Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

The Problem with Rich

The problem with “rich” is that I know, instinctively, that it doesn’t apply to me.

My dad would sometimes pull the sly smile as he claimed wealth: the love of the family, the rewarding life, you know, the revisionist definition of rich. But I knew all to well that the financial pressures that had our family on a cycle of spending less and less as payday approached, the debt of a mortgage we couldn’t afford, and the disparity between a Navy income and the cost of living in the D.C. area all added up to one thing: we were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table, that we had a clunker that the kids could drive in addition to a nicer car for the grown ups. We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that we have more than 95% of the people in the world. We just know that we are not rich.

And this is why “rich” is a problem.

It is a word that I have learned, deep down, experientially, does not apply to me.

We have all been taught how to look up, to see the people with more, to identify them as rich.

While we are not.

And so, when we come across “the rich,” the warnings to “the rich,” or “the rich man” on the pages of scripture, we dissociate. “Wow, if I were rich, that would be a pretty convicting story.” Or, “Wow, I wonder, if I were rich, would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

That’s why, in my judgment, the Gospel of Mark does us a great favor.

In Mark 10:17, a man runs up to Jesus. We’re not told anything about him, except that he bows and asks about what must be done to inherit life.

Jesus feels for this man. Loves him. And so, Jesus ends up inviting him into the life-giving way: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes way sad. Because he was…

Because he was what?

“Because he was someone who had a lot of stuff.”

Uh oh.

“Has a lot of stuff” (ἔχων κτήματα πολλά).

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not here embodied in “the rich” (ὁ πλούσιος) but in “one who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books. It hits home in houses loaded up with phones and retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of serving dishes and overflowing closets and basketfulls of toys.

It is not to “the rich” that Jesus goes on to issue his warning–those ethereal others!–but to us:

“Oh, with how much difficulty with those who have a ton of crap (ok, more literally, “a lot of stuff”) enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Jesus will use the word for “rich” a little later, but let’s live with him in the delay. Let’s recognize that none of us is willing to bear that label rich. And let’s recognize that this is perhaps the most important story we could hear and respond to. We are the “stuff havers.”

Let’s leave behind the word “rich.” It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non-rich who still have too much.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God.

The Business of a Better World

This week I did an interview with Martin Reed of Blue Sea Labs.

Martin Reed

He is doing incredible work with the seafood industry and the distribution logistics that are necessary for sustainable food and mom-and-pop businesses to survive in an era of globalization.

Here’s a taste:

Sustainable seafood is an issue that addresses both environmental and social atrocities. 90% of our seafood is imported, and much of it comes from Southeast Asia where there is slave labor on fishing boats, and where there are few standards in place to help ensure sustainability.

Read the rest at Field Notes Magazine.

Henry V and the Kingdom of God

We need to understand the Biblical picture of the reign of God or, as Christians, we will enact poor parodies of that reign as we stumble our way toward Christian faithfulness.

I confess, all of the anti-Empire work that’s floating around New Testament scholarship makes me more than a little nervous, as does N. T. Wright’s bold proclamation that we need to reclaim the word “theocracy.”

Yes, to claim that Jesus is the king of king and lord of lords means, also, that Caesar does not have this role, whatever his claims. And Caesar made such a claim even over Jesus, with Rome’s parodic crucifixion: “Ok, ‘king,’ hang on this cross and discover who is the king of all kings upon the earth!”

But let us not forget that the expulsion of Rome is exactly what Jesus never tried to enact, never promised to deliver.

Jesus did come and cast out a legion. But the great irony of the story is that the “Legion” was not Roman but demonic; and it was not expelled from Jerusalem or Judea or Galilee, but from a Gentile man in Gentile territory.

The undoing of the arms of Caesar was not the mission of Jesus.

This week Laura and I took in an outstanding rendition of Henry V at London’s Shakespear’s Globe Theater.

