What the Incarnation Means for the Church

Originally posted on 1 May 2006

These are notes I used for a study on the issue of the Incarnation.

One of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith is the Incarnation. This is a technical theological word that describes the fact that God became a human. Jesus Christ was both 100% a man and 100% God. The implications of this has kept theologians both thinking and fighting with each other for the past 2000 years. I am not sure that we will ever fully understand the Incarnation, but I want to share with you tonight what I believe the Incarnation means for the church – for us, today.

When Jesus was on earth, he taught us how to live lives pleasing to God. It is not just His words and his preaching that are important. Its His example and what He actually did that are important, too.

When we think of the Incarnation as a model for us, we probably immediately think of missionaries who leave the land of their birth and go to a far off country where they have to learn a new language, wear strange clothes and participate in weird customs. But that isn’t the only application of Jesus’s example. The Incarnation is a model of ministry for us here in our church.

Right at the start of His ministry, Jesus called a select group of 12 disciples to be with him, and live with him in community for 3 years. In addition to this group, there were at least 72 others who regularly lived with the disciples and travelled with them. There were many hundreds who offered them hospitality and, of course, many thousands who would come every now and again to hear Jesus preach.


In calling the first of the 12, Jesus used a particular invitation, that was culturally appropriate for these fishermen.

Mark 1:16-18 (NLT)

One day as Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew, fishing with a net, for they were commercial fishermen.  Jesus called out to them, “Come, be my disciples, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and went with him.

Our view = lone man on the rocks, throwing line into heaving ocean. Or lone man, half asleep on the banks of river. Waiting. Hoping.

Their view – correct interpretation = collaborative event. Nets, dragging, active, going out onto the water. Dredging. Then, they’d come back to shore to do two things: (1) sift through what they’d dragged up in their nets to see what was valuable and what was not, and (2) mend their nets, and get ready for the next expedition out to sea.

These two views of fishing explain a radical shift taking place in the world right now. Some people refer to it as the emerging church. Others prefer to call it the missional church. Whatever its called, there is a growing movement around the world that is questioning the way we’ve done church our whole lives. One of the key shifts these people are seeing is the move from an attractional model of Church to a missional model.

EXPLAIN: Attractional

Focus is on church activities; inviting non-churched to come to us; being “seeker sensitive”; creating programmes, groups, activities and events that church members can invite their non-Christian friends to, where their friends will hear the Gospel. This is includes everything from Billy Graham type “crusades”, to youth groups, outreach services and Alpha courses.

It is these types of ministries that the church usually supports with money and publicity.

EXPLAIN: Missional

I believe we need to move to model that is much more relational – that focuses more on friendships than programmes. The emphasis must be on us going out there, rather than getting them to come here.

The problem is that we have successfully separated our “spiritual” lives from our “secular” lives. We have church in a box, and don’t see ourselves as being incarnated in the world, to be salt and light wherever we are.

So, for example, when we think of the ministries of the church, do we think of asking each church member what they are already doing in their neighbourhood and places of work? Do we make an attempt to identify the medical practitioner who has changed their approach to patients by providing counselling and practical support rather than just the diagnosis and prescription of medications. Do we support people who have joined the community police Forum so that they can assist in containing crime and supporting the beleaguered police force?  Do we pray for the support the teacher who has started working in a township school with all the issues of poverty affecting her pupils?

Our church rightly supports a number of orphanages and homes for children affected by HIV/AIDS. But, when a family who is living in one of the richest suburbs in the richest city on the poorest continent decides to pay their domestic worker more than triple the minimum wage, so that she can support her family and help her own children to have an education and escape the cycle of poverty, should we not see this as an important ministry of the Kingdom of God?

We need to see that business man, students, lecturers, electricians, homemakers, plumbers, accountants and everyone else has potential missional roles to play in their worlds.

If a business person started a prayer breakfast in a local restaurant, churches are likely to notify their members and support the event. But if that same business person attempts to use her influence to develop ethical schemes through her business to invest in social causes that will create jobs for the unemployed, we traditionally don’t see this as mission. We don’t see the strong creation of friendships that parents make through the local school as being anything to do with mission – unless they’re inviting them to church. We don’t see the regular gathering of skateboarders at the local shopping centre as part of the net that catches people into the kingdom of God.

But we should!

