Tag Archives: NT Wright

Kingdom come

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

Calling of the Apostles. Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A clever piece of fictitious writing about Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has him thinking about the recruitment of disciples. He compiles a short list of potential helpers and takes it for assessment to the “Jordan Management Consultants” in Jerusalem. The Agency’s response, based on computer analysis and interviews, is highly critical. “The men you are thinking about,” the report says, “do not demonstrate any true potential and you might be advised to look elsewhere.” There can be little argument that the men Jesus did propose for leadership roles were a motley crew!

Keep with the idea, extend it, and engage in another fictitious exercise involving the same Management Consultants. This time Jesus is exploring how best to proceed and succeed in his missionary task. A possible response from the Consultancy’s Public Relations Department might read, “Sir, we have reviewed your stated objectives and it is our considered judgement that to win public appeal your movement would be advised to have a single watchword or master-thought. A careful evaluation of your aims and purpose lead us to believe your most appropriate and effective slogan would be: “The kingdom of God.”

Although, astonishingly, it is given no mention in the historic Creeds of the Church, “the kingdom of God” was at the very heart of Jesus’ message. He is on record as saying, I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God, for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43). The kingdom of God is the main theme in Jesus’ teaching: it occurs over 100 times in the gospels. Many of the parables were stories Jesus told to explain what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom features in his very first sermon. “The appointed time has come,” he said, “The kingdom of God is here.” (Mark 1:15). It is still there in his last sermon. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles (1:3) tells us that after the resurrection of Jesus, “He spoke to them about the kingdom of God.” And he asks his followers to pray for it: in the prayer Jesus gave us on which to model all our prayers, we are to ask, “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Every time we say those words we are asking for the Rule of God to be recognised and accepted in the world. The hope of the visionary with whose writings the New Testament closes – the Revelation of John – is of a time of rejoicing in heaven because “the kingdoms of this world now belong to our Lord and His Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (11:15). Whatever else Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God, its fulfilment is something for which the disciples must pray.

A word of caution – a mistake is easily made if our evaluation of prayer equates it with a quick-fix God who is good at conjuring tricks. T.W. Manson, a noted theologian, had this to say, “Those who think Messiah will come and transform the world by a wave of a magic wand are mistaken.” Jesus could not be more clear; early in his ministry he launched His campaign “manifesto” (without the help of the Joint Management Consultants in Jerusalem!) He took the opportunity to do it in the Synagogue when asked to read the Scripture, a passage from the prophetic Isiah. There he made public how he saw his task (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

There we have it – a ministry that was to revolve round the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the suffering and to do something practical, positive and radical about their circumstances. Not surprising then, that those early Christians were known for the way they lived, just as much as for what they believed, One of the first things Jesus did following his dramatic announcement of how he saw his task was to choose his disciples. And then it would appear he gathered them together in a series of seminars where he spelt out in detail what the kingdom was about. In the gospels, we have preserved what might be called “the manifesto of the kingdom” in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is no airy-fairy waffle. Here is a programme which is more than theory, more than academic. Here is something that deals in a realistic and practical way with a new and universal order. Jim Wallis, the American preacher and evangelist has this to say, “Here Jesus speaks to the basic stuff of human existence. He concerns himself with money, possession, power, violence, anxiety, sexuality, law, and goes on to the way we treat people, as well as with faith and religion people.” N.T. Wright in his book Who is Jesus? gives an opinion that No King but God was the revolutionary slogan of Jesus’s day and Jesus was seen as the one announcing that God was at last to become King. And for Jesus the kingdom was not purely an inward, private thing, Tom Wright says, it was essentially to do with the way in which Israel’s God was to become the Lord of the cosmos. He concludes that is the big picture the Gospel paints. That is the ambition God has for the world. That is the task in which the Church must engage. No wonder we are to pray for it. And more – live and work for it!

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Who am I?

