Good News #1: The Kingdom of God is near!

What is the Kingdom of God?

‘Kingdom’ is a political word. In an election campaign, all of the political parties  set out their party platforms. Some  parties  release them bit by bit, others set them out all at once. The hope is that, in the midst of all the noise, thoughtful voters will actually examine the party platforms and asked themselves ‘How does this compare with my vision for the future of Canada? Which manifesto can I most readily commit myself to?’

Mark tells us that Jesus ‘came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (vv.14-15). This was Jesus’ manifesto, if you like, drawn straight from the pages of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament scriptures there are a number of words and phrases that cluster around the same theme – words and phrases like ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘shalom’, ‘the year of Jubilee’ and so on. All these words and phrases spell out the idea that the world as we see it is not the world as God intended it, but that the time is coming when God is going to act to restore his original plan.

This is spelled out poetically in Isaiah 2:2-4:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways,
and that we may walk in his paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah sees the nations and races of the earth coming to God for instruction, and committing themselves to living by God’s ways, the ways of peace and justice. Other Old Testament passages add other aspects of this. The poor, the widow, the orphan will be cared for. Land and wealth will be shared fairly so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Life will be characterised by wholeness, harmony, and peace.

This, you see, is what the people in Jesus’ day meant by the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’. They certainly didn’t see God’s Kingdom as some sort of ethereal afterlife in which we all stroll through fields of green forever. They expected to see it fulfilled as an earthly reality, in real time and space. And now Jesus arrives and makes this startling announcement: ‘The Kingdom of God has cone near’. The Gospels make it clear that the reason the Kingdom is near because Jesus is near, and Jesus is the King. His arrival is a challenge to people to make their choice: are they for or against God’s manifesto for the future, which Jesus represents?

It’s in this context that the call to follow Jesus is given. It’s a personal decision, but it has huge social and political implications. The Kingdom of God is about fairness, equity, and justice – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day? The kingdom of God is about peace and reconciliation – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture shot through with violence, a culture which assumes that problems can be solved by acts of violence, on the international level and on the level of the latest action movie? The Kingdom of God is about accepting God’s instruction for living – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture where everyone claims the right to construct their own rules of right and wrong? These are only a few of the social and political implications of choosing to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

So this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. So how do we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels make it clear that everyone has to make their mind up about this: do I want to be in the Kingdom, or out of it? Will I participate willingly, or not? What does that decision involve? This scripture passage outlines four things. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news”, and in verse 17 he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”.

First, we’re called to repent. This word is not about feeling guilty or even feeling sorry for our sins. Rather, it’s about doing things differently. It’s about making a radical change of direction. We realise that we’re heading the wrong way, and so we make a 180° turn.

What are the things we’re called to do differently? Things contrary to Jesus’ teaching, of course – but here again, we need to resist the temptation to see this in purely personal terms. Of course it means turning away from dishonesty, or lust, or greed. But there’s another dimension to it as well, that we must not leave out.

Josephus was a high-ranking Jew who became an important official in the latter part of the first century A.D. His policy was to collaborate with the Romans, and thus to try to achieve a better life for his own people. He tells the story in his memoirs of how he went to meet with a group of insurrectionists who were plotting rebellion against the empire. He says, “I challenged them to repent and believe in me” – almost exactly the phrase Jesus uses here! But in Josephus’ context, it obviously doesn’t mean turning away from purely private sins – it means repenting of violent rebellion and embracing a different way, the way Josephus represented.

In Jesus’ day there were a number of competing strategies for bringing in the kingdom of God – all the way from armed rebellion on the one hand to rolling over and playing dead on the other. When Jesus challenged the people of Galilee to repent, he wasn’t only calling individuals to leave their private sins and embrace his vision for private morality. He was also calling the nation to abandon the vision of bringing in the kingdom by violence, and believe in a new strategy, which he was going to teach them. And for us today, Jesus challenges us to abandon ways of setting the world to rights that run contrary to his teachings, and to embrace his vision of a different way.

And this leads to the second thing; we’re called to repent, and also to believe in the good news – which is defined earlier in the passage as ‘the good news of the kingdom’. The good news of the kingdom seems like such a risky way of changing the world; military force or political power often seem so much more reliable. But God chose a different strategy – the strategy of coming among us as a human being, showing us the way by his life and teaching, giving himself on the Cross for the sin of the whole world, and then demonstrating by the resurrection that evil will not have the last word. The good news of the Kingdom is about the transformation of the world one heart at a time, as humans become followers of Jesus and begin to live by his vision in their private and public lives.

