Sunday, January 27, 2013

If it smells like the Gospel

In light of the Incarnation: Mission
John 17:13-26; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

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So we are finishing this series of three worship services,
   in which we ask ourselves, essentially—
   what difference does Christmas make?
      What are the real, and long-lasting implications,
         of the Christmas message,
         that God came to dwell among us, in the flesh?
      It would hardly be worth the weeks we spend
         planning our worship around the themes of Advent,
            and Christmas,
            and Epiphany,
         if it didn’t mean much after the decorations came down.

But I think we’ve clearly been saying, all along,
   that it does make a difference, a huge difference.
I went so far, on a couple occasions,
   to say that the Incarnation is at the very center of the Gospel.

   It is an understatement to merely say that it’s good news,
      that the Almighty Creator God
      broke into and entered fully, our world,
      and took on our humanity,
         in order to heal and save us, and all creation.
   It’s not just good news.
      It’s explosively good news.
      It’s the kind of news that shatters old realities.
      It’s the kind of news that turns the universe upside-down,
         if we believe it and act on it.

We spent two Sundays looking at what difference
   this news makes for the church,
   in our worship, and in our experience of community.
Now we look at mission.

If you’ve been in this church more than, say, a week or two,
   it won’t be new for you
   to hear me talk about the mission of God,
      and make the claim that participating in that mission,
      is the one and only reason to exist as a church.
   The church is the body of Christ,
      sent by God into the world,
      to identify with, to proclaim, and to live into
         God’s mission to make this world right again.
      It is God’s aim to save, to restore, to reconcile, to heal,
         and to redeem us all, and all creation,
         from the devastating effects of sin and rebellion.
      And God has chosen the church,
         a community of human beings, warts and all,
         to partner with the Holy Spirit,
         and become, for the world,
            the real expression of God’s presence in the world.

   That is what we are talking about,
      when we say the life of the church is an incarnational life.
      We incarnate the real presence of God in the world,
         just as Jesus did.
      Jesus was God Incarnate
         in a way that we cannot duplicate or repeat.
      But that is not to say that we do not also
         incarnate, put into flesh, God’s healing and saving presence.
         Jesus commissioned us to do so.
         Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to do so.
         Jesus expects us to do so.
      We are the continuation of the ministry Jesus began.

      Why God would trust the healing, saving ministry of Jesus
         to likes of us stumbling and bumbling human beings,
         may not make sense to us,
            but is not ours to question.
      Jesus chose as his inner circle of disciples,
         12 stumblers and bumblers,
         people just as flawed as we are.
      But with the added element of the Holy Spirit,
         they . . . and we . . . become the people God counts on,
         to live into and proclaim, and represent
            God’s saving and healing mission.

   That is a high view of the church.
      And it is a high view of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
      So, it is also a high view of the Trinity.
      It’s where I firmly stand.

Now, about this mission of God,
   around which we are called to orient ourselves.

Let me say this about how we engage in God’s mission
   as a church.

There will always, always,
   be the need for the church to organize itself for mission,
   to be strategic about how it works
      in reaching beyond itself to a world of need,
   how it develops programs, and carries out projects—
      like what we do in New Orleans,
      with Kenyan sand dams,
      with helping our young people partner with mission programs,
         like Virginia Mennonite Missions,
         Mennonite Mission Network,
         Mennonite Central Committee,
         and other Christian mission and service organizations.

And there will always, always,
   be the need to be intentional and purposeful
      about our witness in word,
   how we share the good news of God’s saving mission
      with those who haven’t heard, or need to hear in a new way.

But identifying with the mission of God,
   does not start with running good mission programs
      and effective social service.
   It does not start with learning how to be persuasive in verbal witness.
It starts with learning how to be the church God dreams of.
   We must learn how to be the living community of Christ,
      the kind that Jesus envisioned,
      when he sent his disciples out into the world,
         saying, “Live like I did.”

We must be the kind of Gospel-shaped, incarnational community
   that when people encounter us,
   they encounter the Gospel, naturally.

We must be the kind of community that smells like the Gospel.
   That people can tell,
      even before they hear us explain ourselves,
      they can tell by the character of our life together,
         the character of our relationships with each other,
         the way we live in this world without fear,
            moving toward the dirt and brokenness of this world,
               with love and compassion and courage,
            not running away from it in fear and disgust.

We heard the words of the apostle Paul this morning, in 2 Corinthians 2,
   “Thanks be to God, who in Christ . . . and through us
      spreads in every place the fragrance
      that comes from knowing him.
      For we are the aroma of Christ . . .
      We are not peddlers of God’s word like so many;
         but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity,
         as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.”

If it smells like the Gospel,
   walks like the Gospel,
   looks like the Gospel,
   and sounds like the Gospel,
      it’s the Gospel.
   Then, it is authentic.
      True. Sincere.
      “As persons sent from God and standing in his presence.”
      That’s describing an incarnational community,
         “persons sent from God and standing in his presence.”
   When, as a church, we are situated in this world,
      and . . . standing in God’s presence,
      we become another incarnation of God to the world.

