Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Kingdom (Page 2 of 7)

Right and wrong, but not as we know them

KeyEarlier this week I wrote a couple of posts about the fact that our default way of interpreting and making sense of the world tends to be through the prism of rules and lines demarcating who is in and who is out of whatever groups we happen to belong to. (You can read the posts I’m talking about here and here.) I want to continue a bit further on that same theme today.

It seems to me, then, that we tend to make everything into right and wrong, good and bad, true and false (and by the way, I’m well aware that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone… if not more so.) As I said in an earlier post, I understand that this tendency towards rule-making arises in part from of our inherent need for order and structure. But this hardwired need has become corrupted by our broken condition, and thus creates problems it was never intended to create. Something that was meant to bring order to the world so everyone could enjoy it in peace and harmony instead ends up creating division, disharmony and death.

The most tragic thing of all is that we even apply this exaggerated rule-based logic to God and faith. In fact, we seem to do it even more zealously in this area than in any other. So we take the invitation to follow Jesus, who was all about love and freedom, and make it into a system of rules, doctrines and expected behaviours, and we measure who’s in the kingdom and who’s outside it based on people’s performance against these criteria. We somehow come to understand salvation as “ticking all the required boxes”.

I think Jesus would have us see things differently. I think, for him, the way to know whether or not we’re in the kingdom is to look primarily not at the content of our beliefs but rather at the content of our lives: how we live and how well we deny ourselves and love others.

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Who’s in and who’s out?

On The Other Side of the FenceExclusion. I’m becoming increasingly aware that it’s something most of us tend to do pretty much all the time.

Of course, we don’t call it exclusion, and so we don’t recognise it as such. But in reality, it’s very often lurking not far beneath the surface.

Think about it. Every time we label a person or group, we are effectively practising exclusion. In applying a label, we are basically saying, “You belong to that category, which means you don’t belong to my category”. When I label someone, I create distance and separation between myself and one who is other than me.

Now, I’m not talking about simply categorising people for the sake of order. As human beings, I believe we’re hardwired to seek and create order, and part of that involves creating and organising categories. But you and I both know that there’s a very fine line (so fine, in fact, that it’s almost invisible) between applying a label to someone for the sake of understanding and ordering the world and using that label, however subtly, to diminish and denigrate.

We do this so habitually that we’re not aware of it. Political labels, class labels, labels based on where people live, how they dress, how they talk, what they believe… you name it, we label it. And in labelling others in this way, we often implicitly condemn them to the super-category of less than me.

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Homesick

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.

— Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons

Long walk home

SomewhereYesterday I read the following quote:

The kingdom of God comes like a long walk home.

(For those who want to know, it’s actually a slightly edited version of a quote by Brian Zahnd.)

This really connected with something I’ve been thinking about lately, so I thought I’d take a few moments to unpack it.

To begin at the end, if the kingdom of God is a kind of homecoming, then it follows that the kingdom of this world – the world system as currently configured – is not our ultimate home. We are made for life in a different kind of world.

Of course, many Christians have been taught that this other world for which we are made is out there “somewhere beyond the blue”. For the moment, it exists only in our imagination as a kind of ethereal idyllic realm. Whether you refer to it as heaven, paradise, “glory” or whatever, the idea is the same: this is the place where we’ll get to spend eternity no longer weighed down by the sin, pain and corruption of this present world. The negro spiritual captures it well: This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through…

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Three kings

Jesus before PilateThe stage is set. Jesus has entered the Holy City of Jerusalem amid the heat and frenzy of Passover week. He has overturned the tables in the Temple courtyard in a prophetic sign of coming judgement, thus sealing his fate as a troublemaker in the eyes of the religious authorities. Tomorrow evening, he will share one final meal with his closest associates before a kiss – oh blessed irony! – finally sets in train an inevitable sequence in which he will be tried, tortured, condemned and executed.

Allow me to introduce you to the three key figures in the upcoming trial of the Son of God. Each is a “king” of sorts. The challenge to us is: to which king will we pledge allegiance?

Pilate

Palestine was important to Rome for much the same reasons that the Middle East is politically important today: it stood at the crossroads of East and West, and lay along a crucial supply route by which the Empire transported grain from Egypt to Rome. As governor, Pilate’s job was to keep the population firmly under Roman control so that nothing could interfere with Rome’s practical and strategic prerogatives.

Pilate is king of his little province in the traditional way that we understand kingship: Rome is top of the political pile because it has more military might than anyone else. Pilate’s means of enforcing his kingship are the blunt instruments of violent power. Get on the wrong side of him and you’re likely to end up as food for the vultures.

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Jesus enthroned

KingdomToday is the last in a series of posts surveying Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus, which is highly recommended for anyone wanting a more scripturally, historically and theologically faithful understanding of who Jesus was, what he did and why it matters. (You can read my full review here; for a link to all posts in the series, click here.)

As I was discussing with some friends yesterday, Simply Jesus is one of those books where you have to read right to the end before you understand the whole case the author is making. The case put forward by Tom Wright is really about how Jesus’ primary concern, the kingdom of God, was established through his life, death and resurrection. Only by understanding the rich story of creation, fall, covenant and redemption – which is the story of Israel, its chequered journey through history and its often tumultuous relationship with God – can we hope to properly understand just what this strange kingdom is and how it operates.

Let’s get to today’s excerpt:

This is what it looks like, today, when Jesus is running the world. This is, after all, what he told us to expect. The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analysing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other than being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. ‘You are the light of the world,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ He was announcing a programme yet to be completed. He was inviting his hearers, then and now, to join him in making it happen. This is, quite simply, what it looks like when Jesus is enthroned.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

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Good works and the kingdom

Good worksAs regular readers will know, over the past two or three months we’ve been working our way through various excerpts from Tom Wright’s highly recommended book Simply Jesus (my full review is here, and you can find all posts in the series here). There will be two more posts in the series after today’s.

Let’s go straight to today’s excerpt, from the final chapter:

We have domesticated the Christian idea of ‘good works’, so that it has simply become ‘the keeping of ethical commands’. In the New Testament, ‘good works’ are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.

[…]

Jesus went about feeding the hungry, curing the sick and rescuing lost sheep; his Body is supposed to be doing the same. That is how his kingdom is at work. That is how he is at work.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

I’m not sure what mental associations the phrase “good works” conjures up for you. For me, the thought that automatically comes to mind has to do with doing “works” out of a sense of obligation, as though I am somehow duty bound to try to pay God back for my salvation. This kind of thinking about good works needs to be actively resisted, for it both undermines the gospel and puts you on a never-ending hamster wheel of performance-based religion.

But, as the good ex-bishop points out, this is not the only way in which we can misconstrue the notion of good works. More common still is to think of good works as the mere keeping of ethical commands. The problem with this understanding is that it assumes that the Christian life is fundamentally about keeping commands.

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