And that brings us to the third thing; we’re called to follow Jesus. What sort of people can spread the kingdom of God? The answer is obvious: people like Jesus! And so Jesus called people to become his disciples – his apprentices, if you like. Apprentices of Jesus listen to his teaching, watch his way of living, learn from him, and imitate the good things they see.

Jesus’ call still goes out to people today – the call to follow him and become his apprentices. Jesus is busy changing the world one life at a time. The curriculum is the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments to love God and love your neighbour, and so on. Each day, we apprentices pray for guidance and strength to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to our daily lives.

This isn’t just a sweet romantic ideal; it leads to concrete actions. Many years ago when I was a student, a friend and I were walking down Bloor Street in Toronto comparing notes about our summers. I mentioned in passing that my watch had cratered over the summer; without hesitation he took his own watch off and gave it to me. ‘”I’ve got two”, he said, “and after all, Jesus did say that if we had two coats and our brother had none, we were to share what we had”. Now I ask you, what would that principle mean for those of us who have two houses in a world where many are homeless? Or two cars? Or two guitars? (I think there are currently four in my house!) Often the answers are difficult, but as Christians, we absolutely must struggle with these questions.

So we’re called to repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. Finally, we’re called to fish for people. All of us are here today because someone ‘fished’ for us. In my case, it was my parents, and especially my Dad who challenged me to give my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. As a result of other people’s fishing, you and I became apprentices of Jesus. Now we apprentices are called to do our own bit of fishing – that is, to invite others to become Jesus’ apprentices too.

Note what Jesus says here. It seems that fishing for people isn’t an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, or for those who happen to be bubbly extroverts. The one thing leads inevitably to the other: Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’. To make new disciples for Jesus is an integral part of the package of being a follower of Jesus. If you take this element out of the package, you’ve made Christian discipleship something completely different.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle. The Twelve Steps of AA are a comprehensive program for personal transformation. But step twelve, the final step in the process, says ‘having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we then tried to take this message to others’. This isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the program. Wise members of AA know that if they don’t do this, they become inward looking and self-absorbed – which is the first step to going back to drinking. And Christians who refuse to follow Jesus in his work of making new apprentices also short-circuit their own growth as his disciples.

The good news that Jesus announced is that God has refused to accept the ruin of his world by the forces of evil. God has worked decisively in Jesus to defeat evil, and the day will come when that defeat will be absolute and complete. The kingdom of God is at hand. All people are invited to be part of that kingdom, by repenting, believing the good news, learning to follow Jesus and to make new disciples for him.

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Chaim Potok on biblical criticism

chaim-potokI’m a big fan of the late Chaim Potok, one of the great Jewish writers of the 20th century, who died in 2002. His novels, including ‘The Chosen‘, ‘The Promise‘, ‘My Name is Asher Lev‘, and ‘The Book of Lights‘, all deal with Jewish people trying to find a way to be faithful to their religious tradition in the context of a secular culture. For instance, ‘The Chosen’ and ‘The Promise’ deal with the problems of textual criticism and modern psychology; ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ deals with art; ‘In the Beginning’ deals with biblical criticism. My personal favourite is ‘The Book of Lights’, which follows the journey of a young Jewish chaplain (and student of Kabbalah) in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. The Amazon.com site sums it up in this way:

Gershon Loran, a quiet rabinical student, is troubled by the dark reality around him. He sees hope in the study of Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism and visions, truth and light. But to Gershon’s friend, Arthur, light means something else, the Atom bomb his father helped create. Both men seek different a refuge in a foreign place, hoping for the same thing….

In 1978 Chaim Potok gave an interview to Cheryl Forbes, which appeared in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. Forbes didn’t pull any punches and at times comes across as aggressive and abrasive in expressing her evangelical point of view, but Potok gives as good as he gets as well, although at times he is surprisingly generous in his assessment of evangelical Christianity.

I particularly enjoyed the following exchange about biblical criticism (Forbes’ questions are in bold):

The battle of David Lurie with Bible criticism is somewhat akin to that faced by evangelicals today. What is the significance of this?

Bible criticism presents a particular problem to the Jewish tradition that isn’t faced by Christianity. Orthodox Jewish law is predicated on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text is fixed and divinely given. Once you touch the fixity of the Pentateuchal text the whole mountain of Jewish law begins to tremble.

That’s similar to the problem within Christianity. If you accept one portion of Scripture as culturally conditioned, say, who’s to decide where to draw the line?

Yes, if you say a text is spurious you might say it about a doctrine as well. That’s perfectly true. Essentially both fundamentalisms face the same problem. That’s why fundamentalists are afraid to confront Bible criticism. They don’t know how to handle it.

