Action as Sacrament
(An Excerpt from chapter 8, "The Shaping of Things to Come")

Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions or Faith in Christ. . . . It does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thinr that will bring you to the point where you throw in the towel. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of the Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come. -C. S. Lewis

Reaching an Emerging Generation

Earlier we argued that the new global culture holds to a worldview that is holistic in its outlook. It sees a need for a greater integration between spirit and matter. Its perspective on spirituality is more incarnational and immanental than dualistic. In fact, its worldview is closer to the classic Judaistic spirit than to Hellenistic consciousness. With the collapse of both Christendom and modernism, a postmodern sensibility has emerged that relates more powerfully to the hallowing of the everyday and the pursuit of sensuality. The very things we have been outlining, if incorporated into a Christ-centered Christianity, are likely to provide many more portals for postmodern people to access the Christian message than ever before.

Today, contemporary people are searching for an inclusive community that is democratic, nonpatriarchal and compassionate. Their preference for a group is it be raw, not refined; earthy, not sophisticated; concerned with action, not just theory. They articulate a strong interest in the environment, politics, and ethics, not rected by pure ideology but all approached from a concern for human wholeness. is obvious that the various elements of a Hebrew worldview that we've outlined likely to provide plenty of connections for postmodern people. By Hebraizing Christian movement and recovering a messianic spirituality as lived by Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians, we believe the church is in a much better position to calibrate itself to reach an emerging generation.

Let Your Light Shine

We're certain that we can whisper into the souls of postmodern people in order activate a search for God. But we don't believe that sermons or church services will have the same impact they have had in the past to create that hunger for God. Rather . . simple, meat-and-potatoes things like sharing our own story or being loving. This leads us to a question we are often asked about the relationship between proclamation and good works. In some quarters of the church, the emphasis is very much on the former. They train their congregations to share the gospel with their friends, and they hold many outreach or evangelistic events at which the clear preaching of the gospel is expounded. Other churches emphasize good works. They'll often quote Saint Francis's axiom, "Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words." In these churches, social ministries and care for the community constitute mission.

Why is it that there has traditionally been such a dichotomy between proclamation and mercy ministries? While we recognize that there are some notable exceptions, like Soul Survivor in Manchester, we are concerned by this separation of preaching from action. In our model for the missional church, we want to continue to impress the need for a contextualized proclamation of the claims of Christ. But we cannot see how such proclamation has any impact if it does not issue from a loving, hospitable, generous community of faith. In some sectors of the traditional evangelical church there has been a minimizing of the efficacy of good works. It is assumed that because good works cannot save us, we should not be encouraged to perform them as a central part of gospel ministry. This is an overreaction. We agree that good works cannot save us. That is the work of God's grace in Christ. But we insist on seeing godly action as having a sacramental effect.

The recovery of a messianic spirituality that hallows the everyday is essential to tte missional church because it is in the everyday that the missional church exists. If we are an incarnational community, the church must recover the ability to see God in the so-called ordinary world of action. We propose that the church needs to be able to find more innate meaning and purpose in its actions as God's people if we are to become truly missional with an enlarged perspective on life. In other words, we need to be able to redeem both the primacy and the value of the deed done in the furtherance of God's cause in the world. Our spirituality must move from primarily a passive/receptive mode, to an actional mode. This again is paradigmatically different to the way spirituality has generally been conceptualized in Western contexts. The Church must rediscover the ability and inclination to find God in the place of action so that others might find him there as well.

Viewed as such, action itself is a sacrament of grace, not only to the recipient of the gracious act, but to the actor as well. We are advocating a kind of missional action that, when done in the name of Jesus, is the primary sacrament of the missional church. We are proposing an activist understanding of church. By activist we mean that the church must recover its understanding of the holy deed don o God's name, which we find reflected in so much of the Old Testament. Martin Buber is right when he says that "something infinite flows into a (holy) deed of man; something infinite flows from it ... the fullness of the world's destiny namelessly interwoven, passes through his hands." (On Judaism, 86) Just as the Lord's Supper and baptism are sacraments in and through which God's grace is made visible and apparent so ' the holy deed of a godly person. If we take Buber at his word, then we can truly embrace our missional task to communicate the gospel and grace with a great sense of God's nearness in what we do. This is why the missional action is a supreme source of spiritual insight and experience. The rabbis say that no one is lonely when doing a good deed, for this is where God and human meet.

