God’s Journey into the Far Country and Our Participation in It: My Last Post on the Incarnation

Warning: Academic theological discussion ahead. Read at own risk :) This post is my final post on the doctrine of the incarnation. It is dependent upon the prior two posts on the incarnation available by  just scrolling down.

Karl Barth, in his mammoth Church Dogmatics Vol IV 1 and 2, describes the Father’s sending of the Son into the world with the words “The Way of the Son Into the Far Country.” Barth characterizes the “sending” of the Son as going the way of “the prodigal son” of Jesus’ parable of the same name. The prodigal son traveled off into “the far country” (Luke 15:13) where he travels into the depths of debauchery and sin. In Jesus, the Son takes the same journey taking on the sin and the calamity of the prodigal son himself. And yet the Son of God carries out this journey not in disobedience to the Father but in total obedience. This crossing over into the far country is radical, risky, excessive and prodigal. It is the very nature of the incarnation. And Barth recounts it all in par 59 and 64 of Vol IV. Using “prodigal” in this way, I contend the two prior positions on the incarnation fail to hold onto the prodigal nature of the sending of the Son by the Father. For sure, I applaud each position for what each one accomplishes. Yet in each case the position is not prodigal enough.

And so in the case of position 1 – the Incarnation, as singular event – the incarnation reveals the majesty and all sufficiency of Christ as fully God, one with the Trinity. But it fails to account for the prodigal nature of the incarnation: that in the sending of the Son, God has not just “dipped his toe in the water,” He (the transcendent God) has entered fully into history, to dwell among us, in culture, to altar the course of history, to work redemption in and through history.

In the case of position 2, the Incarnation, as the way into God’s Kingdom, the position describes how in Jesus Christ we see what it is to be fully human. And yet this position too fails to account for the prodigal nature of the incarnation because, again, in Christ the almighty transcendent God (Borg is basically a panentheist) scandalously crosses all boundaries to enter human history, be vulnerable, become one of us, get involved and work for His Mission in the world.

We need therefore a third position (I might call it a fourth position implying we must get beyond these modernist categories – a “third way” often tries to mediate instead of go beyond) to embrace the prodigal nature of the Triune Sending of the Son into the Far Country.  Here goes my take on a position no. 3.

Position 3.) The Incarnation Continues Christ’s Presence Into The World – The Invitation to Join in the Journey Into the Far Country

In position 3, the incarnation refers to the coming of the Son into world to be with/among us in Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation does not end there. Christ’s presence is continued into the world via a people as the participants in the Triune God’s Mission in the world. The incarnation therefore is more than the divine Son worshiped, or the way of Jesus of Nazareth exemplified or even the God ordained model of engaging our world with the gospel. It is the bringing of Christ’s very presence as Lord into the world.  Via being “his body” in the world, the church brings Christ’s presence into the world and joins in with the Triune God’s movement in the world for His mission.

The Great Commission text of Matt 28 :18 illustrates the nature of this extension of Christ’s presence beyond the historical life of Jesus on earth. Here, Jesus says “all authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me” alluding to His cosmic rule over all creation begun at the ascension. Jesus is now Lord.  Yet he also says “and lo, I am with you even unto the end of the age” aluding to the “with-ness” presence of the incarnation continuing with the church unto the end of the age. The two movements work together to bring God’s Kingdom in. Christ is ruling over the whole earth bring in the Kingdom (1 Cor 15:25). Yet He is “with” His church making His presence manifest. This two fold movement is  a continuation of the work of the Triune God in the world to bring about the redemption of the world. It says that the church, in a unique way participates (is caught up) in the Triune God’s work in history via the Son through the Spirit.

The incarnation is therefore an invitation into the journey into the far country. The church, as His body, is the joining in with the Sent One into the world on the Mission God has set into motion.

How does this happen? A few comments.

There are practices that have been given to the church from Christ via the apostles wherein Christ’s presence is made manifest in the world by the Holy Spirit. In each case Christ’s Lordship, the Kingdom is made manifest/breaks in. In each case this two fold work is evident. Practices like i.) Conflict resolution/discernment where He promises to be there “in the midst of them” yet also reveals that this is an act of Christ’s rule from on high – “whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven.” Matt 18:15-20 ii.) The Ministry of the Fivefold Giftings Eph 4 where Christ gives gifts from his ascended rule (8-10) and in so doing His very authority becomes fully present in His church (the fullness of Christ v 13). iii.) Serving the poor (Matt 25) where Christ says in the context of His rule (vs31) that He has been present in the hungry and the naked (v35-36). iv.) The inhabiting of a context and proclaiming the gospel (Luke 10) where the missionary both proclaims the Kingdom (vs 9) and in so doing brings the very presence of Christ into the midst (vs. 16). v.) the Eucharist where historically the church has understood Christ’s presence (Luke 24:30-31) but also understood this as the Lord’s supper where He reigns (and judges 1 Cor 11:23-33).

Everyone of these practices is not only carried out by the church but also into the world. We practice reconciliation in the church to extend this same reconciliation into the world. We eat together in Eucharist and to extend this hospitality in the meals we share inthe world. We serve the poor in our life together as church so as to recognize and serve the poor in the neighborhood. We proclaim the good news in the gathering in order to proclaim it into every area of life we inhabit in the world. Each time we do, Christ’s presence is manifest bringing into visibility the Kingdom of God in our midst in the world.

