Readings for the day
- Matthew 21: 23-end
- Philipians 3: 4b-14
I want to pick up on two things this morning: first the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ we heard in the gospel today – and that is unusual in Matthew where the phrase is usually ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because he writing to Jews and they wouldn’t say the name of God; and second, and the change we start to see in how we talk about Jesus when you move from the gospels to Paul’s letters. It’s a shift we don’t think about because we are so used to hearing about Jesus from ‘all angles’ of the New Testament but it’s there and it’s important.
As Christians we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth we see everything we need to know about the nature of God – which is what we mean by the term ‘Son of God’. What we have in the Bible though is a series of books written by men to record their responses to God, to Jesus and their individual situations; which as a body in turn charts an emerging faith – first of the Jews and then later of the Christians. As human creations INSPIRED by an evolving understanding of God we can see the history of thought leading up to the person of the Jesus we regard as the Christ but we can also examine different documents to see different aspects of the whole.
There are three strands contained within the four gospels. Peter’s memories are recorded in Mark. We know that because Bishop Papias writing in modern day Turkey around 110AD quoted John the Elder saying that ‘Stump Fingered Mark’ took down Peter’s recollections though not necessarily in the right order – and Matthew and Luke are both based on Mark. Peter’s recollections are very much of a Galilean healing ministry and Jesus stating his authority to preach the Kingdom when challenged – which is what we saw in the gospel reading today: Jesus was challenged and he responded with some clever quick thinking and with the two parables of the Two Sons and the Wicked Tenants. The Johanine strain, which gives a chronology which works and gives eyewitness details, is believed to be anything from late, circa 90AD, to being the earliest gospel circa 40AD – and a noted scholar who’s work I’m convinced by believes it to be possibly the earliest and written by the apostle John himself. John is more interested in Jerusalemthan Galilea but again records the exchanges where Jesus claims authority to preach the Kingdom. Finally we have most of the actual teaching of Jesus which doesn’t appear in either Mark or John’s gospel – and it’s accepted as coming from another source known as ‘Q’. It’s Q where the main body of Jesus’ actual teaching appears – for instance the whole of the Sermon on the Mount; it’s Matthew & Luke where the Q material is seen and it’s Q where we see this repeated phrase ‘Kingdom of God or Heaven’.
Looking at these words of Jesus’, about the Kingdom, they’re far more than a nice utopian dream. In some ways they represent a new approach to repentance. By the time of Jesus Judaism had become a whole set of rules to be observed or transgressed against – sin; but by and large, and other than in the context of healing, Jesus doesn’t talk about sin and instead preaches the Kingdom as a forward looking repentance. Not looking at we’ve done wrong, but one of looking at what we contribute to the kind of society God wants for us. It is very much a positive rather than a negative message; and is so important because it tells us everything about the way Jesus framed his ministry and his teaching.
By the time Paul is writing to the early churches he’s ‘in a different place’. Paul is having to carve out space for Jesus in amongst the many gods of the Hellanistic world and Paul was himself a Pharisaic Jew concerned with laws & so he belonged to the OLD tradition of repenting of failure. What he does is take the idea of sin and apply it not to laws but failing the spirit of what Jesus says; and finally he was responding to his experience on the road to Damascus. Over a period of time and many different theologians – all responding to their own society and situations – the messages changes. We move from what Jesus represents to what he IS; we’ve moved from Jesus talking about his relationship with The Father to his followers thinking of Jesus as the King. That particular shift is subtle but it’s there and it’s important because a father thinks of his children in very different ways to ruler and I actually wonder if we lost something in that early shift. Critically though we’ve also moved from the new way of repentance by looking forward to the old way of repentance by looking back at sin.
Now the Johannine scholar I mentioned earlier believes that when John uses the idea of the Son (along with Word & Logos in chapter 1) he is describing the relationship between Jesus and God i.e. as a son is to a father. For Greek thinkers developing early theology the phrase The Son of God demanded a divine intervention in the procreation of Jesus – but then Greek myths often involved the gods sleeping with human women. Other than when discussing the mechanism of Jesus’ divinity it doesn’t actually matter. It is absolutely clear from the parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with the God whom he called ‘his Father’. Which is why we need to pay even MORE attention to what he HIMSELF preaches with regard to repentance.
With a modern understanding of the world we believe that a creator God began a process 13.7 billion years ago with a big bang of all the chemicals needed to sustain life in some form, in the hope/belief of creating sentient life capable of love; and as one such species that makes sense of the idea of humans ‘being made in the image of God’. Therefore the God as revealed in the person of Jesus is not looking for communities looking to condemn people or communities. Instead the Father wants, for us his/her children, a society where everyone loves more, cares more, goes the extra step, is open to the hurt & the needy – and in so doing become people who become ever more open to demonstrating or living out the will of God for his/her creation.
Once we accept that fact it both makes life easier and harder. Easier because we no longer have to focus on whether A or B can be accepted into our community because EVERYONE is welcome in the Kingdom. Easier as in we don’t have to search for minute fragments in the emerging body of what we know as the Old Testament for comments on homosexuality because EVERYONE is welcome in the Kingdom. Easier as in we no longer have to examine the scripture and the traditions of the church to consider whether women can take full equality with men in the our individual churches because EVERYONE is welcome in the Kingdom. But then it becomes harder because we live in a world that’s changing faster than ever and where new understandings of our own history, of our own genetic makeup and of our own biology, all continue to undermine what we’ve been brought up to understand; and now we have to think every situation/scenario through in the light of a loving God and his/her kingdom – and thinking isn’t easy for most of us. We grumble about rules but they are much easier to follow – which is why the medieval church developed so many.
But that’s exactly what Jesus turned away from; and in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we know that God doesn’t want us to raise barriers, to bar people, but wants us to demonstrate his/her inclusiveness and to show his/her love to all of creation.
And how does it affect us I hear you ask? Well WE are the people who have to make it happen. WE are the people who can make God’s dream come true. WE are the people who can make the kind of community that God hopes for. How? By the little things we do. It might mean standing up to friends to defend the latest group of immigrants the tabloids have decided to demonise. It might mean not bitching about someone. It might mean making a little extra effort on behalf of someone we don’t like. It might just mean wasting a little less food; or even boiling less water in the kettle at any one time. You see it’s up to us to promote the inclusive and loving society that God wants and it’s up to us to demonstrate God care for his/her creation; and we can do that letting every little thing we do contribute to the Kingdom of God so that, to quote Philippians chapter 1, verse 10 & 11 [——]. You see we are not defined by what we’ve done wrong but rather by what we CAN do right to make God’s dream come true.