this world did for me, I am humbled beyond description, filled with not just thankfulness, but more than that, I am imbued with a motivational gratitude that creates in me a desire to be of service to the divine source that has been so gracious to me. Consider:
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3 NLT)
By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. (2 Peter 1: 3-4 NLT)
Just prayerfully reflect for a time on what has been said in these scriptures. Paul tells us in Ephesians that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In the “heavenly realms” does not mean they await us after this life, but instead, means that these blessings are already ours. All we have to do is be open and receptive in order to move these blessings down from the spiritual realms. Once we grasp this, once we fully understand that God has already provided everything we could possibly need, we take possession of these blessings by “reckoning” that it is so. (See Romans 6:11 ).
Even more astounding, however, it that in addition to all these promises and blessings that are ours through God’s gracious provision and Christ’s completed mission, we are also able to “partake of the divine nature.” We share the very nature of Christ and from a personal perspective, when I truly grasp this incredible truth, I am rendered speechless.
In an often overlooked passage of scripture, we get a glimpse of how this is possible. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:10 that Christ ascended “higher than the highest heavens so that he may fill all things with himself.” Just chew on that one for awhile. With Christ’s ascension into these realms, the entire universe underwent a complete change. Since his ascension, everything that exists has within it the fullness of Christ. Granted, for some aspects of existence, that fullness remains latent, but if scripture is to be trusted, it is there nonetheless and only needs to be awakened. These are metaphysical mysteries too great for me to get my understanding around completely, but even taken on faith, they stagger the mind.
As followers of Jesus we must understand a cardinal truth when it comes to these spiritual blessings. We are not to squander them. Instead, we are to do everything we can to appropriate these blessings, especially spiritual gifts. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, we develop these gifting and, in the process, become closer to the optimal version of who and what we are. In essence, we become what the Master intended and what scripture describes when it talks about being “in Christ.”
My point in discussing these spiritual blessings and our spiritual gifts, along with the process of becoming the kind and caliber of beings God intended, is that we engage and develop our blessings and gifts in order to bless others through sacrificial service. Just as Christ was wholly obedient to the Father through his service to others, so we are obedient to the Master by our service to those in need. In this way we become the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus in our hurting, needful world.
In essence, we can say that God blesses us so we can be a blessing to others. In doing so, we emulate Christ in carrying out much-needed sacrificial service. Jesus’ entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.
It is this very concept of kenosis that makes the Christian path unique. Even within the faith itself, it seems there were and are still many who missed the boat, so to speak, in terms of understanding what Jesus was bringing into manifestation on this planet. Traditionally, the path of spiritual development has been seen as one of “ascent,” where the spiritual aspirant engages in spiritual practices in order to purify themselves. Growth is seen as an upward spiral or ladder.
His entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.
Paul gives us a clear description of how Christ’s entire life and mission was characterized by this kenotic ethic:
Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something he should cling to.
Rather, he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness.
He, being known as one of us, humbled himself, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
For this, God raised him on high and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name.
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
And so every tongue should proclaim “Jesus Christ is Lord!” – to God the Father’s glory. (Phil. 2:9-16)
Built upon the twin pillars of wisdom and compassion, the spiritual formation within the Christian tradition is kenotic – a journey of self-emptying love and sacrificial service. Although most faith traditions have an element of sacrificial service within their framework of spiritual development, the Christian faith tradition is somewhat unique in that it places the ethic of kenosis at its core.
Granted, many contemporary churches are far from this ideal, choosing instead to go off the rails in terms of theology, practice, and especially political alliances. Still, there remain pockets of genuine kenotic spirituality and it is in these pockets that the true presence of authentic Christian spirituality may be found. It is in these living, vibrant churches that the vision and tradition inaugurated by Jesus is alive and well, making life better for all who come in contact with its heart and spirit. It is in these authentic pockets of Christian practice that the people understand that on the path begun by Christ, the motivational emphasis shifts from “me” to “we.”
I have always been an early riser and consider this a bit of a blessing. I have found that in those early morning hours, especially during the period of time leading up to dawn, I am at my best in terms of being able to quiet down, allow myself to be restful, and when so blessed, hear the Spirit speaking to my soul. I than God for these moments and have learned to count on them for both spiritual nourishment and, when needed, divine consolation.
