Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Upside Down Kingdom

Ephesians 1: 11-23
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Luke 6:20-31
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Love for Enemies
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The way that one preaches preaching from two texts: The two speak together, saying more than either on its own. Today the passage from Ephesians calls us to greatness, and the gospel passage redefines greatness. In Ephesians we hear that we are the heirs of the kingdom, and Jesus makes it clear that this kingdom—the greatest of all kingdoms—turns all of our human values upside down as we find and follow him.

Ephesians 1
Verses 11 to 14: Our Christian lives did not start with us. God chose us to be “for the praise of his glory”. I don’t want to spend time this morning on the concept of predestination. It is enough to say that our lives in Christ begin and end with God. God calls us. God reigns in us. God uses us for his purposes from beginning to end. How the sovereignty of God fits with human free will is the source of many arguments, which we will not pursue this morning.

The mark (or guarantee) of God’s presence and work in us is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we talk as though “life in the Spirit” is an optional extra for Christians; but of course Paul says “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is simply the presence of Jesus continuing with the disciples—and with us. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have the Spirit, you are not a Christian. We could explore this line of thinking at length, but (as with predestination) we will note it and leave it aside.

You notice that all of this is for God’s glory. This is important: Our lives belong to God, and we live for God and for God’s glory—never for ourselves and our own reputation.

Verses 15 to 23: This truth leads Paul into a prayer of thanksgiving.
I thank God for your faith in Jesus.
I thank God for your love for other Christians.
I ask God to give you his Spirit (which you already have).
I ask God to help you know him better.
I pray that you may know the riches of being God’s inheritance.
I pray that you may know the power of Christ’s resurrection, active in your own life.
I pray all of this because God has raised Christ from the dead and made him the king of the universe. This king of the universe is also the head of the church. Christ is the head; the church is his body.

You notice that Paul does not say we inherit God’s kingdom, but that we are God’s inheritance. We are the people of God. We are the kingdom of God made visible on earth. We are those who live in the world as God’s representatives. If God is the greatest, then we (God’s people) are also the greatest! We live for God’s glory, and God’s glory shines out in us.

Now we move to the Gospel reading. Luke records words that take this soaring picture of our lives as the people of God and stands them on their head. We are the kingdom of God made visible, and Jesus tells us that this kingdom is an upside down kingdom.

An example of God’s reign realized on earth: Chinese Christians following the earthquake about five years ago. [The details given during the sermon are omitted since this is online.] Now the Chinese church with the help of Chinese businessmen is making plans to start building similar bubbles in Africa to fight poverty there.

Luke 6
Verses 20 (24): The first verse lets us know that this passage is parallel to Matthew 5. Whether we think of these as two similar sermons that Matthew and Luke record coming from two different occasions, or as one sermon reported by two different witnesses, it is clear that here we are at the very centre of Jesus’ teaching about what it means to follow him. Blessed are the poor: not just the poor in spirit (as in Matthew), but all those who are poor. In his theological dictionary Kittle defines the poor in the NT as “those who need God’s help, and know it.” Everyone needs God’s help, but the rich think that they can take care of themselves. Verses 20 and 24 pose the two options: Either you rely on God and receive eternal blessing, or you rely on yourself and receive the blessing you are able to manufacture today.

Remember the rich young ruler, whom Jesus told a) to keep the commandments (this he had done) and b) to sell everything and follow Jesus (this he could not do). His problem was not that he was rich, but that possessions ruled him. He used possessions to control his life and would not (could not) allow God to control him fully. God’s kingdom is only for those whom God rules.

Verses 21 (25): Similarly, those who hunger and those who weep learn to trust in God, and thus receive release. And those who are well fed and celebrate life tend to trust in themselves, and thus enjoy life now; but their future is one without God and without hope.

Verse 26: That is why Jesus tells those who are persecuted for his sake to rejoice. Human rejection of God’s People is a sign of God’s acceptance, which is the source of true joy. Christians are not meant to be masochists who seek pain and suffering for its own sake. Rather we embrace God’s joy, even though the path leads through pain and suffering here on earth.

