The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness

I have been reading a book lately called The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness by Darrell Guder. This book was graciously given to me by my friend Matthew McClure for Christmas. It is a rather short book but packed with theological ramifications that I have only just begun to wrestle with. I wanted to dedicate the next couple of posts to this book. The hope is that I myself would grapple with such penetrating beliefs through writing about it, and in the midst of that cause readers to question what is meant by mission. I hope as we try to understand the mission and witness all in light of the gospel, the Holy Spirit would change us and draw us ever closer to the heart and the majesty of God in Christ. That we would better understand our commission in it’s fullness and understand His purposes for His world and His people.

Guder begins this study with the driving question, “Can and should the unique event of the incarnation of Jesus that constitues and defines the message and mission of the church have concrete significance for the way in which the communicates that message and carries out that mission?”. This question is the pulse of this book. Guder explains that it is the Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection that “both enables and defines Christian mission”.

The WHAT and HOW of Mission: In the first chapter, Guder begins at the most fundamental level by posing two questions: what is mission? and how do we do mission? Guder explicates on this in the beginning of this chapter by saying this, “In Jesus Christ the Lord, God’s sovereign love is accomplishing its saving purpose through the witness of the people called to serve and witness to him. It is the even of Jesus Christ as God’s “Word became flesh” that the Christian community is called and empowered to be, to do, and to say its witness”. It is in the incarnation that we are called and invited into living under the reign of God.The incarnation is the pinnacle of Gods mission and it is by this event that he sends His church into all the earth. “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you.” Mission is at the heart of the triune God. Guder explains the sending nature of God as the Father sent the Son, and as the Father and the Son have sent the Spirit to empower the church.  Through the resurrection of Christ, Gods kingdom is inaugurated. It is when the power of death has been overcome that Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be his ἀπόστολος (apostles-sent ones). This word is very important for Guders conceptualization, but even more so is the word witness. In unpacking the implications of the word witness he says, “The term witness integrates the who, the what, and the how of Christian mission. The Christian individual is defined as Christ’s witness; the entire community is defined as a witnessing community; its impact upon the world into which it is sent is observable witness; all its activities are in some way, a form of witness-demonstration of the rule of the Risen Lord“. This is a communal happening, not an individual one. Guder points out this reduction of individualism in Western evangelism and says that it “reveals that it is just as human-centered as the society it decries”.

What Incarnational Mission Is and Is Not: This distinction is vital for Guder. Guder argues against what has so often happened in the past of placing emphasis on the adjective incarnational and thus “driving a wedge in between” the life of Jesus and the death of Jesus. According to Guder this is reductionism at its finest. Guder notes four ways in which the modern world has used this profound linguistic shift to put forth reductionist understandings of the gospel. The first of which is an emphasis on Creation theology rather than Cross theology. This is birthed out of this is conception of “God the Creator” that (can) include(s) other religious persuasions and is void of the incarnation as a distinct event. The second reduction Guder points to is one that is similar to the former in that it is identified with ecological and environmental concerns. This humanitarian focus that calls us to be stewards of Gods creation, and is absent of a need for redemption, which is ironic since creation is the very place in which we find the exploitation of sin and need for this redemption. The third reduction is essentially the universalist view that states there are many ways and paths to God. This view of religion and more specifically the gospel could not be any farther from the exclusivity of Christ, the only Son of God, on the cross. The last reductionistic moder/postmodern persuasion falls into the category of Jesus the moral teacher. The teacher of self-sacrifice without the salvific event on the cross. This reductionistic belief truly emasculates the gospel. In all of these, the adjective incarnational is missing the mark. These former reductions take the life of Jesus with no apparent attention to the radical exchange and ascension of Jesus the Savior and Lord. To great quotes sum up the rest of this chapter:

Witness to the good news is the churches vocation. That means that the message of God’s salvation , must always include the call to discipleship leading to apostolate. To experience God’s love in Christ is to become a witness to that love not just for oneself but for all the world. To receive the gift of faith, so that we can call God “Abba, Father,” and know that we have been restored to fellowship with him, means that we are now to become a part of Christ’s body for his service

This is Guder’s definition of the incarnational witness.

 Incarnational Community: For Guder, these two words are necessarily interdependent. This idea is rooted in the biblical narrative. Abraham and his descendants for instance were to blessed so that they might become a blessing. The biblical pattern is that God uses his people (plural) to accomplish his purpose (singular) in the world. “In the New Testament, the gospel is addressed to the plural “you,” to the community that is called, that has responded, and that continues to be sent as a missionary people”. The community is always the vehicle for God’s mission. Even in the New Testament we see this direct linkage to the Old Testament, which is most visible in a verse like 1 Peter 2:9(ross reference, Exodus 19). Newbigin rightfully says that the only hermeneutic of the gospel is the church, and this is what Guder closely parallels. Guder says “The message is inextricably linked with its messengers”. Ultimately, Guder pushes the reader toward a simple yet central mandate. He says that the church must be formed and identified by its relationship to Christ. This molding and shaping must happen in all arenas including mission. The incarnate Lord has called, and the community must respond to living under the Lordship of Christ. Guder continues toward the end of this chapter by saying this, ” he or she is part of an organic whole that lives and functions only as all its parts exercise their mutual interdependence”. I struggle with myself with being dependent upon the community in which I now find myself bound to. When Jesus spoke, he spoke to a collective, not an individual. Let us then wonder how this might affect not only the mission of God, but the way in which we desire to become like Christ as a community. The ecclesia, according to Guder, is the called-out community. What would it look like to be called out as a collective, yet one in Christ? Earlier in the chapter Guder says this in helping the reader understand the incarnational community:

An incarnational (adjective!) understanding of mission is precisely not a continuation of the once-and-for-all incarnation (noun!), but the continuation of the incarnate Lord’s mission as he shaped and formed it. The incarnational witness of the community is not sinless, but rather embodies the reality of grace in its contrition, repentance, and forgiveness. Like the individual Christian, the incarnational community lives and testifies as a people who are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinners-Martin Luther)

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