where is our place as God’s people in King Jesus in the political process of this world?

Jesus is Lord. Neither Caesar, nor the current world power, the United States is. But since we live in a democracy which in theory is a government of “we the people,” normally we at least enter into the conversation on what is happening on the American political front. But we too often align ourselves on one side or the other, so that we’re known as Christians- not as those devoted to the politics of Jesus and God’s grace and kingdom come in him, but instead to the politics of the right, or the left (or even the center) of the world.

There are all kinds of problems in this, but first and foremost is our failure to grasp that the gospel itself is political, because the good news of God in Jesus is about a Messiah who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, and who reigns somehow in and through the church (Ephesians 1). This reign is destined to take over the earth only when he returns, but nevertheless is present now in a people who are to be marked as followers of the Way in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, and who live by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the grace and kingdom of God. That may seem like a tall, indeed impossible order, but it is possible by God’s grace, in fact that is to what we are called.

I for one hold not only a certain respect, but also appreciation for the United States of which I am a citizen. Yes, it has its faults as has always been the case, and some of them are quite serious. But in a fallen world, there is much to be thankful for when one can worship in freedom, and have the opportunities granted here. Yes, for some it’s much harder, no doubt. And we have to be careful not to idolize any state, so that we end up making Caesar Lord, instead of giving him the deference due under the Lordship of Christ.

We in Jesus will line up in every way possible on the American political spectrum, surely mostly due to our take on and evaluation of the issues. What we must not lose sight of is what’s most important of all, in fact what we in Jesus are called to live by as his followers and witnesses in this world. In doing so, we can help the kingdoms of this world the way the Jewish exiles of old were to pray for the good of the kingdom where they lived, so that in its prosperity, they too would prosper, of course through the blessing and mercy of God.

We care, but we are different. Read the Sermon on the Mount again (Matthew 5-7) if you doubt that. And read the entire New (Final) Testament, and keep reading it. Of course keep reading the Old (First) Testament as well. The more we do this, the better for our witness to Jesus and the gospel, the good news in him. And the better for the nation where we live. We are citizens of heaven, first and foremost, the heaven that is destined to come down to earth in Jesus, and is lived out now in the way of Jesus. A way counter to, yet for the actual good of the present order of this world. So that we hope for the good of the nation in which we live, as well as the good of all other nations. But live as those whose one Lord is Jesus.

the missing sermon from the Bible

I am increasingly convinced that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; see his corresponding Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6) is essentially off the radar for many Christians, not a real consideration at all. And the ironic thing is that Jesus ends that sermon (both sermons) with the analogy of the man who built his house either on the rock, or on sand. That this teaching from our Lord is actually foundational.

I believe our heart by the Holy Spirit is often better than our heads. Christians often have a kind of sixth sense, so to speak, by the Spirit, so that they do much better in life, akin for example to what our Lord says about loving our enemies, etc., in the sermon. And those whose theology actually takes it out of consideration can be grace-filled, loving believers. But good theology, Biblical interpretation, and God’s written word matters. We need to be in all of it from Genesis through Revelation. And certain passages need to be underlined and probably emphasized depending on the culture in which one lives. Surely the Sermon on the Mount fills a needed dearth among many Christians in the United States.

We must beware of seeking to apply these words of our Lord to nations and unbelievers. Rather, they are for believers and followers of Jesus. But we must apply them, indeed. We can respect and want the US Constitution and foundation for this nation to be adhered to for the continuation of this liberal democratic state, liberal not in the way spoken of today, but according to what was meant at the nation’s inception, though much of what carries over from that might logically follow. But for us in Jesus, we need to be in all of the word, and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount should certainly be a staple of our thinking and living. Along with my psalm, Old/First Testament, and New/Final Testament reading, I read from either the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon on the Plain, daily. Hopefully more and more of that will soak in and make a difference. Something for the entire church to help make the difference that’s needed in our lives and witness in and through Jesus.

 

a thought on Revelation

I just finished going slowly through the book of Revelation. It is quite heavy, but appropriate, when we consider just how heavy the world is, if we pay any attention to the news at all. It is not exactly nice, as appropriate for a bedtime story for children. Yet it addresses real evil, and brings in the true and final salvation for the healing and flourishing of all.

When reading through this book, it’s not like we should just see it as metaphorical, and not really happening. I don’t believe world events will happen precisely as given in the book, because the book is chalk full of symbols, and symbolic imagery. Awesome, world-changing and shaping events will take place, and evil will at a point be purged, but we need to avoid what is surely the crass literalism of the “left behind” approach.

One is struck with just how strongly the Revelation shakes out to be a fulfillment in the sense of ending of the entire Bible, of the First (“Old”) Testament, as well as the Final (“New”) Testament. No one should think they are a faithful Bible reader and student if they don’t take the entire Bible seriously from Genesis through Revelation, of course including everything in between. Some things might not appeal to us, we might not get it, but we need to hang in there, and try to understand, and keep working at it over the long haul, little by little.