Here you see how God’s reign is upside down from human kingdoms: We seek God’s joy, not our own. We seek God’s will, not our own. As a result we tread paths of greatness, as Paul describes in Ephesians, but they do not look like the kind of greatness our world would expect. The verses that follow give the heartbeat of that greatness.

Verses 27 to 31
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

E. Stanley Jones says of these verses in Matthew’s gospel:
When I come to the following verses I breathe a little faster, for we have now reached the very crux of the whole Sermon on the Mount. This refusal to retaliate, the turning of the other cheek, and the loving of one’s enemies are the center of the whole. If this principle is not workable, then the heart of the sermon does not beat—it is a dead body of doctrine. If it is workable and every other way that cuts across it is unworkable, then its heart does beat, and beating it pumps its warm lifeblood into every portion of the Christian soul and of Christian society and makes them live. (Jones, The Christ of the Mount: 169)

Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Respond to mistreatment with love and care. Jesus then gives two examples: turn the other cheek; give your shirt as well. Then he adds the general principles: Give to those who ask; do good to others as if you were the recipient. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus adds the case of a soldier who compels you to carry his goods for a mile. One then goes the second mile as a gift to the oppressing legionnaire.

Jones describes the actions thus:
Jesus is not teaching passive resistance, but an active resistance on a higher level. … He tries to break your head, and you, as a Christian, try to break his heart. In turning the other cheek you wrest the offensive from him and assume moral charge of the situation. … If a man compel you to go with him one mile, you are his slave; but if you voluntarily go with him two, then you rise up from your slavery, confer a bounty on him and thus become his master. If he sues you at law and takes away your coat, you are his servant, but if you confer on him your own cloak also, you assume the mastery by your own moral daring.
Allowing a man to smite you on one cheek, and letting him have the coat, and submitting to him when he compels you to go one mile does little or no good. The fact is that it does harm to the man who does it and to the man who submits to it. It is the other cheek, the cloak also and the second mile that do the trick. It is this plus that turns the scale. The one cheek, the coat and the one mile—this is passive resistance; but turning the other cheek, giving the cloak also and going the second mile—this is an active resistance on the plane of unquenchable good will. Passive resistance may reveal nothing but weakness; this active resistance of love reveals nothing but strength. (Jones, The Christ of the Mount: 172f)

You see why I think of the example of the Chinese Christians as the light of God’s kingdom shining in the world. They acted out of love, not out of a desire for power; and God rewarded them with remarkable success. That is always how it is. We do what we are called to do as God’s children, and God does his work in the process.

I was reading an article in the most recent Christianity Today on the use of power. We like to portray ourselves as servant leaders, who don’t exercise power but lead collaboratively. That’s good; but we use power in every arena of life all the time—what these Chinese Christians did is powerful! The key is to rely on God’s grace and not to seek power for ourselves. The Reformation phrase, “For the glory of God Alone”, is more than a slogan. It is the essence of the Christian life.

A Closing Word
This brings us back to Paul’s words in Ephesians. In verses 13 and 14 he refers to the way in which the Holy Spirit serves as the guarantee of our lives as God’s inheritance. The fact is that we are not able to live in the way I have been describing. Left to our own devices, living in our own strength, we are certain to fail to love and live in the way God wants us to. But when we accept our own weakness, when we acknowledge our own complete inability to exercise the “audacious offensive of love”, when we admit that we cannot live God’s life without God’s Spirit, we are ready for the fullness of the Spirit. God delights in filling us and transforming us and making us into the kind of people that Jesus and Paul describe. Live God’s life; throw yourself into God’s arms and open yourself to God’s Spirit.


KGMom said...

Do you choose your own texts? Or do you follow a lectionary recommendation?
Interesting that you chose one of the two beatitude accounts in the NT--the Luke version being the somewhat less familiar. That text is typically used on All Saints Sunday--as this past Sunday was.

Climenheise said...

I follow the lectionary--or am assigned the lectionary. The church sends me four texts (OT, NT, Gospel, and Psalm) and I use two of them. This coming Sunday--Habakkuk and 2 Thessalonians.