Tag Archives: narrative theology

Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

Interpreting an Inspired Bible

Last week there was a bit of conversation on my Facebook page about what difference it might make for interpreting the biblical book of Daniel if someone believes that the Bible is inspired by God.

By “interpreting Daniel” I mean, specifically, what sorts of conclusions might one come to about the date on which it was written, the legitimacy of its rather “unique” naming of kings, etc. Historical questions.

And, when we’re talking about “inspired by God” we’re talking about something more than one might say for other “inspired” pieces of literature–something that would distinguish the Bible from even, say, Flannery O’Connor (pbuh).

This is a challenging question for many folks, especially as we start getting knee-deep into biblical studies. Do critical scholars question the historicity of certain passages simply because they don’t believe in the God who wrote it? Do scholars read the theological intent of certain passages, in ways that we don’t, due to their rejection of the God whose hand is behind it?

What difference does it make that the Bible is inspired?

First, a positive:

If the Bible is, as we believe, inspired, then this is the particular Bible that God wants us to have.

If we strain the data to make the Bible into something we presume it should be based on our theories of inspiration, we call into question God’s goodness in giving us the Bible we actually have.

If a doctrine of scripture constantly causes us to deny the data about the actual Bible we have, we are clinging to an idol of our own devising rather than gratefully receiving what God has given.

This brings us to the question of history.

We should be very careful about when we demand a different reading of history–limiting our different “readings” to instances when, in faith, we are called to recognize the hand of God at work in a narrative.

Christians will interpret history differently from non-Christians. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.

We believe that Jesus did miracles, fed thousands, walked on water.

But we don’t have to believe that Quirinius was governor with authority over Judea while Herod was still alive, or that the census that he took about ten years after Herod died occurred ten years earlier.

The former questions are questions of faith. The latter questions are questions of historical record. The Bible we actually have contains a number of geopolitical statements that do not line up with what we know from historical sources that had access to better records.

We need to exercise caution when we confront a historical discrepancy. The Bible God actually gave us contains this sort of thing, and we need to allow it to shape what can qualify as an “inspired” text.

What about theology?

We should not disallow an interpretation of a passage because we know that such an interpretation is theologically incorrect.

If a passage tells us that God changed his mind, we should assume, at least at first, that the writer intended to tell the reader that God changed His mind.

This is not to displace the issue of hermeneutics: we may very well reread a passage in light of the fuller Biblical picture. But such “rereading” should not overwhelm the voice of the text we’ve come into contact with until full justice is given to the text itself.

But this leads to the question of why we should reread at all? What positive value does inspiration have? Here, I go back to the famous 2 Timothy passage:

The purpose of scripture is to make us wise for salvation in Christ Jesus.

Everyone loves the part that comes after: “all scripture is God-breathed…”

But the part that precedes helps us understand what the content of this inspiration is. Scripture can teach, correct, and reprove because it is the God-inspired, yes. But it is an inspired story:

“You have known the sacred writings that are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

To claim an inspired Bible is to claim an overarching unity that is found in a story that climaxes in Jesus Christ. Inspiration means that I can read the parts as tied to a whole.

That whole isn’t a systematic theology. That whole isn’t a history of the entire world. That whole is the story of God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ Jesus.

Who Am I?

As a Christian, who am I? As Christians, who are we?

Lots of different answers are given to this one, many of which we don’t speak out loud, but simple assume.

Other answers are spoken out loud, at times, but perhaps they do not seep in deeply enough to come to the point of “unspoken assumption,” a bedrock presupposition that drives our lives without our knowing it.

A storied theology that places the story of the cross at the center of our story as God’s people should tell us some things about ourselves. We know these things. At least, we know many of them, but too many are allowed to fall away.

The cross is a story that tells us, among other things, that the world is in need of transformation in order to attain to the beauty and perfection that God wants for it.

It’s a story that tells us the way into God’s kingdom is through a self-renunciation, a receipt of forgiveness, a being set free.