Revelation reminds us of many biblical themes, like salvation in the final sense, the kingdom of the world as in the world system, persecution of those who hold to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, the kingdom of God in King Jesus, the goal of all creation with strong parallels to Genesis, etc.

It is a hard book to read, probably for me  because it hits up against my Modernist Enlightenment influenced sensibilities, and one might even say, Anabaptist tendencies rooted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The latter takes evil seriously, and simply takes the way of the Lamb in opposing it. The former cringes at the thought of actual evil (“we can educate it away”), and even more against the notion of judgment. And there’s the broken down systems of justice in our world today, perhaps adding to a cynical view of traditional approaches. Therefore, though a heavy read, Revelation is surely a much needed read for us today.

So if there’s a next time for me to go over Revelation, I hope by God’s grace to be more ready, and hopefully will be able to take more in, so that along with others, we can in faith faithfully endure through Jesus to the very end.

being about the Father’s business in the politics of Jesus

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?”

Luke 2:41-52

We are upon another US presidential election, but this election, on the face of it appears to be a possible game changer for evangelical participation in US politics. That said, I would hope that the divisions among us evangelicals might ironically actually serve to help us settle into the one true unity we have in Jesus, and in the politics of Jesus that comes through the grace and kingdom of God.

It was the case somewhere that the Christians in that country or area we’re known to be “the quiet in the land.” Now what are we known for? Are we known for our lives impacted by the gospel, and our witness of that? Or when people think of us, do they think about our affiliation with the Republican or Democratic Party, the Christian Left or Right?

Of course we will each decide just how we will participate as American citizens in the political process at the federal, state and local levels. We may be inclined to either not vote at all, vote on some matters and not on others, or as a rule try to vote on every proposal or race. And of course in some traditions the church lends its voice as to what should be our most important considerations in doing such. This certainly has its place of importance.

But by and large, we in Jesus ought to be known as people who are occupied with the gospel, witnesses to its life changing power, as those who are making disciples, and committed to the life and fellowship of the church. And from that, doing good works, both for those in the church, and for others in the world, outside the church. That should be our passion. As Jesus said later, even our food: to do the will of the Father, and finish his work (John 4:34).

Hopefully that would become the primary impact of the US presidential election of 2016 for us evangelicals. And to the degree that it is, that will actually impact the United States for much more good than before, and most importantly, not sully our witness of the gospel.

blessed are the poor in spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5

The NET Bible‘s note on Matthew 5:3 reflects something I believe of a scholarly consensus on this passage, seeing it as Matthew’s version of Luke’s words about the poor being happy, or blessed:

The poor in spirit is a reference to the “pious poor” for whom God especially cares. See Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29.

That could well be. But I think that Matthew applies this, and in so doing reflects the Lord’s application or meaning here, in referring to those who know their need of God (see the NLT translation in the Matthew 5 link above). Or more accurately, simply those who are poor in spirit, the spiritually poor. In the Hebrew mindset which is reflected in Jesus’s disciples’ thinking, to be poor materially was not far removed in their eyes as failing to be under God’s blessing, indeed perhaps under God’s curse. We can see some good reason for that application with reference to Israel as a nation (the blessings and the cursings named in the Pentateuch). But God’s care for the poor, who in many cases were at least open to God in contrast to the rich, who in not a few cases victimized the poor and came under God’s judgment, is a theme in the Old/First Testament, carried over into the gospel accounts (Matthew through John) and especially a prominent theme in the book of James.

So to be poor materially would lend itself to one better understanding their need for God, which in fact is another theme of scripture, with the contrast that the wealthy oftentimes rely on their wealth, in fact make it their god, and imagine themselves to be in no need of God. For one to be poor materially, and realize that, could help one to realize their inner poverty as well, since they are not benefiting from some other source apart from God. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that receiving help from other sources, such as the government is intrinsically bad, because that indeed can be the secondary source from the true source, God.

But now to cut to the chase, or more precisely, make the point I wanted to make in this post all along. I so readily identify with the idea of being “poor in spirit.” Oftentimes in my lifetime, inwardly I have been anything but rich. I see other Christians around me who seems joyful, or profess some kind of inner peace or spiritual bearing which I completely lack. Not that I’m saying my experience is good, because in and of itself, it’s not. Such experience could amount to any number of things in the present day assessment. One might be clinically depressed, or something physical affecting the emotional and psychological might be going on, which needs to be addressed. At any rate, I’ve felt not only an inner emptiness, but a desolation that can seem heavy and nearly suffocating at times.

And so I’m more than happy to hear our Lord’s words, that the poor in spirit are blessed, the very first “beatitude” of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. That helps me be able to relax in my abject inward poverty, and by faith not let it move me from seeking to fulfill God’s will in Jesus as for example, in loving others. When one doesn’t feel well physically, it’s hard to hang in there, even sometimes impossible to carry on the normal responsibilities of life. And the same holds true spiritually as well. We can’t give out what we don’t have within, and we can spew out what is not good within, no doubt.

