By Pierre LeBel
The only model given by Jesus to his disciples by which to accomplish their mission as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation is that of incarnation. “As the Father sent me, so I send you into the world” (Jn 17:18 – firstly, a prayer commitment; Jn 20:21 – secondly, the commissioning). Incarnation is to go into the world as it is and to ensure its’ transformation in accordance with God’s will from the inside out. The world into which Jesus came was political and military. He was born in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus called for a census of the world’s populations. He then had to flee to Egypt when his life was threatened by Herod. The world was also cultural. Jesus participated at a wedding at which he contributed to both the quality and the quantity of the wine and so enhanced the celebration. The world was also concerned with economics which, at that time, was based primarily on agriculture and fishing. Jesus often spoke of these in his parables and in his teaching. We know that the mission of the Church concerns all of these spheres, including education, the arts and media, health care and more, and not uniquely the sphere of religion, which is the one sphere Jesus often circumvented. It’s by coming into the world in time and space that Jesus transformed and reoriented its’ future history towards the coming Kingdom of God.
The Four Times and Movements (T&M) of Incarnation
Incarnation is the very nature and means of mission and its’ message is clear: transformation is always from the inside out. We often limit incarnation to the Christmas story where “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”. I propose that there are actually four stages to incarnation. The times are those in which Jesus acted and spoke. The movements are the actual follow through of these times till our present day.
First T&M – God became a man and was born a baby in Bethlehem. Jesus first identified with the innocent man of the Garden of Eden and became the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). The first Adam had sinned and “fallen short of the glory of God” and so God took upon himself our human identity and became “the image of God” in our place (Col. 1:15). Jesus not only revealed to us the Father but also our true human identity as image-bearers of God. God, who created us in his image, took upon himself our created image in a true reversal of roles that didn’t compromise his own divinity because we were, in the beginning, created in his image.
Second T&M – Jesus identified with sinful man when Pontius Pilate declared him “ecce homo”, “here is the man” (Jn 19:5). This is the moment when Jesus became “sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). In the previous verse, Pilate still recognized his innocence. So which man did Jesus, at that moment, become? He became the man who, because of sin, cannot live, but must die (Gn 2:17, Rm 6:23). In a very graphic way, the crown of thorns represents the perversion of grandiose human aspirations and thoughts of becoming equal to God (Gn 3:5) and the purple robe, the arrogant pretence that we can still govern the world while denying that the robe itself is inadequate to cover our bleeding and naked bodies (Gn 3:7). But he who lifts himself up will be laid low and humbled. Jesus died in our stead.
Third T&M – Jesus identified fully with our humanity, both innocent and sinful, by entering human history. But such identification with man (the nature of incarnation) was still for Jesus inadequate. He was looking for an even deeper transformation, that we would be restored into his image (2Co 3:18; 1Jn 3:2), and thereby, back to our true, initial and human identity (Gn 1:26-27). To accomplish this, not only did he want to walk in our midst but actually live in our hearts by his Spirit (Jn 14:16-17). “Dwell in me and I will dwell in you” (Jn 15:4), the place of communion and union with God. Again, God transforms us from the inside out.
The first three T&Ms are celebrated in our three major Christian feast days of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. The fourth T&M concerns us today.
Fourth T&M – It’s only after his disciples had received his Spirit that Jesus sent them into the world as his ambassadors and witnesses to his reign. All of Creation has been anticipating “the revelation of the sons of God” (Rm 8:19), human beings reconciled with God and transformed into Christ’s image, ready to finally accomplish God’s initial plan, foretold in Gn 1:28, to govern over the earth where his kingdom is to come (Mt 6:10). Jesus didn’t come into the world to inaugurate a plan B by which to save us from fallen Creation but to reconcile “all that is in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). At no time did Jesus give over the world to Satan (Mt 13:24-30). We are in the world, “the field”, legitimately because this is where God has sent us. We are called to go into the heart of the world at all levels and in all spheres in order to live out the present and coming Kingdom.
Kenosis – the First Principle of Incarnation
The principles of incarnation exemplified by Jesus include the love of neighbour, stranger and enemy. They also establish that grace is the strengthening of relationships of trust in which truth can be shared. In John 1:14-17, the word, grace, appears four times and truth but twice and always preceded by “grace”. We are also sent to serve our fellow human beings just as Jesus came to serve (Mt 20:28). I, however, want to focus on what I consider the first principle of incarnation and found in Ph 2:5-8. In order to come into the world, Jesus had to leave his primary place of belonging, that with which he was most familiar and in which he shared the glory of the Father. In Jn 17:5, Jesus prays, “give me back the glory that was mine before the foundation of the world”. To become a man, Jesus left his glory behind and for thirty years, no one in Nazareth knew that God lived at the corner carpentry shop. Discretion would be another principle of incarnation, but we’re focusing here on the self-emptying of Jesus in Ph 2:7. The Greek word, kenosis, is found this one time only in Scripture. What does it mean for us whom he has sent into the world as his witnesses?
Like Jesus, those of us called to serve as missionaries are also called to leave our own religious and social cultures and traditions behind us in order to identify with the particular people group to whom we are sent. We are called to learn their language and culture, read their authors, watch their movies, listen to their music and eat their food to the point that they become a part of us. These are the religious and cultural references by and through which they interpret life and that we need to not only understand but also refer to in order to progressively introduce he who is the life, Jesus, the Christ, in a way that is appropriate and significant for their own culture. Inculturation is the catholic version of protestant contextualization but with the added notion of “in” – culturation, penetrating and becoming familiar with the actual culture to which we are sent.
It is well known that much missionary work done through the ages was done in a spirit of colonialism often hand in hand with the European political and economical powers of their day. Mission work and church planting in particular was done with the idea of bringing European culture (their own glory with which they were most familiar) to the pagan peoples of other cultures around the world. Missionaries sought to reproduce their own religious cultures and traditions worldwide. They still do. Kenosis was and is often absent from these efforts. In colonialism, the church never stepped sufficiently outside of its’ own culture to fully incarnate, inculturate and embed (to cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole) the gospel within the local cultural norms.
The challenge of kenosis, incarnation, still exists today for the evangelical movement, including YWAM. Globalization and the internet make kenosis, the leaving of our own cultures, all that much more difficult today. There’s a cost associated with kenosis. We too easily use the language of living on the edge without really paying the price. For years, I asked the Global Youth Network university teams we sent to Africa and Latin America from Montreal to leave as much as possible their culture at home, including their iPods, in order to have their ears free to hear the local sounds, silences and music. I also encouraged them to keep their cameras and other stuff discreet because so often what they were wearing on their backs and carrying in their bags were of greater value than what the local populations they were working with could ever hope to obtain in their lifetimes. The more we bring of ourselves, the less we are able and available to learn locally. Kenosis, self-emptying, remains an essential principle of being like Christ in the world. “As he is, so are we in the world”. (Jn 4:17)
Pierre LeBel is the coordinator of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Montreal, which he founded in 1986. He is an elder at YWAM Canada as well as a member of the North American Cities Leadership Team. His ongoing vision has always been to live out his Christian faith within the confines of contemporary culture, particularly in French-speaking, secular and postchristian Montreal. This has led him to create various ministry initiatives into Montreal's New Age, arts and student populations. He directs, in Montreal, the bilingual URBAN CULTURES Project (previously Discipleship Training School). He is the author of a book, “IMAGO DEI, devenir pleinement humain (becoming fully human) ». Pierre and his wife, Alice, have three children, all married, and 4 grandchildren.