Note: This article was excerpted from Missional Spirituality.
John 1: 14 in The Message says, "The word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." Though the English word neighborhood does not match the Greek of John 1:14, Peterson offers a fresh application in his Bible paraphrase. In his theological reading, he extends the meaning of the Incarnation: Jesus came to a particular place, people, and culture. He was not an abstract man but a real, down-to-earth man who mingled with people in their natural contexts. He spoke Aramaic, ate meals with people, attended weddings, and worked as a carpenter. The literal translation of this verse is "he pitched his tent among us." Any desert dwellers among John's readers would understand the metaphor. Jesus camped with his people!
In a largely impersonal, isolated, and fast-moving culture, many find it difficult to relate to people in their neighborhood. Sometimes we are like Charlie Brown, who bemoaned, "I love humankind; it's people I can't stand." We exist in multiple communities and are rarely rooted where we live. How can you be a neighbor when everyone on your street is on the move? Simon Carey Holt writes,
God is revealed and encountered in place …. The radical liberation of our encounter with God is in its impact upon every aspect of life, from our daily work to the food we eat, from the places we choose to inhabit to the relationships that color our lives. God is a God of place. Our call to mission is a call to discern, embody, and proclaim the presence of God where we are. It's a call to neighborhood.
The Gospel of John begins with a theological reflection on the Incarnation: Jesus was human, visible, physical, and local. People saw and heard him. Yet, so often people become invisible to us: our workmates aren't neighbors; panhandlers aren't neighbors; and our actual neighbors are often anonymous to us.
But what if we read neighbor back into neighborhoods? What if we developed a theology of place? Eugene Peterson wrote, "Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place .… All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people."
Circle of Influence
Our fast pace and constant motion push us to withdraw from the people around us. And we attempt to live on mission anywhere but in the neighborhoods where we reside. Our call to mission comes to us in a particular place—with Bill and Linda right next door. We have the greatest potential for impact among those with whom we can relate casually, because we have a natural reason for interaction: we live in the same place. The Incarnation shows that we should begin where we are.
In addition, when we think of our neighborhoods, we must also think of our networks, places where we do life together in natural relationships: at work, at the kids' soccer and baseball games, in the schools, at pancake breakfasts, in community events, at Starbucks. The kingdom of God is a people and a place of community—with local opportunities to belong and to meet others.
To love our neighbor as ourselves and to be a neighbor to others means we will not just pass by that hurting person we see along our pathway and in our network. We must be ready to offer mercy with a good cup of coffee, a room to stay in, a free meal, payment for a medication, or next month's rent.