A Christian theme from the first days of the new community after the death of Jesus anticipated his return and his overturning of the world order. For almost as long, Christians expected a new order that looks like the old order on the surface with Jesus and God at the center and everybody else spending most of their time worshipping God and/or Jesus. But this picture contradicts the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus kept pointing to a radical flattening of society based on a net of mutually loving and respectful relationships. The lordship of Jesus seems more likely to look like a circle where all of us are in the circle, and all of us are in the centre at the same time. Like other words such as “kingdom”, Jesus turned the meaning of words upside down. An interesting picture is the one offered in The Ragamuffin Gospel. A God-fearing, God-loving woman is standing in her garden, and she has a vision of a rainbow bridge reaching from her garden to heaven. Addicts, prostitutes and many other kinds of people she thought of as lost are laughing, singing, and dancing as they cross that bridge, and she is following them quietly, sadly, and with a confused mind and heart. How much of what we imagine about the reign of Jesus is reflected in our cultural values, and how much is a reflection of what Jesus said and did?
Here is the story I used on Sunday.
The Empire of God: 2012 11 25
Jesus confused his listeners at times by using words in very different ways. He and his listeners lived in the Roman Empire, an empire built with violence and threats of violence. The higher up a person was, the more money, land and possessions they had. At the same time, they had to always watch out for anyone who might be trying to get their position while they were scheming to get the position of whoever was above them. Tricks, lies, force and money were constantly used to get ahead and stay ahead, and the losers got killed or tossed aside. The people at the bottom paid high taxes, and lived in constant fear of the military, spies and the managers for the empire. So empire was, and is, connected to force, violence, abuse, and taking advantage of others. The British Empire used head taxes in Africa to force Africans to work for low wages in building roads and railroads, and salt and other taxes to get as much wealth as they could out of the Indian people.
Jesus talked about the Empire of God as being very different. Women and children were important. Everyone had food and shelter. No one would be left out. No one would be the kind of boss who bossed or hurt or took advantage of others. An example of the Empire of God could be a group of women working together to help families in their community. In this group, each person would do what they enjoyed and did well. Two women would meet with businesses and government agents to negotiate for things to help families. The organizer would take responsibility for planning meetings and running them. Some women would meet with mothers and their children in various places to find out what they needed and to let them know what kinds of activities and help was available. Another group worked on community fund-raising projects that were also fun-raising projects. A couple of women loved to cook and would make snacks for their meetings. During the meetings, every woman had an equal voice in the discussions and decision-making. There was never a vote on important issues — they would discuss difficult issues until everyone was ready to accept a decision.
Children in free play often are a lot like the Empire of God. They invent games, make up rules collectively, enforce rules as a group, and they play as long as everyone is having fun.
When a group of people love and care about each other, and love and appreciate God, we have a community where people are close to or in the Empire of God.
Sally was a new girl at her school, and had trouble making friends. Her first day, no one offered to play with her at recess time. The next day she brought a crazy ball — it was off-balance and would bounce in crazy ways. At recess time she started bouncing the ball, and another girl asked if she could play with Sally. They were having so much fun with bouncing the ball to each other, they were giggling and laughing. Another girl asked to join them. Before the end of recess, 7 girls were laughing as they played with the crazy ball. When they found out where she lived, a girl who lived close to her asked her if she wanted to come over to her house on the way home. And that is what the empire of God is like. Amen.
Here is my revised message from Sunday.
Empire of God: John 18:33-37
Here is a story that I came across years ago. Jack was a compulsive gambler. One night, as he was leaving a casino, he stepped in front of a truck and was killed. He found himself on a riverboat casino with every kind of gambling from slots and roulette wheels to dice and poker tables. Every time he gambled, he won. After a week of winning at everything he walked over to a person who seemed to be an angel. He said, “Heaven is nice, but it is boring to win all the time.” The person replied, “Who told you this was heaven?”
We humans imagine other places and other worlds as being similar to ours in some way, and so we tell jokes about heaven and hell that reflect our reality: casinos, bowls of soup, banquets, houses, cars, jewels, gold paving, and so on. The author of Revelations created pictures of a new Jerusalem that deliberately pushed imaginations to the limit. Imagine a city that is a cube 2400 km on a side: its top 8 times as high as the space station. If it had 10 billion people, each person would have a space 2.4 km by 2.4 km by 240 m high. John’s description of this city of God points to it being unimaginable, beyond comparison to anything we know. In the same way, the empire of God proclaimed by Jesus was almost beyond the imagination of his listeners. The author of the Gospel of John presents a carefully crafted dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, almost certainly different from the actual dialogue. John’s construction of that dialogue can be interpreted in several ways. The interpretation I prefer is that John wanted to establish that Jesus was a ruler, a king, but one whose rule was unlike that of worldly rulers such as Pilate or Caesar. The question about what is truth implies that everything about Pilate and the Roman Empire and the self-serving religious hierarchy is not truth.
