Efrem Smith: An Outpost for the Kingdom—Part 1

Then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. That encounter changed his life. He died to his old self and had a conversion experience based on his rediscovery of Jesus.

Even Christians need to rediscover Jesus. That includes two things. First, a deep understanding of Jesus as the eternal Word, God who became flesh. Jesus is the only begotten God in human form. The spiritual supernatural dynamic of “Christ in us the hope of glory” must penetrate our being.

The second thing, though, many of us miss. But it’s vital, and found in the genealogy of Matthew 1. The Son of God, Alpha and Omega, was multiethnic, multicultural. In the family tree of Jesus were the indigenous inhabitants of Israel, Palestine, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya. If that is true, we need to present it, remember it. Then we need to ask what it means for us, through the Holy Spirit, for that Christ to live in us. We must wrestle with what it means to follow that Jesus, to surrender to that Jesus, to represent that Jesus. He walked our Earth as a multiethnic, multicultural, Jewish human being. But we have reduced him from that. In our culture, we have made Jesus look like whoever we are instead of who he is. We have made him white. Western. European. Democrat. Republican. Urban. Handsome. Comfortable.

What a quiet, deadly mistake. “I’m black, I’m going to make Jesus black.” “I’m Republican, Jesus will be too!” “I’m suburban, so I’ll make Jesus suburban.” These counterfeits replace the Jesus that causes all of us—regardless of ethnicity, race, class, political affiliation or nation—to surrender to his lordship.

When we acknowledge the true Jesus of Scripture, we find he can do what he has done from the very beginning: tear down dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, left-wing and right-wing, black and white. I’m pushing that we discover the same Jesus that Paul discovered on the Damascus road. Like Paul, that will not be easy for us.

The Bible of that true Christ is in front of all of us, but we still miss it. How do we encounter that Christ with fresh eyes?

Most of us aren’t reading it while connected with people of different experiences from ours. We need to spend time in God’s Word with Christians who are different than us, in a setting (like church should be) that forges a sense of extended family. In this sense, being separated from people different than you are in race, class, politics, etc., allows you the “luxury” of not having to humbly rediscover Christ. Your church development and evangelism ought to be shaped by the true demographics of your community, not by convenience or trying to ease cultural pressures.

Sometimes there are missional reasons for homogeneous churches. If you live in a community where you can go five blocks in any direction and only see, say, Koreans, then you should have a Korean church. Same goes for any demographic. But if the mission field outside the walls of your church is racially diverse, multiethnic and multicultural, then part of our Christian life in community ought to be to plant and revitalize existing churches to reflect that diverse mission field. Our participation in the Great Commission ought to drive us to intentionally multiethnic and diverse community-building as the church.

The Bible clearly shows Jesus doing the ministry of reconciliation, and he passes on to us—according to 2 Corinthians 5:14-21—the ministry and message of reconciliation. That ministry and message through the church ought to be bringing the kingdom of God to bear on the divisions in our world and culture. It is meant to.

A lot of leaders will applaud that assertion—in the abstract. But practically, many pastors aren’t sure where to start. Walk us through where to start putting the ministry of reconciliation into practice.

Start with more attention (especially through teaching and preaching) on the authentic Jesus. You must say truths that startle many people: Jesus was not white, not American, not rich, not aligned with our politics. Nor is his kingdom.

Revelation 7:9: The kingdom includes a multitude that no one can count, of every nation, tribe, language. The kingdom of God, the place we’ll live eternally, is a Christ-centered community, multiethnic, multicultural. There is no terrorism in that community. There is no racism in it, no sexism in it. There is no divide between the haves and the have-nots, no divide between liberal and conservative. We are citizens of that kingdom now. Are we living like it?

The church needs to push Christians to get practical. What does that citizenship mean? How do we follow the authentic Christ as a citizen of the kingdom? How do I express my true citizenship through my life daily—to the point that my allegiance to Christ and his kingdom even supersedes my citizenship in the United States of America, my political opinions, my family of origin and all my assumptions?

The Christian needs to be a missionary wherever they go. But my concern is that instead of Christians seeing themselves as missionaries in, say, the Republican or Democratic Party, or entertainment or arts, or their vocation, that we are being held captive by those institutions or systems. We are more attached and surrendered to what we hear on MSNBC or Fox News than we are to God’s authentic Word.

Christ, the kingdom and Scripture ought to inform how I practically live in this world. Instead, my concern for the church right now is that the ideologies, systems and institutions of this world are holding God’s people captive. They are informing how we read the Bible, how we see Jesus and what our expectations of the church are.

There needs to be humble acknowledgement and repentance. Outside influences have shaped the allegiance of God’s people more than the kingdom of God or the authentic Jesus. We see the fruit of that in our divisions today.

What we’re talking about here is liberation. I am African-American, the descendent of slaves. What inspires me in my Christian life is that I’m the descendant of people who came to know Jesus while longing for liberation from the systems and structures of this world and nation that had holistically enslaved them.

This relates to your concept of the upside-down image of God—in opposition to the way the world’s system says things ought to be.

Yes. Much of what we have accepted as “right-side up” is really the upside-down, sinful world’s influence on our hearts and churches, not God’s way. Just look at the authentic Jesus, and that much is painfully clear. We need to seek liberation so that we can truly be right-side up, strange, peculiar people in this world. I dream that the church would become an outpost of the kingdom of God, not the mouthpiece of any competitor.

Read Part 2 of the interview with Efrem Smith »