The disgrace of Christian outreach

  • Sumo

The whole Bible shows God’s concern for the whole world.

The first three quarters of the Bible maintain focus on one people: Israel. The final one quarter is where God’s word goes out to all, freely offered to all cultures, languages and people.

Why the difference? And what made the change? A short passage in Hebrews powerfully captures the switch. It tells me that God spent great effort establishing a system of imperfect honour so that he could trump this system with perfect disgrace.

Firstly, here’s some evidence for my first two paragraphs.

Whole Bible, whole world
Page one: God created the heavens and the earth. As Genesis continues, we run into those pesky family trees. We might find them tiresome, but they place the narrower Biblical story inside the story of ‘all people.’ When Abraham enters, his promised blessing is at once very personal and universal (see Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham’s story narrows down again and again: it’s Isaac, not Ishmael; then it’s Jacob, not Esau. This narrow group of Hebrews dominates the limelight for the Old Testament. Even so, the world is linked to their fortunes. Israel is the Lord’s nation because the whole earth is his (Exodus 19:5). The glory days of Israel’s kingdom were a magnet for the whole world (1 Kings 10:23-25). Despite later sin and judgement, God promised a glorious future where the world would again make pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Micah 4:1-2).

Three quarters, one quarter
Despite this universal concern, most of the Bible covers relatively local events. We mostly stay in the land of Canaan, with the people of Israel. When the story goes outside of this (in the first 75%) there’s usually something wrong: drought, famine, judgement, military loss, … Jesus himself sent his disciples, but not to the Gentiles – they went on a Jewish-ears-only mission (Matthew 10:5).

It’s in the book of Acts that there is an explosive change. From Acts onwards, even Gentiles come to trust Jesus. Without having to become Jewish first! Gentiles who trust have exactly the same access to forgiveness as do Jews who trust. Hear the astonishment in the voice of Jewish Christians: ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11:18). Inconceivable!

The time we live in now is marked by an astonishing reality: Gentiles listen to the word of salvation (Acts 28:28).

Imperfect honour, perfect disgrace
To understand this change, here’s that paragraph from the book of Hebrews.

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. (Chapter 13, verses 10-13)

Hebrews engages with many details of the old covenant, including priesthood and sacrifice. The altar of sacrifice was to be pure, and to provide purification. The place of sacrifice had many exclusions in order to uphold its holiness (no priests outside the tribe of Levi, no high priest outside the family of Aaron, no high-priests in the temple without blood of sacrifice, …). This system rammed home the truth about God: he’s pure, perfect, clean, holy. This is why sacrificial blood was brought into the holy place, but the unclean carcass was taken outside the camp. Holiness inside, uncleanness outside.

The tabernacle (later temple) was to be honoured highly by God’s people. And when the system was in ideal operation … it was a failure. Blood of bulls and goats does not remove sin (Hebrews 10:4). The centre of honour to the Lord in Israel never worked. Hence: imperfect honour.

But Jesus 

Jesus changed things. Jesus’ death, the perfect sacrifice, occurred in disgrace. He died as an outsider, and died outside the city gates. His death was administered by the world (Romans), not by an appointed priest. This moment of unclean disgrace, however, is the very working of God to save. It is perfect disgrace.

A world of mission
So why, after Easter, do God’s people now actively seek the world? Why is mission normal, for those who trust Jesus?

Because of Jesus’ perfect disgrace. Jesus, on the cross, went to the world. Jesus went to the place most alienated from the Father. Jesus outside the city completed his journey of love. How do we trust Jesus? We trust by going to him in that place of disgrace. We find Jesus ‘outside the camp’, as Hebrews says, not cloistered and hidden behind holy walls. We do not withdraw – we go out and suffer reproach.

Christians should be willing to go public and to be open in precisely the place where we are not safe. (So many times I have been part of the opposite, a comfortable conversation with ‘insiders’ in which we gently mock ‘outsiders.’)

There are many ways to ‘go public’ as Christians. The most important and fundamental, it seems to me, is evangelism. When we ask people to change and to trust Jesus we are most open about our disgraceful beliefs. When we refrain from inviting Christian belief we are most likely to be hiding the disgrace of a crucified Christ.

And now, my idea for a short post has become longer than I usually write for this blog. There’s so much more to consider … Unexplored: what disgrace can look like in daily life; how Christians tend to sanctify avoiding disgrace despite following the crucified one; the difference between reproach and being insensitive. A ripe field for comments and discussion (hint, hint).

In short: mission is placing our disgraceful beliefs in public, because what we believe was the public disgrace of Jesus’ cross.