“The Kingdom of God is among you,” said Jesus to the Pharisees when they asked when this supposed kingdom of which he spoke would come (Luke 17:21 [NRSV]). It is interesting that in this encounter Jesus says that the kingdom is not coming with things that can “be observed” – paratērēseōs (Englishman’s Greek Concordance on http://www.bible.cc). A brief word study reveals that only Luke uses this word, and its close cognates are used by him in describing the Pharisees “watching closely” to try to catch Jesus in something with which they can entrap and destroy him. They are looking for some big sign that Jesus is trying to overtly conquer and supplant the existing system of empire (political and religious) by force. Jesus makes the point here in Luke 17:20-21 that such will not be the case. Indeed, it is the very opposite. The kingdom is already here, in the very midst of empire. It is like a mustard seed and the shrub it produces, like the yeast in a batch of dough (Luke 13:18-20). In other words, the reign of God is something that arises unnoticed, right under your nose, and even the most watchful of adversaries cannot defeat it. Such is my experience of the New Day community at Amani House (Missional Wisdom).
My arrival at Amani house on a Sunday evening to share in the community celebration was preceded by a visit there led by Dr. Elaine Heath as part of the Perkins School of Theology at SMU Doctor of Ministry course “Evangelism and Discipleship for a Missional Church” which she led along with Rev. Wes Magruder. That earlier session introduced the location, some key leadership, and the general format of a New Day gathering. While the Sunday evening hospitality was warm and inviting, I imagine that my experience then was colored by the preceding orientation. Familiarity helped me to relax more than I otherwise might, and being known and recognized by some of the leaders added to my comfort and sense of belonging. Though I was aware that this was not my community, I nonetheless felt welcomed by them. This familiarity may also have given them some freedom to spend less energy and attention on me than if I were completely new.
Lastly and most personally, I tend to make myself at home wherever I am, even when I am a stranger in a strange land. This temperament has served me well, I think, in cross cultural settings because I have felt free to let down my guard. A risk is that I might assume a less formal interaction in new relationships than is customary in other cultures. I wonder how much of this comes to me by virtue of being a straight, white, middle class, Protestant male. As a member of the most privileged group in our culture, I have had the least need to overcome obstacles to opportunity. I was formed in settings where I was a member of the host group, which I think leads to a presumption of belonging and familiarity that may be false, particularly in settings like the one where Amani House is being formed – in a community largely of African refugees.
This turning of the tables was one of the greatest gifts of my experience – to receive the hospitality of those who were actively seeking to make a home in this new land – a true parable of the Kingdom of God. The last become first, the first last, the servant becomes the host and the host becomes the guest. This illustrates the way Sarah Miles writes in Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead about her encounters with the vulnerable and marginalized (Miles 2010, 3). She is challenged by her own presumptions, and finds herself guilty of judging others though she herself has been an object of scorn (Miles 2010, 36-37). It is the encounter with others in surprising ways that prompts a new awareness of the deep humanity present in each person, a humanity that cradles the image of God. It is the recognition of this humanity and a growing love for it that finally leads us to transformation. We discover that the other has become us, and we have become the other, that truly Jesus creates “in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Ephesians 2:15). I love how Miles frames Jesus’ formation of community as the means to eternity:
When Jesus enters into relationship with outcasts and shares their social death, he starts a process of resurrection. The unclean become full, living people, born again. They are reincorporated – that is, re-bodied – into the community. And the community is healed into wholeness from separation, made new.” (Miles 2010, 15)
One of the striking experiences of this visit related to food. Earlier that day my home congregation had a fellowship covered dish dinner where individuals and families bring a dish, or two, as they are able. For the fifty people in attendance, we probably had six meat dishes, eight casseroles, six salads and twelve deserts. There was enough food for each person to fill their plate three times over. By contrast, a simple, wonderfully nutritious and flavorful pot of beans and steamer of aromatic rice fed 30 people at Amani house. I was reminded of Elaine Heath’s three practices of Eco-Evangelism, the third of which is to speak prophetically about unchecked consumerism. (Heath 2008, 171) The buffet in the early afternoon was not a celebratory feast, but simply an example of gluttony, whereas the miracle of loaves and fishes was experienced by that New Day community, and I experienced far more satisfaction, physically and spiritually, from that simple bowl than from the lunch that had preceded it.
The first time I read Heath’s book I was taken by her statement that “Christians are yearning for a simpler, unfettered relationship with God in community, for a new day for the church” (Heath 2008, 36). This reminded me of a postcolonial critique of the contemporary church, and I wrote in the margin of my book, “This longing may be met in and through the liberative journey of the base community and the encounter with ‘the least of these’, who are Christ to us when we serve them and when we refuse. They are Christ to us in relationship. We encounter God anew when we encounter them, and if we refuse, then we will not encounter God in grace, but in judgment.” Later I wrote, “Redemption for the Middle Class church is found in relationship with the poor and oppressed,” in response to Heath’s description of the Beguines’ commitment “to know experientially the ‘otherness’ of God’s kenotic love. It was this that I found at New Day, at least for myself. This is, in part, the explanation and justification for the place of white middle class churches in relationship to Missional micro congregations among the two thirds world, whether as immigrant and refugees, or in their home countries, such as those found at New Day.
I think the key to New Day, to Missional Communities and Micro Churches broadly considered, lies in Jesus’ statements about the kingdom of God. It is already here, maybe only within us, but then by grace among us. It is about mustard seeds growing under the noses of the establishment. It is not about going toe to toe with empires, secular or religious, any more than Jesus did with his contemporaries. This may be the reason that “the church” must continue to do attractional evangelism, undergirding as much as possible the establishment. All the while, the very same people are doing missional evangelism, out scattering seeds on the wind, letting them land where they may, trusting that some of them will find their way to good soil in which God will produce good fruit (Mark 4). In the process of grafting in, of filling new wineskins, the old vine, the old wine skins are redeemed – all are redeemed together.
Heath, Elaine A. 2008. The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemporary Vision for Christian Outreach. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
http://missionalwisdom.com/new-day/worshipping-communities/amani/ (accessed February 13, 2013)
http://biblesuite.com/greek/parate_re_seo_s_3907.htm (accessed February 11, 2013)
McNeal, Reggie. 2011. Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miles, Sarah. 2010. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Roxburgh, Alan J. and M. Scott Boren. 2009. Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.