Jamie Parker played the part of Henry to perfection, leaving me wanting to stand and cheer after the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Overall, the play struck me as delivering rather a muted celebration of war. But more than that, the play struck me as having a rather lot of talk about God.

Henry demands that the great victory should be celebrated and recounted so as to give glory to God. God’s glory. God’s grace. God’s victory.

One suspects that the French didn’t quite see it this way.

And thus the problem of misidentifying the reign of God, and too closely associating with “not the reign of x king in particular.” There is a practical, nearly unavoidable problem in setting Jesus up over against other, particular earthly kings.

The problem, in short, is that we are too ready to identify ourselves and our kings and our kingdoms with the reign of God, and the other guy over there with the reign Jesus opposes.

Moreover, when we identify worldly kingdoms as the opposition, we too readily employ the means of earthly conquest in our efforts to unseat them.

Any truth worth its salt will be dangerous.

I do not commend dispensing with the idea of the kingdom of God.

But we must understand it well, and cultivate our participation in that reign with caution.

When our enactments look more like blanketing the enemy with paratroopers than an apparent nothing producing incalculable return, we’ve got a problem.

When our enactments look more like driving the nails than receiving the blows, we’ve got a problem.

When we find ourselves asking and pining and pleading, “Lord, is it now that you are going to restore the Kingdom to us?” We should immediately fear that the restoration is already taking place through some great act of self-giving love.

An that we are missing it.

Gospel as Cruciform Kingdom

When Jesus was proclaiming the advent of the reign of God, he was proclaiming the good news (the gospel).

The introduction to Mark tells us that his whole story demarcates the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—and that story culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion and report of his resurrection.

As I prepare for a week of discussions about gospel, kingdom, and cross, I keep circling back around to this:

We repeatedly end up with truncated gospels because we have not yet learned to hold together Jesus’ authoritative proclamation and inauguration of the reign of God (Mark 1-8) with Jesus’ road to Jerusalem and death on the cross as king (Mark 8-16).

Some of us struggle to place much significance in the death of Jesus, given all the powers and signs and wonders and teaching and authority and identity he put on display in his life.

Others of us struggle to place much central significance in the life of Jesus, given our understanding of the all-sufficiency of his death on our behalf.

To the one I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus was doing in his life that does not require Jesus to die on the cross is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

And to the other I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus did for us on the cross that does not require Jesus to live a life of proclaiming and demonstrating the advent of the reign of God is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

That’s my story for now, anyway: we need to continue working on the articulation of a cruciform kingdom.

What do you think?

Do the gospel stories as such demand that we read them as mutually-interpreting wholes, to where cross and kingdom each inform the other?

And if so, where does this leave us when we come to Paul, whose gospel-story timeline begins with the cross?

I have some thoughts on the latter. I’ll come back to that in a couple of days.

Kingdom of Abundance

The feeding narratives were supposed to tell the disciples everything they needed to know about Jesus’ identity–and their participation with him in the coming of the kingdom.

At least, that seems to be what Mark wants us to think.

Jesus feeds 5,000, and then when the disciples freak out at his coming to them on the water, this is ascribed to their “not understanding about the loaves, but their heart was hardened.”

Jesus feeds 4,000, and then in a boat with insufficient food, Jesus warns about the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod. They think he’s talking about bread.

He rebukes them: don’t you remember how much food you gathered? Are your eyes blind, your ears deaf, your hearts hard? Beware of the leaven of the bad guys!

What have we seen in these feeding narratives?

We have seen abundance come from nothing. We have seen banquets set in the wilderness.

More than this, we have seen that the setting of the banquets was not just the work of Jesus–it was the work of Jesus who gave to his disciples who, in turn, gave to the crowds.

The disciples are active agents in the coming of the kingdom of abundance. They take hold of the world’s scarcity and distribute it far beyond its capacity.

The abundance of Herod is different.

In his banquet hall, filled with food, he is shown to be weak and impressionable. Herod’s feast is, finally, a feast of death–John’s head served on a platter.

