On Thursday, I will turn 34.
And while that just sounds like the biggest pitch ever for Facebook birthday messages (you better post on my wall, you guys), I mention it because this one is kind of significant. 33 was a death year for me, a year of loss, of endings. I’m hoping 34 will signal some resurrection.
An interesting byproduct of death and failure and endings (we closed our church plant last August after a grueling season of transition in the community, which resulted in me losing two jobs) is discovering your deepest, realest self. The layers of pretense and ego are forcibly stripped away and all you are left with is…you. And Jesus. And the people who matter most. As the last 6 months have unfolded, I’ve experienced God doing a clarifying work, perhaps the beginnings of resurrection in the midst of the rubble of 33: the truly important things in life have suddenly come into focus, and with that, a clearer sense of calling in ministry and mission, too.
I wonder if something like this happened to Paul in the early years of ministry. If trial and error, opposition, criticism, and failure had a clarifying effect upon him so that he could, at some point, discern exactly what he was called to do (cf. Acts 13:46). It seems like that’s what happens towards the end of Romans when he starts talking about his calling:
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Insofar as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I celebrate my particular ministry, so that, if possible, I can make my “flesh” jealous, and save some of them. (Ro. 11:13, KNT).
Here it is with a more applicable rendering in the Message:
But I don’t want to go on about them. It’s you, the outsiders, that I’m concerned with now. Because my personal assignment is focused on the so-called outsiders, I make as much of this as I can when I’m among my Israelite kin, the so-called insiders, hoping they’ll realize what they’re missing and want to get in on what God is doing.
And then in Romans 16, he sees this particular ministry as having a particular gospel:
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith - to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen (vv. 25-27, NIV).
There are two things that Paul came to understand about his deepest self and his particular calling in the whole scope of God’s work in the world.
1) He understood the particular content and expression of his own embodied message of good news in the Messiah.
2) He understood the particular people to whom his message was intended because of how his own heart and life was bound to them.
It bears noting that this was not a condescending and superficial thing for Paul, as so many attempts by evangelical culture to “reach” certain groups or demographics have been. The idea was not to adapt some abstract, absolute message to the particular group by dressing it up in various cultural accoutrements (like today’s evangelical indie rock or hipster style) to make it more attractive and cool to the “outsiders.” Nor was the idea to gut and deconstruct every historical and theological tidbit that Paul had come to rely on for fear that the Gentiles might be offended in their often excessive greed, power, and polyamorous worship/sexuality (like today’s progressive theologies are sometimes fond of doing).
Instead, Paul’s gospel message was embodied in relationship and experience. His heart and life were bound to the Gentiles by his own Roman citizenship and heritage (he knew, understood, loved, and lived among these outsiders) and he had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit among them (who can argue against that?!). He was inexorably tied to a historic theological and spiritual anchor, but this gospel was not an abstract or an absolute that could only be altered superficially. We might say as the gospel story was embodied in Paul and his particular calling, it was substantially transfigured to become his gospel to the Gentiles.
On Thursday, I will turn 34.
And now, more than ever, I understand that my particular calling embodies a particular gospel to a particular people. My gospel is to the outsiders, too – to progressive culture. It is not a pandering, deconstructed “progressive gospel,” nor is it a condescending, superficial adaptation of an abstract absolute dressed in extra cool clothes. Rather, it’s an embodiment of the historic, anchored story to the people I most identify with, live among, know, and love right here in uber-nonreligious and uber-progressive Burlington, Vt. This evangel is the evangel of Jesus the Messiah, substantially transfigured before the culture in which I find my identity and calling.
And I am beginning to celebrate my particular ministry.
A couple thoughts to close this personal birthday post.
There are two clear marks of knowing what your gospel is, and who your people are.
1) You are often driven to affirm that your people are right. In matters social, spiritual, and civil, you are even willing to buck the prevailing
religious wisdom and power structures to affirm them. Sure, religious folks may envision God as the aloof, distant, and exclusive patriarch, but really, in him we all live, move, and have our being, as your own poets have said, and he is not far from any of us, not even the so-called “outsiders” (Acts 17). As mentioned, it goes the other way too – idols are confronted – but that happens in the midst of much affirmation.
2) You are often driven to defend your outsider-people against religious folks who seek to marginalize them – no matter how influential those religious people might be. You may even suffer loss because of it – but you will still defend your people, and usually you will jump to their defense before you will jump to the defense of a theology. That’s how embodiment in relationship and experience works. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I stood up to him face to face. He was in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11; see also Gal. 1 & Acts 15:2). Especially when privileged/powerful people seek to silence or dismiss the voices of outsiders and marginalized people, you spring into action to speak up for them.
So. That’s my gospel.
And, at 34, I’m sticking to it.
Perhaps you’ve come to the point of increasing clarity about your gospel to your people. If so, I’d love to hear about it.