Archive for the ‘Citizenship 101’ Category

Package Deals

One thing I love about blogging is that it gives me a written record of the evolution of my thoughts and convictions.  For over five years, I’ve kept a family blog, the purpose of which is basically to show cute pictures of my kids and tell relatives what we are up to.  In between posts about first words and trips to the beach, however, spiritual thoughts would sometimes infiltrate what was supposed to simply be a digital scrapbook.  Although they didn’t fit with the purpose of the blog, I’m so thankful that I wrote them so that I can remember how I thought at different points in my life.  Below is a reprint of a post I wrote 2 1/2 years ago, on July 16, 2009.  That year was when I first took hold of the idea of the kingdom of God, and of the idea that Jesus might be calling Christians to a lifestyle more radical than most of us had been taught.  Looking back over these words, I see that while my thoughts are not 100% in the same place as they were then, the basic conviction has endured:

I had a conversation last week with a former youth grouper turned youth intern. She was talking about a Sunday school series she was teaching to the girls at her church on syncretism. The most recent lesson was on country music, a genre in which, to paraphrase her words, “God, church, drinking, America, and tractors” are all grouped together with a tidy bow. She was obviously highlighting the potential dangers of such philosophies which join Biblical concepts with unbiblical practices.

I have been thinking lately about the different things like that, but I haven’t been using the word syncretism (that’s a little too fancy, if you ask me:)). Instead, I’ve been thinking about things that are what I call “package deals,” things that have both good and bad in them, but you have to take the whole package. Take a movie, for example. A movie might have some amazing themes about life, love, and redemption that really make you think…and that same movie might have profanity, sex, and loads of violence. If you choose to watch it, you are taking a package deal. You have to take the good with the bad. Or take a political party. The two major ones each have their own package deals, called platforms. If you are going to vote for a viable candidate for office in this country, you must choose one or the other. And in doing so, you take the whole package of that party. I would love if I could pick and choose. I would love a party that was pro-life, pro-children, pro-education, pro-Christianity, pro-poor people, pro-environment, and anti-torture…but that party does not exist. That’s the problem with package deals. You have to compromise in order to choose them. And while compromise isn’t bad, per se, comprising one’s morals is always dangerous.

Christianity is a package deal, too. I think every sinful human would agree that there is stuff that is “good” and “bad” about Christianity, and by that, I mean there are elements that are either appealing or unappealing. God, peace, heaven, Jesus—appealing. Dying to self, turning the other cheek, giving everything to God—unappealing. But it’s a package deal. There is a point where you either believe and obey the Bible, or you don’t.

Here’s what gets me. I see the dangers of certain movies or certain political parties, but at different times in my life, I have chosen to compromise and watch them/align myself with them. But it is apparently a lot easier to compromise my morals than to compromise my nature. Because when I hear something that goes against my very nature (like the above “unappealing” aspects of Christianity), I am tempted to rationalize them away. Why is that?

I don’t think I am alone in that, which compounds my problem. Take turning the other cheek. I am beginning to think that the church is moving past the idea of turning the other cheek. More and more, the things I hear are not like, “Well, we should turn the other cheek, but our sinful nature makes it hard.” It’s more like, “Jesus apparently meant something else or was speaking hyperbolically, b/c turning the other cheek is completely impractical. I mean, how the heck are we supposed to fight wars if we turn the other cheek? Seriously, it makes no sense.” I hear indignation at the concept of turning the other cheek. I even read a Christian book in which the man advised his son (and readers, apparently) that if anyone ever bullied him, he was to hit them as hard as he could right in the face (cough, Wild at Heart, cough). I’m sure the feral nature in every man’s heart would leap at that chance. Unfortunately, I really do believe that the Bible would not approve knocking someone’s block off in order to defend yourself. I mean, what do you think dying to self means, if notdenying your very nature? Yeah, if someone hits me, I want to hit them back. No duh. And I’m not even a man. That’s what makes the whole “love your enemies” thing hard. And though I will entertain discussion on the use of violence to protect others (war might even fall into that category), to say that you should punch back the person who punches you, I believe, is biblically indefensible. Because according to our sinful nature, the Bible is hard. Christianity is hard. Dying on the cross was hard. And yet, Jesus tells us to be like him, to obey His words, to take up our cross, to die to ourselves. I mean, what did he mean by that?

