Tag Archives: Kingdom of God

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

Compelled

For Christ’s love compels us….
2 Corinthians 5:14a (NIV)

I’m shaking my head with a smile this morning. I returned from a week’s hiatus and had to double check where we left off in our chapter-a-day journey. It’s a bit of synchronicity for me to read the five words pasted at the top of the post in this morning’s chapter because Wendy and I spent a good part of our journey home from the lake yesterday discussing them.

A number of weeks ago my fellow mystics at the Center for Action and Contemplation made a fascinating word connection in their daily meditation. The root of our word “mercy” is from an ancient Etruscan word, merc, which is also the root of our English word “commerce.” Over the past several weeks I’ve been quietly meditating on the transactional nature of relationship with Christ. And, it is definitely transactional in nature:

  • “Give, and it will be given unto you.”
  • “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
  • “Christ paid for sin, once for all.”
  • “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt of love.”

The problem, Wendy and I discussed yesterday, is that there are stark differences between the economics of this world and the economics of God’s Kingdom. In this life journey we are so ingrained with the concept of earning everything. Most of us earn our allowance as children, earn our grades and our diplomas as students, earn our paychecks and retirement as adults. Our entire lives are predicated on the notion that you get what you earn. This is a core piece of the curse of Adam when God said, By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” It’s even at the core of our justice system where you “get what you deserve.”

[cue: Cell Block Tango]

It is no wonder that we so easily we misunderstand the economics of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to reveal. We often mindlessly (and heartlessly) twist Christianity into the transactional system we know by making it all about earning God’s favor and proving ourselves good followers of Jesus by what we do to earn the title. We reduce relationship with God to a daily transactional paradigm in which I’m blessed if I do good things and cursed if I do bad things. In so doing our spiritual death begins to take hold because “God’s ways are not our ways.”

In the economy of God’s Kingdom we are motivated not by our need to earn, but by the experience of freely receiving what we haven’t earned, of having an irreparable debt paid off. We are not required to earn a thing because we’ve already been freely given all we need and more. The transaction that earned us salvation had nothing to do with us at all apart from being the object of God’s sacrificial love. It was all done by Christ Jesus on the cross.

In today’s chapter, in five words, Paul gets down to the crux of this small but essentially crucial difference in transactional spiritual paradigms. Why did Paul turn his cushy, well-respected life upside down? Why did Paul endure endless hardship and continually risk his life? Why was Paul willing to be persecuted, beaten, whipped, prosecuted, imprisoned, and have his head chopped off? He was compelled.

Christ’s love compels us.

This morning I’m thinking about my thirty-some years as a follower of Jesus. I think about messages I’ve given, blog posts I’ve written, resources I’ve given, and choices I’ve made along the path. Why? I’m compelled. I’ve got to. It’s the point Dumbledore made to Harry Potter about having to fulfill the prophecy. There’s a difference between “‘I’ve got to” and “I’ve got to.”

Which is where the conversation meandered between Wendy and me yesterday, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Have a great day.

Kingdom Economics 101: Paying it Forward

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the movie Pay it Forward. It’s a bittersweet story, but the reality of life is bittersweet. Along our life journeys we all slog through deep valleys and we all have our mountain top moments. The story of Pay it Forward is predicated on the notion of people simply going out of their way to perform a random act of kindness for others, asking only that the recipient of their kindness “Pay it forward.” The whole idea is beautifully void of organization, legalism, regulation, or institutional systemization. It is organic and relational and personal and spiritual.

One of the deepest valleys of my own life journey was the period of time that I was going through the end of my first marriage and subsequent divorce. I’ll never forget meeting with a wise counselor, who also has a prophetic gift. I remember meeting with him expecting condemnation and judgment, as I’d experienced a generous dose of both during that time. This wise counselor, however, extended grace and kindness I didn’t expect.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and then said, “Some day, you are going to walk along the side of another who will find themselves walking this same path. You will help them, and give them comfort.” In other words, “You will take what wisdom and comfort you experienced while traversing this valley, and you will pay it forward.”

I have been able to pay it forward more than once. In the Kingdom of God, paying it forward is Kingdom Economics 101. It’s how God operates and it underlies all of Jesus’ teaching. He gave to me so that I might give to others. He laid down for me so that I might lay down my life for others. He comforts us so that we might pay it forward.

That’s exactly what Paul is getting at with the followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Corinth in this morning’s chapter:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This morning I’m thinking simply about how I might pay it forward today. I realized long ago, but need continuous reminders, that being focused on myself and my momentary difficulties blinds me to the many opportunities I have to show random acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness each day. I have to stop looking inward (at my I-phone, I-pad, I-mac, and I-everything) and looking around at others if I truly and consistently want to pay it forward.

Our Physical Lives Frame Our Spiritual Perspectives

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Matthew 19:16 (NIV)

Late last week I received notice that one our clients was terminating our company’s services. Public records show that their company is facing significant financial losses, so their move is not unusual nor entirely unexpected. The news, however, is never pleasant to receive. This company had been a faithful client. We had done good work and provided good value to them through our ongoing quality assessments. The loss of income from the project will temporarily pinch the budget for Wendy and me, and I confess that our moods around the house have not exactly been buoyant since I received that notice.