I know that not all of you are “morning people.” Studies have shown that some folks are at their best in the evening, or even late at night. If you are one of the people wired in that manner, I hope that you have found a way to be with God during that peak time in your biology. The benefits of such an endeavor are countless.
I want to share an experience I had during one of my pre-dawn quiet times. I think it might serve as an example of how the Lord often speaks to us when we are sensitive to those times when we might most readily hear his voice. This particular experience also points to the reality that the blessed silence is often the venue in which the voice of the Spirit is most audible. At least, I have found this to be so.
One Sunday morning, as is my habit, I arose early. I spent time asking God to speak to me regarding an issue I had been struggling with for some time. As is often the case, my tampering with this problem eventually led me to a state of perplexed paralysis. It was an issue related to how I was to proceed with one aspect of my professional life.
After praying, I sat quietly and gradually began to feel the peace of God fall over me. It was nothing earth shattering and no burning bushes spoke to me, nor did any donkeys give utterance, but I had a palatable sense of God’s presence. This is significant in that it had been months since I had felt any sense of God’s light in my life. It seemed that in my busyness, God had somehow gone on sabbatical. I longed for his touch, even if only brief and subtle. I was, in essence, in a stark period of spiritual dryness.
I had several books at my side that I had been reading prior to my prayer time. I opened one of the books and soon came across these words by the French mystic Francois Fenelon:
Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that His Spirit may impress upon you such virtues that will please Him. Let all within you listen to Him….
Now comes the good part!
Don’t spend your time making plans that are just cobwebs – a breath of wind will come and blow them away. You have withdrawn from God and now you find that God has withdrawn the sense of His presence from you. Return to Him and give Him everything without reservation. There will be no peace otherwise. Let go of all you plans – God will do what He sees best for you.
Fenelon’s words hit me between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. I knew immediately what I needed to do, even if it was going to be difficult. Like Abraham and Sarah, I had grown impatient waiting on God’s timing and gave birth to an Ishmael. I needed to return to God, wait in silence, and trust his promise of an Isaac. Basically, in my own anxiety and uncertainty of potential outcomes, I took charge of the situation and ended up at what seemed a dead end.
Trusting God to guide us and lead us to the place we need to go is not an easy proposition. This is especially true for those of us who are used to “making things happen.” I made the decision that Sunday morning to let the entire project go. I put it in God’s hands and, in his time, not mine, the situation worked out better than I could have ever manipulated on my own.
Of equal significance was the validation of the importance of encountering the “Sacred Silence” in my spiritual life. My hectic schedule and my mental strategy sessions had left little time for being still. I now make silent meditation or, if you prefer, contemplative prayer, the foundational practice of my spiritual life. If I neglect this practice, I rapidly become like a thirsty elephant trumpeting around a dried up waterhole.
Countless Christians have stressed the importance of regularly entering this sacred space of blessed silence, for it is in this space that we are renewed, refreshed, and more significantly, encounter that “still, small voice” that carries the message of our true source of knowledge and inspiration. I am especially drawn to the words Quaker writer Thomas Kelly, in his classic work A Testament of Devotion, uses to describe that inner sanctum that is so vital to our spiritual formation:
Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth a casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.
Kelly’s words are truly powerful and hold much meaning if one takes the time to really reflect upon what he is getting at. One-third of the Godhead has been placed in each of us, and is there for our guidance, direction, and assistance. It is for this reason that Christ told us: Abide in me….
However, we have to learn to be still enough to hear his voice and, further, be able to understand the language he speaks. This process takes time and discipline and only you can make the decision to begin and apply the will to continue. The question is: Will you do it?
Over the next few days, spend time examining your own life. Are you in a similar predicament? Is there an area where you are spinning your wheels, going nowhere? Go back and meditate on Fenelon’s words, and then go to God in prayer and wait in silence. And please, don’t skip or skimp on the silence. This is the place of quiet; the place of both emptiness and yet fullness; a place of paradox. In this reverberating silence, you will eventually here your answer and, beyond that, find your purpose. It is in this silent space that you will not only hear your song, you will learn how to sing it.
Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.
Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.
If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.
Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.
Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.
When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.
In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.
Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.
Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:
Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.
Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.
This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.
As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:
A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.
I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.