We need to move to a missional model of thinking about church.

Jesus calls every single one of us to be fishers of men. How can we do that? Who are the “fish”? What are our nets?

Well – fairly obvious who the fish are – the people that God wants to bring into His Kingdom.

The Nets? The connection between fisherman and fish = the web of relationships you have with these people.

I believe that we need to understand the sacred nature of our relationships with our non-Christian friends. In fact, let’s start by not calling them non-Christian friends. I’d prefer to think of them as “not-yet-Christian” friends. (I don’t think of my wife as “not a man”). Changing our language will display the hope we have in the process.

Everything that we do to interact with them, and to impact them, and to demonstrate Christ and His Kingdom to them, should be seen as ministry. And it should be sacred and recognised as such by the church. It is a sacred and revolutionary infiltration into the world.

We realise it may take some time. It took Jesus 33 years to infiltrate the community he incarnated into. It took him 30 years of socialising before he even started preaching! And, in his whole lifetime, he only specifically targeted 12 people. But, if every Christian spent their whole lives just evangelising one other person, the 1.5 billion Christians in the world would double every 20 years or so, and the whole world would be Christian within 50 years.

Jesus says, “Come follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people”.

This has been called Friendship Evangelism. (For and Against)

How do we do this Missionally, not just socially?

1. A Commitment to Holiness

Matthew 5:16 — In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Built into the heart of NT teaching on the church is the idea that when Christians live Christ-like lives, their example will be so tantalising and intriguing that it will attract people to ask questions and to want to live in the same way.

Unfortunately, especially in business, this is not always the case.

What different does Jesus make in your life?

We must make the Gospel of the Kingdom of God attractive by living it right under the noses of the people who have not yet embraced it. A consistent Biblical theme.

Micah 6:8 — O people, the Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Holiness as a well, not a fence.

Holiness is a goal not a pre-requisite.

Holiness is not meant to be a big stick to hit people with. Its meant to be an attractive lifestyle, drawing people to Christ.

It should not be an entry criteria (for joining a church). It should be a leadership criteria for those responsible for the spiritual health of the community.

Titus 2:7-10

And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good deeds of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching.  Let your teaching be so correct that it can’t be criticized.  Then those who want to argue will be ashamed because they won’t have anything bad to say about us.

Slaves must obey their masters and do their best to please them. They must not talk back or steal, but they must show themselves to be entirely trustworthy and good. Then they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive in every way.

2. A Commitment to Supporting Evangelists

Although we’re each called to be evangelists in every way we can, there are those that are especially gifted in explaining the Gospel to people, and answering their questions in such a way that they get it. Evangelists are listed together with teachers, pastors and apostles in the Bible.

Every week we make sure that we put ourselves in a place where we connect with teachers. To feed our souls and grow our understanding.

We need to see our role too in connecting our friends with evangelists. If we truly understood the role of the evangelist, they’d be in hot demand for dinner parties, weekends away with mates and informal chat sessions. EXPAND.

It could become such a task that the church needs to subsidise their income, to give them more time to do the work of an evangelist. Part of what our pastors should be involved in. Yet, in most churches, pastors spend all their time looking after the Christians. And if a pastor gets involved in a local jogging club, or bridge group or women’s group, they’re often accused of NOT doing their job.

1 Cor. 9:13-14 — Don’t you know that those who work in the Temple get their meals from the food brought to the Temple as offerings? And those who serve at the altar get a share of the sacrificial offerings.  In the same way, the Lord gave orders that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it.

(CONTEXT (ch 9) = evangelist and being in not-yet-Christian homes)

3. A Commitment to Prayer

What we are doing is a spiritual mission.

Pray for evangelists.

Matthew 9:36-38 — He felt great pity for the crowds that came, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.  He said to his disciples, “The harvest is so great, but the workers are so few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send out more workers for his fields.”

Not just foreign missions. This is wherever there are people who are not-yet-Christian.

Pray that the evangelists will be effective.

Ephes. 6:19  –    And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words as I boldly explain God’s secret plan that the Good News is for the Gentiles, too.

Pray for your friends.

4. A Commitment to Socialising

We need to stay close to those who are not-yet-Christian. We must engage fully with them, not treating them as a project with a deadline, but actively being “friends of sinners”. This was an insult label the religious leaders slapped onto Jesus – but one that He gratefully accepted and made His own.

