Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's Keeping Him?

I always had trouble with the Second Coming of Christ. I could understand the first. I could understand God becoming human and living as one of us. I could understand the atonement and death of Christ. I could understand the resurrection. But why, after rising from the dead, did Jesus leave, only to say he's coming back again later? Why not just stay and let the world know in no uncertain terms that things were different now, that he had taken on the consequences of our evil, dealt with them decisively and was instituting a whole different kind of Kingdom? I mean, who defeats death and then takes off? And, more pertinently, why?

Let's do a thought experiment. What would most likely have happened if Jesus had revealed himself in all his glory after his resurrection and declared himself the rightful King of Earth? Would anybody accept this?

Absolutely. We learn in John's Gospel that people wanted to force Jesus to be their king. The Book of Acts says that thousands accepted Jesus as the Messiah at Pentecost. In his absence! Imagine what they would have done had he been there, displaying his pierced hands and feet! They would have formed an army behind their badly misused king. But would that have been a good thing?

The real problem is that not everyone would have rallied behind Jesus. Would the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, who condemned Jesus, have turned around and subjected themselves to him? Some might have. Many--I suspect most--would not. But how could they have ignored the miracle, the divine vindication of his resurrection?

Let's ask ourselves this question: do those in power ever deny inconvenient truths because it would mean reversing all their policies? I can think of a number of instances, many quite recent. Another question: Do those in power, when proven wrong, ever willingly step down and give their power over to their enemies? I can't think of any, offhand. So, had Jesus marched into the Temple and confronted the leaders of the people, what would have happened? At the very least, a riot; more probably, a civil war. Therefore, the first step in Jesus establishing his Kingdom on earth would have been the outbreak of war among his people. I don't think he would have wanted that.

And there were others who would have had to decide how to react to Jesus: the Romans. Would they have surrendered to Jesus' authority? Doubtful, even if Pilate himself were to have undergone some sort of conversion. What would Pilate have told the Emperor? "I had this man executed but now he's back from the dead. Therefore, I feel you should abdicate your throne as King of Kings and give it to this Jew." I don't think so. And everything we know about Pilate is that he was anxious to stay in Rome's good graces. Some historians think that Pilate's uncharacteristic caving in to the Jewish leaders as reported in the gospels was due to the fact that his patron, Sejanus, was suddenly condemned as a traitor. Pilate, not known as a diplomatic man, couldn't afford to have the Jews report his disloyalty to the Emperor Tiberius. In fact, eventually his brutality did move the Samaritans to complain to Rome and he was removed as procurator. Regardless of his amazement at Jesus' resurrection, Pilate would probably not taken Jesus' side in opposition against the entire Empire. So not only would Jesus' presence have touched off a conflict among his people but he would have embroiled them in a war with Rome.

Remember what Jesus told Pilate when asked if he was the King of the Jews? For a long time his reply was badly translated as "My kingdom is not of this world." That makes it sound as if it is not a part of real life. But Jesus actually said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Its origins are not worldly. But obviously his kingdom is for this world. It is meant for its salvation, its restoration to what God wants the world to be. But does God want his Kingdom established by war and blood, like every other kingdom this world has seen?

Evidently not. Because Jesus follows up his statement about the origins of his kingdom by saying, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to deliver me..." Jesus rebuked the one disciple who did try to fight, Peter: "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Jesus then heals the man whose ear was severed by Peter. There's the difference. Jesus is about healing, not fighting. His kingdom will not come about in the usual way, with bloodshed and force. But if Jesus were to simply physically confront the world's leaders after Easter, he would have been a lightning rod, a person to rally behind or align against. There would have been a slaughter.

Perhaps what was needed was an intermission, an incubation period. The world needed time to assimilate Jesus' ideas. It needed time to come to terms with a new kind of Kingdom.

If Jesus wasn't going to force his Kingdom upon others, how was he going to bring it about? By persuasion. He was going to spread the idea by sending out a small band of ordinary men and women to talk about what they had heard him say and seen him do. He was the originator of the viral campaign.

And it took hundreds of years for Christians to go from being a small sect of Judaism to a separately recognized religion to being a major force in the world. But it's been nearly 2000 years since Jesus left us. Isn't it time for him to return?

On the night he was betrayed our Lord said, "By this will all know that you are my followers, if you have love for one another." No other religion makes love its central command. Islam emphasizes surrender to Allah and allegiance to Mohammed as his prophet. Judaism concentrates on studying and keeping the Torah. Buddhism has the eight-fold path of right behavior, speech, and thought. Hinduism is about maintaining good karma so as to move closer to Nirvana with each rebirth. Only Christianity demands that we not only treat people justly but that we love them. And we start by loving other Christians.

And we haven't really done a very good job of that, have we? None of the divisions within the church happened in an amicable way. And none of them have revolved around one side's refusal to obey the command to love. They have concerned doctrine or practice or church organization. I'm not saying that some of these weren't important issues but how many were so essential as to split the church? And have they helped spread the idea of a kingdom based on loving God and loving your neighbor and even your enemy?

The gospel has been narrowly interpreted to refer only to the good news of what Jesus did in the past. What about what he has done since then? And by that, I mean the Body of Christ. The good news is that God is still working in the world. He is doing it by the power of the Spirit through his people. People who take following Jesus seriously are feeding the the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, comforting those who mourn, visiting those in prison, counseling the addicted, giving sight to the blind, teaching the illiterate, taking care of widows and orphans, giving shelter to the homeless, making breakthroughs in medicine and more. God is not just out there or back then; he is active here and now in his present disciples.

Unfortunately, they don't make the news as often as those who who misbehave, who preach hate in the name of the God of love, who so focus on side issues that they are elevated to the level of the essentials, who lust for power and fame in exactly the same manner as those who don't represent the Body of Christ. The world sees such things and concludes that whatever Jesus did in the past has made no difference in the the world. Such things reduce the gospel to mere words, limit its power to attract others and and hinder its spread. As long as "Love one another" is seen as a slogan and not a reality, most people aren't going to be interested in becoming part of Jesus' Kingdom. Living the gospel is as much a part of evangelism as preaching it.

Slowly parts of the church are realizing this. They are trying to establish bonds despite differences. I am talking not so much of the usual ecumenical structural talks but ways in which denominations and local churches do ministry and outreach together. I thinks it helps tremendously every time Christians of all stripes cooperate to help others. As a Methodist told me, "Theology may divide but service unites."

The world is convinced that differences mean division; that unity is only possible if there is uniformity. Countries are coming apart because they cannot envision a nationality that encompasses different races, religions, languages and customs. Even the U.S., a nation of immigrants, is having that problem. But Paul saw that this is what God was doing in his Kingdom. Not only Jews but also gentiles, not only free men but also slaves, not only men but also women were being called to become one in Christ. Our differences aren't liabilities but strengths, if only we realize and use them.

I love the sayings they put on the sign at Summerland Hardware. One read, "An idea is a funny thing that doesn't work unless you do." The world still doesn't get the idea that love can conquer differences. It doesn't help that a lot of Christians don't seem to get the idea either. And as long as that remains true, there is no way to establish the Kingdom of God apart from imposing it. There are plenty of politicians willing to do just that. So maybe what's keeping Jesus away is that we aren't keeping his command to love one another, our neighbor and our enemies. As St. Augustine said, "Without God, we cannot. And without us, God will not." While we wait for Jesus to return, he waits for us to finish our part--laying the foundation, preparing the soil, not only talking about God's love but demonstrating it. When Jesus returns, do we really want him to find us squabbling, or do we want to be found doing the work he told us to do before he left?

No comments:

Post a Comment