All of this is why Paul calls the church “the body of Christ” the ultimate symbolic expression of what it means to be and extend the presence of Christ physically into the world.   As we inhabit the world under His Lordship, we become through the Spirit His enfleshed body, joining together with what He is doing in the world as the Sent One of the Father. We are joining in with His work unto the end of the age. This is the radical and prodigal nature of the incarnation.

This presence is never territorial because this presence is incarnational. In that the incarnation is by its nature a giving up of power, a vulnerable, humble, non-violent, in service to entrance into every context (Phil 2:3-16), there can be no territorial-ness to this way of engaging culture. Any hint of taking a position of power and/or superiority is a denial of the incarnation and the presence of Christ will not be there.

This Presence is not just individualist, it shapes the very social contexts in which we live. And so as we bring hospitality, the gospel, reconciliation, healing into our neighborhoods, there is a social as well as personal transformation that takes place. There is a realignment of economics and social relations that is the direct implications of the eating the Lord’s Supper together. In Mark 10 this claim is made explicitly by Christ as he talks about the wealthy entering the Kingdom. According to this text,  there will be a total rearrangement of the way we live in terms of family, our money and even the place where we live. For following Jesus means “leaving everything.” But in so doing this is not a complete removal from life and culture, it is a reordering out of it in Christ. And so Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fieklds, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:28-30). To then follow Christ, to bring his presence into a place, is disruptive and reordering. The existing culture is not disgarded nor disregarded. It is transformed via our inhabitance in a incarnational humble vulnerable way. It is not colonialist, because each time the “body” inhabits a place, the church as His body itself is transformed, “converted” in the words of Darrell Guder, into another manifestation of redeemed culture. It never looks the same twice.

Position 3 finds expression when Leslie Newbigin says “… there is a society (the church) in which the life of the crucifed and risen Jesus lives on and his mission continues, not only as proclamation of the kingdom but as the presence of the kingdom in the form of (His) death and resurrection.” Open Secret p.52, or Hans VonBalthasar says the church is “Christ’s body, an extension, a communication, a partaking in the personality of Christ.” (Explorations in Theology II 145), or by me  when I say  “The church as Christ’s social body always lives among the world and what God is doing. It is the extension of the Incarnate Christ sent by the father to join in with what He is already doing by the Spirit. As such the church is inextricably part of the Triune mission already ongoing.” (End of Evangelicalism p. 170)

Witness and Revolution Made Possible

There’s a revolution here in position No. 3 (what Yoder called the Original Revolution). It is the way of humbly inhabiting our neighborhoods with the power of the gospel that shapes us into His rule right here, right now right where we live and invites the world along for the ride. It’s underground. It’s subversive of the powers. It is allowing God through us to bring the very presence of Christ into our neigborhoods. When we do, we join in with Christ in the journey into the Far Country.

And so I’ve seen simple but amazing things happen when Christians enter the world in these ways. When doing reconciliation between a member of our church and his landlord, when someone has proclaimed the gospel into someone’s life a third place, when people open up the hospitality of Jesus in their homes, when exercising their spiritual gifts in context, when serving the poor with Christ’s presence. Unfortunately, I suspect these experiences are too rare because we are caught up in the business of life. We simply can’t imagine that Jesus actually comes wherever we enter these simple but prodigal practices.

Comments? Does this way of understanding the incarnation make sense? It’s got a Catholic (sacramental) edge to it? Is that problematic? What dangers do you see in this articulation of the incarnation? I listed 5 of these practices from Scripture but I believe there are more. Any suggestions?


*ADD ON Ecclesiological Implications

The ecclesiological implications of this 3rd view of the incarnation are enormous. For instance, the 1st view of the incarnation is very much at home within evangelicalism and especially mega-church evangelicalism. The 2nd is most at home in N American protestant liberalism.  These are both expressions of the modernist Christendom form of church. The 3rd view of incarnation however is largely undercut by Christendom. The two most obvious examples of Christendom church, the medieval version of Roman Catholicism and the American modern evangelical mega-church, prove this point. In Medieval Catholicism the practices I speak of are institutionalized as sacraments (eucharist, reconciliation, proclamation of the gospel,  and ordination – read Yoder’s Fullness of Christ for an account of how the church morphed from the 5 fold ministry). They turn inward and become the property of hierarchy. They no longer shape a people into Christ’s presence for the world – God’s Mission. Likewise today’s evangelical megachurch undercuts these practices. Reconciliation/conflict management is done from top down and the process of communal discernment is arbitered away. The Eucharist is largely packaged to individuals in large crowds and the practice of mutual sharing, discerning the body is largely undone. The 5-fold ministry is truncated by a single CEO mega personality. Even the serving of the poor is turned often into a program to be done one night a week (taking out the relational presence).

In my opinion therefore, this third view of the incarnation requires vibrant communities of people to inhabit local places/neighborhoods and relationally engage their contexts with all the practices of the presence of the Jesus Christ.

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