Friday, October 26, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Peace

At the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus makes nine statements that would be enough to offer us a guide to living the way God would have us live even if they were the only extant words of Jesus we had. Each statement promises blessings if we live according to what is demanded by Jesus. Unfortunately, his demands are not easy, as he tells us that to find blessings we must be poor, be mournful, be meek, hunger for righteousness, be merciful, and endure persecution in the name of Jesus.

One of these sayings, however, strikes me as particularly important for our world today and for the church’s call to live according to Jesus’ standards. In the seventh Beatitude Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of these important ethical values, peacemaking must assuredly be a core action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also reflects the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?

The kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being peacemakers?

The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of Scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.

Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus? According to the Sermon on the Mount, No.

Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Christ, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.

While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and the warmongering we witness today from both our nation and those we call our enemies will not establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.

Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” God’s coming kingdom can bring lasting peace into the world, but only when we seek justice for all, for our neighbors and our enemies.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of Love

In reading the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, I cannot help but draw one fundamental conclusion about the essence of God; God is love. From Genesis to Revelation, the pages of the Bible sing forth that God is love. If this is true, then we must conclude that the primary characteristic of God’s kingdom is also love. While we speak about God’s kingdom coming in power, it is in the power of love that God’s kingdom transforms the world.

This begs the question as to what we mean by God’s love. We know that God loves the world, the entirety of humanity, but what does this love mean? To answer this question we need only look once again at the person of Jesus. Christians, as I have stated before, believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God, and thus Jesus is an expression of God’s perfect love for the world. Over and over the New Testament tells us that God’s love is conveyed to us by the coming of Jesus. Yet, we might understand this expression of God’s love in Jesus in two related ways.

In one sense, Jesus’ coming to the world, and his sacrificial death on the cross, is the demonstration of God’s love for the world. The incarnation event is the act that expresses God’s love. Yet, another implication of God’s love revealed in Jesus is the example Jesus gives to show how humans ought to emulate God’s love. If Jesus is our example, then how we live should reflect how he lived, and particularly how he demonstrated the love of God in the world.

But what did it mean for Jesus to express God’s love to the world? More important for us, what does God’s love mean for how we love others, friends and foes? While these questions may have multiple answers, we can see crucial aspects of Jesus’ manifestation of God’s love that define what it means for followers of Jesus to share the love of God in the world.

Jesus expressed God’s love in action. God does not simply feel love for the world, God has demonstrated God’s love in a real event; the Christ event. We often view love as an emotion, but the person we love can only experience such love when we express it through our actions toward another. This means that love is not love until it is proven through action. But this point leads to a second significant truth about God’s love.

Jesus also revealed God’s love through sacrifice. Jesus defined his death as a sacrificial service to the world. Giving his life for us was the greatest of all actions one could complete. But in the context of his speaking about his own death, we find that Jesus very often defines for his followers that true faith and discipleship require great sacrifice. In other words, if God has chosen to love us through a sacrificial act, giving God’s own son, then we are also called to love others sacrificially.

Jesus also demonstrated God’s love without limitations. No scriptural statement communicates this thought better than John 3:16. “God so loved the world.” God loves all of creation, and particularly every human being on this earth. Jesus showed this love through out his life, often choosing to love those consider unlovable in his society. In response to his model of love, we must reach beyond our own comfortableness and love not only those we consider loveable, but also those we consider unlovable, including our enemies. Yet, such love requires something most of us cannot bring ourselves to consider.

Jesus also showed God’s love through his becoming vulnerable. In loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. God became not only flesh; God also became vulnerable. We do not often like to think of God as vulnerable. But God’s great power is seen foremost in God’s vulnerability. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable. Our love for the world must reflect the love that God has for the world, and this certainly includes the possibility of our being vulnerable to those we love.