Friend of sinners –the Incarnation of the very Son of God. A model for us.

We need to live, eat, work and play with not-yet-Christians. We must go to THEIR world, not waiting for them to come to ours. This must be done in their homes, and in ours.

EXAMPLES:


  • What about the remote controlled racing club at the shopping centre near our house? They meet only on a Sunday morning.
  • Student friends at varsity – won’t come to church, but want to chat about spiritual things with you.
  • Your next door neighbours who are living together and often invite you around for an evening of board games with their group of friends.
  • All the people in your office.

But our commitment to socialising also means a commitment to going outside our comfort zones, to risk being rejected and even persecuted, and to ensure that our group of friends includes the excluded, the marginalised, the weak and the poor.

Col. 4:3-6

Don’t forget to pray for us, too, that God will give us many opportunities to preach about his secret plan—that Christ is also for you Gentiles. That is why I am here in chains.  Pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should.

Live wisely among those who are not Christians, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and effective so that you will have the right answer for everyone.

5. A Commitment to Spiritual Community

Stay connected to a church. Some of the examples above might mean you need to spend Sunday morning with your friends, and not at church. That’s OK, as long as you stay connected to a spiritual community.

Feed your soul. Put stuff in, so that there is stuff to come out when the opportunity arises.

6. A Commitment to the Kingdom (to be Jesus MAD – make a difference)

1 Peter 3:15 – Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.

If we do our work: living holy lives, praying for our not-yet-Christian friends, socialising regularly and building genuine friendships with them, demonstrating the Kingdom in how we live, introducing them to our evangelist friends, then God can do His work: giving them the gift of faith and saving them by the work of His Holy Spirit in them.

This is what the church needs to be doing.

I acknowledge inspiration for this article/sermon from the fanstatic book, “The Shaping of Things to Come” by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson, 2003).

2 thoughts on “What the Incarnation Means for the Church”

  1. When I originally posted this entry, John van der Laar ([email protected]) provided an excellent comment which I include now, because he makes such excellent points:

    Thanks Graeme for these thoughts.
    I agree that the incarnation is at the heart of our Christian life, and needs to be revisited/redefined/recovered for today’s church.

    I must confess, though, that I am a little disappointed with the level at which you addressed this. I have come to respect the depth and thoroughness of your thinking both in business and in theology, but I feel you were shallow here. This is not to say that your thoughts were not valid; just that there was nothing startling or particularly incarnational about your ideas (in my not-so-humble opinion).

    You gave a very normal evangelical list of good Christian things to do – but apart from recognising ministry and mission outside of normal church understandings, these had little real incarnational foundation. They are much the same as a lot of what other people, who are less interested in the incarnation, are saying.

    I say this because for the last five years or so my work and my ministry have been based on study, research and reflection on the implications of the incarnation and its human, worship-life counterpart, the sacrament (see also my book Food for the Road: Life Lessons from the Lord’s Table).

    What strikes me about the incarnation is the miracle of the union of the divine and the human – or in other words, the union of spirit and matter.

    If we truly believe in the incarnation, we cannot believe the kingdom of God is outside of us. It must be, as Jesus said, within us. If we truly believe in the incarnation, then God is present in flesh – ours, and all of creation’s (See Rom 8:21-23 & Ps.139:7-12). If we truly believe in the incarnation then all of life is sacred, and our call is recognise the sacredness of it all, and seek to affirm, encourage and nurture this sacredness, both within ourselves and others (Here your points about ministry in the ordinary stuff of ethical, people-nurturing behaviour is relevant).

    The incarnation is a shocking act of inclusiveness – of Christ being “all in all” – and must encourage us to move out of our exclusivity, Christian empire-building aspirations (like hoping the whole world will become Christian – yes, may they all seek to follow Christ, but does this mean they must all go to church, or follow our religion?), and dichotomous notions of the separation of the spiritual from the material.

    This is a bit of a rant – sorry. But I hope to encourage you to risk a bit more on this issue, and to go deeper with the implications of a truly incarnational theology.

    For what it’s worth.
    John

    PS. At the risk of being accused of spam! You can get more of my thinking and work at my website (http://www.sacredise.com ) if you’re inteested, or at my blog (http://www.sacredise.blogspot.com)

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