Tag Archives: Kingdom of God on earth

Merit Badge Religion

Most of us think that in some way we must do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness in order to become a Christian and qualify for heaven after we die.  I like to refer to that as “Merit Badge” religion and  it has little to do with what Jesus taught and lived.  When I was a Boy Scout leader, the boys who won the coveted rank of Eagle Scout were those who won a large number of  merit badges and completed a useful project for the community. It was what they knew and what they were able to do that won the award.  “Merit badge religion” is the result of the church being taken over by the American culture.   In this culture we attain superiority  by competing well: by being the most knowledgeable and highest educated; by improved morality and improved behavior.  We worship success in our culture  and believe that we get what  we deserve  by what we work hard for and therefore are worthy of.

We have transferred these same principles to our churches.  So to have the right informed knowledge about God; to  know the Bible through deep study  and to  behave morally and ethically according to its perceived teachings;   and to practice the  correct rites  of worship,  communion,  baptism,  plus giving our money in acts of  stewardship we will competitively qualify for heaven . We earn it.  It  is by what we know and what we do  that qualifies us.    And therein is the problem .Note I refer to it as “religion”  not “Christianity”

 

Our Christian spiritual lives and our churches are too often  based on this same sort of religious meritocracy. For example:

  • Being able to recite Bible memory verses
  • Going to church every Sunday
  • Attending Sunday school
  • Having the “correct beliefs” by understanding and defending the church’s creed
  • Being a “good” person
  •  Praying
  • Being baptized in the “correct” way
  • Taking communion
  • t These are admirable, I will concede, but none will earn us a seat at the Lord’s table in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that ONLY GOD’S GRACE can do that and it has already been given to us.  All we need to do is be aware of God’s saving love and forgiveness.   It is freely given and there is no way God’s Grace can be earned.

The problem with “Merit Badge” Christianity is that it bases our entry into God’s Kingdom on what we do  and as the New Testament says and Jesus proclaimed it is all up to God’s grace.   “Merit Badge” Christianity says we must work, labor, sweat and learn, and do more to gain a place in God’s Kingdom. The opposite is true! God gives us his Kingdom. Nothing we do on our own can gain us entrance.

Jesus did not say “Blessed are the brightest and the best”

He said:   “Blessed are the poor for to them is the Kingdom of God”.

What the World Needs Now is Love

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love;  it’s the only thing there is just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone….”      Diana Ross sang this top selling record in 1965  as the nation was deep in the quagmire of Vietnam and  the nation was being ripped apart by internal disagreements over the war and the Civil Rights Movement.   This was the decade that saw the assassinations of  John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was a turbulent decade.   It was a violent decade.   It was much like the decade of which we are now a part.

I think about death a lot these days.   It seems it is always lurking around the corner and ready to pounce on me when I least expect it.  But I do not fear it because I believe in a loving God who will receive me as a father receives his child—with open arms and unconditional love.  In the Parable of the Prodigal  Son Jesus  told of this kind of love and in the Sermon on the Mount he tells how we need to love others unconditionally in the same way the Father (God) loved the Prodigal Son.  In the Sermon he says:

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and  hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘ Love your enemies  and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your father in Heaven.'”   (Matthew 5:43-44)

In a world torn by hatred and violence; divided by LGBT gender issues; fearful of each othere to mass shootings and listening to the prophets of hatred and gloom;  where the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor; where children go to bed hungry every night while surrounded by plenty; torn by differences in religion and race—-the solution of love is the only solution.

The word ‘love’ in English can have many definitions.   The Greek and Hebrew languages do a much better job in defining a more precise meaning.   The  Hebrew word ‘hesed’ is always used to express God’s unconditional love for his children.  In Greek there are several words we translate in English as love.  

In Greek, eros is the word for physical love and sexual love.   philos is the Greek for love of brother and sister— love for family members.  The Greek word  agape is translated “love”  and is the Greek word for unconditional love—love that loves with no expectation of return.  This is unconditional love-— the love that loves us  regardless of any return of love by us.   This is the way God loves us and the way we are told by Jesus to love our neighbor in the Great Commandment:   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul,mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.    

What we need in this fractured and torn world today is LOVE.   UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.    We have tried the other ways—power  as military  and economic might;   hatred;   exclusion by building walls to shut others out; arming everyone to carry guns. How have they worked for us?   Not well!    The only solution we have not tried is  Unconditional Love.  Such Love put into action is a mighty force.    Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahtma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assissi and Jesus all lived by this kind of love and were a mighty force for change in their time.  They practiced agape love to the best of their ability.   Although severely and hurtfully opposed by the forces of power, in some cases jailed, beaten, and finally for King and Ghandi assassination and death—their lives and work remain a testament that love in action is a mighty force to change a fractured and torn world toward a more just and peaceful world.