I have similar thoughts regarding giving, but I think we’ve driven the bus far enough into Crazy Town for one blog, don’t you think? Just know that if you are reading these thoughts and feeling internal opposition, I’m right there with ya. Do you think I want to turn the other cheek? Do you think I want to die to myself? Do you think I want to give the way Jesus apparently called me to? No, no, and no.

But I do want to be with God. And I want to know God. I love Him, and I want to live for Him. I really do. And I am open to the idea that Christianity is radical, crazy, and completely impractical. Because Jesus was all those things.

Why am I writing all of this instead of showing you pictures of my cute kids? I don’t know. Frankly, it completely ruptures the thematic unity of my blog:). I just know that right now in my life, I really want to embrace the “package deal” of Christianity. I’m not even sure what that looks like, exactly, but I am trying to find out. I do know that the whole, entire purpose of my life is to know God and bring glory to Him, and to the extent that I don’t do that, I am wasting my life. Wasting it. And I don’t want to waste my life. I want to embrace my purpose, to be the person I was designed to be.

Even if that means taking the package deal.



What about Christianity makes it hard for you to take the package deal?

Citizenship 101: Immigration

Whoa–calm down.  

I’m not talking about national immigration issues.  I’m talking about Kingdom immigration issues.  Nation and kingdom are completely separate entities.

I do think that the national discussion of immigration is helpful for the Kingdom discussion, though, if only to help us relate to the original anxieties the Jews must have felt over the unveiling of God’s new, “open door” immigration policy in Ephesians 2:11-22.  Like many policies, it’s a little lengthy, but worth the read:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household,20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Okay, so this is pretty straightforward.  Before Christ, the Jewish nation was secured and well-defined.  The definition was found in the Law, whose rules formed a protective wall around the Jewish religious and social identity.  The Law provided an intricate framework of rules and regulations that effectively kept foreigners out.  In some ways, it was much better than a physical wall because, as the Jews found out via the Assyrians and Babylonians, physical walls could be destroyed.  When the Jews were dispersed and led off into exile, they found out just how helpful their intangible wall could be.  It allowed them to maintain their distinctness, even in the midst of a foreign culture.

Of course, foreigners could enter the Jewish nation; they just had to do so via the Law.

Honestly, it was a good system.

And then Christ came and tore it down.

It all sounds great to us, all this talk about peace and inclusiveness and citizenship.  But can you imagine the Jewish reaction, even among Jewish Christians?  Take a second to ponder the pitfalls of this open-door policy:  with no Law in place, how do you regulate basic morality?  The Law had a fixed set of physical punishments that were to be applied to different violations.  When Christ took those away, it opened the door to all sorts of perversions of morality, with no physical means of curbing them.  Also, the Law served as the central regulating document around which the various people in the Jewish nation could unify.  Without its cohesive presence, wouldn’t internal conflict abound?  And furthermore, if you were just to let anyone in through this new, “easy” path of Christ, then that would include a frighteningly wide array of former pagans.  What would happen to the distinctive Jewish identity?  Their distinctiveness is what carried them through years and persecution and exile.  Wouldn’t the abolition of the Law take that away?

Think about those implications for a minute.  Those are a big deal.  And as the early church found out, they were valid concerns.

Some scholars even think that the book of Ephesians itself was written to alleviate tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church–either that, or to give the Gentiles some much-needed instruction in basic morality.  But we need not speculate about the potential issues of bringing Gentiles into the church.  To see them first hand, we have only to turn to the Corinthians.  Corinth, you may know, was a Roman colony well-known for its immorality and populated with a wide variety of people from different places in the Roman Empire.  From within this morally lax melting pot of humanity emerged a church that seemed to validate the worst fears of any traditional Jewish Christians mourning the loss of their Law-ful identity.  Indeed, it is not hard to deduce from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a host of problems that racked this new church.  I can imagine the former Pharisee (and self-described flawless legalist) cringing as he wrote to them:

“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another,’I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ. 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”  I Cor. 1: 11-13

“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”  I Cor. 3:1-3

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?”  1 Cor. 5:1-2

 “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?…5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?…The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”  1 Cor. 6:1,5,7-9
 “17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good…20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!”  1 Cor. 11: 17, 20-22

