In my last few posts, I’ve talked about the possible differences it might make to shift away from seeing justification by faith as the center of the Paul’s understanding of the gospel (ala N.T. Wright and many others). Similarly, in my series just before this one on the baptism of Jesus, I argued that the driving question of Scripture is not, “how can an individual sinner be forgiven?”, but, instead, “how can God’s shalom, or good order, be see in all of creation?” The second question has to do with the Kingdom of God, which I argued are at the heart of both Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel (and subsequently their views of baptism).
I have a sense that some readers might consider a shift away from justification by faith (individual salvation) and toward the Kingdom of God as a return to the “social gospel” of the 20th century, a feint to theological liberalism. The fear here is that such a shift will turn the church into the United Way (worse things could happen, like being a legalistic den of intolerance, for instance), or some other social agency, and that the church’s evangelistic ministry would fall by the wayside.
I get it. And I’m certainly concerned that the church continue to have a strong evangelical witness. In fact, I would say that one way the church serves the coming reign of God is as a herald and witness, and that the call of the Kingdom creates a crisis of allegiance in every life. So, I don’t think that the potential loss of an evangelistic witness can be laid at the feet of the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God.
The problem is, if the old evangelistic formulas no longer work, we haven’t yet figured out how to speak of the gospel in other ways. We don’t yet have enough experience in a new paradigm (for us) to know how this is saving news.
In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 70 in pairs to every place he himself intends to go. He tells them to eat what is set before them, cure the sick who are there, and then say, the Kingdom of God has come near to you. I think this order is important. Eating and healing are ways of being with people that require openness, mutual vulnerability, and care. More than that, the result of such activity is that new human bonds of care and belonging are created. These are acts of hospitality, of giving and receiving. It makes sense in the light of these activities to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Apart from these realities, what could you possibly be pointing to when you proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God?
Put another way, if you proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God before eating and healing, you can only be pointing to yourself as the sign of the Kingdom, not to the new realities being created by the hospitality of God which happens between people. Note here, that the hospitality of God occurs on someone else’s turf. It doesn’t happen only on the terms of those being sent, lest the gospel be confused as something they own or do or perform. Rather, the movement of the gospel occurs in the giving and receiving between people, as something which both the sent and the receiving help to create. And I am convinced that the space of the in-between, where both are needed for good news, leaves room for the Spirit.
This way of seeing the work of God in the world, as happening between people, holds out the possibility that not only those who are receiving are being saved, but also those who are being sent. And this is the heart of the testimony of the Kingdom of God.
One way of witnessing, the typical way, is to define the other as a sinner in an abstract kind of way. “All have sinned…,” which means you. But notice the massive asymmetry in the relationship when this is how it is formed. All the good stuff is on the side of the evangelist. The “prospect” is the problem to be solved with nothing to offer in the encounter. In the Luke 10 encounter, others already potentially possess ingredients necessary for the Kingdom of God to become visible, namely, they are “people of peace.” People of peace are no longer “prospects” or representatives of an abstract definition–“sinner.” They are not instrumentalized in the encounter, like buyers on a car lot. Rather, they bear the possibility of being participants in the surprising, unfolding, drama of the Kingdom of God.
It is this thing that God is doing between people that forms the heart of the testimony of the Kingdom of God.
OK, but what about sin and sinners? The fundamental problem of sin, is that it creates environments where people are neurotic, isolated, divided into groups. We are separated from each other. But more to the point, we are separated from God. The move toward God and the move to the other are mutually implicating. The love of God enables the love of neighbor, and vice versa. So, the kind of thriving, flourishing, human belonging pictured in the Kingdom of God requires that sin be dealt with, that people be freed from everything that threatens God’s good order among people. Sins have to be forgiven, both by God and between neighbors, for God’s shalom to be realized.
Ok, but back to my bigger point: witness about the coming Kingdom is a product of the hospitality of God that happens between people. This becomes the opportunity for Christian witness to emerge. I know people and churches that have leaned heavily into these practices of hospitality, but are still stumped by how this produces a testimony. At the heart of their dilemma is how do they keep from turning “people of peace” into “prospects.” I have some ideas about that.