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular and long running musical asks a question more usually the concern of the theologian than the producer of a stage show – “Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Whatever the view or verdict circulating about the position of Jesus, there was never any doubt (maybe a couple of blips) in his mind about his identity; knowing who he was and all that it involved. He knew Himself to be Messiah. And, of greater significance, He knew Himself to be, in a unique, unprecedented and lonely way – the Son of God. As God’s Son, He made some stupendous, staggering, controversial claims: we name a few only. He is, as God’s Son, the sole revealer of his unseen Father in heaven – “The Father and I are one. He that has seen me has seen the Father.” He says, “If you love your father and mother more than me, you are not worthy of me” and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words remain for ever.” When at his trial the High Priest asks him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed God?” He is unhesitating, resolute in reply, courageous, with every semblance of a one hundred per cent conviction and absolute sincerity – “I AM!” He is “the way, the truth, the life” and “No one can get to the Father except by me.” This latter, in particular, generates an understandable and lively debate in Inter-Faith circles. “Who am I?” – Jesus was the subject of widespread gossip and speculation. The authorities denounced him as an imposter, a quack and a law-breaker. An interesting observation (referred to by James S. Stewart in The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ) that those tremendous claims of Jesus are either the ramblings of a deluded madman, or they come from one who is what he claims to be – the Christ, the Messiah.

The first sermon I ever preached asked the same question as did Jesus Christ Superstar, although from a different angle. In the Gospel record it is Jesus who is asking the questions: “Who do people say I am?” (the easy one) and the demanding, heart searching critical one, “As for you, who do you say I am?” He asks the disciples, whereas in Superstar He is the One to whom the question is put, “Who do you think you are?” At first sight we might be excused for thinking there is a hint of uncertainty about his position – else why the questions?

The setting is a get-together at a place called Caesarea Philippi, a remote and secluded spot, providing the quiet and privacy Jesus needed to bring the disciples face to face with the certainty that the end of his Galilean ministry, given Him by the Father, was shortly to culminate in his death at Calvary and that the work of the Kingdom undertaken by Him in obedience to God’s Will would be Jesus’ legacy to them. There was a danger that the disciples, hopefully to inherit our Lord’s “portfolio” for mission, might not be sufficiently convinced that they should do anything other than declare themselves redundant and make a hasty retreat back to the fishing. On the contrary, it was vitally important and urgent that Jesus could confidently hand over to them, that they should see themselves not as conscripts but as “called and sent.” The episode at Caesarea Philippi has been described as “the watershed of the Gospel”. Certainly it was a critical and crucial moment. The whole thing, right from His birth, could blow up in his face. What if he’d failed to hold the disciples with him? What of the Kingdom?

A well-known story, and somewhat hackneyed, tells of Jesus at the gates of Heaven being interviewed by Heaven’s immigration officer. Jesus is asked what plans he has made for his work to continue on earth. “Well, there are Peter & John & Andrew & James & the other disciples.” “But if they fail you,” Jesus is asked, “what other plans have you made?” “I have no other plans,” Jesus replied, “I’m counting on them!” A question – are you to be counted with the reliable? Will I convince heaven’s immigration officer? It could depend on how we answer His probing question, “Who do you think I am?”

Who is JesusOne feature of what was involved, Jesus may have teased out with the disciples during their Caesarea Philippi retreat – the unwrapping of his promise (remember the Cross) that what the opposition did to him, they would do to the disciples likewise. How right he was! There is the great roll of the martyrs recorded in “the Lamb’s book of life.” We may not feel any threat of violence or persecution – as our brothers and sisters do in India and Nigeria, for example. Nonetheless we are under a form of threat. It is a matter of concern to me that the leadership, if not the membership, of the British Humanist Society takes every opportunity to denigrate all things Christian (other Faiths too) and are intent on removing the influence of religious legitimacy in society. Could they; have they gone so far as to attach to Christ the reputation of the deluded madman? Whatever, we would certainly not expect Richard Dawkins or, in his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens, if Jesus’ question, “Who am I?” was put to them, to respond in other than unfriendly, unsympathetic, derisory, critical terms. In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make emotional sense (worth a read), he writes in response to the Dawkins’ controversy, “When I see one of those passionate denunciations of religion which treat Christianity as the great gratuitous cause of all our sorrows, I mainly think: read more history, mate.” Another worthwhile and excellent read, whether or not we agree on all points, is NT Wright’s Who was Jesus? and the extended volume Simply Jesus.

One thing to remember, knowing Jesus for ourselves matters more than knowing about Jesus! The big question is not “who do people say I am?’ The big question is “what about you; who do YOU say I am?”

To read: Matthew 16: 13 – 21