Sunday School at Centenary Church in Macon is a wide-open discussion session. People of all religions and opinions feel free to ask questions and raise objections. People from North Macon and Section 8 housing, wealthy and homeless, straight and gay, black and white, young and old.
Last Sunday, we were exploring the meaning of the “Kingdom of God”. Nobody talks about “kingdoms” anymore unless you live in Saudi Arabia, but everyone in this group agreed it was the key message of the Historical Jesus. Our barefooted Galilean peasant must have mentioned it repeatedly as he pounded the dusty roads around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Many decades later, the four evangelists recorded it 72 times. So, what did Jesus mean?
Some in our group felt Jesus was talking about “something coming.” Others said, “no, he meant it had already come, it’s here now, within you,” but what was “it?” What was this kingdom? Was it a new country with God as its king? How could that work? Was it something internal like grace? Even the evangelists seemed to guess at it. Mark introduces pages of parables with the question, “What shall we compare it to?” (Mark 7:30)
Luke’s gospel has John the Baptist sending a messenger to Jesus to ask the question, “Are you the one?” And he has Jesus answering, “Go tell the baptizer the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear,” Luke 7:22. This is a direct quote from Isaiah, chapter 35, where there is no doubt Isaiah was talking about the New Kingdom as a political Jewish take over which would give them back their country. Is this what Jesus meant? “Kick the Romans out and let us back into Jerusalem!”
That may have been what Luke’s readers would have wanted to hear in the year 80, but how about 50 years earlier when Jesus was doing the talking? Is this what his Jews wanted in the year 27? Could have been. All the prophets had promised it and the followers of Jesus sat in their synagogues every Sabbath listening to these prophetic readings. But maybe Jesus meant something else.
One of the members of our group asked, “What kind of people followed Jesus around?” Sure, they were fellow Jews and occasionally a fisherman or merchant would show up, but most of his listeners were destitute, (not just poor) undesirables. They were the outcastes of society: homeless, jobless vagrants. When Jesus said, “Blessed are you, for the Kingdom of God is yours,” he was talking to prostitutes and beggars. Homeless beggars were not looking for a political coup. They didn’t want to take up swords and javelins and storm the Roman citadel. They were looking for a warm meal, a dry bed and acceptance. Yes, acceptance.
This was the only “kingdom” Jesus could provide, wasn’t it? He told his apostles to “put up their swords” and look to a community of love and acceptance where the hated tax collectors helped the prostitutes and the prostitutes helped the homeless and everyone shared both the misery of a neglected life and the love of this new community.
It was a community where everyone’s invited, not just the clean and acceptable, not just one color or one sexual persuasion, not just those who agree with the media, but everybody. It was a place that would bring honor and acceptance, peace and happiness, joy and loud cheers to people who have been rejected by others but are now warmly embraced.
I looked around that large room last Sunday at Centenary and saw the smiles on all their faces. Nobody has to paint them a new picture. They know what the kingdom looks like — they’re living in it.
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