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Beyond a tribal religion…

April 7, 2008

In the Gospel reading from yesterday (Luke 24) we encounter the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.  Dwelling in the passage last week as I prepared to preach, I continually came back to the perspective of the two followers Jesus meets on the road.  I was struck by the fact that they had given themselves to the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  They had followed this miracle-working, authoritative teacher believing he was the One who would bring the Kingdom and liberate Israel. 

As they are walking the seven mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus finds them deep in discussion…sadness written across their faces.  Their world has been turned upside down.  The events of the preceding days culminating with the crucifixion did not fit into their expectations for Messiah.  They are struggling to reconcile the Cross with the Messianic Kingdom narrative. 

We too must wrestle with the same question they were asking–What kind of Messiah?  What kind of Kingdom?  How does the ultimate victory of God come with a king who rules not with a sword, but a towel?  How does the Kingdom come through the way of suffering love–the Cross? 

Within the broad spectrum of Christianity we see the meaning of the Cross interpreted in a number of ways.  For some it is primarily about personal atonement.  For others it is primarily about making visible a better way–the ethic of redemptive non-violent love. 

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away.  Then God made you alive with Christ.  He forgave all your sins.  He cancelled the record that contained the charges against us.  He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross.  In this way, God disarmed the evil rulers and authorities.  He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross of Christ.  Colossians 2:13-15

The Apostle Paul helps uncover for us the meaning of the cross both for personal redemption (substitutionary theory of atonement) and the cosmic dimensions of God’s victory (christus victor).  The Gospel is the good news that individuals can be reconciled with God (can you hear the revival preacher fervantly calling for sinners to “get right with Gawwddd”).  While this is an integral dimension of the Gospel of the Kingdom, I suspect that it was not on this point that Cleopas and his friend were disillusioned.  

John the Baptist had preached a message of repentance from sin.  This too had been a integral motiff of the message and ministry of Jesus–“repent for the Kingdom of God is near.”  But surely Cleopas and his friend no doubt believed that the Kingdom come was about more than inner purity.  How could the Cross rescue Israel from captivity to the Roman Empire? 

In hindsight, many Protestants have emphasized the justification dimension of the cross.  This is where those who focus (almost solely) on a substitutionary theory of atonement understand salvation to be primarily about individuals getting to heaven when they die.  Seen through this lens the Cross becomes a needed sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity.  The primary outcome is to make available a pardon that is accessed by praying “the sinners prayer” so that you can be assured that you have eternal life (understood primarily as going to heaven when you die–but also being a good person here on earth).

Cleopas and his friend were struggling with unfulfilled expectations of a different nature.  “We had thought he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.”  Their assumptions regarding Messiah were not so much connected to covenantal atonement, but rather a liberation.  The rescue they had assumed Messiah would bring was no doubt tied to political liberation.  The zealot narrative would have received this political Messiah and handed him a Sword of liberation.  Jesus rejected this route in the wilderness confrontation with Satan…he rejects it all the way to the end.  Greg Boyd (The Myth of a Christian Nation) says that Jesus’ Kingdom comes not through “power over” but through “power under.” 

Jesus comes alongside Cleopas and his friend and begins to re-orient them (using Scripture) to the Messianic narrative that is centered on fulfillment on a Roman Cross.  Cleopas and his friend had embraced a messianic narrative that was too small.  They had embraced a tribal narrative.  Redemption for Israel.  The Gospel of the Kingdom, the Cross was to be a liberating act of cosmic dimensions.  The scope of the good news would be universal–Jew/Gentile…slave or free…male or female.  The victory of the Cross made a way for humans to be reconciled with God.  Yes.  But the victory was much more far-reaching.  It is on the Cross and in the resurrection that Christ defeats the powers. 

I am thinking about the human tendancy to view religion, faith, metanarratives through a Tribal lens.  We tend to think that what God is doing in the world is primarily about us.  We are like ego-centric children who think the world revolves around them.  So salvation is about getting us into heaven.  Church is about a place and people who fit my lifestyle and meet my needs.  If a teaching of Jesus (i.e. love enemies) is too difficult, we set it aside and find a church that focuses on “the basics”–not those “optional teachings that are a matter of “individual conviction.”

We pray Tribal prayers.  God bless America.  God bless our Troops.  We believe that God is on our side in the war against the enemy–however that enemy is understood.  This is a Tribal expression of Christianity.  A civil religion that gives expression more to the conventional wisdom of the kingdoms of this world than the Kingdom of Jesus that comes through a cross. 

On the Cross, Jesus disarms the Powers.  Berkhof’s little book, Christ and the Powers, is so helpful in providing the language we need in order to grasp the fullness of what Jesus is doing through the Cross. 

Berkhof identies the Powers as those invisible realities/systems that have been set in place to undergird human life and preserve them from chaos.  The state, politics, class, social struggle, national interest, public opinion, accepted morality, the ideas of decency, humanity, democracy–these give unity and direction to thousands of lives.  The Powers are created by God (Col. 1:16) and yet they like all of creation is tainted by the fallen reality of Sin.  So while the powers fulfill a needed order-keeping function, they also lead to separation from God as they are corrupted by sinful humanity or as they become idolatrous substitutes for God. 

Although followers of Jesus do not combat against the powers, there is a clear sense in which the allegiance to Gospel of Kingdom and the way of Jesus will challenge the Powers of the age.  To follow Christ means that we will be called to resist the conventional wisdom of the kingdoms of this world.  We will be called to subvert the ways in which the Powers are destructive and idolatrous.  Jesus did this and he was killed.  MLK did this and he was killed. 

Jesus calls us and empowers us to follow his example by taking the difficult, slow, and painful road–the Calvary road.  The kingdom of this world relies upon force to control the Other.  The Kingdom of God comes through acts of non-violent self-sacrificial love.

The contrast is as stark.  The Powers are prone to kill subversives–even when they are agents of peace, justice and love.  The instruments of oppression change over the years, but their aim is the same.  The Cross of Golgatha becomes the firehose of Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama.  Bloody Friday is recapitulated on Bloody Sunday as marchers heading out of Selma for Montgomery are beaten back by police and state troopers. 

Jesus’ Kingdom comes as those who would seek his Kingdom, follow in the path of self-sacrificial suffering.  The suffering of those who struggle for justice and peace is the way of the Cross.  The victory of the Cross is made visible as we take up the struggle.   

Your Kingdom come on earth…


One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2008 10:03 pm

    I appreciate what you have to say here and what you shared in your sermon. It is difficult, however, to know to what extent we use our power or exercise our rights as citizens of a civil nation to be a “subversive” or agent of peace, justice and love. Some of the examples you give are ones of civil disobedience or people who would have participated as activists against social oppression. And perhaps some people see their right to vote as a way to “extend the Kingdom.” While I do not expect political figures to set up God’s Kingdom, I sometimes struggle to know how involved to get in the political process since often oppression is something that is not only an issue at the personal level, but also at the systems level.

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