Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Kingdom of God is Bigger Than Us – series intro - Acts 6-12

The Kingdom of God is bigger than us. In fact, the story of the message, demonstration, and growth of the gospel in Luke and Acts is one of explosive power that simply cannot be contained to one people group or region, whatever the consequences. The good news is that the Good News is for everyone. Our lives are lived out for the justice and love of others, a community facing outward to neighbours, strangers, and even enemies.

It is hard to be inclusive. It is hard to invite someone new into your family. Adoption is emotionally complicated. In-laws are sometimes cause awkward relationships. Our communities and families have histories - shared memories both good and bad. With those we are closest we have experienced the same joys and the same sorrows.

When Jesus spoke to his neighbours and comrades about loving their enemies, he spoke to people whose very identity was formed as a people rescued from slavery. Their nation as a nation was birthed from deliverance out of an oppressive empire that had held them enslaved.

The history of Jesus and all the Jewish people was one of wrestling. They wrestled with God as their forefather Jacob had wrestled with the angel of the Lord until he'd been blessed. His name was changed to Israel that night, which means the one who contends with God.

These Israelites, the God-wrestlers, knew what it meant to follow and honour their deliverer. Yahweh had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and then clearly defined their relationship by his covenant law. When Israel disobeyed that covenant, they would become enslaved by empire, the Babylonians or the Persians. But then they would repent, and God would deliver them again.

Jesus now spoke to these people, with this rich history, under oppressive and violent occupation by Rome, the new empire and world power. This was a people who knew well who their enemies were. Their enemies had power. They had armies and kings and land upon land. They saw their enemies in uniforms. They were forced by their enemies to carry heavy loads without pay. They were taxed and abused.

It is no surprise that the Pharisees would emerge, this sect of religious people that taught the people to obey every aspect of the law code to the finest detail. They believed that God would rescue them from their enemies, as he had many times before, when Israel would just show their repentance and turn back to their faith, as they had many times before.

The sort of inclusion and universality of love that Jesus preached was so far beyond anything his people had ever imagined, even his disciples did not fully understand until long after Jesus was gone. When Jesus said they should love their enemies, he was including Romans. He was including forgiveness for all those who had ever done them wrong.

The Gospel, the good news of the New Kingdom wasn't only good news for the oppressed and the poor. If they would receive it, the Gospel was also for the oppressor. The good news was that they no longer needed to oppress. They could leave the empire. The good news meant that the rich didn't have to be rich anymore. The uncertain and transient foundation of wealth could be traded for the sure foundation of true, God-empowered life in the Eternal Kingdom. The Great Reversal was good news for any who would receive it, no matter what it cost them. Their power and riches were nothing.

Jesus died an innocent man, betrayed and accused of insurrection, executed unjustly by an oppressive empire like all the ones that had oppressed his people before them. And from the cross, he forgave them. He forgave those agents of the old empire that put him up there on the cross, beat and mocked him, the agents that had refused his message of love.

No injustice had ever been more severe than the one that was incurred by Jesus that day. In forgiving these outsiders, these enemies, Jesus opened the door for every one of those enemies and nations that had come before them. He opened the door to all who would come after.

He recognized the machine. He condemned the machine. He even raged against it. But he forgave the machinists.

This must have been unimaginably difficult for the early Jewish believers to accept. Even on the night of his betrayal and arrest, the followers of Jesus had shared Passover with him. They remembered vividly that they were a people who had been many times oppressed by other nations. Their history, their memory, their everyday experience, their very law code all told them that they must be exclusive to survive.

But Luke, the Greek doctor, writes his letters to the ranking Roman official, Theophilus, because from the first stroke of his pen, the story had already become universal. The code wasn't restricted to the words on stone carried from the mountain by Moses. Moses' first five books, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Law, were celebrated every year at Pentecost. These boundaries defined in these books made it clear exactly who was in and who was out. They gave foundation for a history that bound families together tightly. But God's story was bigger than one people's history or one ethnicity or one country or piece of land.

This is the radical story of that great expansion of the boundaries of God's covenant. This is the last days, and the Holy Spirit is being poured out on all flesh (Acts 2). The new Pentecost is the law written on the hearts of humankind. The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God that could now speak directly to all people, without priests or veils or temples required. There is now only one mediator necessary, and no other human being or tradition can come between Jesus and those who put their trust in him.

We must never forget as Christians that the revolutionary and even offensively difficult challenge of radically inclusive love is the foundation of our faith. The early church in Acts was continuously challenged with how they may change to include others. They consistently denounced as heretics any who would place traditions or legal restrictions on people who would come to Jesus. The pattern of Luke through Acts is arms opened wider and wider, not boundaries strictly drawn.

Let us never forget how good our Good News is. Let us never forget the spirit in which our faith was planted. God's is a love big enough to include even his enemies. That includes us. The early church were challenged and rejoiced when they realized how wide the saving grace of God was. Let us do the same, welcoming and rejoicing when challenged with God's love for our enemies.

Who is beyond salvation? Who is beyond the love of God? 

Where are the limits of our own love?

I believe the challenge for each of us, and for us as a body is to ask this of ourselves. Is it a people group? A nation with which our empire is at war? Is it a certain people we've judged as especially sinful? Is it the ruling class? The military? The poor? Perhaps our challenge is the same as these early Christians. Let us rejoice to know that freedom from judgment and oppression and fear and even death has been offered as freely to those who we would call our enemies as to us.

Let us find ourselves among tax collectors and sinners and outcasts. Let us share our healing and our love with soldiers as much as widows. Let us live contrary to empire, and see it crumble from the roots of God's love through us. 
New entries in this seven-part series will be posted each day this week at 8am. 

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