By Tara Beth Leach –
Somewhere in the mid-1990s, when I was a new Christian, I came across a popular bronze statue by Dean Kermit Allison. The sculpture was called “Born Again,” and it depicted a man shedding his old self with a bronze layer of skin, and his new self was being born anew as a radiant, glassy, crystal version. I remember staring at that statue mesmerized and in tears. I was the statue, I thought. Newly in love with Jesus and recently beginning my life in Christ, God was doing a radiant new thing in my life. But today, that statue seems more prophetic, and it tugs at my heartstrings as I long for the church of the future.
I pray that the church would begin to see, acknowledge, and name the bronze layers that are saturated with worldly beliefs and behaviors and flee from them. I pray that the church would know that we have not been destroyed – it’s not too late. I pray that we would reclaim, be renewed and revived, and allow the work of the Spirit to birth something new and radiant. Like the bronze statue, may the layers of our own systems that have hurt and harmed others begin to peel away, and may the lamp of truth, love, and righteousness be placed firmly on its pedestal and shine in all of its illuminating beauty. Not beauty for the glory of ourselves but for the glory and majesty of our King and Creator. May we shine in such a way that instead of hard lines in the sand being drawn, those who once felt excluded are now drawn to the radiant light of the church.
But birthing isn’t easy work. It’s painful, it’s laborious, it’s long, and it literally brings blood, sweat, and tears. On the early morning of April 17, 2010, I woke up at 6 a.m. to discover that my water had broken. Fortunately, I wasn’t feeling any pain yet, so I decided I could take a shower, put on makeup, and grab breakfast on the way to the hospital. By the time my husband and I arrived at Panera to pick up some breakfast on the way, the labor pains began to kick in. I’ll also confess that I had no idea that when the water breaks, it isn’t just a one-time occurrence; rather, it keeps on coming. This was rather problematic standing in line for my bagel. After a minute or two of waiting in line, I turned to Jeff with my lips curled and my teeth together and said, “We have to go now!”
By the time we got to the hospital, I was in full-blown labor. Before having Caleb, I thought of myself as a tough woman with high pain tolerance. Turns out, labor was much more painful and difficult than any friend or textbook or Lamaze class could have prepared me for.
At one point during labor, my husband and parents were in the hospital room having a good old time, sharing, eating, laughing, and watching Ghostbusters on TV. I was angry that I was suffering and they were enjoying the moment. My husband came over to me with an angelic and peaceful look on his face, gently put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Hey, babe, I was thinking that the next baby …” Before he could even finish his sentence, I angrily interrupted him with what probably seemed like demon eyes and the voice of his worst nightmares, “Next baby? Next baby? You think I’m going to go through this again? There will be no next baby!”
Perhaps the scariest and most challenging moment came during what many call transitional labor, which is the stage between active labor – labor pains that are a few minutes apart – and actually having to push for delivery. It’s intense, and the only way for any sort of relief is to push and potentially scream. I did both. The nurses and my family surrounded me saying things like, “Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize! Caleb is coming! Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize! Focus! Caleb is coming!”
Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Dear church, creation is groaning. The labor pains can no longer be ignored. It’s time to push and birth something new, something radiant, something wrapped in love, truth, and grace.
There is nothing glorious about labor; there is nothing easy about pushing. It hurts. It’s hard. But push we must. That is, we must repent, we must name, we must rid ourselves of toxic systems, and we must abandon the imagination of the principalities and powers of this world. Let us push, breathe, keep our eyes on Jesus, press in, lean in, and reclaim the radiant vision that comes alive in Scripture.
A Call to Radiance. In Matthew 5, Jesus steps on a mount and begins to teach. His prophetic words are drenched in love and wrapped in vision. It was a sermon unlike any other that has now found its home in what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In it, Jesus shares his dreams for the already-but-not-yet people of God in Christ. He paints a vivid vision of how the people of God are to live, love, act, and care for one another. His words are no doubt piercing, and they likely make us squirm at times, but what Jesus proclaims is an illuminating and radiant vision for the bride of Christ.
