Friday, February 24, 2012

When God Is In Charge

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.
Jesus (Mark 1:15)

But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—-the God recognized in Jesus—-who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.
N.T. Wright

In the midst of Mark's fast-paced narrative of urgency and immediacy--from his baptism to his wilderness trial of fasting to the arrest of the prophetic John the Baptizer--Jesus proclaims his message: the KINGDOM of God has come REPENT and BELIEVE in the GOSPEL. Pretty straight forward, eh?

But the problem is that, in the real world, there is an interpretive battle going on for what exactly "the kingdom of God" actually is. And further more, there is quite a lot of mystery as to what exactly it would mean for someone to "repent" and "believe" in this "good news" proclamation. As it turns out, these were loaded words in 1st century Palestine and without knowing the context, we miss the meaning.

The mainstream (or establishment) definition coming from American Evangelical circles today is that "the kingdom of God" refers to either the heart of the believer (where God comes in to reside) or to heaven, the place where believers immediately go when they die. The gospel is self-evident to anyone who grew up in a Bible church or "got saved" at a Christian summer camp: it is the message that we are all sinful, but can escape eternal damnation if we believe in Jesus and commit our lives to following him.

However, this message has swerved off its original path. In the 1st century, there was one dominant "gospel" message (Greek euangelion): the proclamation that Caesar was the Lord and Savior of the world. Truly, the kingdom of Caesar was expanding and, once conquered, indigenous peoples (like the Palestinian Jews) were commanded to repent, or change loyalties (Greek metanoia). These new participants in the Roman Empire were told to believe (Greek pistis) in Caesar and his lifestyle of arrogant, triumphalist domination.

Jesus' gospel message of the kingdom of God, thus, flew in the face of Caesar's gospel message of the kingdom of Rome. One simply could not give loyalties to both Lords. The Jewish people believed that, in the future, God would make clearly known Who was the real King of the world. Jesus had the audacity to proclaim that that Time had come. As biblical scholar Brian Blount writes,

God's future power invaded and transformed the human present.

So the kingdom of God is about both the Now and the Not Yet. There is a tension that we live in and, in the midst of that tension, the voice of Jesus continues to beckon us to repent and believe. It's about infinitely more than heart and heaven. It's about repenting from counterfeit stories revolving around addiction, financial success, redemptive violence, body image, patriotic emotionalism and economic exploitation and believing in a New Story that highlights enemy love, nonviolent resistance to powerplays, humble service, simple living and abundant generosity.

Here's how a few Christian scholars describe the Kingdom of God:

From Boston University professor Bryan Stone who prefers the moniker “the Reign of God”:

...a radically new order that comes to put an end to the age-old patterns of wealth and poverty, domination and subordination, insider and outsider that are deeply ingrained in the way we relate to one another on this planet.

From Fransciscan priest and contemplative coach Richard Rohr:

Basically, we can translate “the kingdom” as “the Big Picture.” The kingdom of God, or reign of God, is how things objectively, truly and finally are. Jesus is always inviting us to live in the final and full picture, and not get lost in momentary dramas, hurts or agendas.

And from Anglican priest and New Testament scholar/theologian NT Wright:

What it looks like when God is in charge.

During this Lenten season, may we have the focus, energy, wisdom and discernment to repent and believe in a personal, social, political and economic order that reflects the Big Picture. When God is in charge, not only will we find that the solace and love in our hearts and minds will overflow into a living wage and humanzing conditions for Chinese unskilled workers who meticulously build IPhones for the Western World.

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