But in the process, we discover that there is a beloved “I” who is engaged in this transformation. We are not a despised people who have to become someone else in order to be beloved of God. Instead, we are beloved people who are made more truly ourselves as we come to God in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t believe it.

In the Presbyterian liturgy there is a refrain I have, at times, found myself repeating every week:

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

At this moment, we have denied the economy by which most of us live our lives.

We offer an idea. We put ourselves out there. It is ours. And so when someone disagrees, it crushes us.

We get in a fight with our spouse, our friend, our sister, our brother. We believe that we were right. We feel that to let go of that, to admit that we were wrong, would be death. We have wrapped ourselves into what we have done.

And we’re right.

To admit we’re wrong would be death.

But it’s the death of those whose stories are defined by the cross of Christ–a death that resolves in resurrection.

In that moment, when we must. have. our. own. way. in that moment, we have left aside the fact that our defining narrative is the narrative of the cross. We have forgotten that who we are at the core of our being is not defined by our being right, awesome, powerful, amazing.

But, paradoxically, who we are most truly, the way in which we have found life, is not by clinging to the life we had, but in giving it up. In dying. In asking for forgiveness.

“I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”

This is not something that is to be lived out in vague generalities.

Because we are the cross people, we are the forgiveness people: embodying the equally difficult tasks of asking for forgiveness and of extending it to the people around us.

It feels like death to admit when we’re wrong. And, it probably is death, because we are wrapped up in the things we’ve done, the things we’ve said–they are part of our defining narrative.

But a greater narrative provides a greater definition. It is the narrative of the cross that says to all those things I either can’t or won’t or don’t want to turn from: These, too, are forgiven. Yours is a better story.

Thanks be to God.

The Story Beyond the Story

This weekend I reflected on the importance of narrative theology for keeping our theology from coming off the rails. A commenter drew attention to an article in this month’s Christianity Today to ask about those parts of the Bible that aren’t, in fact, narrative.

This is an important question to address. What’s all this talk about the Bible as “story” when we have these lovely psalms and proverbs and prophets and letters?

It’s an important question to wrestle with, but one that ultimately misses the point.

To say that the Bible is a story, and not just any story but the story of God’s revelation of himself in, and salvation of the world through, Jesus Christ, is to provide an overarching framework within which all the parts find their significance.

Let’s take the Psalms.

Psalm 1 begins like this:

The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
these persons love the LORD ’s Instruction,
and they recite God’s Instruction day and night! (CEB)

Who is YHWH? What is this Instruction, this Torah, that YHWH has given? Why should someone who sings this song think that keeping such Torah will lead to happiness and flourishing?

The Psalm assumes the story of Israel, a particular God who has done particular things (such as giving Torah) and made particular promises.

I’m not just cherry picking.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm, celebrating Israel’s king: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed” (Handel’s Messiah Version).

It assumes not only YHWH and Israel, but a particular place for the king, and a particular relationship between the king and YHWH. It even assumes Abrahamic promises of inherited land, now being focused on this royal emissary.

You can sing the psalms without the story, but you’ll be transforming their meaning.

This is one reason why the article in CT was not very helpful or profound in its critiques of narrative theology. In essence, the article was a complaint about people who had done a bad job telling the story, or who had not figured out what to do with psalms or proverbs or that dread beast Qoheleth.

Similar points could be raised about NT letters. One might say, rightly, that Paul did not write stories. Of course he didn’t. And this misses the point entirely.

Paul is writing as part of a religious world formed by the story of Israel and Israel’s God. When he speaks to churches and says, “Our fathers were all under the cloud,” he is writing them into the story of Israel. When he says, “Our unrighteousness will not nullify the righteousness of God, will it?” he is comparing two characters in a story the he recognizes himself to be part of–and that he recognizes Jesus to lie at the center of as well. (More here.)

Within this huge story of Israel and of creation heading to consummation, however, there is a smaller story, an inner story that determines the rest. For Israel, that story was the Exodus. For Christians, that story is the Christ-event.

