Entering and Embodying God’s Kingdom | Matthew 7:21-29

The Sermon on the Mount is not a series of unrelated teaching clips randomly jumping from one topic to another. There is thematic rhythm flowing through every bit of it. Topically, the sermon pieces together various aspects of the ethical demands for living within Jesus’ kingdom community; as a whole, the sermon is designed to set Jesus’ followers apart to embody a way of living whose root and fruit is his holy character. The Sermon on the Mount is very much a curriculum for creating kingdom culture “on earth as it is in heaven”; to give specific shape to a citizenry whose lives and the way they do life glorifies the Father by reflecting his goodness. As Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he puts a final touch on the uniqueness that is to characterize his kingdom community.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

Jesus’ comment that the Father is in heaven and those who do his will will enter the kingdom of heaven suggests the reality of the kingdom is not exclusive only to the Father’s heavenly location. That is, the kingdom of heaven is also setting up shop on earth where those who do the Father’s will may enter. The expansion of the kingdom’s earthly presence can be further seen in Jesus’ comments in Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21.

As God’s heavenly rule is implemented on earth, there will be those who will name-drop to get in on it. There is always something about knowing a name or identity that somehow makes us feel like we get it or are “in the know”. Jesus makes it clear that knowing his name or using it will not benefit us. The kingdom of heaven is for those who have received the King’s grace and whose lives are committed to reflecting the King’s character.

Clarifying what he means with an example, Jesus says Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’”

Normally we view these actions as quite exemplary. Books are written, ministries launched, and guest speakers fawned over because of activities like these. But are these activities the actual problem? Jesus continues “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Jesus’ declaration hangs on two words or phrases.

“I never knew you”: In the Greek, the word knew implies a deep level of intimacy; in some cases that level could be sexual. In this case it appears Jesus is speaking to those who use his name or title, engage in religious adventures and wear spiritual façades, but whose lives are not actually intimately acquainted with and characteristically distinguished by the righteousness he embodies and calls his followers to. 

“You who practice lawlessness”: The psalm Jesus quotes is one in which the writer, finding graceful relief from his dismay, discards the iniquitous influences from his life, or, as Jesus puts it here, those who “practice lawlessness”. Just as the integrity of an Israelite’s righteousness depended on their abiding by the Law, the Christian disciple’s righteousness depends on their abiding in Christ. We can’t call Jesus ‘Lord’ if we’re not abiding in him and by his righteous way of living.

This is the uniqueness that is to characterize the followers of Christ, setting us apart from not only a world wanting nothing to do with Christ, but those content to merely mimic Christian habits. Called to be a people whose lives are to be salt and light, we are to embody a righteousness surpassing “that of the scribes and Pharisees, [lest we] will not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as God’s kingdom reality was initially manifested in the person of Christ, it is currently expressed in the lives of Christ’s body, the Church. Kingdom reality requires cultivating; a nurturing of habits that emulate Christ’s holiness. This is not done quickly or assertively, but often quite carefully, as one builds a durable home.

Thus Jesus concludes Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

Both the beginning (5:20) and ending (7:21) of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains a theme of entering the kingdom of heaven. Now Jesus concludes his message with imagery conveying how those who have entered may sustain their commitment to the kingdom. It’s not just about hearing Jesus’ words, and then thinking that somehow entitles us to something, but acting upon them. Letting Jesus’ entire message mold our habits and direct our steps. That as his words shapes our ways, the reality being emitted from our lives will imbue the lives around us with sacred seeds that could grow into a kingdom culture rooted in Christ’s rule.

“When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Reality is always made compellingly clearer when conveyed by its author. As Jesus’ words and actions author a new reality in which we are being redemptively restored to God’s good reign, we gladly receive and embody that which is worth seeking first above all things throughout our lives, the good news of the kingdom of heaven.

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The Eucharist’s witness to a fragmented world

The latest in a long series of violent incidents transpiring between African American individuals and police officers recently occurred in my home state of Wisconsin.  In the wake of these incidents, many details and factors are always repeatedly asserted and discussed.  While I believe discussion is always helpful, discussion must not come at the expense of resolution.  One question I’ve started asking more and more often as these incidents occur, and when other situations of human discord emerge, is “How might the Church’s mission to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom reality be carried out in such hostile or disunified settings?”

The answers will obviously vary, but I recently read a story whose themes echoed a mode of witness the modern Church has ceremoniously kept amongst themselves; a practice that, if extended beyond the meeting walls, could expand a reconciliatory spaciousness within the communities made minor through marginalization.

