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Jesus retreated once with his disciples north of Nazareth to Caesarea Philippi, where he asked them what they were hearing people say about his identity and purpose. Their responses ranged from reincarnations of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet. Then Jesus asked them for their own beliefs about his identity: “Who do you all think I am?”

Peter piped up and declared: “You’re the Messiah, the Son of God!” Peter believed Jesus was the long-awaited deliverer of Israel.

Jesus responded positively to Peter’s declaration: “Bless you, Peter! The beloved community I’m founding will rest on the kind of faith you just expressed.” Jesus promised Peter that he’d have spiritual authority in this new community.

Jesus then explains that he’s a different kind of messiah than what most of Israel was expecting — he won’t subjugate Rome with military might; instead he’ll take on the role of suffering servant and be killed and then raised to life. 

Peter, likely high on the spiritual authority just bestowed upon him, takes Jesus aside and scolds him. “That is unbecoming of the messiah, Jesus! May it never happen to you.” 

Jesus turns the rebuke right around: “Back that up, Satan. You’re playing for the wrong team. You aren’t aligned with God but with broken humanity.”

Jesus reveals something to us about discipleship in this story: as we follow Jesus, we need both affirmation and challenge to become more like him. We need to be blessed and encouraged when we’re on the right track, when we’re bearing the fruit of the Spirit. And we need to be challenged when we’re at odds with Jesus’s way — especially when we think we’re actually on the same page! This happens healthily in relationships with people we love and trust, to whom we’ve given permission to speak honestly with us about what they see in our lives.1

This same posture of affirmation and challenge is appropriate for mission, too — the way the church relates to its neighbors. There are elements in our culture to affirm that reflect the heart of God: it might be a hunger for justice and righteousness, or expressions of generosity and hospitality (the list goes on and on, really). It shouldn’t surprise us — if God is the creator of the cosmos, Jesus is Lord over all, and the Spirit is at work in the world beyond the church — to find the image of God reflected in our neighbors and neighborhoods. At the same time, certainly there are elements in our culture that need to be challenged because they are at odds with the heart of God: like injustice, greed, and selfishness.

Missiologist Andrew Walls describes affirmation and challenge with two principles: the “indigenizing” principle and the “pilgrim” principle.2 The indigenizing principle describes the way Christianity historically has indigenized itself, or made itself at home, within cultures, empowering people to live as Christians and at the same time members of their own society. The indigenizing principle, in other words, affirms and inhabits the elements of culture that reflect the heart of God.

The pilgrim principle acknowledges that while God accepts and works through human cultures as they are, God also desires to transform the brokenness of cultures — elements in which the church is not at home in a culture but rather is a pilgrim, elements which are challenged by the reign of God. 

Notice what these principles reveal: Christianity is always “cultured,” or embedded in culture. There is no such thing as a “culture-less” Christian community that somehow stands outside of its surrounding cultures. The church is at once within cultures and its own culture, and so must discern which elements to affirm and which to challenge.

I want to highlight two temptations for predominantly white churches in our U.S. context (the context with which I am most familiar). The first is to focus on affirmation in our own discipleship to the neglect of challenge (e.g., “it’s all about grace”). The second is to focus on challenge in relation to culture/neighbors to the neglect of affirmation (e.g., culture wars; demonizing the non/religious other). And yet, where the church’s witness has been compromised by spiritual abuse and trauma and by complicity with systemic racism and nationalism, we must emphasize the challenge of the gospel in our discipleship. In mission, we must affirm the beauty and goodness we see in our neighbors who have been harmed by the church, or who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness in the public square. 

Wouldn’t this contextual emphasis — opening ourselves to challenge in discipleship and offering affirmation to our neighbors in mission — reflect the heart of our humble, non-coercive Messiah?

1 Hat tip to Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture, for helping me to see this story in this way.

2 Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. 

Charles Kiser is a minister with Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas. You can follow his other writings, including a forthcoming book project on trauma-sensitive evangelism, through his Facebook page or Twitter.

“It’s not our ability that will make a difference in the lives of others. It’s our availability.” -Phil Sanders

 

I was blessed to spend a week in Mexico recently.  My group of seven from Western Kentucky joined with a group from the Sunset International Bible Institute’s Adventure in Missions program (my all-time favorite ministry within the church). We worked with local Christians in Central Mexico by serving orphans, cleaning homes and properties, and loving on people we may never get the privilege of seeing again. We, along with the young missionaries in the AIM program, passed out over 5000 fliers inviting folks to learn English at the Metropolitan Church of Christ located in downtown Mexico City.  We experienced beautiful hospitality from local missionaries as we converged on their home every morning and evening for breakfast and devotionals.

And as we traveled in and around Mexico City, I continually saw signs with the word disponible. For two days, I tried to sound it out. It was quickly becoming the word that I would remember the most about this trip and I didn’t even know what it meant.  I saw it on billboards, pay phones, benches, and bridges. It was on overpasses and freeways. It was everywhere and I was terribly curious but by the time we would arrive at our destination I would become too busy to ask.  Finally, after a couple days I started snapping pictures whenever I saw it, probably missing ancient Aztec ruins behind me while I focused on a word that had me captivated.

I was at the Tuloca Church of Christ building (a couple of hours from Mexico City) a few days into my trip when I remembered to ask a friend what it meant and he replied casually, “Disponible? It means available.” And that’s when I teared up a bit and remembered the quote from one of my favorite preachers. “It’s not your ability… It’s your availability.”

Many people would say it’s just a coincidence that the word that has influenced me the most in my walk with Christ is plastered around a country I didn’t want to visit in the first place and they might be right. It probably means nothing that I had to make myself leave America again. After losing my friend, Roberta Edwards, while she served in Haiti, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be willing to travel outside of America. In fact, the thought of going was too painful. But I made myself pack anyway even while refusing to research the country and where we would be staying before I left.

I love how God pursues his children. He reminds us that he made the world available for those who follow him to step into and make a difference. Not by what we can do, but by what he’s already done. If we are willing to make ourselves available and hospitable to the poor, oppressed, marginalized, the lost and searching, he will do great things. He always has.

The world is available to us to love and serve. Are we available to go and witness the hospitality of those who speak another language? Are we making ourselves, our homes, our country, and our God available to those in need here? That’s not only our mission, that’s the plan for our lives.

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