A messianic spirituality has a redemptive approach to all aspects of life. This theme has much to offer us in the construction of a courageous missional spirituality because it gives us a framework to (re) conceptualize our actions in the world. If God acts redemptively, then it is all right for us to act in precisely the same mode.

One of the great themes of Scripture is that God is a redeemer. Redemptive action may take two forms, (a) a redemption by power, whereby people are released from slavery through an act of violence, or (b) redemption by purchase where a kinsman-redeemer pays the price to free a person sold into servitude. God acts in both ways in Scripture (the Cross has both ideas to it), and these can become metaphors for missional action in the world. In other words, God is the redeemer, and in that mode he provides a model for how we can act in the world. To redeem is to buy back that which is lost, clean it up, and put it back to its original intended use.

There is virtually nothing in human existence or culture that cannot be redeemed and made into worship, including action. If we take C. S. Lewis's point that all vices are virtues gone wrong, then we can take a different look at humanity and associated culture. We must be active in all dimensions of human life, especially at the cultural level, because culture is the sphere where people and societies share common meaning. As part of the redemption of all aspects of life we should be actively interpreting movies, literature, pop-culture, experiences, the new age and the like. They can be redeemed and directed to the glory of God. It is precisely these things that have the elements of human searching and yearning in them that must be correlated to t e mind and heart of God if they are to be redeemed. This is exactly what Paul was doing in Acts 17 in his speech on Mars Hill. He was highlighting to the Greek philosophers that the search going on in their own writings was a legitimate one. He then directs them to the resurrection of Jesus. We have to be able to name the name of Jesus in the midst of the search going on in our day-it is our missional responsibility! If we don't, who will? Or do we believe that we have nothing to say about art, culture, and the search for meaning? Acting redemptively will require that we are in the midst of trying to buy back some of the lostness in the name of Jesus.

In saying this we are affirming that our actions, or more particularly our missional deeds, actually confer grace. In fact, this could be the case even more so than the standard (somewhat abstracted) sacraments of the Christendom church. Humans have the freedom to protest against human suffering by acting to alleviate it. An alleviation of suffering in the name of Jesus bestows something of the grace of God through his people. Such an action pulls a person away from his own self-involved concerns and directs him missionally toward other human beings in such a way that they, the persons acted upon and the person acting, find God in a new way. Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel prize for peace and luminous Jewish writer, has a character in one of his books affirm the sacramental value of the human, and humanizing, deed in the following passage from Twilight:

If you could have seen yourself, framed in the doorway [Pedro once said to Michael], you would have believed in the richness of existence-as I do-in the possibility of having it and sharing it. It's so simple! You see a musician in the street; you give him a thousand francs instead often; he'll believe in God. You see a woman weeping, smile at her tenderly, even if you don't know her; she'll believe in you. You see a forsaken old man; open your heart to him, and he'll believe in himself. You will have surprised them. Thanks to you, they will have trembled, and everything around them will vibrate. Blessed is he capable of surprising and of being surprised. (Elie Wiesel, Twilight (Suffolk: Viking, 1988), 69.)

As such, deeds are not only sacramental, but they are themselves revelatory, that is, they reveal God in his goodness. There is a talmudic saying that may be interpreted as meaning that revelation resides within the deed itself: "From within his own deed, man as well as nation hears the voice of God." (Buber, On Judaism, 112) The New Testament writers are entirely comfortable with this typically Hebraic mode of thinking. The following are examples:

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Pet 2:12)

If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet 4:11).

The sacred deed is full of God's glory. If we take verses like these seriously, n we must acknowledge that God is found more in acts of kindness than in the mountains and forests. It is more biblical for us to believe in the immanence of Godly deeds than in the immanence of God in nature.

