In a wonderful scene in the movie City Slickers, Curly (Jack Palance), the tough-as-nails, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world trail boss, asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he wants to know the secret of life. Curly says, “It’s this,” holding up his index finger. Mitch retorts, “The secret of life is your finger.” Curly, never batting an eye says, “It’s one thing. The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”
The one thing that almost all theologians, biblical scholars, and historians agree on when it comes to Jesus is that the kingdom of God was foundational to his mission and ministry. It is front and center, it is at the heart and core of his life and work.
A second thing that there is broad consensus on is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he is talking about what God is doing or wants to do in this world, on this earth, with this creation, not some other world, not a heavenly world. That does not mean that Jesus did not believe in a heavenly world, I think it is fairly conclusive that he did, but when Jesus taught or preached the kingdom of God he was talking about God’s will being done on earth. As Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer puts it: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The second line is an elaboration, extension, and clarification of the first line. The coming of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
In Matthew’s Gospel it is interesting to note that in a number of places the author changes the phrase “kingdom of God” to “kingdom of heaven.” Many Christians read this and think that Jesus is talking about life with God in heaven, life in a different world. What they do not realize is that it was common among Jews in that day to substitute the word heaven for God out of reverence for God’s name. It may be, too, that Matthew uses the term “heaven” to emphasize that it is heaven’s rule coming to earth as emphasized in the model prayer. So the phrase “kingdom of heaven” means basically the same thing as the phrase “kingdom of God.”
The focus then, is on the rule of God in this world, the will of God being realized on this earth in our lives and relationships, in the structures, systems, organizations, and institutions of society, and in all creation. The kingdom of God is ultimately about the health and well-being of the whole planet.
It is also important to understand that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God/heaven he talks about it as if it is both a present and future reality. Sometimes the focus is on the future, where kingdom of God is a future hope that is yet to be realized. Other times Jesus talks about it in the present tense, the emphasis being on the rule of God in the here and now, but not it any final or complete sense, not fully. It is present now as a foreshadowing and preview of what is to come.
A most helpful passage is found in Matthew 12, where Jesus is accused by some religious authorities of casting out evil spirits by the power of the evil one. Jesus responds by pointing out that no kingdom, no city or house divided against itself can stand and if Satan casts out Satan his kingdom cannot endure. Then Jesus says, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28).
The transforming power of God’s kingdom/rule was present in Jesus as he went about healing and liberating people from oppression. For Christians, Jesus is the incarnation, the embodiment, the visible manifestation of what the rule or will of God is like.
We participate in the realization of God’s rule/will on earth when we embody the life, spirit, and teachings of Jesus, and when we conform to his pastern of death and resurrection. As we live as disciples of Jesus, sharing his passion and work, his love of God and neighbor, his preference for the poor and the marginalized, his commitment to peace and justice, dying to the false self so the true self can flourish, as we assimilate his teachings and emulate his life and walk in his Spirit, we participate in the forming and shaping of God’s just world, God’s kingdom on earth.
Jesus makes visible and tangible what a transformed individual and a transformed society might look like. This is the context for his call to repentance and to discipleship. Jesus in essence says, “Repent and share in God’s rule on earth that is now accessible to you.”
The call to repent that comes to us at this moment in history, right now, is a call to change the direction of our lives. Instead of living for self-honor, or self-glory, or self-fulfillment, we decide to live for the rule and will of God, we decide to love God and love neighbor and work for a just world. The call to repent and be a disciple of Jesus is a call to change our commitments and priorities so that life becomes centered in and oriented around God’s rule and will on earth that was fleshed out in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
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This is not how I first encountered the invitation to repentance, and I suspect this is true for many of you. The preachers that I first heard issue a call to repent got their cue more from John the Baptist than Jesus. It was more “you are going to get yours if you don’t” than a call to experience great love. It was more about fear and avoiding doom than learning how to love and being transformed.
I am reminded of the parrot that had a horrible attitude and an even worse vocabulary. This was one fowl with an extremely foul mouth. The owner did everything he knew to do to get the bird to change, but the bird continued to squawk profanities and curses upon everyone in the home.
One day the owner lost his temper. In a rush of anger and in order to get some peace and quiet, he grabbed the parrot and tossed him into the freezer. The parrot continued his barrage of bad language for a while, but then fell suddenly silent.
The owner became concerned. He didn’t want to hurt the bird, just teach it a lesson. When he opened the freezer door, the bird, with ice on its wings came inching its way out. The bird was slow to speak. Finally, still shivering, the bird said, “First, I repent. Second, what in God’s name did that Turkey do?”
Fear of retribution may motivate us to modify our behavior, but fear of punishment cannot redeem us at the core of our being. This is why one biblical writer says, “mature love casts out all fear.” It is not the fear of retribution, but the hope of redemption that is transforming. If somewhere along the path we do not fall in love with God and find Jesus’ vision of a just world – a world made right -compelling, we will not be truly changed. We might become religious, we might alter certain behaviors, we might join a church and become part of a faith community, but until we fall in love with God and learn how to truly love others, we will not be transformed.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about doing what I can in our little corner of the world to challenge traditional Christian teachings and offer a renewed vision is because I am convinced that large segments of Christendom, that much of the church at large, teaches and emphasizes things that will not transform anyone. Why do I believe this? Well, the evidence is in isn’t it?
