“Thy Kingdom Come… on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
What an incredible petition, uttered weekly (if not daily) by Christians all over the world. Unfortunately, it has become ubiquitous and the intended impact of the petition has been largely lost on modern Christianity. I believe that rediscovering and reclaiming the importance of this petition is paramount to the reformation of Christianity in the 21st century.
The coming kingdom, its nature, and God’s passion for its earthly manifestation was the central theme to Jesus’ ministry.
Through the way Jesus lived we witness and experience the full incarnation of God’s character. Through his execution on the cross and subsequent resurrection we experience a very tangible and absolute example of God’s victory over death, sin, and the domination systems of this world. These are examples for all of us to emulate in our own lives. Our emulation of Jesus’ “way” is the key to God’s Kingdom on Earth. This is the entire point of Jesus.
The hard-to-swallow bottom line is to simply be grateful for Jesus and to worship him is to miss the mark. Jesus did not want his disciples to be faithful and yet impotent. He implored us, even begged us to see that The Way he championed was not a sedentary and passive spiritual practice, but a radical and revolutionary one. By accepting God’s radical free gift of Grace (empowered and informed by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) into our hearts and lives… we are transformed.
20. and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
By accepting and understanding the radical and free nature of God’s gift of grace, Christ comes to live in us. But what does this mean? What does an indwelling of the heart and soul by the spirit of Christ look like? What are the transformations Jesus taught us to expect in our lives?
24. Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
25. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
26. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27. ”For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.
28. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This might be one of the most loaded passages in scripture. Here, what Jesus is proclaiming is confusing to some, harsh to others, and impossible to most.
“…let them deny themselves…”
The concept of the denying the “self” (otherwise known as the destruction of the “ego”) is one of the most universal truths of all the world’s spiritual disciplines and religions. And while it may be one of the great foundations to our universal human spirituality, it is also one of the hardest.
We (especially as Americans) take great pride in our identities as individuals. Our very sense of freedom is informed by our separateness, our independence from outside coercion over our will or actions. And while there is great value to the concepts of liberty and individual freedom, when applied only for the betterment and well-being of the individual the result is detrimental to society due to rampant indifference and inaction. Consequently, freedom and liberty can cease to be empowering ideals and can become antagonistic to the progress of humanity.
The unfortunate result of rampant individualism is the false impression that our lives and our well-being are unrelated to the well-being of the world around us. We have somehow come to believe if we can only build our walls high enough, keep our bank accounts rich enough, or drill our wells deep enough that somehow (against all logic) we will be fine. Freedom and liberty does not mean we are to swear allegiance only to “me, myself and mine”. Freedom and liberty cannot be exercised as an individual right without a requirement of our responsibility to others.
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
– John Stuart Mill (1859), On Liberty p.21-22, Oxford Univerity
Mill’s concept is foundational to libertarianism, and has been more popularly expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” In other words: as long as my actions don’t hurt anyone else, then stay out of my life.
But what if by “actions”, we include “lack of action”, or inaction? What if by inaction we cause harm to others, such as failing to aid someone in need? An acute example would be ignoring the cries of someone being mugged. A more obtuse example would be America’s indifference to the genocide in Darfur. In both cases, our individual and collective choice not to act caused sure and irrevocable harm to others. However, our action could have assuaged some of the violence in both forms. Suddenly, the seemingly clear-cut decree of “not harming others” takes on a much wider and more difficult scope. Simply refraining from harming others is not adequate. To be truly responsible to the moral requirements of freedom and liberty, we are compelled to examine the possible effects of our inaction and indifference to others.
12. ”In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Living in the freedom of God’s grace requires that we also live in a perpetual state of hyper-conscience for how our actions, as well as our inaction, might affect others. This is God’s vision for how we should live in The Kingdom, how the indwelling of Christ in our souls should be acted out upon the earth. This is the very meaning of “denying ourselves” while living in the freedom of God’s free and radical grace. In living out our grateful response to Grace, we must be ever responsible to the greater good of others.
“…take up their cross and follow me…”
The cross. At the time of Jesus, the cross was the symbol of the Roman imperial domination system. Whether as punishment for a slave who rebelled against their master, or a free man who rebelled against the empire, crucifixion was gruesome and constant reminder to every person living in occupied territory the horrible price for challenging the status quo. Rise up and you will be put down. Rebel and become a symbolic warning to others not to challenge the authority of the powers that be.
This is the terrifying aspect of what Jesus is demanding of us. He is demanding that we “take up” and acknowledge the price of challenging the systems of the world. The powers that be and the people in support of them do not usually respond kindly to the kind of deeply subversive actions and teachings of someone like Jesus, i.e. Equality is paramount. God requires us to act in the interest of others. Love your enemies. While superficially quaint, the reality is this way of thinking, if acted upon en masse as a popular movement (or even the threat of one), can get you killed.
That price of discipleship, is the very thing that has been used against reform-minded Christians throughout history. Every Christian reformer of both the church and society has met with the threat of “crucifixion” by the domination systems of the world. Martin Luther was threatened with it, and Martin Luther King, Jr. paid the price of discipleship. But regardless of the specter of pain and death that the domination systems tried to intimidate them with, they stood strong. The indwelling of Christ allows us to do such things. Fearlessly.
(Please read my earlier post in the “Walking the Way of Christ” series Fear and the Keys to God’s Kingdom for more insight into how God’s grace through Christ eradicates fear in our lives.)
But, my dear brothers and sisters, please realize that our “taking up the cross” is not only a stark reminder of the price of discipleship. It is also a subversive act! By “taking up the cross” we are also claiming the cross as our symbol of God’s victory. Jesus rose again, the Roman empire lost. Martin Luther’s reformation of the church lives on to this day. MLK’s legacy of racial equality is seen improving across our nation every day. When we fearlessly take up the cross and confront the powers that be, we are claiming God’s victory as our own.
“…those who lose their life for my sake will find it…”
Jesus is not asking us to look for ways to sacrifice ourselves for others. But he is asking us to be willing to die, both literally and spiritually (by denying the “self”). When we as believers are capable of such a level of commitment to The Kingdom, then we will be truly empowered by the Holy Spirit. If we are absolutely willing to pay the price of discipleship without hesitation, we will be willing to act without hesitation.
Most of us Christians will live out full and happy lives. Some will meet with the domination systems of the world head on. The question is, when that day comes and we are called on to act for the sake of others, even our enemies, will we act for The Kingdom, or will we choose save our life and lose it?
Truth is, the “day” in question has already come, and will come everyday. How did you do?