For us there are such exciting possibilities in the belief that our deeds and actions are both sacramental and revelatory. This is not only so because of the missional effect on the people around us, but also because of its effect on us. In the action we can find God where we could not find him before - in the streets, at work, in the marketplace, at play. In fact, we can find him anywhere where we can act in holiness and so become a conduit of God's grace to the world. When Paul says, "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph. 2:10) , he was expressing something profound about our creational purpose "in the messiah." Our actions are part of God's plan for us. No one can therefore say that our spirituality has nothing to do with our good works. It has everything to do with them. It's time to reclaim the deed.

In and Out

We have already highlighted the vital importance of intention and direction in our discussion on kavanah in the previous chapter. Intentionality is of absolute and vital importance if we are going to act meaningfully in our missional tasks. A deed done will benefit others, but without the inner devotion of the heart to God, it will not benefit the doer. But the God of the Bible is interested not only in right thinking or right motives or right action but also in right living. Again it is the whole that counts. Right living should occur in all of our life, not just in the part of it in the realm or theater of the holy. The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual inwardness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for our bodies because he needs our lives. It is by the church living in conformity with Gods will that the world will be reclaimed for God (Rom 12:1-2).

Obedience takes place on two levels. First, it is an act of the soul-an act that involves developing the right intention, that is, inward obedience. Second, it is an act of the body. It involves putting right intentions into actions-outward obedience. The following silly joke highlights the difference between inner and outer obedience. Mom asks little Johnny to sit at the table and eat his supper. Like many children at mealtime, little Johnny refuses to eat. Mom says, "Johnny, sit down and eat your dinner!" Again Johnny refuses. Eventually Mom prevails by pushing him down into the chair and threatening the removal of privileges. Defiant to the end, little Johnny says, "I may be sitting down on the outside, but I'm standing up on the inside!"

Both inner and outer obedience is necessary to fulfill holy commandments. Without inwardness our actions are incomplete. An external act calls for inner acknowledgment-participation. Abraham Heschel asks, "Is it the artist's inner vision or his wrestling with the stone that brings forth a sculpture?" Right living, he suggests, "is like a work of art, the product of both an inner vision and a wrestling with both dimensions - inner vision and outer action. We turn to Heschel again: "No religious act is properly fulfilled unless it is done with a willing heart and a craving soul. You cannot worship God with your body if you do not know how to worship Him with your soul." We suggest that the main reason for God's calling us to obedience is not for an imposition of discipline for discipline's sake. Rather it is to keep us spiritually perceptive, open to God, attentive to his voice.

Just Do It!

At the risk of being accused of pure activism, we wish to reiterate that we are not encouraging a blind drivenness here. The whole aspect of intentionality emphasized in kavanah keeps one from a meaningless activism. What we are attempting to do is to redress the imbalance in the way we mature as disciples of Jesus. Growing in faith is not just about disciplines of study and withdrawal, as vital as these are. Certainly there need to be disciplines of passive receptivity to hear from God and to know him in prayerful stillness. But there must also be rhythms of activity if we are to be mature followers of the Messiah. Jesus was a real revolutionary, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of revolution going on at the moment. There tends to be a whole lot of talk about mission and postmodernism and not a whole lot of direct missional action. While there is a proliferation of books telling us all how to do it, there don't seem to be many working models showing us how to do it. This must change. There needs to be a whole lot more action, and we believe that only in actually doing it will the church discover God in a new way. As someone once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." This doesn't mean we believe that the future is in our hands completely. It is God who directs this process, but it's in action and invention that we can discover God's will for the future. The Bible records God's "mighty acts in history. What we overlook is that on every page of the same Bible we come upon God's hoping and waiting for his people's mighty acts.

Buber says, "To do the good deed is to fill the world with God; to serve God in truth is to draw Him into life."8 It is characteristic of biblical faith that the Christian cannot be content with truth as mere idea or with truth as aesthetics, neither with e truth of a philosophical theorem nor with the truth of a work of art. Said Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153):

There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge;
That is curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others;
That is vanity.
There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve..
That is love.

Truth must issue forth as action. Heschel puts it succinctly when he says, "Action is truth."

Copyright Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, 2004


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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on February 22, 2006