 “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?”  1 Cor. 14:36

From Paul’s words, we see a church that vividly illustrates the dangers of God’s new immigration policy.  There is no internal unity; the people can not even agree on the idea that they should follow Christ before all others!  There is discord, strife, pettiness…and gross immorality.  In 1 Corinthians 5, the Christian limitations of punishing the offender are laid bare.  Can they stone him?  Beat him?  Nope…all Paul can do is threaten dissociation.  And with the early church bereft of any social and political pull, that threat surely didn’t carry a lot of weight.  (By the way, I’m not saying that it is a bad thing not to be able to stone people–quite the contrary!  But to first century traditionalists with a very different worldview, Paul certainly could seem a little impotent here.)
In short, God’s new immigration policy must have seemed a little reckless to the followers of the Law.  It made church messy.  And hard.  It surely stretched the boundaries of people’s comfort zones, both the Law followers and the pagans.  To the Law followers, the new policy stripped them of any pride they could take in their own righteousness.  It stripped them of any special standing they felt as an upright Jew.  It must have been hard for the pagans, too.  Although surely inclusion in God’s plan was an honor to them, it also demanded a complete reorientation of their lives.  I can imagine how overwhelmed the Corinthians must have felt when they got Paul’s letter.  Even post-conversion, so many of them were still on the wrong path, and the tongue-lashing they received from Paul must have stung.  As nice as God’s new policy sounds in Ephesians, it was a hard arrangement for everyone involved.
In some ways, we are still working through its implications today.  While most Christians no longer struggle over Jewish identity (since we are not Jews), we can still divide into “Law followers” and “Corinthians,” those raised in the church and the unchurched.  When you mix those two groups together, things can get messy.  If, as a “Law follower,” you have ever tried to take the Lord’s Supper with a group of rowdy, unchurched teens, for example, you know what I’m talking about.  It is a completely cringe-worthy experience, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that everyone is about to get struck by lightning.  Or, from the other perspective, if you walk into a traditional church covered in tattoos and reeking of cigarette smoke, you also know what I’m talking about.  Even though you aren’t forcibly ejected from the building, you may nevertheless feel like a complete pariah while inside.
Being in that situation, both sides have to wrestle with some important questions.  We have to try to figure out what issues matter, which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 5 stand and which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 8 approach.  We have to figure out how to maintain unity in Christ, despite our different backgrounds.  And most of all, we have to figure out what the example of Christ looks like in today’s world.  So many times, we are tempted to conform Christ to our comfort zones, instead of the other way around.  There are several problems with that, one being that with God’s new open door immigration policy, we have a wide variety of citizens with an equally wide variety of backgrounds.  If we all conform Christ to our comfort zones, we will end up with a bunch of different Christs!  We may even wonder sometimes if we are all serving the same God!
I throw all this out there as something to think about.  Clearly, I don’t have all–or any–of the answers.  I do, however, believe that God’s immigration policy is worth seriously pondering.  God’s policy can make church both messy and hard, but if we don’t understand and follow it in our churches today, we will be unable to grow and to further God’s kingdom.
What do you think of God’s immigration policy?  Do you relate more to the “Law follower” side, or the “Corinthian” side?  How does “your” side make it difficult to embrace God’s policy?

Citizenship 101: Requirements

I have to admit that I’m a little torn as I think about the “requirements” of citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  After all, anyone who has read Romans knows that we have been saved by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not from anything we could do.  I think Ephesians 2: 8-9 sums it up best when it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”  I don’t want to give the impression, then, that we can ever “earn” our salvation by our own efforts.

Scripture is crystal clear that we are saved through Christ’s efforts, and not our own, which is why we tend to think of salvation as a free gift.

If it’s free, however, then why does Jesus keep warning His listeners to “count the cost” before they follow Him?

 ‘Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him,  saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

   ‘Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.  In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple‘”  (Luke 14: 28:33).

To better understand what Jesus might be talking about when he says “estimate the cost,” we have to look no further than the verses directly before that pronouncement.  Far from touting Himself as the “free gift” to the world, Jesus warns His listeners that following Him will consist of stringent demands:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27).

Elsewhere, he tells would-be followers to leave their dying (or perhaps dead and unburied) relatives, to leave their families without saying goodbye, and that anyone who looks back after following Him is not worthy of Him (Matt. 8:18-22Luke 9:57-62).