And so our Lord’s words here are quite encouraging and even uplifting to me in calling the likes of me along with others who are poor in spirit, blessed. In that word, in my weakness, I can find God’s strength. And in my spiritual destitution, I have no where else to turn to but God. Aside from some of the other help I might receive, which could be a part of the help I would receive from God.

And so I’m not concerned about being a spiritual pauper, because I know to whom to turn for the true riches which for us in Jesus are spiritual, rather than material. The true and eternal life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

what America needs from us who name the name of Christ

We take Christ’s name as our identity in this world, as Christians. But do our lives, including our acts and words give the lie to such a claim?

America in recent years has become more and more divided. One can’t talk about religion and politics for good reason. It used to be a more or less friendly, though vigorous dispute. But now it seems to be nearly a matter of life and death.

What is lacking in this, in terms of America itself, is an appreciation for just how messy, violent and bad one aspect of our history has been from the beginning, while we should acknowledge that there’s been plenty of good, as well. Certainly many good people have lived and still live here, who lead exemplary lives worthy of respect. It does mean that there’s enough vitriol and unhidden anger, that the fabric of our society is in danger of being torn apart. What’s a Christian to do? And even more importantly, what are we Chrisitians to do about this?

First of all, the answer is not that we would all line up with the same poltical party, or think the same way politically. That’s not going to happen. It is best to acknowledge, as I was reminded by one Christian leader recently, that in these things, in political matters we indeed “see through a glass darkly” and “know” only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13 is not referring to American politics, but these words happen to apply). The one who has all the answers and is not open to revision in such matters, is the one indeed who is not to be trusted. We need an extra large dose of humilty when it comes to the politics of this world. That said, it’s not that we shouldn’t have our opinions and convictions on the matter.

The differences among us should not be sanitized, or white washed so as to pretend they don’t exist so that we can all get along. Instead we can be up front about such things so that we can learn to listen and respect our differences, and even grow from that. But most importantly, we can show the world that it’s the gospel, no less, which unites and defines us as a people. The gospel, God’s vision for the world in and through Jesus, will by and by impact how we think in regard to the politics of this world, though it won’t resolve all our differences. But in that process, when we may be in sharp disagreement along the way, perhaps never resolved, at the same time we can show the world how those at odds in such things can still not only get along, but be united in love in and through Jesus and the gospel.

What the world doesn’t need is the way I sometimes can be (privately at home, not online, or much if any in public), flying off the handle with intemperate remarks, which while I may believe them generally speaking, likely are not helpful in how I should both think and live. There may come a time when we have to say some really hard things. People who have a better historical perspective are the ones to be listened to; I don’t think I’m among their number. I can’t help but think of Bonhoeffer and his warnings long before they came true.

That said, I don’t believe we do well for America, and far more importantly, well in terms of the gospel and the mission of the church to get caught up in the political firestorm that is now assaulting our nation. People should see a difference in us no matter what happens in that. Our lives in and through Jesus are to be defined in terms of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, not in terms of the United States Constiution, even while we can have a healthy respect for that document, and for a democratic republic, or liberal democracy. People need to see that our lives are not defined by the latter, even while we seek to live with all due respect, in compliance to the laws of the land.

The challenge for us is to stay informed about what is happening, so we can pray. And above all, stay true to the one who has called us to show the better way. The way of righteousness and justice in the love of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We have to hold on to that, and in comparison, let the rest go. People ought to say when they look at us that we really do believe Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. That our confidence is not in the United States of America, even while we seek to conduct our lives here for its good, and God’s blessing on it, the same certainly holding true for Christians in other nations, just as Israel was to do the same for their captive nations when they were in exile.

We can help America through this storm only insofar as we stay true to our calling, and refuse to get caught up in the war of words and the division which is threatening this nation. As we go on in the society that in and through Jesus will flourish, with the hope of seeing good coming out of whatever happens. And with the confidence that God is sovereign over the nations, and Jesus is Lord.

the need for a greater place in Christendom for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount

I know this is a tall claim and order, one put out by a person who is not steeped enough in the knowledge of Christendom. In this case what I mean by Christendom is wherever there’s an organized church or group of churches which confess the faith that is in Jesus, the gospel. I think there are exceptions to my complaint here. One such might be the Franciscan Order within the Roman Catholic Church. And of course the Mennonites and Amish along with some other groups like them have done much better in this.

My complaint is that the Sermon on the Mount ought to have a much greater place in our liturgy and thinking. Instead we exalt the psalms, and I’m all for that. I read them once a month. But I’m saying to myself, shouldn’t I be reading Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); also note Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49) just as much? It is central according to Jesus in how the old covenant is fulfilled in terms of how one lives because of Jesus.

I don’t think this sermon is much on our radar in our thinking. Ever since the church was taken up into worldly power (think, Constantine), at least some of these words, as I read (or heard) somewhere recently, don’t resonate or make sense at all. And so we’re at a great loss. Of course there’s much more to the Sermon on the Mount than its push against worldly power. And I say we need all of scripture along with it. But I would argue that it ought to be front and center in our thinking. And to go over it once a year at best, just doesn’t do.