This Easter, as every Easter for many years, Christians around the world will greet each other with the affirmation, “Christ is Risen!”, with the response, “He is Risen Indeed!”, “Alleluia”. In this we proclaim Jesus as the Risen Lord.
But is he? What do we mean when we declare, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’? Does that proclamation, as compared with our practice, amount to kingship delayed or deferred? In some Christian circles I read of and hear something which can be described as ‘pragmatic selectivity’. The gospels are read but “That’s not for now, it’s for the future kingdom”, and this is, naturally, applied to the more difficult teachings, such as, ‘Love your enemy’, ‘give to all who ask…’; a ‘pick and mix sermon on the mount’.
So, have we really understood what was going on, not just throughout Jesus teaching and healing ministry, but during that period between arrest and crucifixion, and Ascension and Pentecost? It’s been noted many times elsewhere, (including by me) that the church, however understood, has struggled for nearly two thousand years to come to terms with ‘the kingdom of God’. That struggle is, I suggest, not accidental. It is the foreseen battle between the forces of evil and the righteousness of God: exactly the battle that took place that first Good Friday. Paul refers to it in Ephesians 6.
Is much of our failure to understand because we think like pre-Pentecost disciples instead of Holy Spirit filled, appointed and empowered apostles?
It’s a week after the resurrection and Jerusalem is filled with rumours, the priests are worried, Pilate wishes he were elsewhere instead of this hellhole on the edge of empire. Ordinary people are in turns excited and anxious, what did actually happen during that Passover festival? We crucified a ‘king’ who we’d praised the week before, then, within days the tomb was empty and the soldiers who were supposed to be on guard were telling a barely-believable story.
Actually, ‘barely-believable’ is generous; why were they still around to tell their unlikely tale? It didn’t help that with trusted friends the story might be accompanied by a nod and a wink. Roman soldiers were experts at killing; they may have thought it odd to be asked to guard a dead body, but ‘it’s orders’, and the consequences of failing in their duty were severe. Barely believable too, the idea that the terrified disciples of two day before would have broken into the tomb and carried off the body under the noses of a cohort of Roman soldiers.
And what of the one hundred and twenty believers, (Acts 1:15); trying to make sense of the inexplicable that week after the first Easter. They had thought Jesus to be the long- awaited Messiah, God’s promise to Israel of a redeemer. The week before Easter had looked so promising as the crowds cheered Jesus entering Jerusalem; could messianic expectation be about to be realised? For those in positions of power – the Sadducees, Pharisees, priests – that was a threat, and it led to action, to betrayal, and to the torture and crucifixion of the one in whom many had hoped.
It is worth listing the elements in play in Jerusalem during that period beginning with Palm Sunday through to Pentecost. Jesus kingdom teaching; his healings, especially the raising from the dead of Lazarus; the Roman occupation; Messianic expectations; Jewish leaders and the Sanhedrin; the crucifixion and the empty tomb; the soldiers story(s); Jesus’ post-resurrection presence; the women’s story. It’s the week after the resurrection and Jerusalem is awash with rumour and speculation.
Jesus only showed himself to those who were already committed to him: belief must be faith-based. We can only conjecture what might have happened had Jesus revealed himself publicly but the possibility would have created tension for people and priests alike. Over time the tension would lessen but in Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity rebellion was never far from the surface. And in the calm centre of this vortex was Jesus and his 120 friends. Those 120 believers would have had similar questions to those being asked in Jerusalem, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘How can Israel’s Messiah be crucified and then resurrected?’ ‘What does it mean?’
Here we have the context for understanding Jesus’ teaching of the freshly realised kingdom of God, and the question asked by the disciples as recorded in Acts chapter 1. They had listened to Jesus teaching about the kingdom (of heaven or of God – they are synonymous) for upwards of three years and he was at it again, verse 3. With all the above context – Jerusalem in foment, tension, anxiety, expectation; and Jesus calmly present – ‘they asked him, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Much has been written about this question and Jesus’ reply, (including by me), but we have usually failed to engage with the context, the human, social context of Jerusalem during this tense fifty days. What could the question mean when they had the king of the kingdom standing there with them? Jesus reply may be translated “you don’t understand the times…” but for the moment let’s leave that to the specialists.
It must be obvious that the disciples question is “Are you going to declare yourself king?” the public appearance that the priests and Pilate would fear. The disciples thinking was still conditioned by their pre-crucifixion messianic expectations; hardly surprising given the 600 plus years of waiting. But it’s the wrong battle in the wrong place. The real battle had already been won with Jesus declared king in the one place that mattered, where Satan thought he reigned.
As Jesus had so often taught, the kingdom had already come, with himself as king. Now with Satan defeated Jesus would reign, but not in the manner of earthly kings and emperors. All that teaching over those three years wasn’t to exercise his larynx, it was meant for obedience, ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you?’ We, his followers, are to ‘hear his words and act on them’ (Luke 6:46). That was the commission, ‘make disciples … teaching them to obey … ‘ (Matthew 28:19-20)
So, the kingdom has come and the king reigns and the difficult teachings are as important as the easier ones. We cannot practice ‘pragmatic selectivity’ without denying Jesus, we are to live as kingdom people. That is evident from Jesus commission. What kind of person sends representatives to other nations, in this case ‘to the end of the earth’? Israel’s true king declared his kingship not by sending an army into battle but by sending witnesses to ‘take up the cross and follow’ (Mark 8:34) with the message of God’s Love to make ‘disciples of all nations …’ (Matthew 28:19).
Our mistake; and we don’t have the disciples excuse; is in our unwillingness to recognise Jesus’ lordship over every aspect, every element of our lives. We may think we do, but do we, in practice, all the time? We have committed a great ‘adultery’ in divorcing the good news of personal salvation from the essential good news of the redemption of God’s good creation. We look forward to a spiritual heaven and God’s good earth can ‘go to hell’. Is that not in practice what most Christians believe? And we’ll be judged by what we do as much as what we say, for what we do flows from what we truly believe, (James 2)
If Jesus is Lord, he is king, and if he is not Lord over all he is not the true king. It is no good we Christians preaching and teaching ‘the kingdom’ – Jesus primary focus – if we are constantly making exceptions. And this is why looking for the re-establishment of ‘national Israel’ is to turn our backs on God’s good news. It seeks to revert to the dominance of empire that Jesus fully and finally defeated at Calvary. To argue that this is temporary, waiting on the Second coming (including a ‘not-going-to-happen’ rapture) is to undermine Jesus gospel teaching. We have no right to ‘pick and mix’ the gospel.
Is Jesus Lord? That’s a personal question only we individually can answer. But unless the good news is both implicit and explicit in our living, in all that we do and are, then we have no right to preach and people need not listen. The gospel will not be heard. The ‘people of God’, Israel, are those in every age who hear and do the will of the Father, and it is his will that we obey the Son. Forget national boundaries and think and believe globally. America, as a ‘christian’ nation is an affront to the gospel, Israel, as a ‘Jewish nation’ is a failed shepherd, a false priest, and both – together with Britain and other so-called ‘Christian countries’ – are a distraction to our mission.