The Two Kingdoms and the Problem with Kings

After writing about the two kingdoms our church celebrated the feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. The problem with the concept of the two kingdoms is that we are so far removed from kings and realms that it often seems unreal, almost mythical. But the bigger problem is that the kingdom of which Jesus is king makes no sense to our concepts of sovereignty and power – and it didn’t make sense to Jesus’ contemporaries either.

The images of Christ as King don’t really work for a group of 21st century American disciples.  There are two primary reasons for this and the first is that kingship, at least as the ancient world understood it, is something we rejected 240 years ago and is now relegated to quaint European customs or fairy tales. We may know something of the absolute monarchs of history but very few of our modern dictators come close to the atmosphere and authority of kingship as it was known long ago. To proclaim Christ as king therefore, seems a bit unreal, divorced from the substance of our daily life. We might call today the feast of Christ the benevolent dictator but aside from its awkwardness we only move from unreal to unpleasant. But even if we could grasp the ancient view of kingship and present Christ as king in a way that might appeal to our desire for order and for justice, we run into a second and more difficult problem.

The way that Jesus is presented as king in the Gospels made as little sense to the people of the first century as it does to the people of the 21st. For instance, let’s look at the three presentations of Jesus as king that is used in the three year cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. On November 26 of this year we completed the first cycle, Year A, so I’ll push that one off until the end. If we jump ahead to the third year, Year C, we have a story of Jesus suffering a public and humiliating execution. Crucifixion was known for its cruelty, a slow tortuous death.

The Roman’s didn’t mess about. They had nailed a piece of wood to the cross that read, contemptuously, “This is the King of the Jews.” In doing this they mocked not only the one they were executing but the whole Jewish people. “Here is your king,” the Roman’s proclaimed, “and see what we can do to him.” Since it was more efficient to do multiple executions the Romans also crucified two criminals. In their agony one criminal calls out “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And that’s it for Year C. Jesus is nailed to a cross with a sign proclaiming “This is the king of the Jews.” The Roman soldiers mock him saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” A criminal pleads for Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.” None of this makes the slightest bit of sense to any person of that time with any idea of what being king means, particularly for any Jew hoping that God will send them a king to deliver them from Roman occupation.

Year B, the second cycle that began on December 3, doesn’t improve the situation. Here in John’s Gospel we come in on Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, interrogating Jesus. Without going into detail, Pilate despises the Jews and particularly the Jewish leadership. He suspects he is being used by these leaders to get rid of someone who is threatening their authority. However, the charge is that Jesus is claiming to be the king of the Jews and that, from a Roman point of view, is treason. His conversation with Jesus is a study in failure to communicate.

When asked point blank whether he is King, Jesus answers that “My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things. If it did, my men would have fought to keep me from being arrested by the Judeans. But my kingship does not come from here.”[1]

In this response there are echoes of a rebuke that Jesus gave to his disciples when they were debating about what important positions they would hold when Jesus became king and restored nationhood to Israel: Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[2]

This brings us back to the reading from Year A of the cycle where we have something at last that sounds like kingship as we and the people of the first century might imagine it. Though all is not as it appears.

Take that opening phrase: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” To us this theme is familiar only because we’ve heard the story before. But those who heard it for the first time also found it familiar. For any Jew who had hopes for liberation and vindication of Israel, this was a favorite scene from the Book of Daniel when the God of Israel overthrows the Gentile kingdoms. But the vision continues: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”[3]

So when Jesus begins his story his audience immediately connects with an image of final triumph. But his story takes a turn. There is indeed judgment and vindication. But the vindication is of the hungry and thirsty, the foreigner and the destitute, the sick and the prisoner. And the judgment is on those who failed to see that in serving those they would have been serving their king. It seems at last, that even the king-like story that Jesus tells is inextricably tied to his rebuke to his ambitious disciples.

We are faced then with a hard challenge. Our culture – our economic culture, our political culture, our entertainment culture, our social culture – the ocean of human values in which we all swim is a culture that has everything to do with Caesar’s approach to power and almost nothing to do with the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates. For 20 centuries Christians have tried to control it or use it only to find ourselves subverted by it and becoming what we were meant to heal. The only way to heal our culture is not to go to war with it but to subvert it by refusing dominance and instead offering service, to return blessing wherever we encounter cursing, care for those whom Jesus identifies in his story.

