What is the better place?
As seen in the last post, the three most popular sketches of the Christian “better place”—heaven-centered, human-centered, and world-centered—have been various soteriological attempts to depict both our hope and mission. (Soteriology, as you may remember, refers in theology to the theology of salvation.) However, as John C. Nugent argues in his book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, these are incomplete visions of the biblical picture and a better alternative is the kingdom-centered vision.
Through the dystopian prism, I argued that the kingdom-centered vision could be likened to a heterotopia: a counter-site reflecting a utopia in the midst of the larger dystopian world. This place of otherness is like a miniature kingdom embedded inside a foreign territory. Switching metaphors slightly, let’s turn to 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 to flesh out this kingdom-centered vision of the better place:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
God inaugurates a new creation in Christ, that is, the people of God. We are the better place, the new social reality that God has created in Jesus! That means we aren’t called to create the better place, but to receive it, to embrace it, to become it. But this also doesn’t mean that we sit around on our hands. We are the means through which God has chosen to make his reconciling appeal to the world. How? We have been entrusted as God’s ambassadors.
That is God’s strategy: to make his reconciling appeal to the world through his ambassadors. This imagery of ambassadors is such a rich metaphor. Ambassadors are citizens of one kingdom who represent their citizenry or government to other kingdoms. A great present-day illustration is the concept of an embassy. Ambassadors live in other parts of the world, but their loyalty or allegiance belongs to their home country. Nugent expounds that,
God has already revealed a better world, a new creation. Christians are its citizens. We have already entered it. But creation isn’t new for everyone. It is only new to those who are in Christ. The present form of this world is passing away, but most people are oblivious to it (1 Cor 7: 31). That is why God calls us to declare and represent his better world to others. Even though God sits enthroned over all nations and works among each one, he does not claim them as his kingdom. His kingdom is still a minority movement in this world. We are its ambassadors. Rival kingdoms, even hostile ones, still exist.*
As ambassadors of Christ we are the embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each local church is an embassy of the kingdom of heaven and we as its ambassadors are extensions and representatives of the better place in the midst of the world that is passing away.
An 82-year-old Czech widow, Ludmilla, gets it. Let your imagination wonder and take five minutes to watch her story here.
What does this mean for our practice? How do ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven represent the King and his kingdom to the world? We do so by embracing, displaying and proclaiming the kingdom.
Embracing the Kingdom
To help us more fully welcome and receive this new reality of the church as the better place, Nugent lays out seven categories so that we might live into it:
We have entered a new era in world history. (See Matt 4:17; 10:7; 12:28; Mark 1:17; Luke 16:16-17; 17:20-21; Acts 2:14-21; Gal 4:4-5; 2 Cor 6:2; Col 1:26; 2 Tim 4:1; 1 Pet 1:10-12, 20)
We have entered into a new world reality. (See Gal 6:15; 1 Cor 7:29-31; 2 Cor 5:17-19; Col 1:20; 2:13; 3:3; 1 John 2:8, 17; Jas 1:18)
We have entered into a new life. (See John 3:15-16, 36; 4:10, 14; 5:24; Rom 6:4, 11; Eph 2:1–6; Col 2:12; 3:1; 1 Tim 6:12, 19; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3, 23)
We have entered into a new social reality and set of relationships. (See 2 Cor 5:16, 18; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Acts 2:18; 1 John 1:7; Heb 6:4; 1 Pet 4:17)
We have entered into a new way of living.(See Col 2:10; 3:9-11; John 15:3; 1 John 1:7; Gal 3:27; Titus 3:5; 1 Thess 5:4-5; 2 John 1:2; 2 Cor 4:16)
We have entered into a new status. (See Luke 7:28; 19:19; 1 John 2:5, 6; 3:1-2; Jas 1:9-10; Phil 1:10; 3:20; Eph 1:19; 2:5-6, 8; 1 Cor 3:21-23; Rom 8:19, 21; Gal 3:29; 4:4-5)
We have entered into God’s abundant blessings. (See Mark 10:29-30; Luke 4:18-21; 18:28-30; John 8:32, 36; Rom 8:1-2, 21; Gal 1:4; Col 2:20; 1 John 3:24; 4:13; Heb 6:4-5; 12:28)
Displaying the Kingdom
Not only do we accept this new life, reality, and world that God has inaugurated in Christ, but we also display it, like a model home in a new subdivision development. People can come check it out and imagine and envision what life would be like here. So, too, the life of the church ought to be to curious onlookers. The church’s life is “the model home of God’s kingdom.”** This is, in fact, God’s design to magnetically draw in those living in the “dystopia” into the “heterotopia.” The most effective strategy of evangelism that God has provided is the embodied life of love displayed in the embassy of the kingdom of heaven:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
Love for one another is where emphasis lies within this community. Priority is placed first and foremost within. That comes as a shocker and seems too insular; however, more prominence is given to in-house living in the New Testament, which is why Paul and others focus so much attention on the “one anothers” – life lived together within the household of faith.
What will come as a contentious statement for many is the overwhelming fact that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, primary attention is given to the care of fellow believers. The possible exception to this rule is the love of enemy and neighbor (neighbor then generally referred to fellow Israelite). This can come across as inwardly focused, irresponsible, reprehensible, and embarrassing. If God cares so much about the world, wouldn’t God want his ambassadors to “infiltrate” other governments with their superior knowledge and persuade the powers-that-be to do things their way?
Though that might be what we would expect, that’s not what we see in the Bible itself. God’s strategy, his task for his church is to be such a beacon of light and love that others are drawn towards it like bugs to a bright light at night. When we shift our focus away from what God desires, we usually tend to look more like the world that is passing away than displaying the new world that God has already created. And sadly, sometimes the world does it better than us in many instances in trying to make this world a better place.
Proclaiming the Kingdom
Embracing and displaying the kingdom doesn’t mean a counter-cultural separatist group that lives in the mountains away from civilization. The counter-site of the heterotopia is lodged firmly within the overall culture, not cloistered away from it. But neither does embracing and displaying the kingdom mean becoming activists or humanitarians (though there is nothing wrong with that). Central to the Christian mission is the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Yet, this proclamation is most fully encountered and observed within the context of a community. “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Evangelists and apostles were sent out, but with the purpose of gathering non-believers into the fold of God, to see and taste that God is good. Think of it from this point of view: God cares so much about nonbelievers that God wants believers to place a priority on their love for one another so that the nonbelievers can encounter the better place in action, in flesh and blood, which is completely different than the surrounding culture. If the church is no different than the surrounding culture, why would someone want to switch their allegiance to Jesus?
In the next post, I’ll look a little closer at the uniqueness of the church’s task – and how fixing the world may be killing the church.
*Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 1427-1431). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.
** Ibid., Kindle Location 1596