At Communion, we are in the middle of a teaching series exploring the Pentateuch, the title given to the first five books of the Bible. These Old Testament documents serve as the basis of Israel’s story:
Who is Israel as a people?
Where has Israel come from?
Where is Israel going?
What is Israel’s relationship with God?
What is Israel’s relationship to the surrounding nations?
Reflecting on these questions, they become strikingly familiar to the same questions we ask ourselves as followers of Jesus. If we have never asked these questions before, now is the time to start.
American Christians are living in what has been termed a “post-Christendom” or “post-Christian” society. This means that the world we live in has little interest in a supposed Christian or biblical worldview. Our culture has decided that post-modernism and individualism is a more compelling value system than that of Christianity. This shift is significant. It was not very long ago that America was often referred to as a “Christian nation.” As Lee Beach affirms,
“At one time the church played a significant role in the shaping of culture and the daily lives of its citizens…. This can no longer be considered true of the contemporary setting for the church in the West.”
The result of our social reality in America is that the church has become “exiled.” On the one hand, this is not that significant since some of the New Testament writers use the Exodus story to frame their argument that followers of Jesus are in fact “exiles scattered throughout…” (1 Peter 1:1), who are living as “foreigners” in the places where they physically reside (1 Peter 2:11).
On the other hand, American Christians have been so conditioned to believe that American values are synonymous with the historic Christian faith that to be considered an outsider within their own country is largely unthinkable.
This is where we find ourselves. But where do we go from here? How do we forge ahead, living out the gospel in a culture which appears to aggressively combat it?
In other words, as we read Israel’s story through the book of Exodus, we begin to examine and reflect on how the church becomes an embodiment of Israel’s story. Therefore, the church needs to reform Israel’s questions above into their own questions:
Who is the church as a people?
Where has the modern church come from?
Where is the modern church going?
What is the church’s relationship with God?
What is the church’s relationship to the culture?
I propose that we ask three separate sets of questions concerning three separate segments of our Christian worldview. The following are my own personal reflections as I attempt to live this out in my own life:
The first question involves our individual church communities. The reality is that many people suffer from emotional, spiritual, and even physical distress all around us on a daily basis. These people are looking for wholeness and restoration but often turn to things that become more problematic and often more destructive. But just as God heard the cry of Israel while they were in bondage (Exodus 2:23-25), likewise, God is listening to the anguished and downtrodden.
As a pastor at Communion, as I connected with various people I have asked myself the following question:
Is Communion a safe place where God’s restoration and redemption can be experienced?
Do the people looking for God to deliver them from their distress see Communion as a place where this deliverance can be found? I truly believe so, not because I am biased (though I am), but because I sincerely believe the Spirit is present:
In our Sunday worship, Jesus is the central focus of our worship and teaching. We have worked hard at cultivating an environment where people feel welcome and they uniquely experience the presence of Jesus in that place.
In our Family Gatherings, we gather around the Eucharist (or Lord's Table) together as a family where we allow the Spirit of Christ to be present and work in the lives of the people present without the interruption and ego. We believe God is presently working in that place.
Our church is a reflection of the diverse community where our church family gathers. Within this dynamic family are people from various walks of life who bring their own experiences and story to the table. People who may never walk through life together outside of Christ are forming life-changing relationships where the Spirit is clearly present. This alone tells me there is hope for everyone looking for the redeeming presence of God at Communion
Of equal importance to our worship communities, is determining how we as individuals can extend the presence of Jesus in the physical communities in which we reside.
How might we be a redeeming presence in our own communities?
Here are few ways this could happen:
1. Identify the needs of the community. This is easier said than done. Most of the people who reside in our communities live in isolation. Nobody talks to each other, neighbors never say "Hello!" to one another, and the busyness of life leads from one event to the next without even recognizing the people in front of us.