It is true that Jesus will indeed return and establish finally what he has begun in his apprentices. But it is also true that Jesus is already king and is even now subverting Caesar’s dominance by agents like us who heal, feed, protect and bless. Our goal is not to overthrow those in power but by our words and deeds, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to show them a more excellent way.

[1] The quote of John 18:36 is taken from the paraphrase, The Complete Jewish Bible. Though a paraphrase it is an accurate reflection of the meaning of the text.
[2] Mark 10:42-45
[3] Daniel 7:13-14
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A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Pretty much all I write about in this forum has a fundamental assumption that can tie a number of disparate musings into a connected thread. One might call it my way of looking at the world. In fact, it is the troublesome word “world” that strikes near the heart of the matter.

In the New Testament the use of the word world most often translates a Greek term: kosmos. Although kosmos has come into our language as cosmos, its original meaning referred to an orderly arrangement, even a decoration. By implication it could refer to the whole created order, but that included the inhabitants of the world and the way those inhabitants organized life, including moral organization which could encompass politics, business or the whole value system of human societies. Because of the breadth of possible meaning, the New Testament is ambiguous in its application of the term. In the letter of James, we read that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” But, famously, the Gospel of John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” There is one other use of the term world that further illustrates the ambiguity.

In John’s Gospel there is a recounting of a conversation between Jesus and the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. When Pilate challenges Jesus about the accusations the Jewish authorities have lodged against him, the most common translation of Jesus’ reply goes like this: Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36) But taking the term kosmos as orderly arrangement, a paraphrase called the Complete Jewish Bible gives this rendition: Yeshua answered, “My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things. If it did, my men would have fought to keep me from being arrested by the Judeans. But my kingship does not come from here.”

Thus, the reply of Jesus draws an immediate contrast between the order of things that Pilate knows and a different arrangement from which Jesus draws his authority. The example Jesus uses is the example of armed resistance. That is the behavior Pilate (and Caesar) recognizes. That is why Pilate cannot seem to grasp what Jesus is saying. In Caesar’s kingdom, Jesus simply doesn’t make sense.

And there we have the two kingdoms face to face. On the one hand, there is Caesar’s kingdom. We know that kingdom well. It is the arrangement of things that governs human life across the globe. It is the system of government, business, education, politics and social groups of all sizes in all cultures. If you have ever had the pleasure of engaging in church politics whether in a congregation or a convention, it is painfully obvious that churches more often than not, order themselves according to the rules of Caesar’s kingdom.

Some time ago a wise priest discouraged me from invoking Robert’s Rules of Order to govern church meetings. He pointed out that the origin of that protocol was to handle conflict. It assumes conflict. And when there is none, invoking those rules can occasionally create conflict. Robert’s Rules of Order are tailor made for Caesar’s kingdom.

The alternative to Caesar’s kingdom is, of course, the kingdom of God, even though God’s church all too often can’t seem to tell the difference. This second kingdom is the one that Jesus announces as he begins his ministry. Jesus announces that this kingdom is near, is at hand, is in our midst. This last comment (Luke 17:21) is often translated as the kingdom being within or among, but in your midst is a reading more consistent with Jesus’ other teachings on the kingdom. One commentator notes that: “The whole language of the kingdom of heaven being within men, rather than men being within the kingdom, is modern”

Perhaps there is no other clearer passage about the orderly arrangement (kosmos) of God’s kingdom than Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples as they were arguing who would be the highest officials in the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming. It is best to take the whole passage which gives the setting:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

I have neither the qualifications nor the capacity to do a thorough exegesis of the contrast of the two kingdoms. Instead I want to underline that there are two kingdoms, that one of them, God’s kingdom, is at work in the midst of Caesar’s both undercutting its legitimacy and healing the wounds it causes. All else I write about blessing, priesthood or any other aspect of spiritual formation flows from my understanding of that reality.

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Jail Time

On Tuesday, October 24, I went to jail. As a visitor. The purpose was to meet a long-time friend for lunch. He wasn’t an inmate. In fact, for the last year he’s been the chaplain at the Jefferson County Detention Facility. The story of how he ended up in the position and the events that led up to it is a remarkable testimony to God’s grace. However, that’s a story for another time. Quinn Wilhelm was senior warden of the parish I served before coming to Trinity. For months before I joined their staff the parish had been in great turmoil. All that held folks together was the faithful remaining priest on their staff, Fr. Phil Webb and Quinn. Quinn is one of the best people to have on your side in a crisis situation. This is not only because of his great leadership skill but because he is a man of deep faith and profound prayer.

