Sign, Instrument, & Foretaste
Here’s something I’m realizing about myself: I could preach on the church – and the mission of the church – forever. As I’m preparing any individual sermon on any given week throughout our current “What in the World?” series, I continually want to break up what I’m writing into 2 or 3 new sermons…or series (for instance, on Friday, I briefly considered breaking up last Sunday’s sermon into 3 different sermons…which I had already broken into 2 different sermons!).
I guess what I’m saying is, I think the church – and her mission – matters a lot. A lot, a lot.
Because I think this broken world matters a lot to God. A lot, a lot.
It’s why he sent Jesus.
We’ve talked about witness (and could have talked about it for many more weeks, trust me!). But there are many other ways to talk about the church and her mission. We won’t even get into the “great commission” in this series (“Go, and make disciples…” – Matt. 28:19-20). We will in the future, I promise. We won’t even have a chance to get into too many of Paul’s ideas – like how we are “ambassadors” for Christ in the world (2 Cor. 5:20). And we barely touched on Peter’s. Or a lot of other ones. In fact, I have a book that details 96 “Images of the Church in the New Testament” – and it’s not even all of them! There’s a lot to say.
But with the help of Lesslie Newbigin (who I talked about a few weeks ago), I want to offer you 3 ‘images’ (not even in the 96!) that I think are helpful to fill out the idea of us being his ‘witnesses’:
the church as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace.
Below is an excerpt from him, taken from his brilliant “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” (pgs. 232-3). He’s talking about how, at one time, Christianity had the “high ground” in society. By this, he meant that Christianity and the Church was largely trusted and believed by (Western) society, but how in the modern age, we surrendered this “high ground” (the reasons are many and diverse!).
The question he’s asking is now that we are in a ‘post-modern’ world, how do we regain this “high ground”? Can we?
Here’s his answer:
“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the ‘high ground’ which they vacated in the noontime of ‘modernity,’ it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the ’Constantianian’ era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden, and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
According to Newbigin, we are to exist – not first for ourselves, but for the world around – as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace. Let’s think about those three for a minute.
What does a sign do? Think about it. It either points the way to go, or tells you you’ve arrived. The church is meant to do the same. To point to God’s redeeming grace, to point the way to go, and to alert you to the fact that you’ve arrived at it. As a witness, we do the same: we point to God’s grace with our words, actions, and whole lives. How can we point people to God better?
An instrument is a tool one uses to accomplish something. A musical instrument is what a musician uses to make music. A surgical instrument is what a surgeon uses for surgery. For the artist, a paintbrush is an instrument for art. For the carpenter, a hammer is an instrument for building. For God, the Church is the instrument through which God has chosen to make himself known to the world. As witnesses – instruments to ‘make God’s case’, he lifts us up to do his work. But we are not lifeless, like a guitar, scalpel, paintbrush, or hammer. We have a will of our own, and can push back on God. So, how can we allow God to ‘use’ us better as his instrument in the world? To perform the music of his grace for the world? To cut out the disease of evil and brokenness? To paint a new picture of his love? To build a house for those who are homeless apart from God?
A warm day in February is a foretaste of spring. The aroma of a delicious steak is a foretaste of what’s to come in the actual meal. A foretaste makes you want to strive forward to get the real thing. We, too, are to be a foretaste of life as it was meant to be, life with God, Life with a capital L – that’s meant to draw people to pursue the ‘real thing’. We are called to be – re-made to be! – a foretaste of the new creation that God is bringing to this world. As witnesses, not only to we speak about the life with God, but our lives are meant to embody it – and give people a taste of it. How can we better give people a taste of Life with a capital L, so that they want to pursue it themselves?
See what I mean? If you’ve read this far, you know what I mean: there’s a lot to say! So give time, this week, to think about how we can be better at being the sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace…at being his witnesses in the world.
And by the way, if the Newbigin quote resonated with you, I encourage you to try reading him. Some of it’s tough reading, but it’s worth a shot. I’d love to sit down with you and help you understand him if you get stuck! Here’s some recommendations to dive in:
- A Walk Through the Bible (very accessible overview of the story of scripture)
- The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (his most important work, a series of essays that will blow your mind)
- The Open Secret (his introduction to the theology of mission)
- The Church and Its Vocation, by Michael Goheen (a book about Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology that is fairly accessible but comprehensive)
Too much to say!