Where is death? In the wilderness, without adequate food–but a good shepherd? Or in the halls of apparent abundance–with a failure of a would-be king?

Herod has not enacted death alone. The Pharisees have also plotted with the Herodians to kill Jesus.

There is a kingdom economy of the Herod and the Pharisees–where the apparent abundance of power and possession leads to death.

And there is an alternate kingdom economy of Jesus–where apparent nothingness and death and deprivation leads to fulness.

Embracing the kingdom of abundance, however, means seeing abundance, by faith, in the face of nothing.

How is the kingdom of abundance, power, and glory seen? It is like the smallest mustard seed.

Sow it in faith and see what happens.

The One Gospel?

I’ve recently been reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, a book that has me digging around in some familiar territory of where the Rule of Faith fits into the Christian narrative, how well it represents the biblical story, etc.

In dealing with “gospel,” McKnight starts with 1 Cor 15: “Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the scriptures; then he appeared…”

Paul claims that this is the one gospel that everyone proclaims.

I very much like this as a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But at the risk of embracing a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” I also want to suggest that every time someone claims, “This is what everyone has always said,” they are engaging in a polemical framing of their own claims that probably deserves at least a little bit of nuance, and perhaps considerable qualification.

This is not to deny that 1 Cor 15 is a great summary of the gospel, but it is to suggest that there is no single telling of the gospel that is always proclaimed every time.

We could attack this from a couple of different angles.

First, within Paul himself there is some variation. In Gal 3 Paul writes, “Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you.'”

The blessing of Abraham for the gentiles is the gospel. The nations being wrapped up in the faith of Abraham and promise of God is the gospel. Interestingly, there is almost no resurrection in Galatians.

Then, we might go to Acts. Acts does not offer us a theology of Jesus “dying for our sins” in its sermons. In fact, Acts contains a sermon in which the crucifixion isn’t mentioned at all (Acts 17). These sermons see the crucifixion bringing such guilt upon Israel as to demonstrate that Israel is as much in need of forgiveness as the nations.

Or, we might go to Jesus. And here’s where I wish McKnight had gone a different direction. To take Mark as an example, Jesus goes out proclaiming the gospel: “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near!” The advent of the kingdom of God is itself the good news.

Not merely the death of Jesus (Mark 8-16) but the life as well (Mark 1-8) is good news. When Jesus casts out demons–this is enacting the gospel. When Jesus feeds the 5,000–this is enacting the gospel.

There are ways to connect this life of Jesus in the Gospels with the continuing life of the resurrected Jesus in Paul’s letters, but even at the basic level of “gospel,” we have a broad, rich picture in the NT.

So what do we have to say if we are to claim that we proclaim the good news? And should we be suspicious whenever someone tells us that this is what people have always confessed as Christians?

Image of the King

What does setting up an image have to do with rule?

It’s sometimes argued that ancient kings would set up images of themselves in the lands they ruled as a reminder to all the people of who the king was–especially if he was not physically present.

I’m not sure that this is historically accurate; however, it is suggestive in a couple of helpful ways as we come to the creation of humanity in God’s image in Genesis 1.

First, even if the kings of the Ancient Near East did not so place their images around their empires, we know that later kings did. I am reminded of statues of Augustus, or inscriptions such as the one found at Priene that celebrates Augustus’ birthday as the beginining of the good news that has come to the world through him. Part propaganda, part not-so-subtle reminder, the images of the “god” Augustus remind the people to whom they owe their life and loyalty.

Second, as I heard this idea discussed in a sermon last night, my mind’s eye couldn’t help flashing to scenes such as these:

Saddam Husseiin's Birthday Statue
War Propaganda Poster
The Decorated Hero

The images of the ruler remind the people, in not so subtle ways, who is in charge, who is their protector, whom they serve.

All of this made me think, third, that such “presence of the ruler through an image” captures well the idea of humans as made in God’s image, and thereby given rule over the earth.