It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:
I believe that we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God’s love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone. We have taken this amazing good news from God, originally presented in high definition and Dolby stereo, and reduced it to a grainy, black-and-white, silent movie. In doing so, we have also stripped it of much of its power to change not only the human heart but the world. This is especially reflected in our limited view of evangelism. Jesus commanded His followers to take the good news of reconciliation and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. The dictate is the same today.
Christianity is a faith that was meant to spread – but not through coercion. God’s love was intended to be demonstrated, not dictated. Our job is not to manipulate or induce others to agree with us or to leave their religion and embrace Christianity. Our change is to both proclaim and embody the gospel so that others can see, hear, and feel God’s love in tangible ways. When we are living out our faith with integrity and compassion in the world, God can use us to give others a glimpse of His love and character. It is God – not us – who works in the hearts of men and women to forgive and redeem. Coercion is not necessary or even particularly helpful. God is responsible for the harvest – but we must plant, water, and cultivate the seeds.
Although many things in the modern world conspire to deafen us to the subtle voice of the Father, rest assured that his voice is indeed there. God calls to us continually, asking us to put down our nets and, like the fishermen disciples of old, come and follow. Jesus tells us in John 6:44 that no one comes to him unless the Father first draws him. What this means in highly practical terms is that we not only have a God, we have a proactive God that seeks relationship with us. Our end of the bargain is to put ourselves into a position of deepening receptivity, so that we might hear his voice more clearly and experience his love more intensely.
There are others who hear God’s voice and respond, accepting his offer of grace, forgiveness, and acceptance into his blessed family. These are generally sincere disciples and are often quite active in their local church fellowship. They also involve themselves in service work and serve the Master to the best of their ability. Yet it is these very people – these sincere followers of the Lord – who, in their heart of hearts, often find themselves asking, “Isn’t there something more to the Christian life? I feel like something is missing. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is a vague emptiness…”
It is to these genuine disciples that the still, small voice comes beckoning in the silence of a sleepless night, or drifting in on the golden leaves of an autumn wind. That irresistible, persistent voice that repeatedly whispers:
Come, follow me….
John Eldredge and the late Brent Curtis, in their book entitled The Sacred Romance, describe the various ways, both vivid and subtle, that the Divine calls to us in his relentless pursuit of relationship:
Someone or something has romanced us from the beginning with creek-side singers and pastel sunsets, with the austere majesty of snowcapped mountains and the poignant flames of autumn colors telling us of something – or someone – leaving, with a promise to return. These things can, in an unguarded moment, bring us to our knees with longing for this something or someone who is lost; someone or something only our heart recognizes.
When we find ourselves in earshot of such a calling, we need to recognize that we are both blessed and vulnerable. We are blessed in that the divine source, the creative power that put this awe-inspiring universe together, seeks relationship with us. The incomprehensible intelligence that maintains all that we see and even more remarkably, the mysterious quantum realm that we don’t see, together in harmonious balance desires intimacy with us – intimacy beyond anything we have ever known.
Yes, friend, God calls to us in a gentle voice that only the mystic can truly hear. And in that persistent calling, the Creator invites us to join in the mysterious dance of spiritual transformation. Unfortunately, far too few of us truly comprehend the critical importance of this divine calling, which often rides in softly on the fragrant breeze of an early summer evening or conversely, in the absolute silence of moonlit midnight in the depth of January. Of those who do hear the sublime calling, even fewer respond and this a tragedy beyond measure, as it often leaves those desperate souls with an incessant pondering of what might have been. C.S. Lewis speaks of this holy pursuit and its profound significance:
Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of – something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been hints of it – tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Lewis is describing that universal “something,” that existential empty spot that Augustine said could only be filled by God. It is, indeed, the call of the sublime lover, the Creator himself, beckoning us to turn and face our true home. It is the baying call of the Hound of Heaven, which is paradoxically both a blessing and an irritant.
Most amazingly, he is not calling us to go into a monastic hideaway or a hermit’s cave, but to stay put right where we are. And if we stay and we become open and discerning, he will use the mundane events of our daily round as his methodology of instruction. More often than not, God’s classroom is characterized by the pedagogy of the ordinary and it is precisely in the realm of the unremarkable that true divine alchemy occurs. Sue Monk Kidd, a woman who knows this process through personal experience, describes it this way:
It seems to me that Christ continually calls us through the daily events of our lives…In moments like these God stirs the waters of our lives and beckons us beyond where we are to a new dimension of closeness with Him…God desires to transform certain experiences of ours into awakening events. These may be our most common moments, but if we let them they can become doorways to a deeper encounter with Him. Who knows at what moment we may begin to wake up to the astonishing fact that Emmanuel (God with us) is still God’s name, that every moment the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is coming to us.
