Monday, July 02, 2007

Incarnational Ministry, Part II

Previously: Introduction

Last week, I briefly examined the life and ministry of John Perkins, showing how his particular understanding of incarnational ministry is expressed in the concept of relocation. By relocation, Perkins simply means that we must live in the same community as those whom we seek to serve. Perkins argues that it is only by living side-by-side, in solidarity with others that one can truly understand their needs and problems and, ultimately, the solutions that are needed.

While most of us might be inclined to offer excuses as to why relocation really isn't necessary, we would do well to remember that it is rooted in our biblical understanding that Jesus lived in solidarity with those whom he hoped to reach. More specifically, John 1:14 teaches us that “The word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us” and Philippians 2:5-8 teaches us that Jesus “being in very nature God . . . made himself nothing.” In other words, Jesus Christ did not commute back and forth from heaven to conduct his ministry here on earth. Instead, he gave up the glory of heaven and chose to become a human being and live right here on earth amongst us so that we might be saved.

Now if that isn’t an amazing sacrifice in and of itself, what I think is really interesting is that Jesus really, truly “made himself nothing” in every sense of the word. If Jesus was going to relocate, he could have easily chosen to incarnate himself in Jerusalem or even Rome—the religious, political, and economic power centers of his day. But Jesus deliberately chose not to become the son of the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem, nor even the son of a high-profile rabbi in Rome. Instead, he chose to become a mere carpenter’s son in an obscure peasant village in the backwater of Palestine so that he could live and minister amongst those who needed him the most. Likewise, persons involved in urban ministry recognize that their work is most effective when they choose to reside in the poor communities they hope to reach instead of commuting from more affluent neighborhoods.

While relocation finds its strongest support from scripture in the example of Jesus, there are other significant examples as well. We are familiar, for example, with the story of Moses in the book of Exodus. Moses could have easily spent his life living in the comfort, safety, and social prestige of Pharaoh’s palace. Instead, he chose to give all that up so that he could live amongst Hebrew slaves and work for the freedom of his own people. I’m sure that was not an easy decision to make, and no doubt it was even a harder decision to live out. When the children of Israel were out in the wilderness grumbling about how much better off they would have been had they remained in slavery in Egypt, I’m sure that Moses was thinking how much better off he’d be if he would have never left Pharaoh’s palace. Indeed, if we were in Moses’ position, I wonder how many of us would have made the decision to leave Pharaoh’s palace so that we too might become poor in order that we might minister to slaves.

Another good example of relocation is found in life and ministry of Nehemiah during the post-exilic period of Old Testament history. Before Nehemiah was born, the Kingdom of Judah had been destroyed and the city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Babylonian army and the Jewish people were forcibly deported from their ancestral homeland and scattered throughout much of the ancient Near Eastern world. By the time of Nehemiah, there were a large number of Jews living in Persia and even though they were living as foreigners in exile, many of them had done quite well economically and had risen to positions of political and social prominence. We’re familiar, of course, with the biblical stories of the men and women who became quite successful while living in exile. Daniel, for example, became a high ranking administrative official under Darius. Likewise, Esther—a young Jewish woman—became the Queen of Persia and, ultimately, wielded significant political influence over decisions that affected her people.

Like Daniel and Esther, Nehemiah had also risen to a position of political prominence and economic comfort within the Persian Empire. Specifically, he was the King’s personal cupbearer. This was a good job, providing Nehemiah with a prominent position in society as well as direct access to the King of the largest known empire in the world. In other words, he had made it; he had arrived. But then one day all of that changed. He heard through the grapevine that things back in Jerusalem—the place that his ancestors had been deported from—were not going so well. Apparently, the tiny Jewish remnant that had survived the exile and returned to Jerusalem was struggling for its survival. It was then that God laid it upon Nehemiah’s heart to give up everything he had and relocate to the rubble and ashes of Jerusalem so that God might use him to rebuild the Holy City.

I don’t have time to tell the rest of the story here, but what I find significant about this story is that Nehemiah could have easily spent his life enjoying the economic comfort, security, and social prestige of the King’s palace. But instead, he gave all of that up and chose to live amongst refugees so that he could work for the betterment of his own people. But God blessed the effort and sacrifices made by Nehemiah and used him in a might way to rebuild the walls of the Jerusalem. If we were in Nehemiah’s shoes, I wonder how many of us would be willing to leave Persia so that we too might become poor in order that we might minister refugees.

Observing how the concept of relocation is demonstrated through the lives of Jesus, Moses, Nehemiah, and even modern day disciples like John Perkins gives us new meaning to the words of Jesus when he taught us that, “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

Coming Next: My Personal Experience w/Relocation

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