When we want to know what it looks like for this story to be on track, for this story to–for once!–not run off the rails, we look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s in light of his instruction that we can sing Psalm 1 with its praise of Torah; it’s in light of his crucifixion and resurrection that we can sing Psalm 1 with its expectations of flourishing; it’s in light of his enthronement that we can sing Psalm 2 and know what it is to have a king who has asked, and is being given, the world as his inheritance (and, incidentally, sharing it with us).

So no, I don’t find the lack of narrative at points to be any argument against narrative theology. In fact, I would argue that those parts can only be read aright in light of the larger story within which they are given voice and thereby find their meaning.

Does the Son Elect?

(And other pressing concerns generated by Church Dogmatics §33.2)

Question 1: Is it faithful to Scripture to say that the Son, Jesus Christ, elects, such that in the God-man the one who elects and the one who is elected are one?

Or, is it more faithful to scripture to say that the one who elects is, properly, God the Father, who makes known to the Son that the Son has been elected for a certain task?

Barth’s whole program, as he presents it, hangs on Christ being both the subject and object of predestination.

I like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s how the NT presents God’s election. It’s all well and good for us, in our more developed Trinitarian Theology, to think “Father, Son, and Spirit” when we think “God.” However, this is not what the NT writers were thinking. For them, when they say “God” they mean the one to whom we refer to as “Father.”

More specifically, when election is assigned to a person, it is most often the Father (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2) rather than the Son; unless, that is, the Son is seen as agent of electing those (not himself!) whom the Father has chosen.

Barth Elects to say Yes to God Via His Pipe

Indeed, Ephesians 1 itself, the great “in Christ” celebration that provides the clearest indication that Jesus Christ is the one through whom any others are seen when they are elect, places the whole in the provenance of the Father:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… Just as he (i.e., the Father!) chose us in him (i.e., the Son), before the foundation of the cosmos… Having predestined us (i.e., the same Father predestines as chooses and blesses) to adoption through Jesus Christ…”

I don’t think that John 1:1, “the Word was God,” provides the kind of leverage Barth demands of it to assign to the son what is clearly assigned to the Father throughout scripture.

Or, to put a different spin on it, when KB says that the son’s suffering is something Jesus speaks of “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills,” I wonder what Bible he’s reading. The Son wills it as the will of the Father placed upon him.

I do not think, however, that this is as fatal to Barth’s project as he would lead us to believe. Jesus Christ can still be the primary object of election, focusing the choosing of God on the Son who as Elected One responds faithfully in electing God as well, and much of what Barth wants to maintain is upheld.

Question 2: If Barth wants the election of Jesus Christ to be the sum substance of election, such that all of us can look to Christ and take confidence in our standing before God–has he not cut off any defense he might have had against a charge of universalism?

If not every single person can so look to Christ and be comforted, then election cannot serve this purpose, which Barth says it surely has. I know, I’m not saying anything new here. And I’m happy for KB to be a Universalist based on the capacious nature of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Question 3: is it really all potential loss for God and all potential gain for humanity that God would choose to become incarnate, to become a man who must elect God in order for humanity to be truly God’s people?

I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness.

However, what if God really loves people?

What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.

In other words, what if being in the image of God means that we are God’s children and therefore beloved of him, and God has something magnificent to gain from this whole business–a beloved, faithful, loving family?

I love how Barth is moving away from double-predestination (although, again, I think a revisionist hermeneutic is involved here) and creating a doctrine that is radically christological in its focus. I think that much of this is a salutary corrective to predestinarian thinking.

But more work is going to have to be done if this is going to be a revision that stands up to biblical scrutiny.


A story without the power to compel us against our will is a story not worth telling.

If the story of Jesus as God’s agent to rescue the world cannot compel us to think differently than we would on our own, to act differently than we would if left to our own devices, then it is not a story worth telling, much less claiming as our own.

This is a story that is not told to be claimed as our own so much as it is written to claim us as its own.

For all my concern that this story make sense in our context, for all my concern that we allow change over time, for all my concern that we allow the praxis of the church to develop in ways that are culturally sensitive, for all of these enculturating dynamics that I think are essential, if I do not find myself repeatedly confronted by a Jesus story that is still, at essence, profoundly Other, summoning me to a way of life that I would not have on my own, then I am not telling the Jesus story.

