We have tendencies to compartmentalize, tendencies to keep things in places where they are easy to control or keep track of. We do this with the things of heaven and the things of earth. We are practiced at keeping heavenly things out of the details of earth.
Acts chapter two disagrees with this theory as heaven spills out over the earth. It comes down like fire. Fire is dangerous, still we are willing to use it. We are quite ok with fire as long as we can use it to our advantage. It’s not much different talking about God. God is dangerous, still we are willing to use God. We are quite ok with God as long as we can use Him to our advantage.
If we are able to keep fire where it belongs, like in a fireplace, we can safely deal with it. If we can keep God inside some religious theory, we can convince ourselves He is safe to deal with. But on Pentecost Sunday, the fire got loose and did not stay where it could be controlled. It’s as if the fire left the fireplace and starts to light up the rest of the house.
We keep trying to turn God into something safe to work with. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk much about Pentecost. We keep trying to put the fire back into the fireplace. We keep trying to put God someplace we can control Him. We keep trying to act as if heaven didn’t spill out on the earth.
We sometimes try to tell ourselves that Pentecost is a wake-up call, a mini-revival where sluggish believers become full of the Spirit. The thing is, that doesn’t really fit the story the New Testament seems to be telling. In that story, Pentecost is more like the evidence that the kingdom of God is in play and it is in play “on earth as it is in heaven.”
I recently had the opportunity to join some colleagues in listening to Michael Frost, Missiologist from Australia. I am very grateful. Frost is skilled at articulating missional philosophy. Even more interesting, he is actively experimenting with this philosophy in his home church. Though he might prefer to refer to church (due to assumptions formed when one hears the word church) as “a collective of neighbors who center our lives on Jesus.”
He shares important concerns. One of them being that church attendance is conventional. There is nothing radical or strange about church attendance because the church is only doing what other entities are doing, trying to help people to fit in with everyone else. Frost is right, there is a better way. There is a better way to be human (I think he was listening to Jon Foreman on the flight over). And the church should be leading the way.
The church should be salty. This collective of those who center our lives on Jesus should be delicious and enticing and inviting and interesting in their behavior. The church should provoke curiosity. He gave a list of ways to do this but I don’t like lists and tend to shut down after the first or second point. But here are the first two things he encouraged; 1) Bless three people each week. Bless someone from the Body, someone outside the Body, and a third person of choice. 2) Eat with three people each week. Eat with someone from the Body, someone outside the Body, and a third person of choice. Even for someone who doesn’t like lists, I think those sound inviting and interesting and lean in the direction of Christian behavior.
Frost says he doesn’t care about attendance or tithing. He doesn’t want the church to be busy recruiting new persons or becoming the coolest show in town. What he wants is for the church to show the world what the Reign of God looks like. Amen.
I am a pastor. I serve with the folks at Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon (a borough named after the family Duncan, it says so on the sign when you enter town). Christ Reformed Church is a small church (a church named after, well I think you can figure that one out). I have come to realize it is silly to argue over the size of a church (an argument more natural in the world than the church). Small is not better, nor is it worse, it is simply our present reality. When we take a look at the kingdom, small churches are the most common expression of the kingdom (and I suspect that has always been the case).
Karl Vaters says that “Small churches are like the cockroaches of the Christian world.” Though it may not sound like it, he means that as a sincere compliment. “After whatever cultural nuclear bomb comes along to destroy all other visible expressions of the church, small congregations will scurry out from under the baseboards. When the money runs out, small churches will find a way to keep going. When there’s a failure of leadership, small churches will lead themselves. After denominations topple, small churches will rise up.”
I don’t know why I haven’t heard of this Vaters guy before, I agree as he goes on to say;
“After what’s cool and new starts feeling cliched and trite, small churches will still matter. After most of our church buildings, both large and small, are empty, demolished or converted into hipster apartments, small churches will find somewhere else to meet. After we’ve grown sick of programs and events, small churches will remind us of our essential need for relationship. After we’ve torn ourselves apart with politically-charged rhetoric, small churches will still be there to bring God’s people together. After persecution has come, small churches will meet in secret. After our plans have failed, small churches will still be a big part of God’s plan.”
Obviously, some of what Vaters says is true of churches no matter the size. Still, it is true of small churches. Not better, not worse, just our present reality. And whatever comes our way, even when cultural bombs go off and if hipster apartments rise up all around us – we remain a big part of God’s plan.
“Lash yourself to a child and be prepared to see things you have stopped looking for. Get ready to notice things you have taught yourself to ignore. Learn again what you have forgotten. Become as a child, that is your ticket to the kingdom.”
In the Gospel of Matthew there is a fishing story where a coin is found in a fish’s mouth. Who doesn’t love a story like that? Trout season starts March 31, this kind of story might cause us to examine a fishes mouth very carefully while removing the hook.
This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about fishing. We shouldn’t be surprised since he did spend a lot of time hanging out with fishermen. I can almost picture a scene where Peter and Andrew argue with James and John about the best ways to fish the Sea of Galilee. And then they try to pull Jesus into the discussion to settle the issue.