Martin Luther King wrote, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” God’s love in Jesus is transformative, and when we, as God’s people, live out our love through sacrificial actions and vulnerability toward both the loveable and the unlovable, then we will see the transformative power of God’s kingdom come in and through us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Sharing

In Luke 12 Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who had plenty. In fact, the man had so much grain that he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. This rich man believed that because of his new windfall he was set for a life of ease and pleasure. Yet, in a shocking twist of events, the man’s life came to an unexpected end, and his abundance was wasted. He had assumed that his surplus of grain would keep him comfortable for years to come, but instead his life was demanded of him that night, and his excess became useless.

In reading this parable, most of us would agree that the sin of the man was greed. He horded what he could for himself so that he could live out his days in ease. But why is greed a sin? We often consider greed for wealth and possessions as a sin because it puts these things in place of God. In other words, we view greed as a transgression because when we are greedy we make wealth our god. While this is true, it is so only partly. Greed is a sin, not because it puts wealth in the place of God, but because it prevents us from sharing what we have with our neighbors. In telling this particular parable in an agrarian society where most people survived on daily rations of food, Jesus conveyed very clearly that this man’s sin is against God, but only because his sin is against his neighbors who suffer in poverty while he lounges in plenty.

Jesus had a great deal to say about how we view and use our wealth and possessions. One of his most famous statements comes from the Sermon on the Mount where he states that we cannot serve both God and money. But what is particularly arresting when we read thoroughly all of Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions, is that we discover that he always spoke of giving them up in the search for God’s kingdom. In fact, a careful reading of the Gospels seems to suggest that joining the Jesus movement of the first century meant that one must renounce using one’s wealth for selfish indulgence and one ought to embrace the call to use one’s possessions to help those in need. To state his teachings more directly, the demands of discipleship call us to seriously consider giving up our wealth and possessions as we seek to follow Jesus.

How does Jesus’ demand to relinquish material assets pertain to our modern existence? While a response to such a call may not require us to take vows of poverty like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa, Jesus’ command most certainly means that we must choose to live lives of simplicity. As followers of a homeless vagrant, Christians, both as individuals and as churches, should seek to reexamine our desire for material possessions in light of Jesus’ commands and actions. In doing so, we can accomplish Jesus’ call to express our love for both God and others by sharing our wealth with others. A choice to live modestly, a choice to dematerialize our lives, will free us to share with those in need. This choice also reflects the essence of God, who in Jesus became poor for us.

Moreover, living lives of simplicity and sharing will also move us to consider status, which comes with the gaining of wealth, irrelevant. The snap shot we see of the early church as pictured in the book of Acts shows us a community of faith that deemed sharing as a crucial part of being the church. Possessions were not to be held by individuals while others went without the basic necessities of life. Rather, Christians would sell what they had and distribute the proceeds to all who were in need. This led the Christian community to value equality among the believers, and to reject worldly forms of division such as race, gender, and social and economic standing.

In a world where abject poverty is pervasive, people of faith must choose to live simply and avoid hoarding money and possessions. Doing so will mean that we will have more to share with others; with neighbors, strangers, and those we call our enemies. Furthermore, this lifestyle both imitates the life of Jesus and is a means to bringing God’s kingdom of justice into the world.

Friday, October 12, 2007

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Consciousness

When you read the Gospel narratives, do you ever notice how Jesus sees and hears those people ignored by others? Whether a blind beggar, a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, or a hungry crowd, Jesus either sees them when others don’t, or he sees them quite differently than others do. These encounters inform us that Jesus had an intentional consciousness of those around him.

This awareness flowed out of his understanding of God and who he was in relationship to God, and such attentiveness toward those who suffer offered to his followers a model of what it meant to live under the rule of God. But what kind of consciousness did Jesus have and what patterns of living did he exhibit that offer to us a pattern for living that continues to bring the kingdom of God into the world?

