Three monks walked slowly, meditatively, towards the huge oak tree in the center of the grove. They had just come from the Morning Office where the Gospel reading was the Sermon on the Mount. Without saying a word, they all sat in a circle under the mighty oak tree, an ancient symbol of Life. They sat in silence for a long time. Finally, the youngest monk asked, ‘What do you think it means?’
‘You don’t want my opinion,’ the oldest monk said.
‘I think that it is a goal, something that we try to achieve. But...’ the last monk paused. ‘But I don’t think it is something that we can obtain in this world’s realm.’
‘Then we will never try,’ the oldest monk replied.
‘What do you mean,’ the youngest monk asked.
‘I mean that if we think that we can’t achieve it, we will not try to achieve it.’
‘So, you think we can be perfect now?’ the last monk questioned.
‘There is no indication,’ the oldest monk said, ‘that our Saviour’s words were meant only as an unrealizable ideal. Do you really want my opinion?’
The youngest monk nodded his head.
‘These are the very words of Christ. This is what is expected of us who claim to follow him. God is not telling us to do things that we can not do.’
‘So you are saying we can be perfect now,’ the last monk exclaimed.
‘Not from human desire or will,’ the oldest monk gently replied, ‘but from God. We need the Wild Goose to strengthen us and guide us. And the love and support of the community to help us. On our own, we are too easily led back to our addictions of sin to arrive at that state. Nevertheless, my friends, we can do it. By the power of the Spirit, and the support of our sisters and brothers, we can be as Christ in the world.’
This is a (somewhat) fictional account of a conversation I had at a men’s Bible study group once. It was brought to my remembrance while reading The Peaceable Kingdom* by Stanley Hauerwas. With that little story in mind, I want to focus on a couple of things Hauerwas wrote.
In his section on Jesus and the Kingdom, he wrote:
[The] proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God, its presence, and its future coming is a claim about how God rules and the establishment of that rule through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus the Gospels portray Jesus not only offering the possibility of achieving what were heretofore thought to be impossible ethical ideals. He actually proclaims and embodies a way of life that God has made possible here and now...In him we see that living a life of forgiveness and peace is not an impossible ideal but an opportunity now present...[This possibility] is based on our confidence that that kingdom has become a reality through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth (pgs. 83, 85; emphasis in the original).
There is quite a lot to gather from this small quote so let’s break it down a little bit.
[The] proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God, its presence, and its future coming is a claim about how God rules and the establishment of that rule through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Notice that ‘how God rules’ is seen and ‘established’ ‘through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus’. In other words, as St Paul wrote, ‘Christ is the visible image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). To see what God is actually like, all one needs to do is look at Jesus; at the way Jesus lived; at the way Jesus loved. This is the Creator God that loves the entire world. This is how the Creator God reigns. Not, as is stated over and over from our churches, by slaughtering our enemies or torturing them eternally in hell. No. The God of Creation loves our enemies, prays for them, turns the other cheek when mocked or spat upon or slapped. The Creator God does not repay violence and hatred and evil with divinely sanctioned violence, hatred, and evil. God repays with peace, love, and forgiveness. We see this quite clearly in a couple of stories from Jesus life.
All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus betrayal and arrest (Matthew 26.47-56; Mark 14:43-50; Luke22.47-53; John 18:3-11; CEB**). In all four stories, ‘one of those with him’ (Peter), took out a sword and cut off Malchus’ ear while trying to defend Jesus. And, in three of the stories, Jesus rebukes the action stating that he will not allow this to continue. In that story, instead of retaliating and answering violence with more violence, Jesus goes the way of non-violence knowing that this action will bring about the change to the world that it so desperately needs.
And later on in the story, as Jesus is dying on the cross, he actually prays for those killing him, [Loving God], forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ (Luke 23.34, CEB).
In both of these stories, we see how God acts and reacts to those who oppose God’s love. God has mercy upon them and forgives them. In fact, at one point, Jesus states that he could summon legions of angels to slaughter his ‘enemies’. But he doesn’t. That’s the way things are done in this worlds realm, but that’s not the way of the Realm of God.