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Last week we honored Martin Luther King Jr. who was a modern sage and prophet committed to a just world, and yet how many Christians sat silently on the sidelines or even actively opposed his work. I urge you to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is his response to white clergy who called his direct nonviolent social activism “unwise and untimely.” It is a long letter. My copy is 10 pages of single space type. Everyone should read it.
He wrote, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern. I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
King talked about looking at the South’s massive buildings and structures built for worship and Christian education and wondering what kind of people worship there. He wondered where their voices were when George Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred. King wrote, “I have wept over the laxity of the church.” King acknowledged how much he loved the church, “but oh!” he wrote, “How we have blemished and scarred the body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”
King declared, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
He asked, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” “Perhaps,” wrote King, “I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, the true ekklesia and hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
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The call issued by Jesus to repentance and discipleship is a call to be partners with Jesus and with the sages and prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. and with everyday people anywhere who are committed to a nonviolent, peaceable, equitable, grace-filled, inclusive, and just world. But is this gospel of the kingdom as taught and fleshed out by Jesus of Narareth the gospel that is preached in most churches? I don’t think so.
Soren Kierkegaard told a parable about a coveted jewel resting on thin ice at the middle of a lake with many skaters skating near the shore. Though everyone desired the costly jewel, no one was willing to take the risk of skating out on the thin ice to acquire it. The more they skated on the shoreline where the ice was thick, the less they thought about the priceless jewel out in the middle. And the more they skated on the shoreline, the more impressed they became with their skating. Eventually, they forgot all about the jewel, and became enamored with all their whirling and dancing and skillful skating along the shore. Kierkegaard thought this an apt portrait of the church and it’s avoidance of the risky call of discipleship.
Isn’t it true? What is Christendom most occupied with today? Worship styles, feel good preaching and music, success, buildings, doctrine, heaven when we die, who’s in control and who can do what, what kind of fun programs we have for the kids, and the list goes on. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that these things don’t have a place, that they don’t have value. But there value is based on the degree to which these things further the kingdom of God on earth, otherwise, all these activities are like skating on the shoreline.
The jewel in the middle of the lake that we have forgotten about is the kingdom of God. It is the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
Is it risky and dangerous skating out there on thin ice? You bet. Just ask Martin Luther King Jr. Ask Jesus who ended up on a cross. Ask any of the prophets who protested injustice or dreamed of a new world. The very phrase used by Jesus, “the kingdom of God” was subversive. Under Roman rule there could be only one kingdom, one empire, and that was Caesar’s. Jesus was doomed from the beginning.
The early disciples of Jesus knew this. They took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously. They accepted the risk and the danger. And they were willing to take up their crosses and fall in line behind him.
What has happened? Where did we go awry? How did we become so sidetracked? I guess the major turning point that inflicted the most damage on authentic discipleship was when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Empire and church took up residence together. Empire and church scratched each other’s back. Actually, the church became the tool the empire employed to execute the empire’s agenda, and civil religion was born. Sound familiar.
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The narration of the call of the first disciples in Matthew’s version emphasizes the authority of the one who issues the call and the radical nature of the call itself. These disciples respond “immediately” Matthew says and leave everything behind. If they had given it much thought they probably wouldn’t have said “yes.” After all we are talking about the kingdom of God, about investing in and pursuing an alternative world, a world that defies empire and challenges all the powerful ism’s of empire – like sexism, racism, militarism, materialism, elitism, nationalism, and exceptionalism.
If you are going to pursue this kingdom then you have to be ready to leave everything else behind. When I read this story of the call of the disciples I can’t help but feel sorry for poor old Zebedee sitting in the boat having to carry on the family business without his family.
Spiritual writer Suzanne Guthrie has observed that in Duccio’s 14th century painting, “The Calling of Peter and Andrew” Jesus stands against an iconic mountain on the land, calling to the two disciples in the boat upon the water against a blank, golden sky. She noted how the painting does not reflect reality. There are no swarming seagulls, no women and vendors waiting impatiently on shore, no old men watching in the distance, no children running around or stray dogs looking for scraps. It’s just Jesus and the two in the boat, just like in Matthew’s Gospel. So as we are drawn into the scene there is nothing to distract us from the authority of the one calling “follow me,” and from the radical nature of the call itself.
That call is being issued today, to us, to you and me, not by the Jesus on the seashore, but by the living Christ—right here—in this place—with us. And as best as I can tell, the call today is not simply to be a Christian, that’s too easy; but it is a call to be a certain kind of Christian.
Follow me, Jesus says, and learn from me how to live fully within the rule of God and gather people into a just world. Follow me, says Christ, and discover what it means to be fully human.
But I have to warn you. It means now what it meant then. It means defying empire. It means dreaming new dreams. It means pursuing an alternative world. It means standing with the marginalized and the demonized. It means forgiving and loving enemies and working for peace and justice. It means being a Martin Luther King, Jr. kind of Christian.
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Gracious God, forgive us for spending so very many hours skating along the shore, engaged in contests to decide who skates the best, all the while the priceless treasure goes unnoticed and unsought. May we hear and heed your call to repentance and discipleship, to center our lives in, on, and around your rule/will on earth. May we join Jesus, and Martine Luther King, Jr., and so many others we know not by name who have given themselves wholeheartedly and sacrificially to your cause. Amen.