What do we know about the truth offered by Jesus? Ghandi led a group of Indian peasants to make salt for themselves by the sea, an activity met with great brutality by the British military who severely beat hundreds of protesters determined to make salt instead of paying the salt tax. This march was called the salt satyagraha or truth-force, and was the first of several actions of civil disobedience which eventually led to Britain finally letting India become an independent nation. Other protests by Ghandi included weaving his own cotton cloth, an activity prohibited by a British government protecting its own textile industry. The Occupy movement is seen as a modern example of a satyagraha, and like the ones which led to Indian independence, has been widely criticized and attacked by established interests. The truth Jesus offered undermines worldly empires.
What did Jesus say about the empire of God? The concept of being clean or unclean becomes irrelevant through his story of the woman who took yeast to make bread, or comparing the empire of heaven to a mustard plant — both yeast and mustard were considered unclean. There will be no one without a home or food. There will be no hierarchy if the one who is first must be servant of all. There will be no gender discrimination or holding on to grudges. There will be no place for fear or greed or hate.
And all this will be true because people will no longer see the well-being of others as unconnected with their own lives. The empire of God will be one in which the horizontal direction of humanity will be full of love and compassion because we will be thoroughly immersed in the vertical direction of relationship with God.
In our unity with God, we will know to the smallest cells in our bodies our unity with one another. We will feel no joy in the suffering of others, no matter who they are.
If Canada was thoroughly in the empire of God, there would not be hundreds of thousands of First Nations people living in poverty. Alberta would not have 91,000 children living in poverty. We would not need Inns from the Cold to provide a place to sleep each night for families. We would not have political parties viciously attacking each other or promoting divisions and envy. We would not be treating the environment like a garbage dump or putting profit for a few ahead of the well-being of the many. We would not need locks on our houses because the relationships between all people would prevent anyone from wanting to cause harm to others. No one would feel forced to do work they hate or that is dangerous. Elderly people would not feel abandoned and young people would not feel mistrusted or feared or unimportant.
How do we work for the empire of God?
We can start with always remembering what is good in life and offering smiles to everyone we meet. We can choose to do things that help others from picking up litter on the street to volunteering at the Drop-Inn Centre. Since Jesus died for his threats to the political system, we can choose to be politically active as loyal followers of Jesus.
We can try to use our money in ways that help from choosing where and what to buy for our needs. And we can choose how to donate our money. We support Medicins sans Frontiers and Pueblito Canada through monthly donations, and give to a wide variety of other charities on an ad hoc basis as well as financially supporting churches.
We support the M & S Fund which has been important to us because it supported the costs for my training for ministry. It also supports many kinds of outreach programs to those who need them, such as the support program for Latin American immigrants at St. Andrew’s Norwood where I did my first internship, the programs for poor families at Fairview United in Halifax, and Brunswick Street United in downtown Halifax. We appreciate its support for partner churches in Africa, Latin America and the Middle-east. I appreciate its support for educational resources such as Mandate magazine and Gathering which provides worship resources. And it is a way for supporters of the United Church to make a difference in promoting the empire of God. The primary reason I financially support churches and other agencies, shovel neighbours walks, volunteer, and try to be kind to others is that it is a way for me to claim my freedom to be fully human, to have access to experiences of living in the empire of God. When I invite a young man who was sleeping under a picnic table in the Lions campground home for supper, and provide him with a bed for the night while he waits for his father to come and pick him up, I am claiming my freedom to share what I have with those in need.
The Lordship of Jesus will be visible in our adoption of his willingness to give what we have and are to the well-being of others, to love one another as he loved us. As we consider what we need to do to participate in the empire of God, here is a quote from The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Callahan.
“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is gift. All that is good is ours not by right but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.”
My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
We are loved by God to a degree that stretches our capacity to understand. We are called to accept and embrace that love, and to let it flow out to others, so we may experience life in the empire of God through that flow of love. May the Spirit walk with us and encourage us as we learn day by day to more often visit and live in that empire through the flow of love. Amen.