A fragrant community of Christ
   need not engage in salesmanship or hype or clever marketing,
   need not be “peddlers of God’s word.”
   No, we embody the Gospel.
   We incarnate the Gospel.
   The Gospel is demonstrated . . . and proclaimed with authenticity,
      when we stand in the presence of God.

As I’ve said many times, and will say again,
   my dream for the PVMC community,
   is that every member of this community
   will be deeply involved in the life of smaller communities of faith
      within the larger whole—
   so that we become
      “a community of communities engaged in God’s mission.”
And in each small community we will
   actively and mutually shape each other
   for an authentic life as a disciple of Jesus,
      representing God’s healing mission in this world.

My dream is that each one of these communities
   will pulse with life and joy and hope,
   and will be so open to the world around them,
      so hospitable, so compassionate,
      so filled with love for each other
         and for their neighbor,
         and for their enemies,
   that anyone around, when they get close to that community,
      will smell the Gospel.

Those who get close enough to smell it,
   will be blown away by the beauty
   of such a missional and communal and devotional life.
   The aroma of the living Christ will be
      so compelling and so attractive,
      that the seeking public will engage us,
      and we will be ready
         with an explanation for the hope that is within us.

That is the primary role of the church in today’s broken world—
   that is why we exist.
   Not to provide enjoyable religious goods and services to the faithful,
      in order to make us comfortable in the life we are living.
   No . . . we exist to demonstrate God’s saving and reconciling grace,
      through our life together in the world.
   We exist to become demonstration plots of God’s grace.

When we, as MCC for instance, or some other group doing development,
   go into an area to help farmers improve production,
   we don’t set up a classroom and lecture local farmers
      about our superior methods.
   We plant demonstration plots.
   We show what can actually happen.

The church is a demonstration plot for our culture.
   Today, maybe more than ever,
      our culture needs spirit-filled communities of grace and healing.
   We have altogether too many communities
      that embody, that incarnate, an UN-Holy Spirit—
      a spirit of condemnation,
         of disrespect,
         of one-upmanship,
         of protectionism,
         of self-righteousness,
         of violence.
   Our culture is full of communities
      who set out to distance themselves,
      to cut themselves off one from another,
      building higher and thicker walls out of fear of the other.

The church, patterning itself after Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit,
   demonstrates a better way to live with difference—
      with grace, honesty, compassion, vulnerability, and courage.

Jesus’ last prayer for his disciples,
   that we have recorded in John 17, and which was read earlier,
   makes clear what his dream is for the church,
      what God’s dream is for the church.

Jesus, praying to his father, says,
“As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world . . .
   My prayer is not for them alone.
   I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
      that all of them may be one, Father,
      just as you are in me and I am in you.
   May they also be in us
      so that the world may believe that you have sent me . . .
      that they may be one as we are one—
      I in them and you in me.”

That’s a prayer for the church to take up the mantle of the incarnation.
   “I in them, and you in me.”
Elsewhere, in John 14, when Jesus was talking to his disciples,
   he talked about sending them the Spirit, and said,
   “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father,
      and you are in me, and I am in you.”
   That a lot of interconnection.
   “I in the Father, you in me, I in you.”
   That’s incarnation.
   The closest this world is going to get to God,
      is through the community of God’s people,
      wherever it exists, all over the world,
      in many different contexts, and shapes, and forms, and traditions.
   None of us perfect. None of us complete.
   But the fulfillment of God’s mission is, in fact,
      dependent on God’s people.
      Because God chose it to be so.

The question is, how are we doing at living into that mission?
   How are we doing at finding our primary identity—
      as individuals and as a people—
      by identifying with God’s saving and healing mission?
   How are we doing at moving beyond
      a consumeristic mindset when it comes to the church?
         Does church feed me?
         Does it minister to me?
         Does it affirm me where I am?
         Does it worship the way I want to worship?
   How are we doing at taking responsibility for ourselves,
      in looking to see where God is at work in and around us,
      inviting others to see it with us, discern it with us,
         to support us in our risk-taking,
         and hold us to account?
   How are we doing in our practice of the most basic Christian virtue,
      Opening our lives to each other, and to our neighbors.

A church engaged in incarnational mission,
   is a church wide open to each other and the world beyond us.
It is a church that lives as a real, down-to-earth,
   genuine community of Christ,
   and lets that life be seen in the everyday and ordinary,
      lets it be open to examination,
      lets it be subject to the scrutiny of neighbors and enemies,
      lets it be witnessed by the world.

Daniel Bechtel, in a hymn he wrote,
   described an incarnational missional community,
   but without using any one of those three words.
He described our relationship to God,
   as children to a mother who carries us, holds us, feeds us,
   as children to a father who teaches us, guides us, lifts us.
   We are children who don’t always stay connected,
      who wander from our parents, our siblings, our neighbors.
   But we find our deepest meaning and belonging,
      when we open ourselves to God and each other and the world,
      when we live into, and incarnate, God’s purposes and mission.
Let’s sing the hymn, #91 in Sing the Journey.

—Phil Kniss, January 27, 2013

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