A few weeks ago in Wichita, Kansas, a group of the “Black Lives Matter” movement was planning on conducting a protest.  While meeting beforehand with the police department to establish an organized and peaceful march, an alternative was reached: instead of a peaceful march, the activists and local police officers decided to do a barbeque together.  They all came together to cook, hang out, eat some food, and to sit and discuss.  By the end of the day, many of them commented that their time together had allowed them to reach a deeper level of awareness and understanding.

The world possesses a diversity of races, classes, ages, and skillsets.  We have CEOs and maintenance staff, professors and students, bosses and employees, citizens and authorities, leaders and followers, friends and enemies.  But one commonality we all share is our need to eat.  No matter what one’s job or role is, at some point, everyone stops to eat food.  In this diverse world, our shared need to eat makes us equal.  Food brings us eye to eye.  In this equalizing sense, food has power.

Food has the power to slow the day down and facilitate calm.  Food pauses the pressure, invites us to relax, and look around the table.  The smells and flavors move our minds from an agenda to an aroma of brotherhood.  The shared stories of how Mom made it best unites our narratives.  Chewing forces us to listen and learn the value and beauty of the other.  Like a beverage washing it all down, the palate of our understanding is freshly cleansed.  As empty plates form contented smiles, a meal’s end greets a new beginning.  Food has the power to nurture reconciliation.

I don’t believe this is by chance.

Holy Scripture relates two significant moments that ripple through the timeline of world history with God’s salvation.  Those two moments are God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world.  Both of these moments are memorialized with food.  We know them as the Passover Feast and the Lord’s Supper.  With the latter a fulfilling enrichment of the former, these meals are joint revelations of the goodness God is pouring into the world.  In fact, the apostle Paul referred to these celebrations, which the early church celebrated as Christ-centered “love feasts”, as moments of both remembrance and proclamation.  In other words, the Lord’s Supper activity is done both as an act of worship and witness to the redemptive work God is doing.

How does this relate to the hostilities being encountered within our communities?

If the Lord’s Supper is an activity of worship and witness, Christians might start considering all of their meals to be an extension of the Lord’s Supper, where God’s love and goodness can be carried over into all our dining.  If God’s salvation has been commemorated with food, than food in general contains within itself a specific sense of God’s saving goodness.  God’s choice to convey awareness of his salvation through something as universal as food demonstrates his desire to make salvation universally accessible.  That isn’t to say that salvation is universally experienced, but that food is, and where food is served, so is an opportunity to sample his salvation.  And one of the most distinctive flavors of this salvation is reconciliation.

The New Testament Scriptures already provide fluent examples of this.  When Jesus publicly told Zaccheus “today I must stay at your house”, later when Zaccheus’ repented, he was able to declare “Today salvation has come to this house.”

When the early church distributed food to Greek Jews overlooked in the community, they appointed wise and godly men full of the Spirit to serve it so the good news would season the food that would refresh the marginalized.

The above Wichita story is a modern example of what this could look like.  No doubt a Christian community that is willing to “seek the peace of the city” could provide many more reconciliatory examples.

This isn’t to say it’s the Church’s responsibility to fix the world but that congregations who embody Eucharistic living may find themselves demonstrating good news in a Christ-centered way that results in relieving some of the pressures that might otherwise explode into local hostilities.  Eucharistic living helps show that coming together, preparing food together, dining together, cleaning up together, being together, and growing together is not a mundane activity, but a majestic reflection of how God’s salvation is shaping humanity into family.

The Lord’s Supper is a ritual exercise, but one whose spiritual and physical properties have the power to shake the foundations of division and discord plaguing this world and reconcile us again to God and each other in harmony and holiness.

The getting and giving of God’s goodness

In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus has just discussed an interactive dynamic of grace-and-truth that must exist amongst the brethren with boldness and discretion and without hypocrisy or haughtiness.  From there, however, Jesus seems to change topics.

In v7, he says “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

It’s an imperative that summons followers to a constant tenaciousness—keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking—in their pursuit of something Jesus does not actually clarify here. With a follow-up comment“For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened”—Jesus affirms their tenacity will be met with results. But other than tenacious prayerful pursuance, what exactly is Jesus calling us to so vigorously pursue?

He then introduces an illustration: “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”

If even flawed fathers know how to give their children what is good, our faith and reverence should be strengthened when considering “how much more” our good Father is in giving what is good to we who tenaciously pursue it. So here now the nature of our tenacious pursuit is clarified as “what is good”. But what is meant by good?