So what gives?  Isn’t Jesus contradicting Paul, who maintains that we can do nothing to save ourselves?  Not at all!  Jesus agrees very much with Paul in that regard.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again,” a statement that Nicodemus rightly recognizes as physically impossible (John 3:3-5).  Elsewhere, he says that no one can come to God unless God enables that person (John 6:65), and that apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

Jesus and Paul, then, are in perfect agreement that we can not earn our salvation.  Their idea, however, that there is nothing we can do to be saved, has been twisted into the concept that we have to do nothing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls that perception, “cheap grace.”  In his famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer says that “cheap grace means grace as a principle, a system.  It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.  An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins” (43).  He goes on to declare that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (44-45).

Such a concept of grace finds itself severely at odds with the repeated teachings of Jesus that His followers must sacrifice all for Him, an act that He calls “dying to self,” or, more literally, just “dying.”  Here are some of the requirements that Jesus gave His would-be followers:

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39).

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'” (Matt. 16:24-25).

“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’” (Luke 9:23-25).

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:24-26).

Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

It seems clear from these and other verses that following Christ involves a complete renunciation of our lives, which consists not only of our will to survive, but also of all the selfishness that makes up the tableau of our daily wants and needs.  That is, at least, how Paul seemed to take Jesus’ commands.

He tells the Galatians, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25).

In that same letter, he declares that, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

To the Corinthians, he maintains that, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).

Truly, this is just a small sampling of verses that claim that being a follower of Christ requires personal sacrifice and that clearly indicate that a follower of Christ must live his life in active imitation of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer cites a misunderstanding of Luther as the root of the church’s conception of “cheap grace.”  Thus, he strives to correct the popular perception of Luther’s beliefs:  “When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ.  Only so could he speak of grace.  Luther had said that grace alone could save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word.  But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship” (49-50).

Even though we may not know much about Luther today, his teachings (or as Bonhoeffer would be quick to assert, the popular misconception of his teachings) have nevertheless influenced the way the church thinks about grace and salvation.  We think of salvation as almost completely disconnected from our own actions, when even an inattentive reading of the gospels reveals such a thought to be ridiculous.  Being a Christian costs something.  It most certainly cost something to Jesus, and He tells us in no uncertain terms that we must walk as He did in order to be His follower.  Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom, then, has some requirements.  It requires that we lay down our lives, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.

This blog is dedicated to learning how to do that.

What do you think?  Do you agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assessment of “cheap grace”?  Or do you think it is wrong to view the Kingdom of God as having “requirements”?

Quotes taken from:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Citizenship 101: What is the Kingdom of God?

What is the kingdom of God?  The short answer is:  wherever Christ reigns.

There is a degree to which Christ reigns already on this earth.  The kingdom of God is active and present within the hearts of those who follow Christ (Luke 17:21), and it comes on earth whenever God’s power overcomes darkness (Luke 11:20).  Jesus says that the Kingdom is near those who have been healed of their diseases (Luke 10:9), and He tells His followers to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth (Matt. 6:10).  In terms of timeline, it seems that the kingdom of God came when Jesus came to earth (Luke 16:16).  Or perhaps it came when Jesus was crucified for our sins (John 12:31-32).  Or maybe when He was resurrected (Luke 22:18).  Regardless, it seems clear from the gospels that Jesus brought the Kingdom with Him, and that it is actively present in this world.

The Gospels are equally clear, though, that the Kingdom will only come in its fullness when Christ comes back and reigns completely.  In that sense, the Kingdom of God, though already here, has also not yet come.  That phrase, “already, but not yet,” has often been used to describe the dual nature of God’s kingdom.  There are many reasons that the Kingdom is not fully present, mainly because of God’s allowance of the continuation of sin and of man’s free will to choose who or what will rule him.  While Jesus was on earth, He warned His followers that the kingdom would not fully appear “at once,” and urged them to use their resources to further it in any way they could while they waited for it to come fully (Luke 19:11-27).  He also explained that the kingdom on earth is tied to the church (Matt. 16:18-19), which was a bold decision, since the hypocrisy and sins of the religious can actually serve to keep others out of the kingdom (Matt. 23:13).  Also, Satan’s presence on earth undercuts the kingdom’s progress, and God’s injunction against making judgments about who is in and who is out keeps the kingdom from coming fully until Christ Himself comes to judge (Matt. 13: 24-30).