We are supposed to be the visible reminders to the world that it is God who is sovereign over all. We are to be acting as faithful agents of the rule of a loving God who has provided for all creatures in all of creation.

What do we see when we see a fellow human being? An agent of God, sent out into the world to make God’s reign known.

Shoes on Other Feet

I confess. (I really need to stop doing that here–note to self, add “blogsphere confessionals” to “List of things to talk to therapist about.” Where was I? Oh yes…)

I confess, I cheer for winners. If I’m watching a game and don’t have a huge stake in one of the teams, I find myself drawn inexorably toward the one that seems to be destined to win at any given moment. When I’m watching a movie with some modicum of mystery about a perpetrator of a crime, I withhold judgment so that I can pretend I hated the right person all along.

When I read the NT, I cheer for Jesus. I boo for the Pharisees. I cheer for Paul. I boo for the Judaizers.

In these NT cases, I think that there’s something about the literature itself that expects such a reaction. By siding with Jesus or Paul I place myself into the mindset of the ideal reader of the text–one for whom Jesus and Paul are the good guys.

But there’s a down side as well; namely, that by siding with the good guys we miss how the story might confront us with a word of judgment.

cbenjasuwan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We might miss, in fact, that we are those to whom the hero’s words might be spoken afresh.

In fact, it might be that the best place at which to enter the story is not as the doppelganger of the hero, but as the opposition force.

When we read the NT, we too often forget that we who sit in the established Christianity of the 20th century are more like the Jews than anyone else on the page.

We are sitting within the people who have had a firm confidence for thousands of years that we are uniquely living within the great revelation of God that determines all other things.

We are sitting as insiders with a clear sense of who is in and who is out.

We have have the authoritative voice of scripture to back our religious mores and scruples.

In what ways might the shoe be on the other foot? Might it be the case that now, quite often, the church sits not on the side of the radical in-breaking of the Kingdom of God under the reign of King Jesus, but that we sit on the side of the status quo that sets itself against this prophetic advent?

Might the “weak” now be those whose identities are so tied to Christian mores or worship styles or theological traditions that, despite being good smokers and drinkers, we are in fact the “weaker brothers” now? Might we be the ones who cannot part with what we know and still believe we’re serving Jesus?

Might we be the ones who oppose the Jesus-centered mission and identity of the people of God, demanding that any true Messiah serve the standards of the “law” as we’ve understood it? Do we grumble when people spend too much time, become too close friends, with those outside the community?

Yes, Jesus is the Messiah. So yes, there is something “right” about our identification of him and with him as we read. But are there ways that we need to recognize that this very confession unmakes the lives we have constructed in, as we understood it, service of him?

People of the Story of the Cross

I teach a class at Fuller called, “The Cross in the New Testament.” We talk a lot about atonement. But as we talk about atonement, a funny thing happens: we start to realize that the questions we tend to ask about “how the cross works to save us” are not the questions that the NT spends a lot of time answering.

And yet, this does not minimize the centrality of the cross in the NT. Instead, it tells us that our cross is much too small. Or, we’ve gotten our story wrong. Or, to put it another way, we’ve forgotten that we’re a story people and have started acting instead like we are a theology people.

Flannery O’Connor (blessed be her name) gives us a peek into the mind of the master storyteller:

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.

When we approach the story of Jesus, the story of the cross, we too often think that the story is there for the purpose of having theological data extracted from it–as though the purpose of the story is to point beyond itself to the abstract system enthroned with God in the heavenly places, unmarred by human contact. But that’s not how stories work.

We discover in the story that the very act of Jesus’ crucifixion is an expression of life lived in opposition to the coming reign of God. Jesus creates enemies by exerting a personal authority for overturning social mores, encroaching on the prerogatives of God, and refusing to raise up the Law as the highest measure of humanity’s good.

The story of the Kingdom is in conflict with the story of the world–even as that world is inhabited by people upon whom God has set God’s name.