A second look at Jesus’ illustration may help. The son in the illustration asks for a loaf or a fish. Neither of these are toys or pets, but food; items meant to give life. The other two items incredulously hypothesized are a stone or a snake, objects that will not provide life or be for the child’s good. The difference between these two sets of gifts is that which gives life to the child and that which doesn’t. The good we are to so tenaciously pursue from the Father, therefore, is that which manifests in the provision and preservation of life.

Now up until this point, it could seem this pursuit of the Father’s life-giving goodness has been laid out to us for our own personal benefit of health and happiness. In v12, however, Jesus adds “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

It now suddenly seems Jesus is reverting back to his theme of how his disciples are to interact with others. The therefore Jesus includes here hints this discussion has all along been framing how his followers’ pursuit of the Father’s life-giving goodness should be done on behalf of others as eagerly as we would do so for ourselves. Why didn’t Jesus simply mention it while discussing his disciples’ interactions with others in Matthew 7:1-6? Perhaps because good treatment can’t be properly understood until it is witnessed in the Father.

Jesus’ previous conversation in Matthew 7:1-6 exposed our human tendency to interact with people in ways that are hypocritical, focusing on the speck in their eye while ignoring the log in ours. In our hypocrisy, we demonstrate a strange willingness to treat people in ways we ourselves would never want to be treated. This oddity seems to suggest we may not actually know what good treatment looks like or how we want to be treated. If that is the case, we can’t yet claim to know how to treat others. Thankfully, however, Jesus took the time to establish it for us.

Jesus’ explanation in v11 establishes the Father’s life-giving goodness as the basis for how we perceive our value in His eyes. We now know we can trustingly and persistently beseech the Father for His good provision.

But just as v11 challenges us to see “how much more” the Father’s goodness is visited upon those who tenaciously pursue it, v12 immediately challenges us to also pursue that goodness on behalf of others. God’s goodness cannot be sought and kept simply for our own benefit; doing so defies the benevolent nature of God’s goodness and deprives our surrounding communities of its redemptive and transformative properties. If goodness is something we hope to seek and keep only for ourselves, it will never remain good.

I had hoped to post this article a few days ago, but several tragedies then suddenly struck—the shooting of a black man in Baton Rouge, a shooting of another black man in Minneapolis, and, last night, a reactionary mass shooting of police officers and some bystanders in Dallas.  As these tragedies open afresh the wounds of our local, national, and human communities, I hear Jesus’ words with new conviction as his imperative still speaks.

Kingdom citizens must keep asking the Father for the news and provision of His kingdom-centered goodness to be poured into the communities in which we continually witness.  We must keep seeking to be agents of kingdom-centered goodness in our communities through the kingdom-centered ways we live.  We must keep prayerfully knocking on every door that could open up and welcome God’s kingdom-centered goodness to enter and therein find a home.

As this “Law and the Prophets” essence continually calls the community of Christ to embody a love for our neighbors learned from our Father, how we give it witness can bring us all into a better understanding of “what is good” and from that understanding could come a greater awareness and assurance of the Father from whom goodness flows.

In pursuit of what Jesus values | Matthew 6:19-21

Three times Jesus has discussed practicing kingdom piety privately, “in secret” so the soul is quietly enriched with the Father’s image in Christ.  His next series of comments seem to continue this internal development of the disciple.

He says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”

Gnostic philosophy mingled with Christian thought has over time shaped in us the sense that stuff is inherently bad. But if Jesus’ words here are examined carefully, it is not the stuff, but the anxious storing of it which Jesus warns against.  Clothing, possessions, money—the “on earth” stuff that could be implied here—is not bad stuff.  It is useful stuff, practical stuff, morally neutral stuff.  It is when we begin to idolize and anxiously accumulate stuff that it creates in us a snare.  This is when we grow discontent and envious, entering the cutthroat competitiveness of the rat race.

Rather Jesus instructs “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal…”

As we have repeatedly seen throughout this Sermon, Jesus’ highest value is the Kingdom-of-Heaven reality being redemptively established on Earth by the Father through Christ. It is this reality Jesus hopes will drive his followers.  Jesus desires his followers to value the substance that doesn’t decay over time and cannot be stolen away; the substance rooted in redemptive reality born out of Heaven.  In other words, may what we do on Earth be done in light of its Kingdom value.