Back to the story about the coin in the fish’s mouth. In some ways it starts like a bad joke. “So, a tax collector, a fisherman, and Jesus walk into Capernaum. And the tax collector said to the fisherman…”
We know how this story goes. But the punchline is not that the coin is where Jesus said it would be. The punchline is that his ability to perform such a miracle affirms his announcement that the Kingdom of heaven is near. The punchline is that citizens of the Kingdom of heaven are not subject to the same duties citizens of the state are subject to. But it also insists that in this Kingdom there is no room for offending the state over something like taxes.
The Beatles are in the news today as satellite radio launches a new station all about the Fab Four. I am certain there will be mention of the music invasion that came along with them. I hope to hear them sing “You say you want a revolution… We all want to change the world…”
Recently, another ambassador from across the pond has brought up the idea again. N. T. Wright has caused the word revolution to be used more frequently in church vocabulary. At least he has caused it to be used more by me. I have always been pulled in by the idea of revolution, but my new fondness has me using the word even more. Revolution is not only a great word but a necessary action. Certainly we are beginning to discover that to have faith in government to guide us in a healthy direction is a bit naïve.
It is time for a revolution. N. T. Wright would have us believe it began one Friday afternoon in first century Jerusalem. If we agree with that on any level, why do we remain so interested in solutions proposed by the rest of the world? And why do we often talk as if Washington, D. C. should do something about it?
It is time to shed the artificial labels we are wearing and to begin acting like people who belong to a revolution. If we truly believe that there is a story, one story, that can actually make a difference, why are we hanging onto small time peripheral loyalties?
Our literature tells us about early successes in the revolution. We were intentional about entering space with the peace and love of Jesus. We can find faithful moments of loving neighbor and enemy. We can read accounts about differents becoming one, of enemies becoming friends, of sins being forgiven.
The place this revolution begins is not the capital. The revolution begins in the local church. All other loyalties are too small for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of earth as it is in heaven. We do not have time to be duped into other loyalties. If we truly believe a story exists that can make a difference, it is time to embody that story and stop dabbling in convenient mainstream stories that actually run counter to our story. May we be a people who show the revolutionary love that was demonstrated by our king. “You say you want a revolution…”
In the New Testament Satan claims to have the authority to hand over the kingdoms of the world. Satan may have thought he could handle Jesus the same way had always handled other situations. So he makes a power play, offering Jesus all kingdoms. Evil converged together in all its might. But God showed up as well, and showed up as Jesus.
Greg Boyd suggests the New Testament contains an emphasis on cosmic warfare. And he goes on to say we are either fighting the powers or we are being played by the powers.
The rulers and powers of the world will still do what they do. But, ever since Jesus showed up announcing that the Father has a different plan about kingdom and power they will not have the normal results. The rulers have been defeated. Jesus has won the victory. A revolution is underway.
Every Sunday we pray together the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer that reveals the bare bones of Jesus’ teaching. The bare essentials of what we bring to God in prayer.
This prayer reveals what it looks like when heaven comes to earth. When kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. The reign of God shows itself in things like daily bread, forgiveness and being delivered from evil.
It reveals an emphasis on loving God AND loving others. The first part is what we might pray if we love God. The second part is what we might pray if we love others. The prayer reminds us, we cannot pray one part without the other.
This prayer is prayed with knowledge of a new reality. We cannot pray this as a mere habit or a simple recital from memory. When we utter these words – we pray for nothing less than a revolution.
I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”
Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.
The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.
Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.
Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution. They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.
Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.
There is a lot of energy spent trying to convince us that we are dependent on politicians. This is not a new phenomenon. Even Luke the historian from the first century knows this. I can’t help but notice how political Luke gets when writing his Gospel. Chapter three begins by making certain we know who the Caesar is (Tiberius), who the governor of Judea is (Pontius Pilate), who the tetrarch of Galilee is (Herod). We are also told that Philip is tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitus. That Lysanius is tetrarch of Abilene. That Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.
Yet, these are not the politics Luke is primarily interested in. What he really wants us to know is that during this time “The word of God came to John.” Luke is reminded of someone else who preached in politically charged times by the name of Isaiah. Isaiah preached to kings. Isaiah watched kings go to war. He watched kings rise and kings fall and new kings take their place. I think Luke is interested that in the day of Isaiah – God intervened.
This reminds us of another politically charged message, John’s. After he spoke the crowd asked “What are your politics John?” And John replied “share with one another. Be generous. Be aware of those in need.” The tax collectors asked “What are your politics?” And John replied “do not steal from others. Stop taking what does not belong to you.” The soldiers asked “John what are your politics?” And John replied “do not coerce others or use force to get them to do what you want. Do not accuse others falsely. Be content with your wages.” Some wanted him to run for office. He declined but did confront the tetrarch about his politics.
This is the way history goes according to the bible. Politicians appear to rule. They look so in charge. But repeatedly, God intervenes. It is of interest to us that in the days of politicians, God intervenes. In the seasons where kings and Caesar’s rule and governors govern, and tetrarchs do whatever tetrarchs do – God intervenes. Every time, anytime we look at history, politicians will seem to be in charge. Hopefully we will be reminded of John the Baptist and be reminded that our politics are different.