But this way of peace and forgiveness is not limited to God. It is the way the followers of God are to be, not some time in the (distant) future, but right now. Continuing with Hauerwas:
Thus the Gospels portray Jesus not only offering the possibility of achieving what were heretofore thought to be impossible ethical ideals. He actually proclaims and embodies a way of life that God has made possible here and now...In him we see that living a life of forgiveness and peace is not an impossible ideal but an opportunity now present (emphasis added).
This has been our downfall for years in the church. In fact, God has used those some consider ‘outside’ the church to lead this campaign of peace and forgiveness and non-violence. Sadly, we are a lot like the ‘last monk’ in the opening story. We think that this way of living can never be achieved now. And I would challenge us, really challenge us, to see if, because of this attitude, we actually try and live this way now. I would wager that we do not. If something is out of our reach, nay, if it’s impossible, why would we waste our time on trying to reach it? We won’t. Family, we have been told a lie. Maybe not intentionally, but nonetheless it’s a stinking lie. Jesus claimed that he came so we could ‘have life—indeed, so that [we] could live life to the fullest’ (John 10.10, CEB). That is, a life filled with the Life of God. And it’s that life that Jesus showed us how to live. He told us in the Sermon on the Mount what is expected. But he didn’t leave us to try and make it on our own. The Holy Spirit was sent to ‘lead and guide us’ to ‘dwell within’ us.
In the world view of first century Judaism, the Temple was seen as the place where heaven and earth over-lapped and interlocked. Then Jesus comes on the scene and states that he is the Temple; that he is the place where heaven and earth over-lap and interlock. To sharpen the point a little more, like Jesus, we are the Temple of God (see 1Corinthians 3.16; 2Corinthians 6.16). We have been given the power to live this life right now. I’m not saying it’s easy. Not by a long shot. But it is doable.
[This possibility] is based on our confidence that that kingdom has become a reality through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth.
In this last section, Hauerwas hits the nail on the head regarding our excuses. Simply stated, if we don’t think it’s possible to live a life of peace and non-violence now, then we really don’t believe that God’s realm is a present reality.
From time to time, when I’m having a conversation along these lines, people are quick to point out that they believe these things ‘but’ (there’s always a ‘but), ‘but not right now. In the future these things will happen.’ Really? But what if we’re supposed to live this way now? What if we are supposed to work to bring these types of change today? Right this moment? I think we were given just such a task. If we look at Mark’s gospel, we read Jesus saying, ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’ According to Jesus, the ‘good news’ is that God’s realm has come - not in the distant future but - right now! Again, it’s one of those things that if we think it only comes in the future, that is, we understand that it’s impossible for us to make these changes now, then we really don’t believe that Gods realm is a reality now and we won’t even try. And that is exactly what we have done.
When I was growing up in the faith, I was taught (and believed) the relatively new idea of the Rapture. This is the doctrine that ‘at any moment’ Jesus will come back for his church and those are alive will be transformed ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ and teleported to heaven with Jesus. In fact, one can still see the bumper stickers saying ‘Beam me up, Jesus!’ And in my early twenties, I remember very clearly having a conversation with my Mom about ecological issues. My argument was along the lines of, ‘Why do anything about the planet if it’s all going to burn anyway?’ In other words, if things are going to get worse, why try and make them better? It is this thinking that is so prevalent within the Christian world in my corner of the world. It makes thinking about (and actually working toward) ending the arms race an almost unthinkable absurdity.
But that’s not what Jesus said. He said, ‘Now is the time!’ Not sometime in the distant future, but right now. Now is the time to work toward ending poverty and injustice. Now is the time to work toward the end of sexism and racism (and all of the other *isms). Now is the time to work toward sustainable living. And, yes, now is the time to work toward stopping violence of any kind. It’s not going to be easy. And we can’t do it on our own. These types of change can only come by the power of the Spirit working through God’s people. During this season of Resurrection, may God bring to life new ways of implementing God’s realm today.
In the Love of the Three in One,
* Or you can get it here.
** Common English Bible. This is an exciting new translation that I have been reading from for a little while. According to the website, ‘To avoid sectarian bias, more than 500 persons from 22 faith traditions participated in the development of the CEB translation, which includes 118 translators, 10 editors, and 77 reading group leaders.’