Last week, we began our short “beginning of the New Year” series by talking about the significance of community. In short, we discussed the ways in which the Church, the community of God, is the outworking of God’s purpose to create a people who are called out of this world to be citizens of the Kingdom of God.
In other words, the church is called to be that community of Jesus Christ that, in the midst of a world that does not recognize the Lordship of Jesus, that lives not according to the ways of the word, but according to the ways of the kingdom. We are “an outpost of the kingdom of God in the midst of a world of darkness.”
Because we are forgiven through the blood of Jesus, we are no longer citizens of the world but citizens of the kingdom. It is in this way (at least) that we are salt and light in the world.
But we are not the Kingdom. We are part of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom entails everything that is under the Lordship of Christ – that is, everything (ultimately). In the end, all of creation – all things, all creatures, all time and space – will acknowledge and be subject to the Lordship of Jesus. In the meantime, the Church is a sign (among other things, yes). The Church, the people of God, point to the Lordship of Jesus by living as citizens of Jesus.
So then, the question becomes, in what way are we a sign? How do we demonstrate that we are citizens of the Kingdom as opposed to inhabitants of the world? If you were paying attention, we are taking this short series by (roughly) following Lesslie Newbigin’s quote: That the church is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom. And by posing the question, “in what way are we a sign?”, we are essentially unpacking what it means to be a foretaste of the kingdom. How are we a foretaste of the eternal hope, the promised future, that we have in Christ? In other words, by “Character of Community,” I’m exploring the question, “what does the Church (or should the Church) look like?”
Now I would firstly like to say that this is a pretty big question. Depending on your frame of reference, we might respond to it in a variety of ways. Further, we’ve explored this question previously, in many different contexts, and I don’t want to be unnecessarily redundant. However, a few things are, in my opinion, worth noting.
Firstly, I want to direct us once again to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. For our purposes, we’ll consider the version given to us in Matthew’s gospel, which we looked at not too long ago. And it’s worth noting that Matthew’s concern, at least in part, is to demonstrate how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. And as we more recently examined, the Davidic covenant talks about how a descendant of David would always sit on the throne of Israel. In other words, Matthew is presenting Jesus as the true King of Israel, the people of God.
Now the sermon on the mount is probably pretty well known. For our purposes, we will consider what is usually known as The Beatitudes. This reads:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5: 3-12
Now my purpose today is not to examine this passage, or the rest of the sermon on the mount, in any kind of detail. But I merely want to point out, as you are undoubtedly aware, that the picture that Jesus paints of Kingdom people is remarkably different than what people might have expected. Recalling again the Jewish expectations of the Messiah (and if it is helpful, remember how Israel chose Saul to be their first king) and making some assumptions as to how that Messiah would lead Israel (i.e. what Israel would get), the characterization that Jesus gives is decidedly not helpful if one’s goal is to build a great and powerful nation. Indeed, if you were to ask the general public of their perception of “what Christians look like,” we would probably be fortunate if more than a couple of items on the above were listed.
Now as a quick aside, it is some times difficult (at least it has been for me) to understand how being poor in spirit or one who mourns is characteristic of God’s people. But I’m led to believe that to these two characteristics have to do with not being satisfied or fulfilled with the ways and things of this world – we are aliens and exiles in a foreign land. I think, broadly speaking, that it has to do with recognizing the fallenness and emptiness of this world and desperately desiring something more. I won’t go on about it more than that, but I think Jesus is saying that such people will and can only find their truest satisfaction in God’s kingdom, and thus cannot be satisfied with what we find in the world.
Recognizing that all this deserves much more attention, the basic point that I’m trying to make is that people of the kingdom seek and desire something far different than what the world offers (or what the world tells us is important). And therefore, such people look very different because we live for something different. We are set apart.
And that brings us to the second thing that I want to identify – another characteristic of a kingdom community. That is, holiness. 1 Peter 1:13-16 says:
13 Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”1 Peter 1: 13-16
As we likely know, to be holy means to be set apart. In the context of our on-going conversation, we might say that this means to choose the ways of the Kingdom, to choose God’s ways, instead of the ways of the world. And certainly we mean that one should choose not to sin instead of choosing to sin. That is, we all know there are certain things that human beings are not supposed to do, and we should choose to not do those things. But don’t we also mean more than that? Perhaps when we think of holiness only in terms of what we have to do and what we have to avoid, we can quickly lapse into legalism.