You don’t think that in confronting it faith will crumble?

Here’s the problem in Judaism: The tradition itself has Bible criticism in it. You can find it all through the medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. If the tradition were entirely devoid of Bible criticism, then a David Lurie might never have been attracted to the excitement of that discipline. First, David Lurie turns his back on the modern version of Bible criticism. Then he realizes that there are truths involved. How do you relate to the truths? You have to rethink your relationship to the tradition. You have to come to an understanding of how you relate to the tradition without basing yourself on a fundamentalist version of its sacred text. And that involves rethinking your relationship to the history of your people. Many people don’t want to do that and simply use Bible criticism as the most convenient excuse for the quickest way out of the Jewish tradition. They claim that Bible criticism proves the tradition to be infantile fables. Well, Bible criticism doesn’t prove that at all. Quite the contrary. We know today that the Bible is far more complex and sophisticated than we ever suspected; it is far more awesome as a creation of man than as a word-for-word revelation by God.

You can read the entire interview starting here.

P.S. Many thanks to Grandmère Mimi for reminding me of this interview with this very great man.

Technology and the Simple Life – coffee and conversation

A note from the Rev. Steve London:

Hello all,

I am again inviting you to our 2nd discussion group at Transcend Coffee. The idea is to have a topic and a good cup of coffee in a relaxed setting and talk for a couple of hours.

The next one is on Saturday morning, May 25th, from 10am to noon at Transcend Coffee, upstairs which is located at 9869 62 Ave which is just south of Argyll Road off 99th Street.

Our topic this month is Technology and the Simple Life. The idea here is simple: most people agree that there is a connection between living peace and intentionally living a simpler life in the midst of a overwhelmingly consumer society. Most people also use quite a bit of technology in terms of smart phones, tablets, social media, calendars and so on. Some times the technology really helps enable a simpler life style, but often it is a tension with it as well. This conversation will be a way of exploring how we have wrestled with that tension and listen to what others have come up with as well. Looking forward to seeing you all!

Blessings, Steve

Note: This event is sponsored by the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network

Some random things that I believe – and don’t believe…

I believe that the Book of Jonah is one of the most profound books in the Bible. Not the whole ‘swallowed by a fish’ bit, so much as the fact that God sent him as a missionary to the deadly enemies of Israel. No wonder he ducked and ran…

Oh, and it’s also one of the funniest books in the Bible. Especially in the last chapter, when Jonah accuses God of being a habitual wuss, and then follows the entire ‘gourd’ story (see Jonah 4).

I believe that no political party has a monopoly on lying, stupidity, empire-building and self-interest. In fact, for the most part, I think it’s pretty evenly distributed.

Mind you, ‘trust the markets’ is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. The price of gas goes up in increments of about 6 to 7 cents a litre. But it comes down at a much slower rate. Oil company executives tell me this is because of ‘forces beyond our control’. I don’t believe that.

I believe that Jesus was a pacifist, but I definitely do not believe that he was a passivist.

Until this past weekend, I sincerely believed that a bishop’s mitre was one of the most ridiculous looking pieces of headgear ever invented. But on Sunday one of my Anglo-Catholic colleagues described the Canterbury Cap for me. I now believe it’s a toss-up.

I do not believe it is possible to write a folk song. A song becomes a ‘folk’ song when it is sung by folk – passed around, adapted, set in new situations, etc. etc. It follows that (1) songs that can only be convincingly sung by the author (being inextricably related to his or her life situation alone) can never be folk songs, and (2) copyright is the enemy of the folk process.

Oh, and I also believe that most of the music sung at folk festivals is not folk music.

I believe that Jesus has sent his followers out into the world to share his message and to invite people to turn from their previous allegiances and follow him. I believe that he is the unique Son of God, sent into the world by God to live, die, and rise again to save us. I do not, however, believe that this means I can make exact predictions as to who will or will not fry in the lake of fire (thank you, Allan Hunsperger). The parable of the sheep and the goats leads me to believe that I might get a few surprises.

I believe that there is a very important difference between the words “I do” and “I will”.

I believe that a lot of people confuse worship with entertainment. By the way, this includes connoisseurs of cathedral Evensongs every bit as much as those who like their worship bands served with big screens and lattes.

I do not believe that everyone who says “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent’ has actually repented. This includes me. In fact, I wonder if I should be saying the words “I repent” at all. Perhaps I should concentrate on really repenting (i.e. doing things differently) and then let God judge whether I’m truly repenting or not.

I believe it is possible to be too opinionated. I believe I may have crossed that line a long time ago.