I know that in my experience, God calls me in ways I never expected. I have discerned his voice in the sacred silence of meditative stillness and his message has often slapped me to my senses as it spoke from the pages of Holy Scripture. I have also learned to be increasingly sensitive to his call as manifest in the choreographic harmony of the natural world and especially when it dances in the eyes of a child.
Jesus came first and foremost preaching the kingdom. Even the most superficial skimming of the New Testament will readily reveal this fact. Inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) and laying the groundwork for its ongoing establishment on earth was his central mission and, although other things were important, everything took a back seat to this. Dr. Myles Munroe explains most cogently:
“Everywhere He went, Jesus preached the Kingdom. That was His assignment. Jesus primary message was not the born-again message that dominates gospel preaching. In His entire recorded ministry, Jesus spoke only once about being born again, and that was in the middle of the night to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus privately. Being born again is the way into the Kingdom – it is the necessary first step. But the gospel of the Kingdom involves much more……….Not only did Jesus rarely speak about being born again, neither did He make these other themes the focus of His preaching: prosperity, healing, baptism in the Holy Spirit, or many of the other things we preach so much about today. Jesus taught about those things, and He demonstrated them in His day-by-day ministry, but He didn’t preach them. There is a big difference. Jesus had only one message: the Kingdom of God. That was His assignment, and He passed it on to us. His assignment is our assignment.”
Indeed, healing, prosperity, evangelism, service to others, salvation, born again themes – all of these are foundational aspects of the gospel message, but they all pale in comparison to what I like to call “God’s Great Story.” This story is the underlying theme of the entire Bible and it is ultimately the story of how God is going about setting up his kingdom here on earth. Jesus had a unique role to play in this great cosmic drama and, because of who and what he was and is, it was a role only he could play. And just as Dr. Munroe so passionately explained, Christ’s assignment was to bring the message of the kingdom to this planet and just before he went back to his celestial home after ascending higher than the highest heaven (Ephesians 4:10), he had one more surprise: he charged us with continuing his assignment here on earth.
What this means is that just as Jesus had a unique role to play in the establishment of the kingdom, so does each of us. The problem is many of us are confused about what that role entails in both general and individually specific aspects. To make matters even more perplexing is the fact that the church, either by choice or by ignorance, seems to have abandoned its kingdom mission.
In order to rectify this situation we have to engage is serious study so as to discern exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. As we undertake such a project we also need to realize that the whole kingdom agenda is a multi-faceted phenomenon and does not necessarily lend itself to simplistic analysis.
I am convinced that although such a study can be carried out within the parameters of a group setting, ultimately, each of us must arrive at our own understanding of what the basic themes of the “kingdom message” of Jesus were. Perhaps the benefit of a study group would especially come in when participants came together to discuss what they had each discovered.
As to methodology for an undertaking like this, again, I think that whatever best suits the individual will be the most effective, provided of course, that it covers the territory in sufficient detail. For example, whenever I undertake this sort of study project I typically fall back on my Methodist background and John Wesley’s four-part system of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I have never failed to find this methodology sufficient for any research task of the nature we are discussing.
The Kingdom Agenda is at the foundation of all acts of Christian service. As followers of Christ, called to give flesh to grace and make disciples in all the world, we must constantly be about our kingdom calling in ways great and small. I like the way N.T. Wright puts this into proper perspective:
“……….what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about tobe dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”
As Wright so eloquently reminds us, the Kingdom agenda is permeated through and through with proactive compassion. It is not enough to sit back and identify and discuss social problems from a comfortable distance. Jesus was not afraid to get his hands dirty and he certainly does not call us to detached, sterile service. Kingdom work is often unpleasant and frequently places us in circumstances that are far out of our comfort zones.
As followers of Christ in this challenging age of change it is imperative that we reorient our efforts, making certain that we are in alignment with the mission the Master has given us. The specifics of each mission will be different for each of us, but each will share a common denominator. Our particular calling, whether great or small, is grounded in love, kindness, and compassion. Each personal mission will seek to establish a just and equitable way of being in the world, solidly based on kingdom principles and deep concern for the well-being of others.