On Monday afternoon I had to leave on a scheduled business trip and got the mail just before I headed to the airport. In the mail was a letter from a young girl named Joyce. Joyce is a girl in Africa whom Wendy and I support financially through Compassion International. Joyce is a young girl going to school and hoping some day to be a doctor. In her letter she thanked Wendy and I for our gifts and asked for our prayers as a drought in the region had destroyed the crops that her people depend on for survival both economically and physically. Despite the dire circumstances, Joyce expressed trust in God’s provision. As I finished reading the letter out loud to Wendy, it was obvious to us both that Joyce’s letter was a well-timed dose of needed perspective.

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. In the chapter today a rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” I noticed as I read that the man was approaching spiritual matters like an economic transaction. His life was likely dictated by daily transaction. Do this and receive a fee for service. Pay this and receive this in return. He was approaching his spirituality with the same transactional paradigm.

“Let’s make a deal, Jesus. You’ve got eternity on your side and I want a piece of that. You know what? I’ll even be gracious enough to let you start the negotiations and set the price. So tell me what you require. What one thing, what good deed, do I need to do to punch my ticket to heaven? Give a tenth to the church? Be nice to a Roman? Volunteer for my company’s United Way campaign? Give a week to help build a house for a poor family? Pay tuition for a girl in Africa? What’s it gonna be? You just name it. “

Our earthly lives frame our spiritual perspectives. Life had skewed the man’s perspective to see his relationship with God like everything else in his temporal paradigm. Jesus’ answer cuts immediately to the heart of the matter. Salvation is not a transaction, Jesus tells him, but a liquidation. Jesus Himself provided the example:

Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

This morning I must confess that I’m humbly mulling over my own skewed perspectives. How easy it is for me to talk about trusting Jesus when I don’t really have to think about where I’m going to lay my head tonight, or whether my family will have enough to eat.

Have mercy, Lord.

Still a Small Cog in a Broken Machine

O my people, your leaders mislead you,
    and confuse the course of your paths.
Isaiah 3:12b (NRSV)

As I write this post, the United States is amidst the most strange political season in my lifetime. In fact, data indicate it may be the most unusual presidential election in our relatively short history as the two major candidates are the more unpopular than any since we gained the ability to track such things.

In my life journey I’ve observed that all human governments are given to corruption. Even the Vatican, a relatively small independent state presumably dedicated to Christ, is constantly fighting corruption (especially at the Vatican Bank). All human organizations are run by spiritually broken human beings. In the case of national governments you will find leaders who are given to indulging their self-centric appetites. Rules are rigged to favor the incumbent, to hold on to power, to profit from power, and to maintain the status quo. Every human government from socialist to monarchy to representative republic shows evidence of this fact.

This should not come as a surprise to any follower of Jesus.

Jesus said that He came to proclaim to us the Kingdom of God. But, He made it clear that the Kingdom of God is not like the Kingdoms and governments of this world:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

This morning I am, once again, reminded of my dual citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States and a citizen of God’s Kingdom. One is temporal, the other eternal. One is of this world, the other is not. Citizenship in the latter does not excuse me from my responsibilities in the former. In fact, it only makes me more responsible. God’s kingdom compels me to exercise my civic rights and responsibilities in this world as a representative of God’s kingdom.

Like many other Americans, I am not excited about any of the choices our political system has given us this election cycle. Like all human governments, our is ultimately broken. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility as a citizen of this system to be considerate, to be part of the process, and to vote as I am led. Leaders may confuse and mislead, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning, but it does not exempt me from my own personal responsibilities as a small cog in the imperfect machine.

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Outside the Systems

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...
Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)

In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.

Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.

Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.

I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert.  John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.

Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.

Of Robin Hood and Corrective Lenses

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood; a screenshot ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him…. But the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth.
1 Samuel 22:1-2;5 (NIV)

Most people know the childhood story of David and Goliath. Many people know the more adult story of David and Bathsheba. Many people know of King David the great. Few people really know that between the time Samuel anointed David as king and the time that David actually became king, there were over two decades in which David was an outlaw, a wanted man, and a man on the run.

This morning’s chapter is a description of the early days of David’s years as a successful outlaw. There are two observations I made this morning as I read:

  • David is a cunning warrior and a charismatic leader. Wanted by the king, he gathers around himself a rag-tag group of followers who were themselves outcasts. On the advice of the local friar, they take up residence in the forest. Think about that for a second. Does it sound like anyone familiar? Yep, David is the original Robin Hood.
  • The group of people who become David’s closest followers are described as in distress, in debt, and discontented. These are not the polished, educated and well-to-do members of society. These people who gather around David are the dregs of society, and in this David becomes a type of Jesus, who started his own career on the outskirts of Israel with a rag-tag group of disciples who were themselves outcasts and societal leftovers.

As a culture it is easy to become enamored with the best and the brightest, and yet God continually reminds us that His ways are not our ways. As we journey through God’s Message we find that, time and time again, God eschews the best and brightest and surrounds Himself with the dregs. This morning I am once again faced with the hard reality that I spend most of my life looking at things through the lens of contemporary culture and fail to perceive things with a Kingdom perspective.

God, forgive me my spiritual astigmatism. Heal my eyes, or at least give me corrective lenses, that I might see life, circumstance, and others with 20/20 vision of your Kingdom’s perspective.