Category Archives: incarnation

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

cliffs edge

Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.

The Full Circle Gospel

ascension

 

I

Jesus wasn’t always in the flesh.

John 1:14 reminds us that “the Word became flesh.” Becoming flesh means Jesus existed before His incarnation. In our quest to prove the veracity of God becoming man so that as a man, he could do what only God could do, we sometimes caper right past the beauty and mystery of one aspect of the incarnation’s import. Before it, Jesus didn’t have skin.

When John claims that “in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God,” he is implying that Jesus had been around long before his earthly arrival. Before the God­-man was a God­-baby, he existed eternally in perfect community with the triune God outside of time and space.

In the incarnation, Jesus resolved to lay aside the majesty of his deity to take upon himself man’s likeness and a servant’s form. Before that moment, Jesus had only existed in his preincarnate glory. He was in the form of God, according to the apostle Paul. The early church father John Chrysostom affirms, “The form of God is truly God and nothing less. Paul did not write that he was in process of coming to be in the form of God; rather ‘being in the form of God,’ hence truly divine.” Jesus has always been truly divine but his divinity hasn’t always donned flesh.

So from the vantage point of finite beings and though Jesus has no beginning, we see that the God­-man’s timeline “began” before his advent in an earthly manger. And as we deal in beginnings and endings to make sense of the sacred, we can’t lose that the pre­incarnate Christ’s pre­-skin context was the harmonious community of the Godhead in heaven. His ex nihilo eternality is necessarily an essential in understanding the gospel’s content. You have to have a Jesus who was in the form of God eternally before he was in the form of man to do what only the God­-man himself could have done—make a way for the soul to be rid of it’s one dark blot.

II

We love to sing in our church community.

We heartily belt it out in our retrofitted fellowship hall Sunday after Sunday. One of the songs we routinely revisit says, “When Satan tempts me to despair/And tells me of the guilt within/Upward I look, and see Him there/Who made an end to all my sin.” I recall when I first sang these lines, I thought I was singing about the cross. It was my gazing upon the cross that could recalibrate my vacillating spiritual discouragement. While that can be true factually, those lines aren’t about peering at the crucified Jesus on a cross. There about something entirely different. They are about looking at my resurrected and ascended Jesus in heaven.

Now, I can’t literally look up and see Jesus in heaven. It exists in an unseen dimension at the moment. But what these lines point to is the reality that Jesus currently resides in the eternal home from whence he came. He has returned to his divine community—but not in his preincarnate form. No, he has returned as one who possesses a resurrected body that “made an end to all my sin” and is now exalted to the place of highest honor—God’s right hand. That is the God I am to “see” when I sing those lines. But without the ascension, I can’t look to Jesus in that way. Without it, we omit another crucial aspect of comprehending the thrust of the gospel message. Jesus is back in heaven. And that means something.

There are three primary passages which give us the historical record of the ascension of Jesus: Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and Acts 1:9. And while there are many themes we could extract from these texts, in my opinion, one stands out above the rest. John Calvin put it best when he said, “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Christ as intermediary. Christ as advocate. Christ as intercessor. No ascension—no throne of grace. Only a throne of dreadful glory that we can’t approach boldly. But Jesus.

Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third act and why the ascension matters to the fullness of the gospel’s timeline.