We spent our lunch off site catching up on what God had been doing in our lives. Afterwards Quinn took me to jail. I got a tour of some of the units and noted the great respect both the deputies and the prisoners had for my friend. The most moving part of the tour was with a group of inmates who meet together a couple of times a day for Bible study and prayer. I’m told the prayer session once ran to five hours!

Quinn and I sat in the circle as the leader partly taught, partly preached and the enthusiasm was electric. After about 20 minutes we all stood and the group prayed for us both. Quinn then prayed for the men in the group. As I watched and shared in the prayers the thought occurred how few of these men grew up being blessed by their fathers or by much of anybody. I’m pretty sure the thought was God directed.

As we concluded I asked Quinn if I could bless the men in this group (about 16 in all). He was ok with that so we asked them and they were eager. Thanks to Russ Parker’s teaching on blessing in August, I was fairly confident I knew what God was asking of me. I recounted the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Russ had pointed out that these words had been spoken before Jesus had done any mighty works, before he called his disciples, before he had done any teaching at all. In other words, the beloved status was based on being rather than doing.

So slowly around the circle I approached each man. They spoke their name and I anointed them and gave them this blessing: “[Name], I bless you to know that you are God’s beloved son.”

Yeah, it was a pretty emotional time for all of them (and us), but it reminded me of the power of blessing and the power it gives someone to know that they are still beloved, even after a life that has led them into jail.

I know this is not a call to prison ministry. That’s Quinn’s gift, not mine. But it is a renewed call to be a person of blessing.

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Preparing for the return

I got to spend some time in jail today. It was a really wonderful and blessed experience and I’ll tell you about it in a future post. However today my attention is shifting away from the sabbatical experience towards return to – and reintegrating with – Trinity Parish. The following will appear in our parish newsletter but I’m sharing it early with those of you who read this to give you some sense of what return means to me.

Reconnecting

Last month I shared a reflection (in the parish newsletter) on how, even during a seven-week absence, I maintain connection with Trinity Parish. Now, as we are entering our last week away and beginning preparations to return to Greeley, it is time to reflect on reconnecting. Before I do that, there is a subject I’ve mentioned from time to time in the last couple of years, the question of when I might retire.

The answer to that question is that I have as yet no answer to that question. For the last nearly 20 years Dorie Ann and I have intentionally given over control of where we serve to God’s direction. Each time we have moved from one congregation to another it was because of two things. First, the work I was doing was completed. Second, the call to go another place was both unsolicited and unexpected. Beginning with the latter, we’ve had no invitation to go anywhere. And I believe there is more for me to do here. Please note, this is my intuition, not God’s revelation.

Each time God has moved us, we’ve had about three months’ notice before the move. The Church Pension Fund requires a six-month notice before drawing one’s pension so God & the Pension Fund will have to sort that out between them. In short, this means we’re returning from the sabbatical with no plans other than to keep on serving at Trinity pending further instructions from the Holy Spirit.

Now on to reconnecting: while I hope you’ve remembered me fondly while I’ve been on sabbatical, it will soon be time to be re-membered to our common life. We rarely remember that the word member has its origins in the human body. To use it in any other way was to use it analogically to describe profound and intimate connections between human beings. That was long ago. Today the word member has dropped in value. We can be a member of an organization or group with which our relationship is superficial and undemanding. However, there is still one use of the word member that carries the force of the original meaning: dismember.

On the one hand that seems an over-the-top image for being away for seven weeks. On the other, particularly because I continued to hold you all in daily prayer, it did feel a little like being “dismembered.” Even daily intercession is insufficient to maintain the full connection we are to have as one Body. And this sense of disconnect is caused in part by what God has done for us in Jesus.

I do not speak here about reconciliation, salvation, forgiveness or any of the normal things we would list about what Jesus has accomplished. Instead my focus is on that one line in the Gospel of John: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) There are two thing implied in the verse that have significance for reconnecting.