Love is important!  It is what the dangerous, hurting, hatred and strife-turned world needs.   Have you ever considered what would happen if the United States used even half of the billions and billions spent on maintaining our military might and developing the means to kill our enemies to show  our love to them ?   Never underestimate the power of love to change enemies to friends.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love;

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. 

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No, not just for some, but for everyone!!

Needed: A Cultural Sea-Change

In a recent post written about the mass shootings in America and the escalation of violence in our country,  I wrote that every time there is a shooting those who are leaders—mayors, police chiefs, governors, all the way up to the President of the United States say:   “This is enough —this must stop.”  But it does not stop—-and it won’t  stop until there is a sea-change in our culture.  What might that cultural change look like?  I’d like for you to think about that with me today….

One of the major changes must be in how we define success.  WE MUST HAVE A NEW DEFINTION OF SUCCESS.

Our current culture defines success as power.  It scorns failure, powerlessness, and any form of poverty.  It rejects all human vulnerability and seeks dominance instead.  Our definition and image of success is POWER.  Our political leaders in the current election are seeking to project a strong, secure, invulnerable image of power and control.   Dominance is what the American people are demanding and what Trump is exploiting  when he calls for “making America great again.”

What is the change in definition of success that we need?   It is found in the Gospel—the good news that Jesus brought, taught, and modeled for the world through his life and ministry.  We have thoroughly missed the gospel message about the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought as seen, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (cf Matthew 6 and 7).  He brought his message to a culture like ours that was dominated by Rome.   The Romans worshiped power and maintained their power with the sword and with fear.   They punished those who rebelled against them by hanging them on crosses for days until they died by sword.   They called Caesar their god and among the gods they worshiped were Jupiter—the god of the thunderbolt and Mars, the god of war.  Into this harsh and fearful world Jesus brought a different way to live as a society.

The Sermon on the Mount praises those who his society looked down on.   “Blessed are the Poor”  he taught—not the rich but those on the bottom of the social ladder.  “Blessed are the Meek”—not the strong and powerful but those who are weak and vulnerable.   “Blessed are the merciful” —those who show mercy to the poor and vulnerable rather than trampling them under foot.  “Blessed are the peacemakers”—not the generals who wage war but those who seek peace over the destructiveness of war and strife in society.   “You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you;  Do not resist an evildoer  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.’ ”  You have heard that it was said ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say go you:  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

This is a completely different way of living and turns strength and domination way on its head. It is a sea change in the status quo. True success would be a nation where poverty ceases to exist; where there are no children going to bed hungry; where people receive adequate medical care as needed; where laws are passed to benefit the common good and not just the few who are rich; where civility is practiced and people listen to each other; where color of skin and language spoken and religion practiced make no difference; where those who lead are servants of all and people are honored for strength of character and not for the money they make or the power they have;  where love and compassion are freely practiced; and where people help others rather than scorn their helplessness.

We today have thoroughly missed the point as did Jesus’ followers .   That is why Jesus says in Matthew 21:31 that “prostitutes, drunkards, and  tax collectors (hated in Jesus’ time) are getting into the Kingdom of God before the chief priests and religious elders.”

This is not an easy prescription to heal a hurting and hostile world. It will be achieved gradually and only as we turn to God for God’s strength and aid.  Jesus warned his disciples of the difficulty of the changes needed to live in the Kingdom of God on earth when he said “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and many take it,  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and few there there are who find it”. But Jesus also told his disciples “with God, nothing is impossible.”

Churches Survive by Saying “Yes” to new ideas

If you want your church to survive and see the next decade, figure out how to say “yes” to new ideas.  

I still receive newsletters from many of the churches I’ve served, and when I do I always check two things:  (1)  The calendar of activities ; and (2) the attendance figures, if given.

As I look at the calendar of activities I am saddened to see the same things that they were doing when I was there—10, 15, 20 years ago are being done today.   Same old, same old. year after year after year!   As I look at attendance, it is steadily dwindling for these churches  And church membership rolls are losing more to death than gaining new Christians.

There is a connection between the above two.  I believe that the only way to turn things around is for the church to start saying “yes” to some new ideas.    Actually the ideas are not new at all.    Somehow between now and the time Jesus spent on earth the church has forgotten the message that Jesus brought. Jesus’ message was one of proclaiming something new—The Kingdom of God on earth—a new and transforming way to live according to the principles found in the gospels  and his life and ministry that was summarized in the Beatitudes in Mathew.   His message about living in the Kingdom was a complete turning upside down of all the rules and regulations and greed and hatred and exclusiveness of the temple religion and the way people related to each other at his time —it was the  good news,  a gospel of love of God, neighbor.  Jesus message proclaimed that God loved all peoples, especially the poor, the widow, the outsider, the excluded, the homeless, the sick,, the mentally ill, foreigners, those at the “bottom of the barrel in society.