To be a Jesus follower is to participate in a narrative that denies the narrative of the world: denies the narrative of scarcity in favor of a narrative of abundance; denies the narrative of socially defined holiness in favor of a narrative of Christ-defined righteousness.

It is a narrative that insists that anyone who is not against us is, in fact for us (we don’t have the right to circumscribe the people to those who are just like us).

And at the end, it is the Kingdom that insists that the power of God is the power to give life to the dead.

And here is where the Kingdom of the world begins to crumble under the weight of God’s greater power.

For the Babylons, Greeces, and Romes of the world, the ultimate power of coercion is the power of death. Oppose Rome and meet its sword. Rebel against Rome and meet its legions. Fail to hail Caesar and prepare to greet his gladiators. Exalt yourself as king and prepare to meet its cross.

And here is where Jesus comes in.

The life of Jesus is a testimony to a different kind of people and a different kind of power. Not the power of the life-taking king, but the power of self-giving love. More than this–not the power of the Romans in taking life on the cross, but the power of the One True God in giving life to the truly dead.

God’s reversal of the imperial death sentence was not merely the reversal of the verdict of the earth that Jesus was guilty. It was that. It was Jesus’ justification.

But it was also the warning that the ultimate power of the earth is weakness before God. It was also the warning that the ultimate wisdom of the earth is foolishness before God. Readily conquered. Easily befuddled.

That Jesus comes as a self-giving king, an embracing king, a king who refuses to take up the sword–this is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the economy of the Kingdom. This is the world we are called to realize, to live, to story, in our life together.

This is why Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Because we are the cross people. And enacting the story of God is what the cross of Christ calls and enables us to do.

Economy of Death

It seems that the purpose of the blogsphere today is for public processing of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

The Twitter feed has alerted me to numerous posts that are saying, in essence, what I’ll say here as well: the economy of the Kingdom of God should give us pause about jumping into unmitigated celebration of the death of our country’s enemy.

A couple of thoughts on this.

First, if we speak of Bin Laden as “our” enemy, it’s important to remember that the “our” of whom we are speaking is not the church, not Christians, not the people of God, but the United States of America. Being an American is one part of my identity, it is my people, so yes, he was “our” enemy. But this is not the same as saying that he is the church’s enemy, an agent of Satan as one standing against the agents of light.

Hear me! This is not to say that he is not an agent of evil, but a plea for us to recognized that good guys and bad guys in the wars of the world are not drawn in absolute colors of black and white, but rather in various shades of gray.

The second place from which, I believe, Christian exuberance should be mitigated is in the simple biblical warning not to celebrate the downfall of our enemy. Proverbs 24 is a curious chapter. On the one hand there is the typical Proverbial expectation that God is at work in the world to reward the pious and punish the wicked. But despite this connection between the hand of God and the downfalls of the bad guys we might see here on earth, the chapter warns, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov 24:17).

And this brings us to the final point of it all.

At moments like this, where we might recognize some net good to the world through the death of this agent of death, we also need to remember that this economy of death, which is the economy of the world, is not the economy of the Kingdom of God.

The nations live by this economy of the world, and to a certain extent are compelled to. But we, the United States, have for the past 10 years exacerbated the economy of death, fed death, through our response to the death we endured on September 11, 2001. We used those deaths as legitimation for bringing far more death to Iraq and Afghanistan than we endured on our own dreadful day.

Death begets death. It was the case with the deaths that stain Osama bin Laden’s hands, and it is the case with the deaths that stain our own. And no doubt it will be the case in the aftermath of this, our country’s latest victory.

Death begets death, until…

… until a people are formed who truly rejoice when persecuted.

… until a people are created who turn the other cheek when struck.

… until a people bless those who persecute them–bless and do not curse.

… until death is confronted with life.

… until death is conquered by resurrection.

… until the Kingdom of God comes, and God’s will truly is done on earth.