First, the Word becoming flesh is no accident. A wholly spiritual God has entered into a very physical, material world in Jesus. The ancient hymn The Exultet declares that “earth and heaven are joined and sin is washed away.” The late J.B. Phillips wrote: “We shall never know, in the depths of our being, the meaning of the crucifixion, or of the triumph of the resurrection, until we see that this man Jesus was God being a man, and not in any sense God pretending to be a man.” This means for us that community is built from our material interactions. It is important that we see one another face to face, hear one another’s voice. As I discovered many years ago from the initial and ongoing failure to create human community online, if it is not local, it is not real.

The second implication of John 1:14 is in the phrase “dwelt among us.” The word translated as “dwell” is more accurately rendered as “pitched his tent” or more awkwardly “tabernacled among us.” Whichever word we use the image is of someone moving with a mobile community. Wherever we go the Incarnate Word travels with us. To reconnect using this image means me tracking alongside the rest of the Trinity community in the directions God leads you and me.

On Wednesday, November 1 I restart my work among you most appropriately at the celebration of All Saints’ Day at 6:30a with Eucharist in the chapel. It is appropriate because the theme of the day is the communion of the saints or in less religious jargon, the connectedness of our community. I would love to see any of you who can make that early hour then. But in the days and weeks to follow I’d prefer to spend as much time as I can manage chatting with you, whether over coffee or a meal, and reconnect.

I look forward to being back in our common life.

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Diversion

Having posted on Foundations I had intended more reflections on the third foundation, the foundation of the church. However, in working on that I realized that I need to work a great deal more on the 1st and 2nd foundations beforehand. Since that will take some time, and there are less than 2 weeks left on this sabbatical leave, I’ve turned my attention to the booklet I’ve been preparing on the Trinity Way of Life. Even that has gone in unexpected directions. The introduction has taken on a life of its own and I am posting it here to invite any comments and reflections.

How are you growing in your spiritual life?

  • Rapidly?
  • Moderately?
  • Slow and steady?
  • Contented?
  • Stalled?
  • Dissatisfied?
  • Never even thought about the question?

It’s a question worth considering. Spiritual growth for Trinity Parish is the process of discovering God in the “tiniest infinite detail” of our lives. It means the realization that our lives have eternal purpose and that we can make a difference in our world when we connect with others on the Jesus road. Spiritual growth moves us from being a collection of individuals who may gather from time to time on a Sunday morning to being the Body of Christ – the coherent and conscious presence of Jesus in that part of our world where we live and work and play.

It is obvious that Jesus himself is central to our concept of spiritual growth. But how do we relate to Jesus? We can be an admirer as many of his followers were. That doesn’t get us very far on the Jesus road. But many of his admirer’s became disciples, a common enough word in religious jargon. The word in the New Testament that we translate as disciple simply means student. The significance of that word only becomes apparent when we look at what a student did in those days. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, described it this way:

In other words, what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time. Discipleship may literally mean ‘being a student,’ in the strict Greek sense of the word, but it doesn’t mean turning up once a week for a course (or even a sermon). It’s not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues. The truth is that, in the ancient world, being a ‘student’ was rather more like that than it is these days. If you said to a modern prospective student that the essence of being a student was to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow in his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in order not to miss any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conduct themselves at the table, how they conduct themselves in the street, you might not get a very warm response. But in the ancient world, it was rather more like that. To be the student of a teacher was to commit yourself to living in the same atmosphere and breathing the same air; there was nothing intermittent about it.[1]

For this reason, we use the term apprentice rather than disciple.

The Trinity Way of Life is our peculiar way of intentional spiritual growth, of being apprentices. We do this not for our own personal benefit alone, but that we continue becoming a congregation that gives blessing to our community and through whom God releases healing to the wounded and freedom to the captive.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Being Disciples p. 2

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Foundations

The first Sunday in October, fourteen years ago, I preached a sermon series on foundations. It was topical at the time. We were in a difficult transition in the parish. The denomination and its overseas partners were in turmoil. We were, to say the least, unsettled. It seemed a good time to look at what shape our foundation was in as a Christian community. Those of us who were at Trinity in those days may tell you they remember the series because of an illustration that stretched over four weeks. It had to do with the near collapse of Winchester Cathedral and how a deep sea diver helped save the cathedral. It’s a great story, but I won’t retell it here. If you’re interested just search for “Diver Bill” on the Internet.

