Imagine you could fix the world. All of it. The Refugee crisis, the Nuclear arms race, racial tensions, global poverty, and epidemic loneliness.
Imagine that you could fix all of that with the snap of your fingers. Would you?
Obviously, anyone with a heart would say yes to that. And yet, Jesus ironically did not.
I am in a series reviewing John Nugent’s challenging book Endangered Gospel. Last week, I wrote about Nugent’s idea about how God created the principalities and powers as a way of limiting evil in the world. In response to sin entering the world, God creates a kind of international system of checks and balances.
These systems are fallen and broken, filled with corruption and greed and leaders who are out to make a name for themselves. And yet when they are working well they lead to human flourishing for the people who are being governed by them.
The people of God have existed in a variety of different forms of government. We have seen lots of pagan nations come and go, both used and discarded by God as He cares for the world by limiting the evil that any particular power can accomplish.
Christians believe that at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus was faced with the temptation to rule over all the powers. After forty days of fasting, Jesus is tempted by the Satan to take the helm of the nations and fix the world.
Think about that, Jesus for President. No Hitler. No terrorism. No Jim Crow laws or slavery.
And Jesus say no.
Instead what Jesus does is reconstitute the people of God, by gathering 12 disciples, symbolically restoring Israel. He lives among real people, teaching them what God is like, and then lays down His life for the world, and asking them to do the same.
Only that is not exactly right. Jesus doesn’t ask them to first lay down their lives for the world. He does something, I think, much harder. He asks them to lay down their lives for each other.
Remember this is not just any group that Jesus has assembled. Within the parameters of 1st century Israel this group was like nothing else the world had ever seen. Jesus calls tax collectors and zealots to follow Him. That is significant because both of these disciples would have had fundamentally opposing views on the powers of their day.
Zealots were rebels, sometimes leading violent revolutions against the Roman oppressors. Tax collectors were the financial backbone of the Roman government. And Jesus washes both of their feet and tells them that if they want to love God they have to learn to love and serve each other.
Jesus’ response to the great evil and oppression in the world was to create a community of unlikely friendships and teach them the love of God.
This has, I think, always been God’s strategy.
Remember when God first called Israel, the very community Jesus is reconstituting? God takes His people away from the nations, and makes them a different kind of nation (ta ethne). God calls his people, linguistically speaking, a new race of people, and then teaches them a radically different way to live.
And then, after this different way of life leads them to joy and flourishing, the nations of the world will take notice and be impressed by the difference and then come to learn about this way of life and the God who is blessing these people.
Nugent says this order is crucial. The nations are not coerced and Israel isn’t called to advertise or attempt to colonize “They simply live how God calls them to live. They don’t try to make the world a better place. They humbly accept that God is making them into a better place.”
The reason this line of thinking is so important to me, is because I am tired of watching us do exactly what Nugent suggests in his subtitle, trying to fix the world even while it is killing the church.
Is anyone else tired of colluding with corruption so that we can legislate morality? Is anyone else tired of the self-righteous tirades and the never ending in-fighting through social media, all the while we rarely talk in person with the real people in our actual lives?
The Church has this God-given gift that is not forced upon the world, but one that is starting to lose its luster because the people called to embody the gift have forgotten they are stewards of this great treasure.
Here’s how Nugent says it:
God had plenty of resources at his disposal to inaugurate his kingdom. He could have appointed a special Israelite to do so, like John the Baptist. He could have converted and made use of a powerful nation. He could have sent 10,000 angels to clean up this world and make it a better place. But he didn’t. Instead, God sent his Son, who became flesh and walked among us. It was a strange thing to do. No one saw it coming. Still, it made sense. God has always wanted a people who would accept his reign over them as a gift. Any other way into his kingdom would be just another form of subjugation. A mighty kingdom like Rome cannot offer their regime as a gift. Their military strength forces subjects into compliance. A battalion of heavenly angels would have a similar effect. Who could resist them?
Nugent is subtly answering the question that keeps so many of us up at night. Why is the world the way it is? Obviously there are still arguments about Christian engagement with the world to be had, but I find this way of looking at things strangely compelling.
Maybe you saw in the recent Pew polls that said Evangelicals are the only religious group in the United States whose reputation hasn’t improved. While the study pointed out that Evangelicals standing hasn’t slipped at all, I still find this research intriguing.
Evangelicals are known for trying to make an active difference in all arenas of society. While we have done some notoriously good work, we have also done some work that is just notorious. For all of our good intentions, I think this new survey is revealing the results of our often over-reaching activism.
And I am beginning to think that Nugent is onto something.
God has not abandoned the world, but neither does He share our strategies for fixing it. Instead, Jesus offers His reign and rule as a gift, complete with an imperfect people working out how to love and honor one another, treating each other with the dignity befitting a royal priesthood despite whatever their reputations might be outside the community.
It is a community open to anyone, and forced on no one. It is a radically different way of life that is free to anyone who has eyes to see how beautiful it would be.
It is a gift.