Treasures on Earth. Treasures in Heaven.  Both exist as valuables that vie for humanity’s heart.  Whichever we pursue reveals which is our treasure.  Understanding this dynamic, Jesus explains it: “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The popular adage is “Follow your heart”. Jeremiah the prophet, however, struggling to turn Israel’s wayward hearts back to God, wrote “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”

It’s not that our hearts instinctively pursue bad things; it’s that our hearts don’t appraise the value of things rightly, according to God’s value system. As such, our fallen hearts have a tendency to inflate the normal practical values of stuff to exaggerated levels of significance.  Money becomes our source of security and power.  Clothing becomes our symbols of status.  Possessions become tools of self-actualizations.  Treasuring stuff through this exaggerated sense of value is what gradually plunges us into idolatry.

Instead of “Follow your heart”, Jesus’ words set Heaven before our hearts as a kingdom radiant with renewed reality. Its redemptive rays enlighten and captivate the eyes of our hearts like a hidden treasure suddenly discovered.  Jesus’ words tell us what to want so we will know what to pursue.  He sets before us the treasure of God’s kingdom for our hearts to follow after.  It’s a call for us to organize and prioritize our lives around what Jesus values.

May what we have and what we do with it be employed in view of the redemptive reality God has been establishing through Jesus.

Jesus as the end of racism

I recently met a Caucasian woman in her late fifties at my apartment complex; during our conversation she asked me if I had been having any trouble with some of “those people” in the building. I asked “What people?” She leaned in and said “those black people”. Sighing deeply and smiling tightly I said “Nope, no trouble at all.”

Right then a guy I know, who is originally from the Congo, walked past in the distance and waved; as I waved back, she commented “There’s one of them now”. I explained to her he is very friendly and respectful to everyone he meets, always plays with his children, works in healthcare, and is a regular churchgoer. She said “Well they all look alike”. Then she added “I just thank God I live in the other building.”

Thank God for human segregation? Oh, the irony.

This conversation was just a brief, minor interaction, but it is being played out on a critical scale in our country and throughout the world. We’ve heard it called a lot of things by a lot of people—racism, prudence, xenophobia, security, hate, responsibility. I wonder if these labels are erratic representations of reality at best; but comprehensively, they leave us feeling like we are absolutely nowhere and with no direction home.

But as this season of Advent comes upon us, I believe its sacred story heralds hope for what we could be as human beings. When Mary was strangely found to be with child, her fiancé Joseph was afraid to make this strangeness a permanent part of his life. That’s when an angel clarified for Joseph the identity of this child he would be harboring in his home—“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Immanuel. God with us.

God facilitated humanity’s salvation by means of his incarnation.  God could not save us unless he was with us, one of us. Jesus expresses God’s understanding that humanity needed to be saved by someone who is in the chaos with them. More concerned with the prospect of perpetual human horror and damnation than with continuing to grasp the comfort and convenience of his celestial glory, God empathized with humanity, putting himself in our place, walking around in our human skin, taking our sins upon himself. We are saved by God’s empathy.

Black, white, Latino, French, American, Syrian, Muslim—in Jesus, they all have a friend who has identified with them, walking around in human flesh. In Jesus, humanity is being united together; not a single one of us now has any ground to stand on if we want to stand away from fellow human beings due to our unfamiliarity with them. Just as he emptied himself, being made in human likeness, God tells us his followers to “get familiar”. Like Joseph, adaptively receive this strangeness into your life. Christ’s kingdom narrative supersedes our tribal narratives, regardless of the versions.

The debate over whether or not we have a race problem is everywhere and messy; but beneath it all I suspect is a struggle everyone has, myself included, to empathize, being willing to patiently perceive reality from the point of view of another, especially those very different from us. I believe much of the tension thickening this debate results from a failure to think outside of ourselves or to adamantly expect the situation to be resolved once others come around to our way of thinking. One thing everyone everywhere has in common is the desire to be heard, understood, respected, and responded to in accordance with that respect. They want others to empathize with them. I believe if individuals in communities can will themselves to calmly and genuinely understand and respect where others are coming from and carefully respond accordingly, community-building solutions can slowly be formed. Do not be afraid to invite unfamiliarity and strangeness into your lives; learn to work the problem and not make things worse by guessing.

By identifying himself with the whole of humanity, Jesus is the end of racism and tribal separation and the beginning of a humanity being communally renewed to his holy image.

Look around your local community; who needs someone to come alongside them and be with them? If you are a believing member of Christ’s church body, that someone could be you.