This may be why (or how?) the subject of holiness can be a delicate one. Last week, we talked about how the church is a sign – that we point to God and His kingdom. But it is sometimes said that it is precisely Christians’ emphasis on holiness that points people away from God. Christians have often been accused of being judgemental, hypocritical, and intolerant. Perhaps the problem is that our tendency is to be far more interested in others’ holiness than our own. And in trying to impose holiness on others, instead of seeking holiness for myself, we assume the role of judge or king, and reflect the character of colonizers, imperialists, or persecutors – decidedly not what is described in Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
When I think about this (from this particular perspective), I think of Jesus and the adulterous woman in the gospel of John. Now there are some textual questions which we won’t get into, but we are probably familiar with the story. Jesus went to the temple courts and there, the religious leaders brought in a woman who had been caught in adultery. They wanted to know what Jesus thought should be done with her (“the Law says we should stone her”). Jesus’ famous words, “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” shouldn’t be taken to mean that Jesus condones her or any sin. But it suggests a stark difference in the understanding of the kingdom and of holiness between Jesus and the religious leaders.
The religious leaders were eager to pass judgements, to issue punishment, to set themselves apart from others by their supposed “holiness.” I can imagine them saying, “look how pitiful you are. But you can be like us.” So when others look at us, do they see Jesus? Or do they see these religious leaders.
So perhaps (just perhaps) when Peter says, “do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance,” he means something much greater, much more all-encompassing, than merely following the rules. Perhaps he means something more akin to, “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds (your good way of life?) and glorify God…”
My point simply is that we are indeed called to be holy. But perhaps we need to better understand that being kingdom people means that we are seeking to be holy, not seeking to impose holiness. We cannot fix the world or save others – indeed the very foundation of our community is the belief that only God can do that. But by what kind of life we choose, by seeking true life and not not-life, we can be salt and light and point to the one who saves.
The final item that I want to talk about (recognizing again that I am being overly reductive) comes from the apostle John. In John’s gospel, he reports Jesus as telling his disciples:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13: 34-35
Now in the text, these words occur immediately after Jesus’ washing His disciples feet (which we should recognize must occur during the first Lord’s Supper), and after predicting his betrayal by Judas. Jesus is telling the disciples of his imminent death (albeit obscurely) and these are his words to them. “Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John repeats this theme in his first epistle. In 1 John 4, he says:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.1 John 4: 7-12
Now John has more to say about this subject. But his basic point is that God is love. We are His people – that is, we are saved – because of His great love for us. And therefore, we should love one another because each of us has been brought into the family of God by His love (that is, God loved each of us, and we should (at least) love each of those whom God loves).
To put it in a slightly more tangible way, if you were to think about taking a job and observed that all of the people in the company clearly did not like each other, or only merely tolerated each other, would you think twice about taking that job? What would that tell you about the boss? If you were thinking about getting married, but found that nobody in the family wanted to go home for Christmas, would that give you second thoughts?
Now these examples may not fit for you – maybe other things are more important to you when you are looking for a job, and maybe your love for your fiancée means you’re willing to put up with their dysfunctional family. But I hope you get the point. And in the body of Christ, in the family of God, sharing and expressing the love of Christ for our brothers and sisters is a foundational characteristic because it is the love of Christ which brings us into that family. To put it conversely, how can we share the love of Christ if we are not sharing the love of Christ.
So, dear friends, let us love one another.
Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Whether or not Gandhi actually said this, it’s an interesting sentiment. And a similar sentiment might be expressed by a lot of people in our world. I suspect (with no tangible evidence) that most people in our society are a lot more hostile towards Christians than they are towards Christ.
I’ve said before (I think?) that people of the Kingdom should look like the King. That is, if we claim to be, or seek to be, people of Jesus’ kingdom, we should display the characteristics of the Jesus, the King, and of the Kingdom that He is creating. We might actually say that this principle is the reverse of what we’ve seen in the Old Testament – that is, when the King of Israel turns His back on God, when the King of Israel is unfaithful, the people of Israel are led the same way. When the King falls, the kingdom falls.
But we are citizens of the eternal Kingdom. This kingdom cannot fail because the King cannot fail. His victory, His kingdom, His love endures forever. The question for us is, do we want to live as citizens of this kingdom? Do we want to live as people of the King?
When people see us, when people witness this community, what will they see? What will be the thing that catches their eye, that reaches into their heart. My prayer for us is that, when people see us (either corporately, or as individual members of this body), they will see reflected in our lives the greatness and wonder of our King.