Jesus the Divider Part III: You Want Us to do WHAT?!
Here's what we know so far:
For those who see Jesus as a model for bridge building, making peace, and striving toward reconciliation, Jesus said something super confusing. And,
he said it to his disciples while giving them instructions about their upcoming task, which involved going to their religiously conservative friends and family and announcing a radical (and progressive) message about the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In this post, let's look closer at what the disciples were instructed to do: announce the Kingdom and perform some simple tasks.
Because it was the message they were sent to give, and the tasks they were commissioned to perform, that would ultimately lead Jesus to say that super confusing thing about "I came to bring a sword, not peace."
So we need to understand what it was the disciples were about to get themselves in to.
Jesus told them,
7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.
"I'm sorry... you want us to do WHAT?!"
Jesus wanted them to go from town to town, specifically to those with a more conservative world-view about God, humanity, and the relationship betwixt the two, and say, "hey friends, guess what? The Kingdom of heaven is near!" And then do some typical street preacher magic like healing sick people, cleansing lepers, exorcising demons, and of course, raising people from the dead.
At our church, I often give people some helpful "to-dos" after a sermon. You know, go out this week and look for a way that you can really encourage someone in your life. That sort of stuff.
Jesus wanted his followers to bring people back from the dead and heal them of incurable diseases.
The point I want to make about this, however, is not so much the particulars of how (or if) the disciples really did--or could have done--those things two thousand years ago. The more intriguing question for me is, how can those instructions from Jesus back then (to his disciples) be helpful or directive for you and me now?
In other words, in what ways might we hear the invitation to go to our more religiously conservative friends and family with a more progressive word about who God is and what God is up to in the world?
In the year 2017, what does "go to the people of Israel" mean? What does "announcing the Kingdom of Heaven has come near" sound like? What does "healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and throwing out demons" look like?
Is there anything in this old story that speaks a word of truth in to our stories today?
Perhaps, if we modernized or reimagined Jesus' words of instruction, updating them for our world today, they might sound like this…
Instead of, “Go to the people of Israel,” he might say,
Go to places, spaces, and communities that predominantly reflect the status quo. To those who uphold the current power structure. To the privileged and the powerful. Go to places that are more conservatively religious and/or political (side note: making this distinction between "religious" and "political" is a more modern phenomenon. In Jesus' time these were overlapping realities, all tied up together with one another).
And then, as you travel and engage with more conservatively minded people (aka, those who are pointing backward to a previous time in history with older and less complete ideas about God and about the world and about humanity and trying to preserve them fastidiously) here is what I want you to announce:
And then, instead of us being told to say, “The Kingdom of heaven has come near,” we might be instructed to,
Tell them that all people are loved children of God, deserving of dignity and honor, and deserving of living a life of peace and wholeness. Remember that there is no such thing as “us and them.” That we are all connected. That Heaven is breaking in to earth in moments where people recognize their own beloved-ness the beloved-ness of others.
And instead of telling them to heal the sick and raise the dead and so on, similar (and perhaps more relevant and practical) instructions might be,
And as you go, meet the basic needs of humanity: food, clean water, shelter. Call people to wake up and live fully alive. And prioritize those on the margins who have been outcast, ignored, and maligned by society. Especially care for those who have been discriminated against and trapped in oppressive systems. Go to those tormented by mental unhealth and bring them healing and peace.
That's how I imagine it would sound today if we took the same core values of the Kingdom and transposed them in to our world.
I think it's a fairly accurate re-rendering of Matthew 10:7-8, of what "kingdom announcing and implementing" work looks like in the 21st century.
I won't go in to all of it, but an example of what I mean:
When Jesus said “cleanse those with skin disease,” the surface meaning was to visit those suffering with leprosy and heal them. And sure, maybe the disciples had special healing powers to do precisely that. But the deeper (and perhaps more meaningful) truth is that if you had leprosy in that day then you were considered unclean, and you were thrust out of the community. Completely isolated from everything and everyone you’ve known. You lived literally and figuratively on the outside of the community.
So to “cleanse those with skin disease” was to find those who had been rejected by society, those who were cast to the margins, and to restore them to back to their family, back to their community, back to a place of dignity and worth and honor and value.
And that is work that we can do today.
Our world is full of people who have been cast to the margins: the homeless, LGBTQ people, people with different colors of skin, the mentally ill, and so on. We do not lack for those who have been rejected, forgotten, and marginalized.
The work of the Kingdom is to go to them, love them, and (if possible) restore them back to community, dignity, worth, and honor.
I think part of the church's job is to continually re-imagine what it looks like in our world for the "kingdom of heaven" to be near.
And I also think that, when we find what that looks like, it will very likely involve challenging existing power structures. Challenging the powers that be. Pushing back against old ways of thinking and inviting people forward into greater awareness and connection.
In other words, to risk oversimplification, I think there is an inherently "progressive" aspect to Kingdom work.
Until all swords have been beaten in to plowshares, until the lion lays down with the lamb, until we truly accept that there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, then the challenge of Jesus is to breathe new life in to old and liberate those who've been oppressed.
But here's the thing... Here's what Jesus knew--and what we'll look at in the next post...
People will not like it.
If you're truly doing Kingdom work and challenging oppressive systems and empowering the marginalized and pushing back against more conservative paradigms, then be prepared for resistance.
It ain't gonna be pretty.