I live in the Serra Mesa community of San Diego. It is very small and fairly quiet. We have easy access to pretty much everything within the county (it’s great!). But having conversations with my neighbors is really difficult. I have learned that the way forward will be by the leading of the Spirit, not by any particular formula. It requires taking the time to pray and allow the Spirit to direct us within our communities where the Lord is at work and tend to it. It may be small and seemingly insignificant, but it really is not. It is powerful and necessary. We are noticing very small strides with some people on our own block, but we also realize that this will take a long time of cultivation.
2. Connect with other Jesus-followers in your neighborhood. It does not matter which church you or your neighbor are a part of. If you both love Jesus and desire to see the power and presence of the Spirit at work in your community than it will take more than one church expression.
I recently met a couple of other families who attend a church on the other end of Serra Mesa. I shared an idea about meeting monthly to gather around the Eucharist: partaking of a meal together, praying together, cultivating these relationships as we think through how the presence of Jesus can extend beyond our limited influence.
3. Partner with organizations already seeking the welfare of the community. Homeless shelters, food distribution centers, beautification projects, and local politics are all examples of undertakings that occur on a regular basis in the places we live. What a wonderful way to show people experiencing difficult times that they are loved and valued. We don’t need to go far; these places are operating in a neighborhood near us. We just need to be present.
The avenues for extending the redeeming presence of Jesus in our communities can be a little harder than we think because we often want to apply old ways of tending to a newer problem. Just “telling” people Jesus loves them is not a compelling message anymore. People need to experience the love of Jesus personally, and God is allowing the church to be the extension of his love.
The book of Exodus is a story; Israel’s story. It’s an incredible narrative that describes how a group of people who experienced slavery, violence, and oppression for over 400 years were rescued by their God to not only experience redemption for themselves, but to be an extension of God’s redemption to the rest of the world.
The terms of the story are of central importance. It was written to a community that had lost its identity on multiple occasions and needed to be reminded of its own story over and over again. But it was also written as a prophetic testimony for the church to tend to the forgotten stories of others, namely, those of unfamiliar cultures and people groups in our world today. It begins by asking whose story do I need to tend to? Who can I be an advocate for?
For me, as a life-long resident of San Diego, the daily tensions which occur at the border with Mexico has become a high priority for me. But I realized that I did not know the story of the Mexican community currently residing in San Diego.
I began to ask questions: What is life like for them? Why was I always told to stay away from their communities? Why am I not tending to the stories of these people instead of letting the media tell it for me?
So the journey of inquiry began.
A few weeks ago I visited Chicano Park in Barrio Logan community of San Diego, and paid attention to the stories of the murals that were painted underneath the I-5 and CA-75 overpasses. I was able to listen to the experiences of a recent DACA recipient, and learn from a psychologist/theologian from Tijuana explaining why people are migrating from Mexico and Central America to the United States in the first place. I learned a different side of the story I had never heard before, including the fact that many of these displaced people seeking refuge here in the United States were also my brothers and sisters in Christ.
There may be a different culture or people group that the Lord is calling you toward. It maybe tending to the love and service of other displaced communities within our own country or overseas. We do not tend to these people as savior, but as servant. Listening to their stories and advocating for justice on their behalf.
This is what Adam Gustine means when he asks the church, “what it means to be for shalom [peace] in the world, namely, flourishing and transformation?”
Israel saw the other nations as a threat, and understandably, they were a nomadic people wandering in the desert. But God’s name is redemption and deliverance without prejudice. Just because Israel saw others as a threat did not mean God did. In fact in Exodus 33:19, God declares,
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
What a powerful testimony! God has chosen his people to reflect his name, mercy, and compassion to the world. As one scholar concludes, we “are to be…a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.”
For further reading on how the church can extend the peace of God to its community while living in a time of "exile" the following resources might be helpful:
 Lee Beach, The church in exile: Living in hope after Christendom. (Downers Grove: IVP,2015), 18, 19.
 Adam L. Gustine, Becoming a just church: Cultivating communities of God’s shalom. (Downers Grove:IVP, 2019), 15.
 John I. Durham, Exodus, WBC vol. 3 (Dallas: Word,1998), 263.