Armed Only with Vulnerability: Sean Palmer on the Mission of God

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Sean Palmer is Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston and a member of the Missio Alliance Writing Team. I recently sat down with him to discuss his new book Unarmed Empire.

Derek: Thanks for giving me and our readers a chance to see behind the scenes into Unarmed Empire! What compelled you to write this book?

Sean: I was raised in the church in Southern, conservative churches. It shaped my entire life and I love the church. But in my adult life I see the church behaving in ways that are antithetical to who Jesus was and what Paul talked about. Instead of the church being a place of fellowship and brotherhood, it has become a warehouse of division and exclusion.

I wanted to give people who had been hurt and shunned by the church a picture of God’s original intent.

Derek: Sometimes when Christians talk about “unity,” they really mean “unity with people like us,” while they exclude those who are different. And that is so sad. What is it about this cultural moment that makes Unarmed Empire such a crucial book?

Sean: Christians, American Christians in particular, have become hostage to cultural and political forces that don’t care about the mission of God. Rather, they use the church as a cudgel to enact social policies.

Right now, the church barely even questions who and what we are asked to support. Add to that the fact that social norms are changing rapidly and many Christians read their Bibles, but lack the nuance to think theologically.

I think the Christian church in America is at risk of losing a generation for Christ because of our posture towards people who are not already part of the church.

Derek: How would you describe the Church’s position in the mission of God?

Sean: The church are the people of God, the physical representation (hands and feet) of Jesus.

We are also to be a preview of God’s preferred future. That means we enter mission the same way Jesus did, as a servant. We are to serve, not to be served. There is no such thing as “servant-leader” in the vocabulary of the Lord.

This posture of service is where many contemporary Christians bristle. They want to “lead” everything. But Jesus has a particular rebuke for his disciples who yearned for power and the honor to sit on his right and left. We earn an audience and the ability to lead by serving others first.

Mission is service to neighbor, to be with and for our neighbors unto Christlikeness. But sadly, so much of what we call “mission” is really coercion and manipulation.

That’s not how Jesus did it. He sends us into the world armed only with vulnerability. He instructs his disciples (see Peter) to put away swords even if by yielding we are lead to the cross.

Jesus sends us into the world armed only with vulnerability. Click To Tweet

Derek: I appreciated how you build the case that we are ashamed of the gospel anytime we as followers of Jesus harbor any sense of superiority. Can you explain why this is so?

Sean: Paul’s argument throughout Romans is that Jews and Gentiles have access to God on the basis of faith. God has kept his promise to the Jews, but Paul needs to explain how. Jews of Paul’s day placed a great deal of emphasis on their “works of righteousness,” which didn’t save them, but did distinguish them. Part of being distinguished is being superior.

In the first chapter of Romans, Paul argues that he is not ashamed of the gospel, because the gospel is that through Jesus all (Jews and Gentiles) are saved through faith. This means the means of Jewish superiority—and our’s too for that matter—is destroyed. The dividing wall has been torn down. So any time we try to hold on to that sense of superiority over others, we are living as though we are ashamed of the gospel.

Derek: What are some of the subtle ways you see superiority creeping into the church?

Sean: The ways superiority are creeping into the church aren’t that subtle.

For one, many churches have the posture of empire. That is, they are willing to embrace others once they become “enough like us.” The mentality these churches carry is that the object of our mission is not to embody the love of God so much as it is to convert people—not to Christlikeness, but to the norms of the “Christian culture.”

For example, I believe when we deny openly available services we may offer in businesses because we dislike some people’s lifestyle, or when we build deliberately homogeneous churches, then we’ve embraced superiority.

Worse though is the hidden belief that sin has a hierarchy and that some sins are worse than others. Obviously, the consequences of sin are not all the same. I won’t pay the same penalty for an innocent lie to my co-worker as I might for an affair. The danger is when we believe that all or most of our sins are innocent and the sins of others, the sins we don’t struggle with, are the ones that are truly condemnable.

Derek: I resonated with this statement you wrote, “The first step of grace isn’t acceptance. It’s rejection!” What do we need to reject in order to experience God’s grace?

We need to reject everything. Religious, racial, gender, economic superiority, etc. We need to reject the ideas that our education, looks, abilities, etc. have earned us something or that we’re owed something. We have to reject the idea that we have some power in the universe or that others should follow us culturally or religiously. To be a grace-filled person means rejecting any and all notions that we are sustained by anything other than the pure grace of God.

To be a grace-filled person means rejecting we are sustained by anything other than God's grace. Click To Tweet

Derek: You make the claim that the church has rejected the way of peace because peacemaking isn’t always effective. How do you see pragmatism corrupting the mission of the church?

It all depends on what we mean when we say “pragmatism.” Pragmatism may be a wonderful strategy for a congregation’s parking team, but perhaps not best for the disciplining ministry. Our problem is a mix of pragmatism and its intersection with impatience. At the heart of American productivity is the assembly-line philosophy. We really believe that if we organize something effectively, it will produce the result we want and not only that, it’ll mass produce it. But the kingdom of God is not welcomed through an assembly-line mission.

Derek: And how does this affect the peacemaking mission of God through the church?

Sean: Peacemaking takes times and patience. What’s more, inherent to peacemaking is reconciliation—and inherent to reconciliation is the fact that no side gets everything they want. That’s why we think it’s not effective. Our contemporary imagination believes compromise means convincing the Other that they were wrong from the beginning.

The mission of God is transformative, which means we must always be open to transformation, which shockingly, may come from the people we least expect (see: Peter and Cornelius). We have to be patient with others and ourselves.

Derek: What is the greatest hope you can offer the church today?

Sean: As cliché as it sounds, God is still loving and active. I think of Daniel being carted off to Babylon—a culture much worse than our own—yet through dedication and wisdom he serves both a holy God and a pagan king without sacrificing his witness. Through a close connection to God and an insistence on the actual teachings of Jesus, we will be remembered as people of righteousness, just like Daniel.

Derek: Thanks Sean!

Check out Sean’s new book Unarmed Empire available on Amazon.com.

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