Posts Tagged ‘kingdom movement of Jesus’

JOHN 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

This is where it becomes critical to keep in mind that the Gospel writer (of John) is giving us his presentation of Jesus after a half-century of history has already passed under the bridge. Any responsible reading of the Gospels needs to distinguish between the First Voice of Jesus himself and what the author might have Jesus say or do in response to his own (the author’s) context of challenges and concerns.

By way of illustration, just setting side by side the Gospels of Mark and John will reveal two very different Jesuses – however awkward that sounds. The direct, urgent, and concrete teaching of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel cannot be matched across the aisle with the lofty, abstract, and metaphysical teachings of Jesus in John. To put it baldly: they are not the same Jesus.

It helps to know that Mark was written during a time of rising apocalyptic expectations, out of the fray of the Jewish-Roman War that climaxed with the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, came after the messianic sect of Christians had separated from Judaism and begun its productive conversation with Greek gnosticism and the mystery religions. Had the author of Mark opened John’s Life of Jesus, he would doubtless have been baffled and very possibly not even recognized the Jesus presented therein.

In the intervening decades much had happened that made a revision (or an altogether new telling) necessary. The Jewish-Roman War ended in the year 73CE, orthodox Judaism officially excommunicated Christians from fellowship by the mid-80s, and at least a few Roman emperors had tried to eliminate the Christian movement by legislation and persecution.

Along the way there arose a number of messianic pretenders, brave souls who claimed to carry the mantle of Jesus for the next phase in his kingdom campaign. Apparently, many had been taken in by these pretenders – these thieves and bandits. The shifting allegiances within the Christian community had resulted in division,  confusion, and more violent crackdowns. This was the historical context of the community for whom John is (re)telling the story of Jesus.

We should be careful, then, not to superimpose our contemporary questions and concerns and make them assumptions in our reading. (Although, in keeping with the New Testament Gospels as reconstructions of Jesus for their times, there is nothing in principle that should prohibit a fresh retelling for our own time and setting. In that case, the challenge would be to keep the First Voice of Jesus from getting lost in our portrayal.)

This passage is not about the superiority of Christianity to other religions. Instead it’s John’s answer (through the mouthpiece of his Jesus) to the then-pressing question: Who is the real Christ? Most of the pretenders were guerrilla leaders, wonder-workers, or esoteric spin-masters. John’s answer was simple: Just listen, really listen, and you will hear his voice.

This was – and still is – the First Voice of Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion, do magic tricks, or reveal some secret truth. He taught love, loved life, and lived entirely in the moment.

That’s where abundant life flows.

 

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ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

1 PETER 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

We have already been introduced to the idea that the kingdom movement inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus eventually changed direction into an institutional orthodoxy centered on the redemptive violence of his death, his literal resurrection, and the promise of heaven for true believers who await his end-time return.

The architect of this fateful redirection was the apostle Paul. In his writings (letters to churches) we can discern the “fork in the road” where the pressing concerns of managing a nascent religion steadily diverged from a more mystically grounded and peace-oriented spirituality.

The church in Corinth, for instance, was so unstable that Paul had to draw some pretty hard lines around Christian identity to keep the congregation from falling apart. As things go, his timely (situational) letters of encouragement and reproof were soon taken up as timeless (universal) holy scripture into the emerging institution of Christianity. Paul’s missionary career came to an end with his likely execution under the emperor Nero in the mid-sixties, a half-decade before the first narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry (Gospel of Mark) was written.

This Letter of Peter was certainly not written by the disciple and erstwhile fisherman of Jesus’ original company. The polish of its Greek vocabulary, the intellectual sophistication of thought, and the late-stage development of its doctrine all point away from him. At the very least, the references to a heavenly inheritance and the outcome of faith as salvation of the soul put it at odds with what we know as the authentic teachings of Jesus. If he was among Jesus’ first student-followers, this author has almost completely lost the social urgency and this-worldly concern of his teacher-master.

So let’s ask: How exactly did God give us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus? Is it just that we now have a way out of this damned world, to a heavenly security waiting for us on the other side? Is our “hope” that we will be better off  later? Is the task  now simply to believe rightly and win God’s protection of our faith until the final prize is gained? Is the writer assuring us of this destiny by the warrant of Jesus’ resurrection, whereby the savior got there first and unlocked the door for the rest of us?

Christian orthodoxy, then and now, answers ‘Yes’ all the way down that list of questions. Christianity soon promised a way out of this mess of a world, whereas Jesus showed us the path deeper into it tangles, with an aim of loosening the knots that bind our human spirit.

Each of us today stands at that same fork in the road.