Jesus’ words are no mere suggestion; rather, they are passionate and piercing commands for the people of God to live into no matter where they live. That is, those who are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Following Jesus’ declaration of those who make the list of the blessed life, Jesus calls the church to lean into the radiant vision of the church. He calls us salt and light.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
Like other popular passages of Scripture, we sometimes miss out on the fullness of what Jesus is calling us to. Often we read this passage through the lens of I instead of we and then interpret it as, “I should do more good deeds.” However, this prophetic declaration of Jesus should push and pull the church into the radiant church it was meant to be. While one star is certainly something to behold, a sky full of sparkling stars is stunning. Our witness is corporate, found within congregations and communities. Our witness is a collective presence and voice and light rather than individuals.
This passage isn’t a random call to do good things; rather, we are called to lean into the missional imagination of the triune God – that is, the imagination that unfolds beginning in the book of Genesis.
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the problem of sin, brokenness, darkness, and evil is rather glaring. Murder, betrayal, division, pride, and havoc, even from Mother Nature, are just a few examples. However, we don’t observe a planless God scrambling to heal God’s broken creation, and neither do we observe God lashing out in anger. Instead, we discover a redemptive God who moves in with acts of love and grace.
Jesus is the Brightest Star. Somewhere on the margins of Bethlehem, a child is born. A bright star attracted magi from the East who wanted to see the astonishing light for themselves. Right in the middle of chaos, decay, darkness, and oppression, this child moves into the neighborhood filled with chaos and he shines. The new Israel, the second Adam, fully divine and fully human, prophet and priest, and the fulfillment of all of Israel’s history, reveals the very heartbeat and character of God. And we discover just how serious God is about keeping this covenant.
This King, after living a perfect life of love, healing, revelation, and wonders, meets his death on a cross. And there on the cross, the end of an evil era collides with the nails, the crown of thorns, and the body broken. And every spring the church gathers together to proclaim the good news, “He’s not dead! He’s alive!” We join the chorus of angels and the sermon of Mary at the tomb, “He’s alive!” The King is raised to new life, and the floodgates burst forth. We discover the promises to Abram are now fulfilled, and we are the stars in the sky. No longer is ethnic Israel the only recipient of God’s blessing; the dividing wall has been destroyed, and Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and slaves and free persons are all one in Christ. The re-creation of a people of God is expanded to all who are in Christ. The apostle Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the apostle Peter says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
We are Called to Shine. Paul says to the Philippians, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Philippians 2:14-15). We are the stars in the sky – shining in all of our radiant glory as the love of God bursts forth. We – all who are in Christ – are the royal priesthood and God’s special possession. And the news only gets better! In Christ, we begin to reflect God’s glorious image as Paul says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”(2 Corinthians 3:18).
We are heirs of God’s promises to Abraham, and we are included in God’s blessed people. And just as God called Abraham to faithfulness and obedience, God also called the church. As children of Abraham and sons and daughters of the King, we’ve distorted the story of the perfect gospel to be a ticket to heaven – or else.
But the radiant gospel is about a people leaning into and reflecting the goodness of God to an embattled world. The radiant gospel is about the people of God in Christ extending the table and gathering as an alternative community in a world gone awry. We are to embody the power of blessing – that in the middle of a chaotic, prideful, sinful, decaying, embattled, broken world, we would embody the promises of Abraham and live the vision of Jesus as salt and light. As a covenant community in Christ, we don’t just randomly do salt-and-light kind of things; rather, we are salt and light. As salt and light, we are called to mediate the goodness, light, love, and holiness of God. What a radiant call God has entrusted to God’s people.
Tara Beth Leach is a pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook in the western suburbs of Chicago. She previously served as senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (“PazNaz”) in Southern California. Adapted from Radiant Church by Tara Beth Leach. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tara Beth Leach. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60559. www.ivpress.