Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peculiar God - Peculiar Community

When Jesus begins his ministry, he says that people need to get ready because God's kingdom has come near. The term "kingdom of God" (Matthew's gospel substitutes "kingdom of heaven") is not only archaic to modern Americans, it has also taken on religious connotations that likely obscure what Jesus meant when he used these words.

Kingdom is obviously a political term, and it is easy to imagine how such a term could have gotten Jesus in trouble with the Romans. The Roman authorities in Palestine administered the kingdom of Caesar, and they did not take well to competitors.

A kingdom is not only a political thing. It is also a social and cultural one. The kingdom of Caesar was organized around certain patterns and norms. Central to this was Roman power and military might which enforced a system of taxation and assimilation. Like all societies, Rome had its pecking orders and hierarchies, its folks at the top and folks at the bottom. And there were lots of folks at or near the bottom.

The kingdom that Jesus announces also has political and social dimensions, but its dynamics look little like those of Rome, or any other nation for that matter. Jesus says his new order is good news for the poor and the oppressed, but bad news for the rich and powerful. In some ways, it surprising that Jesus survived for as long as he did.

Following his resurrection, Jesus turned over the work of this strange kingdom to his followers, to the first disciples and to those who came after them, including those of us who say we follow him today. Surely he knew what a risky move this was. After all, even those original disciples, who sat and learned at this feet, were still much better acclimated to the ways of Caesar's kingdom than they were to God's. Today's gospel makes that abundantly clear as two disciples seek a top spot in Jesus' kingdom and other disciples get angry at this maneuver that potentially drops them down in the pecking order.

Jesus tries to set them straight, tries to explain that his political and social order looks nothing like the ones they are used to. We in the church have embraced some of the words Jesus speaks here (church folk love the term "servant leader"), but we've not really taken what he said to heart. The Church often looks more like the kingdoms and republics and dictatorships in which we happen to live than it does what Jesus describes. We have our own hierarchies and pecking orders, and, all too often, we've been willing to legitimate the political and social orders where we live in exchange for favored status in those political and social systems.

But an interesting thing has happened in the last half century or so. The political and social systems in which Western Christianity lives decided they no longer needed our legitimation, and so they began to remove our special, favored status. In America, governments no longer make sure no other activities compete against us on Sunday morning, and schools no longer assist us in passing down our faith traditions.

This loss of status has created much angst and no small amount of anger in the Church. Some worry and fret while continuing to act as they always have (my own denomination tends along this path.) Others have become cultural warriors, seeking to return to a previous time of prestige and influence. The first path is heavy on denial. The second is tilting at windmills.

The Church's loss of status and prestige certainly has negative impacts on me and folks like me. Being a pastor is hardly the honored profession it once was, and the financial security that goes with it has diminished as well. It's hard not to feel anxious or angry at times when considering the ways in which the culture has ceased to be helpful. (Thanks, youth soccer, for giving so many families another place to be at the time traditionally reserved for worship.) Yet I can't help thinking that a tremendous opportunity has been given to us by our changed situation.

Jesus used every possible means, going so far as to get himself killed, to show us how the new community he proclaimed looked different from the political and social norms familiar to us. Unfortunately, we in the Church have often been tempted to abandon the strange norms of God's kingdom in order to enjoy honored status in the kingdoms of Caesar or Washington or others. But now that our honored status has been revoked, it seems to me we have an opportunity to rediscover our true identity, our true calling to be a peculiar community that enacts the peculiar ways of God's new political and social order. The world around us may well not come running to us when we do, but they certainly will get a much better picture of Jesus than the body of Christ we have so often displayed.

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