If I “like” everything in this story as I’m telling it, I’m not telling the Jesus story. I’m telling my story as though it were his.

No Longer a Slave, but a Son

The Prodigal Son story keeps circling back into my world.

Two of my blog posts last week were in conversation with things I had read or heard that used the story as a definitive picture of God.

And, I got roped into teaching the kids during the sermon at church last night, and the Prodigal Son was the topic for our lesson.

Here’s my hang-up with most tellings of the story (though not with those I’ve heard in the last week): in Luke 15 the set-up is grumpy Pharisees who are not happy–At. All.–with Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them. So any interpretation of the parable that doesn’t leave the “insiders” wrestling with their posture toward others, the “wrong people” who have been embraced (any interpretation that does not end with the spotlight squarely on the Pharisees who are questioning Jesus’ choice of party people) won’t do it for me.

Jesus is partying with the wrong people.

This, of course, is just how the story of the Prodigal Son doesn’t end. While the stories of the lost coin and of the lost sheep each end with the party, the Prodigal story ends differently.

It ends with dad outside the party, attempting to cajole older brother to join in the celebration. The story ends not with the accepting father nor with the accepted son, but with the faithful, loyal, grumpy older brother who will not join the party for this fraud who has just come home.

Both brothers, in fact, come to the father with the same, wrong narrative about their life in relation to him. And the father attempts to rewrite their stories.

They tell, or offer, stories of servitude, but the father narrates their lives as those of beloved children.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and earth and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Take me back as one of your servants.”

But no, the father doesn’t even let him get to the “let me be your servant” part. Family ring. Fine robe. New shoes. And this “son of mine” is back!

There is rejoicing in heaven over one lost sinner who repents. And a feast on earth, apparently.

But as beautiful as that story is, most of the people I hang out with need the second one a bit more.

It’s the “faithfully slaving away” story. The story of the faithful ones who just do everything we’re supposed to. And always have. And always will.

And in the doing have forgotten who we are.

“Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction” (Luke 15:29, CEB). Behold the good and faithful slave! Laboring away under the yoke of his master!

No, says the father, not slave.


This is family. This is not servitude.

“Son, you are always with me.”

So why are you apart from me now at this moment of celebration? You are always with me.

“Everything I have is yours.”

Including this family of mine–with its lost son back from the dead.

And there we’re left. Outside the party. With the Pharisees who will not join the heavenly party of the faithless who have repented.

For all the shame and embarrassment and guilt that the younger brother felt, he was willing to have his story retold as a story of life out of death, of sonship rather than slavery.

How much harder to have our narrative transformed when we’ve done everything right. How much harder to have our story retold when our go-to narrative is one in which we’ve earned the party by working our fingers to the bone.

How much harder, also, to celebrate the miscreant.

Election and the God-Man

Blogsphere confessional: I’m over the predestination debate.

Been there. Done that. Committed myself. Realized that the debates makes people jerks/reveals that we are jerks. Pulled out. Don’t care anymore.

In particular, I find discussions of predestination to be theologically thin because they spend so much time in the ether that the story as it actually unfolds fades from view.

Barth, though, invites a reconsideration of predestination with a relentless focus on Jesus Christ, focusing on Jesus Christ himself as the object of God’s election (Dogmatics §33.1) daring me to give it one more try.

The section begins with what appears to be an intentional echo of Ephesians 1, as Barth begins sentence after sentence with “In Him…” Ephesians 1 was Calvin’s go-to text for discussing predestination.

Barth is acutely aware of the charge of those who, like Roger Olson, assert that the Calvinist’s God is a moral monster. Barth is not only aware of this, he agrees with the critique. To him, the absolute decree of God is the demon produced in predestinarian thought that must be exorcised.

Thus, instead of some “absolute decree,” we are to focus on the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, the one whom God has ordained to bear God’s name. This, says Barth, is the essence of election: in the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word became flesh.

