Saturday, September 30, 2006

227. the culture of Christianity

(this is a pretty long post so you might want to grab a cup of coffee and a muffin before starting)

My last week at house church I was asked to share what I'd learned throughout my time there. And I could think of no better idea to sum up the newfound understanding of Christianity that I've gained than to talk about the kingdom of God.

And so, from my notes:

The Kingdom of God

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus can be found referencing something called the kingdom of God (also called the kingdom of heaven in Matthew). Up until we discussed the idea of this kingdom in house church a few months ago, I had just assumed that Jesus was referring to what life would be like after we died. But through the discussions we had and through some books I've been reading, my understanding of Christianity and what Christ came to earth to do have changed completely.

First of all, the kingdom is not just about heaven after we die, it's about life here and now. The easiest way to show this is to look at The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. The telling line is in verse 10 where Jesus prays, "your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

That's present tense. That verse is talking about the Kingdom of God being here on this earth now, the way it already is in heaven.

So what is this kingdom of God?

Unfortunately (like the Matrix), it's not so easy to define. When describing the kingdom, Jesus says it's like yeast, like seeds, like a pearl, like a party, etc. In fact, in Luke 17:20-21, Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst." He deliberately used metaphors and stories because the complete idea of what the kingdom of God is has to be bigger than our understanding, our ability to define it, because once you have a definition, people start imposing it on other people. They use it as a measuring stick - are you in or are you out?

Think about the idea of being cool in high school. You couldn't really define what it meant to be cool, but it was immediately apparent who the cool kids were. If you tried to make a list of what it meant to be cool, that list instantly became uncool. Because the cool kids were always doing cool stuff before everybody else did them. Once everybody else was doing it, it wasn't cool anymore and the cool kids were already doing the next cool thing.

Jesus never really defines what the kingdom of God is because it's kind of like being cool - you can't define it, you just have to live it.

It also helps to think about the phrase itself, "the kingdom of God." It can be difficult for us to understand the idea of kingdom in America because we live in a democracy, but think of movies about King Arthur or a movie like Braveheart. To live in a kingdom meant you lived under the rule of a king. Those living in a given kingdom were subject to the king's laws and commands.

Now about these laws. I'm going to sidetrack for a moment to discuss the idea of laws, as it relates to the kingdom of God, because there are Christians out there who are missing the point.

A bad king used laws to oppress and control his people. A good king used laws to preserve order and to maintain the culture of the kingdom - their way of life, their traditions and customs. A bad king taxed his people to enrich himself - building bigger castles and stronger walls. A good king reinvested the wealth of the kingdom by supporting artists and philosophers thereby preserving and developing its culture. A bad king spread his kingdom through force, trickery and coercion. A good king shared his art and ideas with those around him, thereby spreading his influence through willing partnership.

What I'm trying to get at is the idea that some Christians look at spreading the message of Christ the way a bad king looks at his subjects. They seek to impose Christian values and morals by any means necessary. But (to paraphrase the cliche) what did Jesus do? He came into the world at a time when his followers were looking for political deliverance from the oppressive Roman empire. Indeed, among his own disciples was listed Simon the Zeallot. The Zealots were a loose band of Jews who sought to overthrow the Romans by acts of open aggression.

Jesus had a ready-made army in his followers and if he had wanted to, he probably could have led a huge campaign. He also had angels in his arsenal. At the moment he was handed over to be crucified, one of his followers cut off the ear of the high priest. Jesus reprimanded him saying, "put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? . . . Am I leading a rebellion. . .?" (Matthew 26:52-55)

The kingdom of God is not about power (the first will be last, the greatest will be servants - Luke 13:29-30, Matthew 23:11-12), nor is it spread through force. It grows through love.

In Jesus' day, many religious leaders had forgotten that loving God and loving others was more important than merely obeying commands. They wore their righteousness the way celebrities today wear haute couture fashions - as a way to distance themselves from the public - so they had a vested interest in discrediting Jesus because he saw their acts of righteousness for what they were - mere window dressing (Matthew 23:13-28).

To illustrate, there's a story in Mark 12:28-34 where there's a debate happening between Jesus and some of the various Jewish religious leaders of the day. A certain teacher of the law sees the debate happening but he enters the debate with a different attitude. He sees that Jesus is giving good answers and so he asks a question, not to challenge Jesus, but I imagine he asks, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" because it was a question that he himself was wrestling with.

"The most important one," Jesus answered, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

It's particularly important to note that in the teacher's response to Jesus, he includes the bit about loving God and neighbor as being "more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." I think it's because of this addition that Jesus "saw that he had answered wisely" and told him that he was "not far from the kingdom of God." Loving God and people is more important than the laws about offerings and sacrifices because those laws were things the Jewish people were supposed to do to SHOW their love for God.

Think about the kingdom metaphor again. A good king used the laws of a kingdom not just to preserve order, but also to preserve and perpetuate its culture. Each kingdom had its own ways of living life. They had different styles of art, a different language, different customs. Living in the kingdom of God means living out the culture of heaven here on earth - behaving now, the way we will after we've made it in to heaven.

So what does this life look like? How does a citizen of the kingdom behave? Now I have to be careful here because I can't just lay out a list of do this, don't do thats. That's the mistake the religious leaders of Jesus' day made - they made it about lists. It's more about principles than it is about laws. And that can be frustrating for people who like strict boundaries, but the upside is that it makes for a generous, inclusive belief system.

That said, a good starting point on learning about the culture of the kingdom would be to read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 - 7:27). This was Jesus' debut sermon and in it, he lays out a revolutionary new vision on how to live. Throughout the sermon, you can see that he's trying to get at the heart of the law and in the end, it has to do with sincerity when performing religious acts (as opposed to aping meaningless, rote activities) as well as being excellent to one another.

And that's a kind of Christianity that I want to be a part of.

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