Those disciples and early Christians who followed Jesus attempted to live out these ideas.    That is why we read in Acts that religious authorities were complaining about them—“these Christians have turned the world upside down.

Groups of followers of Jesus gathered together and received the Holy Spirit and then were guided by that Spirit of God in all that they did.      They gathered often  to help each other live out the “Great Commandment” that Jesus said summed up all the foregoing law and prophets:   “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength;  and your neighbor as yourself!.    They were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Acts speaks often of Jesus’s followers being “filled with the Spirit—the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples that  would come after he departed the earth and would be their counselor and their guide and inspiration.     Filled with this Spirit, from the day of Pentecost,    the disciples and the early church  did things that seemed impossible, for example—Peter, who had denied Jesus in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial,  boldly proclaimed  the resurrection and the Kingdom of God at the risk of his life.   Followers of Jesus  endured persecution and death in order to stay faithful to this one, Jesus, who had changed and transformed their lives, and worked together to spread the good news of God’s transforming love and the new way of living in the Kingdom of God.

What we need to say “yes”  to is the Holy Spirit.   We need to say “yes” to welcoming the Spirit into our lives individually.   We need churches who say “yes” to the Holy Spirit and look toward the Spirit’s guidance.   The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and churches  that are full of the Spirit of God are churches that survive and grow because they are not into religion but into transformation.

In a world full of challenges, in a time like ours, we can’t settle for a heavy and fixed religion.   We cannot contain God’s Spirit in such boxes as we build and call churches.     They are not churches—-they are buildings.  Jesus did not come to build a new religion, but that is what we have done.   Instead of following him on the Way we have turned Jesus into a religion.   As Rohr says:   ” We worshipped Jesus instead of following Him on the same path”

Jesus transformed lives on a hillside,  in a house, wherever people gathered.   He reached out to ALL people and told them and showed them that God loved them not just in words but in actions showing the love..  To be loved by God is to be transformed, and to be transformed is to reach out to others in God’s name and seek their transformation.

When the church accepts the “new” idea that their mission is one of changing and transforming lives and sees it’s mission as one of changing and transforming the lives of those around them by  following the teachings and example of Jesus, then, as in Acts:   “the Lord will add daily to their numbersl

Congregations that are full of God’s Spirit are full of people!

Who Do YOU Say I Am?

 Scripture: Mark 8:11-28

The final command that Jesus gave to his disciples before his ascension was to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded….” We call it the Great Commission.   Luke reports it a little differently in Acts 1:8 and has Jesus final words to his disciples being this:   “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  

Different words—same essential message.   Disciples of Jesus are to tell the world about Jesus the Risen Messiah and the Kingdom of God he proclaimed.

The basic question is:   How do we go a about doing that in a world that seems uninterested?

We’ve tried inviting them to church.   No longer works well in the present day of millennials and younger folks.

We’ve tried advertising.   Doesn’t seem to work well any more.

We’ve tried scaring people with messages of eHell and damnation and God’s wrath. They were just turned off– -We have found that and faith and fear doesn’t seem to fit together.   In fact, faith is what cancels out fearo.   And the scare tactics do not attract but drive peopleaway. They don’t have much to do with telling people about Jesus.   So scare tactics are counterproductive.

We’ve tried TV and the social media, including web-pages and blogs.   Not working.

We’ve tried changing our music and worship services to “contemporary” rather than “traditional”.   We’ve tried praise bands and loud music while throwing our pipe organs out the back door.   Turns out it didn’t make much of a difference.

 

WHAT WE HAVE NOT TRIED IS PROCLAIMING THE KINGDOM OF GOD THE WAY JESUS DID IT.   What way is that?   Let’s look again at our text for today to answer that question:

            When Jesus asked his disciples the questions in the text today:   Who do people say I am?   And who do you say I am?—-it was near the close of his earthly ministry.   These disciples had followed him, lived with him on a daily basis,   ate with him, shared ministry with him, listened to his teachings.   In the gospel of Mark, Jesus does not ever refer to himself as the Messiah.

            Jesus had kept a low profile on being the Messiah up to this point.   He wasn’t interested in self-promotion and big advertisements in the local papers & Tv..   He published no bumper stickers to place cars advertising who he was.   He hadn’t handed out t-shirts or hats with his face on them.   Jesus, according to Mark’s account, had kept a strict “don’t tell a soul” policy. Jesus referred to himself in Mark as “the son of man”.  

So Peter’s response was based on one thing only—-his experience of JesusWhat Jesus did.   How he acted.  What he taught by his daily life.     From his daily experience of being Jesus follower, Peter discovered who Jesus was—-from his actions more than his words.   When Peter said:   “You are the Messiah!”   it was based on Jesus actions—not just his words. It was based on what Peter had seen as he followed Jesus.