The issue of foundations has been an unexpected theme in my sabbatical reading. Though Scripture tells us “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1Corinthians 3:11); in fact, a building has foundations built on the central foundation. When we were beginning our narthex expansion in 2012, we did soil sampling of the ground where we would build. That soil was found to be fill dirt and no matter how solid a foundation of concrete and rebar we could pour; the ground underneath was too unstable to build on. The ultimate foundation of any building is the solid earth itself, and that equates to the Jesus foundation of the Body of Christ.

Even though the ground was unstable we built there anyhow, but not in foolishness. Rather, the builders drove a number of “helical piers” into the bedrock below the unstable soil. Thus a second “foundation” was set into the ultimate foundation of bedrock. This leads to another use of the image of foundation in Scripture: “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20) This secondary foundation’s reference to a cornerstone has real significance in the life of a Christian community. Today, cornerstones are more decorative than functional. In the past, the cornerstone was essential to constructing a stable building. From this stone all other stones will be set in reference. That’s an excellent guideline for a church whether speaking of local congregations or denominations. As the culture in which we exist changes the practices and language of the church must adapt, but only within limits. All changes must be in reference to the cornerstone of Christ Jesus or what we build will not stand for long.

helical piers

Helical piers

Of course, once the helical piers were in place, the foundation of the addition was next. Steel beams were placed along the piers and with rebar and steel sheets the foundation of the addition was poured in concrete. Once that was in place, the building could rise. There is one other foundation image in Scripture: “… you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”  (1Timothy 3:15) This rather ambitious description of the church makes more sense if we see it as a third foundation dependent on the first two.

A community, founded on the life, death, resurrection and ascension (enthronement) of Jesus is founded on a reality that does not change no matter how cultures and systems and theories evolve. A community building itself with constant reference to the cornerstone of Jesus can adapt to a changing world without compromising its foundation or losing its integrity. If both of those foundations hold, then Paul’s assertion about the nature of the church is quite reasonable.

It is this third foundation that has caught my attention in my sabbatical reading. I think it is important because until we grasp what it is and what it means for us I don’t think we’ll be able to fully realize our destiny in Christ as Trinity Parish.

That’s all I have for today. It will take some time to organize my thoughts. It will take a great deal of prayer to get a glimmer of what I believe God may be saying to us at this time. Don’t expect a quick follow up. But for those few who read this, I ask that you encourage others to read and reflect as well. Blogs are essentially monologues. Even the option for comments doesn’t take us very far. If this time away is to bear the fruit it should, we’ll have to move this from monologue to dialogue.

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And Now a Word From Dorie Ann

Dorie AnnJack asked if I would write something for his sabbatical blog so here goes.

I spent the early days while Jack was getting the basement set up for his study and prayer area working in my sewing room upstairs. It hasn’t functioned as a sewing room for many years now. In December 2007 when a burst pipe in the basement caused a flood 2 large bookcases and an armoire full of assorted papers and things were lugged upstairs to “my domain” where they sat practically undisturbed until last week. I had a lot of time for reflection as I began sorting through things from the past.

We bought this house 28 years ago in 1989. And 14 years ago this week we moved to Greeley. That was a revelation – that half of our Colorado lives have been spent in Greeley. Some of the things I found in the armoire were things that had disappeared from my life. There was a sketchbook that I had purchased shortly after Jack and I were married in 1979. I found a detailed drawing of the living room in the vicarage in Morehead, Kentucky, that included the living room window showing the large tree that dominated the front yard. (And I drew that? Hmmm.) I saw a drawing of the small cabin where we occasionally went on retreat. And lots of sketches of Jack (sitting in his lounge chair smoking a pipe; sprawling on the sofa with a cat on his lap; sitting at his desk, writing; lots of attempts just to capture the expression of his eyes.) And lots of attempts to depict Frisbee and Squeak, my 2 cats. Some weren’t bad at all and I wondered why I had left that behind. (There are lots of pages left so who knows.)

Another thing I had left behind was my sewing machine but I do have plans for that item. For some months now I’ve had the idea for a Christmas banner to go along with the other 6 banners that we hang from the choir loft at Trinity. I’d never made one for Christmas because the season is so short and we usually hang wreaths. Still it has been on my mind for quite a while. I’ve known what the message will be since last Spring but it was only this week that I saw the design and the colors in my mind. Thursday we drove down to Lakewood and I purchased the fabric. Yesterday I began cutting out the letters.

So there is a snapshot for you. And blessings from Evergreen.

Dorie Ann

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