Back in the ’80s, I moved from Los Angeles to a small island, a jewel of green set amidst the glorious beauty of Puget Sound. I moved there to lead a small congregation of evangelical Christians as we, together, tried to learn what it meant to be the presence of Jesus in that place. At the time, Christian’s ire was directed against a vague emerging spirituality that was labelled “the new age movement.” Those railing against the movement taught that you could recognize this dark spiritual by certain clear signs: these people were environmentalists, these people were organic gardeners; these people were anti-war activists; these people are longing for a world of unity, where everyone has enough food and access to water and health care; and of course, these people reject Jesus as the source of hope for humanity, trusting instead in their own spiritual evolution as the means whereby this utopian vision will be ushered in.
A tragic thing that happened though, back in those days when evangelicals were wed to the Republican party. The church rightly warned us against pinning our hopes for a better future on the evolution of the autonomous human spirit. That was tried already, all through the enlightenment, and proved to be a catastrophic failure, as the bloodiest century in the history of humanity proved. But the church went a step further, declaring that the desires of these people were wrong. Environmentalism, skepticism regarding war, and deep, activist longings for a world where justice reigns were viewed as the “values of the pagans.” With one little stroke of flawed logic, the church took ten unified steps to their collective right, so that gun control and environmental stewardship were viewed as marks of paganism.
My problem was that the “these people” who were the target of these warnings were my neighbor, and “these people” were delightful. My office mate was a graphic artist/hippie who drove a beater pick-up and raised organic vegetables with her husband, eschewing TV, consumerism, and violence. We bought a handmade futon bed from a lady whose husband fished, and because of this, had strong views about our need to protect the oceans. We bought raw milk from an old-school farmer who ran this covert milk operation out of a refrigerator in his backyard. I loved these people and their values–and wanted to find a way to share Christ with them that didn’t have as an opening line:
“Hello child of Satan… you’re headed for hell and I’m here to help.”
“If you died tonight and God said ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, would you have the right answer? Because I do.”
I decided to look for a role model for doing evangelism, and could think of no better example than The Man, Jesus Himself! I sat out on the deck on day, and read through the John and Luke, simply with an eye towards understanding how Jesus introduced himself and his ideas to others. What I learned is that, though he had endless variety and creativity in his approach, he rarely spoke about heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Instead, it was “the kingdom of God” that was his primary theme, the enterprise into which he invited pe0ple. He was telling pe0ple that there’s an entirely new world order on the horizon, a world in which God actually reigns – and that people ought to align their lives with that by aligning their lives with Christ.
This kingdom language hearkened me back to an Old Testament book, where the subject of God’s reign takes center stage. I packed my Bible with a sandwich and drove to the west side of the island to watch the sun set and maybe see some whales while I read the entire book of Isaiah in a single sitting. This guy sees a future in which leaders from warring tribes and nations are joining hands in order to worship God together, having melted their weapons down, and reforged them into tools of agriculture. This guy speaks of restoration of our broken environment in ways we can’t even imagine. I look to the west, across the waters of Puget Sound to Vancouver Island, and ponder the fact that I live among whales, eagles, and salmon. Isaiah speaks of justice, and long life, and health, and celebrations, and parties, and hospitality.
What I discovered that afternoon changed my priorities forever. I learned that God’s reign, when it’s fully operational, will embody many of the values that my (then) so called “new-age” friends carried so passionately; learned, in other words, that these longings aligned with God’s heart! Circle back to the New Testament, and you come to discover that this is no fluke: The Sermon on the Mount embodies these same values, of non-violence, generosity instead of consumerism, humility instead of arrogance.
We, who claim to follow this King Jesus, might do well to repent, because to the extent that we vilify the longings that people have for peace, simplicity, environmental stewardship, and the actual loving of one’s enemies, we vilify the values of God’s good reign. That’s tragic at so many levels, but perhaps the greatest tragedy is that those who do that have actually melted Jesus down and made him into their own “golden calf,” only in this instance, it’s maybe not a calf that we’ve created: it’s a Wall Street bull, or a defense department hawk, or an overweight, appetite-addicted Jabba the Hut. As a result, the gun-toting, environment-damning, violence-glorifying Jesus that people are rejecting isn’t the real Jesus at all – but in rejecting the caricature, many people will never take a second step, in search of the real one.
For God’s sake, and the sake of our own calling, we’d better learn the values and ethics of the kingdom, and become known as people who are for things, like justice, reconciliation, peace, simplicity, generosity. It’s time to become the people we’re called to be: people of hope!
In part two, I’ll explain how this theology of the kingdom can and must shape ministry. I welcome your thoughts.