Before addressing the latter question, let us answer the first by remembering that in his life, Jesus expressed the essence of God’s character and love through sacrificial action and vulnerability toward humanity. Jesus’ consciousness about those around him, particularly those regarded as expendable by society, was based on his understanding of God’s limitless and sacrificial love. Jesus, therefore, had a clear awareness not only of his own purpose of bringing God’s justice to the world, but he also had a keen consciousness of those who needed God’s justice, i.e. the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

How should this influence our living if we choose to live according to the paradigm Jesus has set for us? First, Jesus’ life and teachings should convince us that we must repent of our complacency about the injustices in our world, and that we must develop a consciousness about those who suffer. When Jesus called people to repent in response to his announcement that the kingdom of God had come, he was not calling them only to turn away from personal sins. He was calling them to repent of the sins of neglect, unconsciousness, and detachment, which are the greatest sins of humanity. He was calling them to repent from lives of self-centeredness and to commit their lives to embodying God’s justice in the world.

For most of us the problem is not a lack of compassion, or an unwillingness to help others, but rather a deficiency in our awareness about what really goes on in the world apart from our self-interests. Allow me to set forth the following example from common church life that clarifies my concerns. Most churches have a prayer list on which one normally finds the concerns connected to that group; someone’s grandmother, uncle, etc. There is nothing wrong with praying for these concerns, for they are real concerns and God cares for each one. But why don’t these prayer lists also mention the larger sufferings and injustices of the world, such as hunger, war, intolerance, etc.?

We could push this further by stating that many churches do not set aside a time during worship to pray for those who suffer from injustice. Moreover, Bible studies and sermons are mostly about us, about how to live better lives, about our relationships to God as individuals, and about how to get to heaven. There is nothing wrong with this, for such teachings are part of being Christian, but these concerns are a significantly small fraction of what it means to follow Christ. In our places of worship, we should press our thinking about God and about what God is doing in the world beyond ourselves, and we must seek God’s greater desire for us and for the world, which is to bring God’s justice to all.

When we do this, we will not only become aware of the greater needs of our world, we will also become mindful of how God sees those who suffer. And when our collective consciousness is raised, we can respond to God’s call to seek peace and justice. This way of thinking and acting is the utmost expression of faith in God. When we reach the point of abandoning ourselves, our desires, and even our very lives, God’s kingdom of justice will come and God’s will to lift up the oppressed will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Jesus' Message that God's Kingdom was Coming into the World Remains Relevant

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, after his baptism and temptation, announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The way in which the author narrates this proclamation as Jesus’ first words in the story suggests that Jesus’ central message throughout his life was about the kingdom of God. Indeed, all four Gospels depict Jesus’ chief teaching to be the coming of God’s kingdom into the world. Everything Jesus said, whether through parables or through ethical teachings, related to his understanding of God’s kingdom. Moreover, the various miracles that Jesus performed were signs that the kingdom of God was near.

Because the coming kingdom of God was Jesus’ focal message, those who choose to follow him in discipleship should seek to understand what he meant by the phrase the kingdom of God. To answer this question, it might be helpful first to dismiss assumptions we might have about the character of God’s kingdom. In other words, these are the understandings we commonly have about the kingdom, but they do not always agree with Jesus’ teachings.

First, the kingdom of God is not a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ. Second, the kingdom of God is not primarily about personal spirituality. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally and in our Christian living we live as individuals who are in a personal relationship to God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal spirituality.

What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, as Jesus used it, is that the term itself is politically charged. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. Understood from this perspective, we might say that Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the Empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community. When Jesus called people to follow him, he was calling them to choose to which kingdom they would give their allegiance. He called them to repent from living according to worldly, egocentric values that lead to exclusion and injustice, and to embrace a new sacrificial ethic unveiled in Jesus himself.

This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence and injustice. Confession of Jesus as Lord was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice against the so-called expendables of society.

Yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was bringing into the world could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers of Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities. In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death. From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross? So how does the rule of God, said to be so powerful, continue to come into the world? Where is God’s power to be found in the world? God’s kingdom comes into the world through followers of Jesus who offer to the world a different way of living and relating to others, particularly the marginalized.

In future posts I will be discussing descriptive characteristics of God’s kingdom and prescriptive actions we are to live as participants of God’s rule. These actions often run in opposition to the way the world system would have us live and they are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Indeed, these characteristics are the fundamental reason Christianity spread in its infancy, despite Roman opposition, and they continue to serve as the force that brings the kingdom of God to the world.