            When Jesus heard Peter’s words, he then began to explain to Peter and the disciples what it meant to be the Messiah   Peter still didn’t fully understand.   He saw Jesus as the messiah—but according to Peter’s definition of “messiah.”   What does “messiah” mean? It harkens back to the Jewish understanding of an “anointed one”.   Anointed by God for a special purpose.   Peter got the word right but substituted his own definition of messiah for the one that Jesus was. It is the Hebrew word for “Christ” (christos) in Greek.

            In the O.T. “messiah” was used to refer to Kings as God’s anointed ones.   As such, in many people’s minds that meant one who God anointed as a conquering hero like David, flushed with success.   But Isaiah gives the word a “different meaning” as he describes the Messiah as being a “suffering servant”.   For Jesus, the “suffering servant” is the vision that is given in Isaiah was the one he sought to fulfill by his life and work.  

           I think in far too many of our churches today we see Jesus in a third way that we have concocted.   Jesus has become a religious market product in today’s world.   There are “Jesus Loves you” smiley beanbag babies; little plastic cross-shaped containers filled with bubbles;   religious pencils; “Jesus is the Light” key chains; “Jesus Lives” rolls of stickers; Lamb of God resin lambs; God erases sin erasers; religious tattoos; pens, posters, etc.   There are bumper stickers saying:

Warning¨ In case of Rapture this car will be driverless; or

“Got God?”

Eternity: smoking or non-smoking?

Jesus is coming, everyone look busy.

There are billboard signs beside our roads advertising Jesus.

 We think we are spreading the word about Jesus with these, but really the only result is they serve to make money for those who sell them. That is because they –do not define the Messiah, God’s suffering servant, God’s anointed   Is it any wonder that people are turned off by all of this?   His “marketing approach” is not a good one for telling the world about Jesus and Gode.  

 We don’t seem to be doing a very good job of telling people about Jesus and God with all the media and paraphanalia we are distributing.

 

Increasingly we hear from the younger generations but more and more from the older generations, that they are searching for God in our churches and not finding God there. They want to deepen their relationship with God.   They say they are “spiritual” not “religious”.   Remember the statistic I gave you last week—-90 of churchgoing adults report that they have never experienced God in church!

So What Do We Do??  

            There are two ways that we can get the word out about Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God and the gospel or good news that Jesus brought to humankind about God and his Kingdom:

            The first is by word.   If you were asked what the gospel is, what would your answer be?   If you were asked why it is good news for all people, how would you explain it?? Would you say that Jesus was sent from God with the revelation that God loves all of his creation and that God is not like some person “out there somewhere” but is present in nature and in our daily lives—-whether we recognize God’s presence or not.   Would we say that Jesus revealed a God of love?   Would we say that God is a forgiving God and is like a Father to his children?

            We have to know what we believe about Jesus and God before we can effectively communicate about them to others?

            The second way, and best way is by how we live in God’s Kingdom on earth that Jesus came to proclaim.  

            The sermon on the mount in Matthew communicates “the way” of Jesus.   That’s how we are supposed to be living   Nothing spreads the word better about Jesus’   proclamation of the Kingdom of God on earth and his revelation of God as a God of love and forgiveness than when we as his followers live according to the rules of that Kingdom.     We do this by loving the unlovely; by going the extra mile; by turning the other cheek; by feeding the hungry; by sheltering the homeless; by tending the ill and visiting the dying.

The early church spread rapidly because its followers practiced their beliefs and didn’t just preach!!

As Francis of Assisi said to his monks:   preach constantly, using words only when necessary.

 

I want to close with this story about a lady being pulled over by a traffic cop in a busy city.   She said to him:   “Why did you pull me over?   I wasn’t breaking any laws.”   The policeman answered her this way:   I’ve been watching you for several minutes now. During that time about a lady being pulled over by a traffic cop in a busy city.   She said to him:   “Why did you pull me over?   I wasn’t breaking any laws.”   The policeman answered her this way:   I’ve been watching you for several minutes now. During that time you sped up and went by a car that had cut in on you too quickly and gave him “the universal sign of human friendship”.   Then at the next stoplight you banged your hands on the steering wheel in frustration and honked because the car in front of you didn’t leave quickly enough when the light turned green, then you sped by someone you thought was going to slow and yelled obscenities at them.    

            The lady said—“But officer, none of those are illegal.   I still don’t know why you stopped me!”

            The officer replied:   “Ma’am, I saw the bumper sticker on the back of your car that said “God loves you and so do I”   and I thought that this must be a stolen car.

 

OUR ACTIONS SPEAK SO LOUDLY AT TIMES THAT OTHERS CAN’T HEAR WHAT WE ARE SAYING!   Amen.