 

 

 

 

Journeying Jesus’ way to pray | Matthew 6:9-13

Jesus has been talking about using prayer hypocritically for show, impressing people to gain respect or influence.  He tells his followers, however, to conduct their prayers in secret.  He continues in Matthew 6:9 “Pray, then, in this way…”

In this way.  Everything Jesus has said in this sermon on the mount constitutes a way of living, a kingdom way; a journey in which we are made his disciples.  The way we love, the way we give, the way we talk, the way we overlook an offense, the way we interact—these are all ways we are formed into his followers.  Thus Jesus’ words here provide another way that is formatively foundational for following.  This “Lord’s prayer” is a framework for all prayer; it espouses a substance on which all prayer is nurtured.  All our prayers should mature and grow into the redemptive reality in which Jesus’ prayer is rooted.  Praying the substance of his prayer shapes in us the mindset of Jesus which, to begin with, is centered in the Father.

“Our Father who is in heaven…”  Jesus is the perfect image of the Father; in John 14:9 he says if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father.  Following Jesus is ultimately about abiding in the Father.  Jesus casts our prayerful imaginations beyond our selves and surroundings to perceive the Father whose mighty and majestic sovereign presence permeates the heavens, consequently permeating our minds with his magnificence, captivating our attention.  In this way, prayer humbles our hearts by lifting our minds. 

“Hallowed be Your name…”  Once our minds have been elevated and stretched to perceive the Father reigning over us, we are now able to find satisfaction in his sovereignty and delight in his magnificence by letting our minds ponder the vastness of his splendor, awed in his mystery.  Holy, set apart, unique, hallowed; his is a name regarded with reverence, treasured and cherished above any other.  A name that holds all the hope for the present and the future.  With our minds lifted heavenward, perceiving this heavenly holy one, Jesus opens our mouths to pray…

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Father might abide a ways beyond us, but he refuses to abide away from us.  He is not content to remain isolated from us but must make his dwelling with us.  His salvation work consists of taking his kingdom, that redemptive reality being shaped in his celestial realm, and establishing it amongst our earthly existence so we in this world may participate in the work of heaven.  In Jesus, the Father chooses to abide in our neighborhoods of flesh and blood, working his will within us.  Seeing salvation at work through incarnation, we see we are not alone, not abandoned; that this is all according to plan.  What was a promised redemption is becoming a redeemed reality, full of a restfulness in which we can now pray…

“Give us this day our daily bread…”  The Father’s sovereignty and salvation work show us we need not fear the future.  We can hope in him here and now and know we are being provided for, protected; we now have the blessed rest-filled assurance to ask for daily bread.  Bread—it’s a very physical, earthy request; moments before, we’re thinking lofty, heavenly, spiritual thoughts about a Father who is hallowed, sacred, above us, beyond us, but now we’re talking about physical, crummy bread.

Asking for bread in a conversation with God connects the physical with the spiritual, a critical aspect for understanding Christian spirituality.  It shows us the Father is as much concerned with physical realities as with spiritual realities.  Christian spirituality is not merely about mystical niceties or pious idealizations, but how these wonderful spiritual realities are lived and worked out within our fleshly limitations and physical boundaries, the preservation and perseverance of which requires bread.  The Father knows we need physical provision, and in providing it, the truth of his salvation is unfolded and revealed, reverberating redemptive reality through our spirits, enabling us to respond to his mercy.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…”  Forgiveness is God’s grace-filled act of balance.  It is a blessed dynamic that brings us into holy harmony with God, each other, and ourselves.  Whereas daily bread preserves the flesh, forgiveness perseveres our spirit, and not just for ourselves.  Forgiveness is not exclusively static, but inclusively vibrant.  It reverberates through the disciple’s relationships, echoing grace all over the place.  The forgiveness graced upon us by the Father flows out from us onto those around us.  Its cyclical nature shows forgiveness is the impetus of kingdom community.  As prayer forms in us a forgiveness-nature, we are cultivated into a God-aware community whose physical and spiritual needs are given provision and preservation from a Father whose salvation work encompasses the whole of our being.

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”  The way in which we follow Jesus to the Father will always involve trials, but he teaches us to pray discerningly here that those trials never give way to temptations, potentially corrupting the holy character he is forming in us through prayer.  It’s a request that the Father keep us in this way he started, not turning to the left or the right of this salvation way being paved and furthered in the footsteps of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer frames the path of our own prayers.  It’s a formational journey for the soul, beginning with a wondrous visual of the sovereign Father, finding satisfaction in his infinite holiness, submitting to the redemptive reality he is establishing amongst us, trusting in his daily provision, resting in his graceful preservation, responding mercifully to others, and persevering in this walk upon his holy way.  As we pray our Lord’s words, they immerse our character into his, forming and navigating life upon his way.