Election, in short, is God’s determination “that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He wold be gracious towards man, united Himself with him” (101).

Barth divides his subsequent discussion in two: as God, Jesus Christ elects; as human, Jesus Christ is elected.

This gets to be a mess.

But before we get to the mess, here’s where it’s helpful: it takes the focus of election off of ourselves as responders, and onto Jesus as the Elect One who also faithfully followed God throughout his life.

Now to the mess: Barth has an insufficiently developed understanding of the significance of being human, especially within the story of Israel, and thus ends up placing too much of Jesus’ function as representative and Lord on his divinity.

Here’s a summation of Barth’s concern:

For where can Jesus Christ derive the authority and power to be Lord and Head of all others and how can these others be elected “in Him,” and how can they see their election in Him the first of the elect, and how can they find in His election the assurance of their own, if He is only the object of election and not Himself its Subject, if He is only an elect creature and not primarily and supremely the electing Creator. Obviously in a strict and serious sense we can never say of any creature that other creatures are elect “in it,” that it is their Lord and Head, and that in its election they can and should have assurance of their own.

How can Jesus Christ derive authority and power to be Lord? By being the obedient Davidic and Adamic son whom God appointed to rule over all things–the one who, because he was obedient, was given a name that was not his before!

How can his election be the assurance of our own? Only if his is truly the election of a human being such that other human beings might know that God can choose even those in the likeness of sinful flesh!

In what sense could we be elect in another? Only in the sense that this other is like unto us such that we might bear his image as the renewal of our own!

Even Barth’s desire to ground the story of election more in the story of the God who truly is remains too far removed from the biblical story.

This is so because in turning to election, Barth jumps immediately to the Trinity outside of time rather than the revelation of Jesus as one whose humanity speaks to us about the word of God in time. And this means, not primarily as witness to the God who is beyond time, but showing us in the here and now how God works within a particular earthly story.

Barth is pointing us in the right direction by demanding we focus on Christ, but I’m not sure he’s walked far enough down the road toward he gestures.

On Salutary Rebellions and Neglected Trampolines

Joan Chittister inspired Stanford’s class of 2012 with words such as these:

“If you want to save the age, the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly writes, ‘Betray it. Expose its conceits, its foibles and its phony moral certitudes.’ Remember that there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true, because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, that lie can go on forever.”

“If you want to be a leader, you must refuse to tell the old lies.”

“rebel against the forces of death that are obstructing us from being fully human together.”

“To be a real leader, by all means make a difference. Rebel, rebel, rebel – for all our sakes, rebel. For if the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow.”

I confess to finding her words moving. I find myself living in a strange space between loving the old Story and seeing repeatedly that the story must be retold in ways that challenge the old tellings–and old livings.

At one point, Chittister calls the people to allow nothing, not even the rituals of the religion in whose ways we walk, to get in the way of our mission to those whom we serve.

She might have said, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.”

I see this impulse playing out in Rob Bell’s work as well.

In Velvet Elvis (a chapter of which I read in the free Rob Bell Reader), Bell uses a trampoline analogy to talk about Christian faith as having a purpose, a purpose to enable us to soar, dangerously. What we believe are springs that enable us to engage, to take flight.

In contrast, we too often use our beliefs to create walls which are stationary and built to inhibit movement. We use them to judge and demarcate. And those inside aren’t jumping very high.

I found a great deal of affinity in his call to “judge,” if we must, not by the question “Who’s right?” but instead by “Who’s living rightly?”

Maybe this is where “Rebel, rebel, for all our sakes, rebel” comes in.

I’ve heard it said that each generation (of Christians, specifically) needs to write its own books. Fair enough.

But perhaps this generation is also finding itself needing to ask whether writing books and believing what they say are all they’re cracked up to be when it comes to faithful following of Jesus.

Perhaps it’s time to point to various ways of construing faithful Christianity and say, just loud enough for the folks around us to hear, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

If we’re building the walls rather than walking in the way, we might discover, to our deep surprise, that we’re shamefully naked.

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.