A Living Picture of God’s Kingdom

Jesus does a lot of amazing things in Luke 36-49.  He “appears” out of seemingly nowhere; but he’s not a ghost.  He’s got the skin, the bones, and the scars to prove it. And he eats with them; ghosts don’t get hungry.  And, as if he hasn’t done this over and over again before his crucifixion, he explains why, despite his indiscriminate love, he suffered and died and rose again.  And finally, the light begins to turn on for the disciples!

But maybe the most amazing thing that Jesus does in this scene is something overlooked by we contemporary readers.  Jesus calls them witnesses of these things (Luke 24:48) Jesus doesn’t give them a choice. Not, would you like to be my witnesses?  Can you be my witnesses? No, he states a truth. Because you are here, because you followed me and because I’ve explained to God’s plan as I stand before you in a resurrected body, you are a witnesses.  No avoiding it. No going back.

This may make sense for those disciples who were present in the room where it happened; who saw the risen Lord and experienced his teaching first hand.  But what about us, with 2,000 years of separation between those first eye witnesses? How are we witnesses to this good news we read about in the gospels?

Truth is, Jesus’s empty tomb work is showing up everyday, all around us, if we have the eyes to see it.  For the longest time, I thought I had to be the one to create these situations, as if it was up to me to do the resurrecting!  No wonder witnessing carries a negative connotation for most of us, though many of us wouldn’t want to admit it. But that’s a burden too large and heavy for us.  Besides, God’s already accomplished the work. We just have to point it out when we see it!

Too often, I think I have to be a witness to Biblical theory or doctrine instead of being a witness to the simple story of God’s work.  When I do that, however, I’m making the good news all about me. Its bound to go wrong with that approach. Rather, instead of being in control of God’s witness, I’m learning that God is at work all around me.  Oftentimes, it’s in the hard places in life. All I need in order to be a witness to God’s salvific activity is be present to God’s spirit moving around me. If we believe what Jesus said, that we are witnesses to God’s good news, then we have the eyes and the ears and the heart to be aware of this.

Jesus promised God would aid us in this work with the gifting of the holy spirit (Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8), so we shouldn’t be under the impression that this witnessing work is on our shoulders.  If we believe God still works through the Holy Spirit, all we have to do is daily ask that we be aware of God’s Spirit at work and then look for it expectantly. God will use our story and the resurrection story to point out in our work, in our families and in our neighborhoods that resurrection still happens; that there is another story at work rather than power and dominance. The alternative or real story is the Kingdom of God and that everyone is invited to experience.

David Fitch, Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary address this posture of witnessing in his short volume entitled Seven Practices for the Church On Mission:

Every day in our neighborhoods, amid strife, broken relationships, and tragedy, whether we are Christians or not, we need the gospel.  Christians must play host to spaces where the gospel can be proclaimed. As we gather around tables and the various meeting places of our lives, if we will be patient and tend to Christ’s presence among us, the moments will present themselves for the gospel to be proclaimed contextually and humbly out of our own testimony.  And in these moments, Christ will be present, transformation will come, and onlookers will catch a glimpse of the kingdom. This is faithful presence.

The Psalm for this week reminds us that people long for stories about resurrection – that life can be good.

“There are many who say, ‘oh that we might see some good!

Let the light of your face shine on us, Oh Lord!’

You have put gladness in my heart

More than when grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;

For you alone, Oh Lord, make me lie down in safety.”

Psalm 4:6-8

We are witnesses to Christ’s resurrection story and the Spirit’s ongoing resurrection work today.  People are longing to lie down and sleep in peace, which is to say, they long to be whole. It’s not up to us to make this happen.  Rather, we just need to be available to point to where these deep needs in everyone can be found. And do it with gladness in our heart.

  • What does Jesus mean when he calls his disciples witnesses?
  • What are examples of being a witness in society?  (Witness a car crash, a winning shot, a wedding, etc…)
  • Does a witness do the acting or simply the reporting?
  • What emotions come with being a witness for Christ?
  • What stands in our way of being a witness?
  • What help do we have in being a witness?
  • Do Christians sometimes make witnessing harder than it has to be?