I don’t think that anything I’ve written so far is that controversial since almost everyone agrees, at least in theory, that God’s kingdom is “already, but not yet.”  The controversy comes in when people start discussing where exactly on the spectrum God’s kingdom is between the “already” and the “not yet.”  Some Christians, using Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you”) view the kingdom as a completely spiritual entity that will not have any physical component until Christ returns.  Others downplay heaven and say that Christians should be trying through their faith and actions to bring God’s kingdom physically to earth right now.  The picture of what “God’s physical kingdom on earth” looks like varies from person to person, of course, but it usually involves the attempted eradication of poverty and injustice.  Between those two extreme views of “already, but not yet,” lie a myriad of degrees of beliefs about the nature and presence of God’s kingdom on earth.  These differences matter because what one believes about the kingdom determines how one interacts with the suffering around him.  If he believes that the kingdom is purely spiritual and that it will never come physically before Christ comes back, then he is most likely less inclined to make real efforts toward ending physical suffering, instead focusing mainly the state of people’s souls.  On the other hand, the degree to which one believes God’s kingdom can physically come on earth “as it is in heaven” corresponds with the degree to which that person will work to see it come.  Those who fall on the “already” side of the spectrum also tend to be more optimistic about the power of their efforts, while the extreme “not yet’ers” tend to be pessimistic about the degree to which any real progress can be made on this earth.

The “already, but not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom is but one of its many quirky characteristics.  Another odd feature of the kingdom is that it is upside down.  If there is a “hierarchy” in God’s kingdom, it is almost the direct opposite of the natural hierarchy on earth.  For example, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are persecuted, are blessed.  In Luke, he takes it a step further, showering blessings on those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated, and woes on the rich, well-fed, happy, and respected (Luke 6:20-26).  When Mary finds out she is pregnant with the Christ, she sings a song that is decidedly unflattering to the rich (Luke 1:53).  In another “upside down” moment, Jesus tells the ethnocentric Pharisees (not to dog the Pharisees; we are all naturally ethnocentric to a degree) that foreigners will enter the kingdom ahead of them (Matt. 8:11-12), and announces in a patriarchal society that the kingdom belongs to children (Matt. 18:1-5Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:16).  And lest we miss all of that, Jesus repeatedly asserts that the last will be first (Matt. 19:30Mark 9:35), capping it off with a parable that vividly demonstrates that concept in a seemingly unfair way (Matt. 20:1-16).  Furthermore, Jesus declares that those who are great in His kingdom are the ones who make themselves servants and slaves to others (Matt. 20:25-28Mark 10:41-45Matt. 23:11-12).

Perhaps most notably, Jesus kicks off his earthly ministry with a reading from Isaiah, which declares that His main ministry priorities are the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).

So, my reading of the gospels tells me that God’s kingdom is quirky.  It is “already, but not yet,” and it is “upside down.”  But it is also powerful.  My favorite description of the kingdom’s power comes not from Jesus, but from Paul, who declares that the “kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20).  For some reason, I tend to forget that simple fact.  In my natural pessimism toward humanity, I forget that the kingdom of God is powerful enough to change and transform lives, including my own.  Jesus compares its expansive power to crops that grow on their own, without the farmer even understanding how (Mark 4:26-29).  He also compares it to a tiny seed that grows into a large tree, or a little yeast that works through a whole batch of dough (Matt. 13:31-33Luke 13:18-21).  We have to remember as citizens of God’s kingdom that we serve a powerful entity that is far beyond our understanding or control.

Even though this synopsis barely scratches the surface of the kingdom of God, it does address some fundamental questions of its nature.  I have lots more to write about the high price of citizenship, as well as its benefits.  The thing is, as much as I’ve studied the kingdom of God, I still have so many questions about how to live as a good citizen in it in my day to day life.  I am certainly not a teacher on the kingdom of God; I am more like a really bad student who struggles to grasp a concept that is beyond her mental capabilities.  That’s the main reason I am writing this blog.  I want to put down what I actually know about the kingdom from reading the Bible, so that I can better figure out how to live in God’s kingdom in a practical, tangible way while on earth.  I want to do this, not out of fear or a quaking desire to “be right with God,” but because I love God, and I am firmly convinced that my life has no other purpose but to serve Him and to give my life fully to Him.

I’m still learning how to do that…

So what about you?  What do you think the kingdom of God is?  How present is it on earth right now?  How do you live in God’s kingdom in your day to day life?

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