An Embodied Gospel for an Embodied People

Genesis 2:7 (NIV) – Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being

The inseparability of the human body and the human spirit is a foundation of integral mission. The a’dam became alive when his physical body and the spirit from God were combined. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. The proper object of the misio Dei is humankind, all of whom are embodied spirits.

Unfortunately, the culture that has carried the Christian tradition for the last several centuries is a culture which invented the division of labor, the division of the public and private, the physical and spiritual, compartmentalization. It is a culture that values efficiency very highly.

In this culture, we are tempted to divide the mission of God into its components, and prioritize the most urgent. After all, mission is an urgent task. The time is short, Paul says.

So we think in terms of triage. Should we devote our time in proclaiming the good news or in meeting the physical, mental, emotional, and social needs of the poor and oppressed? Different traditions have emphasized different aspects: the mainline denominations emphasizing social programs and more evangelical denominations emphasizing pure proclamation.

The key insight of the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana was that both of these “gospels” were a diminished form of the gospel. They were the gospel lite, and our brothers and sisters from Latin America noticed that an incomplete gospel produced fruit that was not in keeping with the values of the kingdom.

There is a spiritual reality that underlies everything. God is spirit. Humanity (including Jesus) is embodied spirit. Jesus holds everything physical together constantly by his spiritual power. The spirit is undeniably “more important” than the physical. But what does that really mean? Why does God go to the trouble of creating these fleshly tents? Why does Jesus feel the need to do miracles?

James 2 has a strong condemnation for those who think that the gospel can be proclaimed without being lived out. Even the demons believe, fool! Faith is not about believing that God exists. It’s about allegiance to God’s kingdom and values. And that allegiance requires that you actually love your brother instead of encouraging him to stay “warm and filled”, to actually help your neighbor instead of crossing to the other side of the road to avoid his broken body on your way to church.

On the other hand, the Pharisees offer an example for those who think that good works are sufficient. What makes your good deeds different from theirs, or from the good deeds of people of other faiths? Nothing! Nothing. Deeds are never self-explanatory. Humans will always impart a narrative on a deed without an explanation that fits with their understanding of the world and how it works. As such, deeds proclaim the gospel, but without words explaining the reason behind them, those deeds are mute. (Hebrews 11).

The gospel of love, forgiveness and new life in Jesus is the most important message that exists. If you doubt that, read through the gospels again and see how much importance Jesus puts on himself and his Father as opposed to anything else. To offer only water to the thirsty is to be short-sighted to the point of blindness and to have forgotten what importance Jesus placed on the spiritual. He died for forgiveness and reconciliation. Remember?

The gospel is like humanity, it must be embodied.

God acted in the Old Testament (mostly) through his prophets. Jesus acted in the Gospels. The apostles and the church acted in the Acts and the Epistles. The idea that you can hand out a tract as a presentation of the gospel is absurd. Fortunately, God uses absurd things to accomplish His purposes. Remember Balaam’s donkey?

But the message of Scripture is “I’ll show you my faith by my deeds.” One without the other is dead.

Both sides of the fundamentalist/liberal conflict that split Christianity in the early 20th century were wrong. The liberals kept social justice, but forgot that social justice is based on God’s justice and forgiveness, and that the most important part of justice is the divine justice (and mercy!) shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fundamentalists kept evangelism, and soon enough found that a “words only” evangelism produces Christians in name only, fire insurance seekers with no allegiance to the gospel and no understanding that the words “love God and your neighbor” actually mean something.

It is a difficult thing to hold the two in view always, while almost always doing one or another. It’s not likely that every single time you do something loving, you are also going to share the good news, is it? Or that every time you have an opportunity to share the gospel, you will be concurrently performing some sort of action? No, the point is that both have to stay in view, and both must be pursued as love and the Holy Spirit demand.

What does integral mission look like in your life? In your work? In your organization?

Are you guilty of trying to separate the spiritual and the physical?

What are the consequences of that separation going to be?

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