The Road Leading to Jerusalem

The beginning of Holy Week, the scene in which Jesus makes a “triumphant entry” into Jerusalem, is a scene that is ultimately political.  Jesus demands his followers make a choice between two kings and kingdoms. Since chapter eight, when Peter and the disciples recognize that Jesus is the Messiah – the King of the Jews – everything that Jesus has done and each step they have taken have led them to this point.  Jesus has continually set before them illustrations of what God’s Kingdom looks like against the reality in which they live. Parables and healings have been interspersed with predictions that such a movement will lead Jesus to the cross. Jesus makes it clear that we cannot have it both ways – loyalty to the status quo makes one an enemy of God’s Kingdom.  Likewise, loyalty to God’s Kingdom and King Jesus makes one an enemy to those that wield power through any means other than servanthood.

The stakes are high.  Jesus knows the costs and continues to explain them to his disciples.  Challenging the powers will get you killed. But the price of living fully the life God designed far outweighs the false choice of living life in competition with one another, looking out for oneself at the expense of others.  Servanthood is the calling God places on each of us – carrying one another’s burdens as equals, rather than rivals.

Jesus’ remarks, in Mark 10: 32-45, sum this up.  Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem with his disciples.  He knows this road will end in Jerusalem with suffering and humiliation.  The disciples still think it will end triumphantly. Which makes Jesus’ triumphant entry all the more jarring for we who know how the story goes.  Along the road, Jesus pointedly tells the disciples that he would be handed over to the authorities, not as a hero but as a traitor. Immediately, after what should be frightening news, James and John ask Jesus to “grant us whatever we ask.”  Those demanding words end up being a request for special status when God’s kingdom comes.

Ever been talking to your kids and as soon as you finish explaining some serious life lesson, they abruptly change the topic around something they want?  These two disciples seem to have had the same problem. Have the been listening? Do they not understand? Patiently, Jesus once again explains the difference between ‘pagan’ rules and God’s Kingdom.

You know how it is with pagan nations, he said. Think how their so-called rulers act.  They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant.  Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many.”

It’s with this understanding that Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  It’s God’s holy city but it’s a city far from God, filled with people more concerned with getting ahead, no matter who may get stepped on in the process.  It’s a city Jesus can’t rule over. It’s a city with an agenda moving in the opposite direction of his calling; living opposed to his rules. While the common among them may have greeted Jesus as a king, the powerful wouldn’t let Jesus get any further than this simple ride on the back of a donkey.

Such background work has been helpful to me as I approach Palm Sunday.  To see Jesus’ entry through the lens of his journey to Jerusalem, against the cultural norms in which he lived, and through the not-quite perceiving eyes of his disciples paints a picture of two competing ethics:  An ethic of self-promotion that isolates and an ethic of servanthood that welcomes community. For Mark, it’s the ethic of servanthood and community that motivates Jesus’ actions and stories during the week leading up to Good Friday.  This holy week, may the simple ethic of servanthood overcome the loud and prevalent ethic of self-promotion. May we make enough room in our busy days for the presence of Christ to slow us down and correct our inclinations for self and open us up to the blessing of serving others.

  • What keeps us from accepting the posture of servanthood?
  • How are we like James and John?
  • Is it easy to recognize the difference between self -promotion and servanthood?  Are the differences more subtle than we like to think?
  • What habits must we change in order to be a servant?
  • What positions or things are we holding on to that prevents us from embracing servanthood?
  • What does a community that submits to each other look and feel like?
  • How is that different than our present communities?
  • To whom is such a community the most attractive?

Read Mark 8:1 – 10:52 prior to class this week.  Challenge your class to do the same. Will Jesus’ triumphant Entry look different after a close reading of these stories?

Challenge your class to continue its reading during holy week, following Jesus’ passion: Mark 11:1- Mark 15:39.  Does the servant ethic continue?