Friday, February 20, 2009

The Kingdom of God, in the Words of Early Christians

"The Kingdom of God" is one of the major themes of The unChurch -- what it is, and what it means for us to be living in it today, rather than just waiting for an afterlife. What does it mean to be living under the dominion of a new kingdom?

In many places, Christianity has somehow become so intertwined with good ol' patriotism and the "empire of America" that sometimes we forget that we are to be under a new empire. We are to serve a new king in a new way. We are to be a people that stand out -- a people of love, a people of forgiveness. To show just how DIFFERENT that is from how we often perceive it, take a look at some of these quotes from early Christians:
    You who are God's servants are living in a foreign country, for your own city-state is far away from this city-state. Knowing which is yours, why do you acquire fields, costly furnishings, buildings, and frail dwellings here? Anyone who acquires things for himself in this city cannot expect to find the way home to his own City. Do you not realize that all these things here do not belong to you, that they are under a power alien to your nature? ... Instead of fields, buy for yourselves people in distress in accordance with your means.
    -Hermas, 140 AD

    Christians "form a rabble of profane conspiracy... They despise temples as if they were tombs... They despise titles of honor and the purple robe of high government office, though hardly able themselves to cover their nakedness. Just like a rank growth of weeds, the abominable haunts where this impious confederacy meet are multiplying all over the world. Root and branch, it should at all cost be exterminated and accursed. They love one another before being acquainted. They practice a cult of lust, calling one another brother and sister indiscriminately; under the cover of these hallowed names, fornication becomes incest."
    -Minucius Felix, a lawyer in Rome, before his conversion.

    The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established ... brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator ... give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.
    -Hippolytus, 218 AD

    We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools ... now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the crucified one ... the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.
    -Justin, martyred in 165 AD

    We are charged with being irreligious people and, what is more, irreligious in respect to the emperors since we refuse to pay religious homage to their imperial majesties and to their genius and refuse to swear by them. High treason is a crime of offense against the Roman religion. It is a crime of open irreligion, a raising of the hand to injure the deity ... Christians are considered to be enemies of the State ... we do not celebrate the festivals of the Caesars. Guards and informers bring up accusations against the Christians ... blasphemers and traitors ... we are charged with sacrilege and high treason ... we give testimony to the truth.

    I recognize no empire of this present age.
    -Speratus, from "Acts of the Martyrs"
Each of the Roman Caesars were often referred to as a "Son of God." We don't think about it very often when reading the gospel accounts, but that's why it was such a "buck-the-system" type of statement to call Jesus the Son of God. That title was reserved for the Caesar, and it sure should never be used on a homeless guy from Nazareth.

Christianity was (and is) VERY political, and at the same time, it's not about running for office and grabbing power. It's about serving a new kingdom, it's about changing allegiances. Paying homage to a new kind of king -- one who sets the example of washing your nasty, muddy feet with a towel.

Today, we often like our Jesus with a good dose of Americanism, and we often sprinkle our patriotism with a dash of God-fearing. Do we confuse the two? And do we remember that following Jesus is a whole life change, an entire "change of allegiances"?

What's it mean to live in this strange "kingdom of God"? Were those early Christians taking it too far?


Joe B said...

A theologian named Peter Leithart wrote a book called "Against Christianity" (ha, you thought "unChurch" was irreverent?) He says that "christianity", as popularly practiced, faded long ago into a "civil religion" more akin to Rome/Egypt/Babylon than to the kingdom Jesus preached.

People have very little concept that Christ's Kingdom is pitched explicitly against the human order of things. Church-as-we-know-it actually snuggles cozily into the human order of things. It falls in the category of "what we like to do with our free time" rather than "our confrontation with the human order of things."

I like how the Hermas illustrates the difference:
" for yourselves people in distress." What? Wow! buy people out of their distress. Store up treasure in heaven by spending down treasure on earth.

Those 2nd century guys seem to be talking about a fundamentally different religion, don't they?

Adam Colter said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't find the term "church" in any of the quotes listed.

"Church-as-we-know-it actually snuggles cozily into the human order of things."

Is The Church universal defined by the perception projected by the "church-as-we-know-it" or by the actions of Christians in the world?
Are there still Christ-followers, even groups of Christ-followers, living out the call to be be "pitched explicitly against the human order of things"?
Is the local church synonymous with "Christ's Kingdom"?
Is the local organization of believers being condemned for not producing a perception it was never itended to produce?
Sincere questions here - no rebuke or rebuff.

Is our local organization of believers being condemned for

Eutychus said...

Not sure I understand...what is the "being condemned" referring to?
The observation that "chuch cozyies with the human order", wherever and to whatever extent it is cozy?

God defines who is and what is the Church Universal. The institutions we create are a fair reflection of
who we are as a People. We shape churches, and they shape us.

So I do not think this is a matter of condemning "church" or "churches" at all. It is a matter of holding ourselves to the standard of Christ Jesus and his eternal Kingdom. I humbly propose that talking about who is and isn't to blame merely (and typically) sidesteps the whole question.

The real question remains: "What's it mean to live in this strange 'kingdom of God'? Were those early Christians taking it too far?"

What would Adam say about the question? What's it mean to live in this strange kingdom?

Adam Colter said...

It is fair to say I side-stepped the question posed by Scott. Mine was a response to Joe B's comment.
It is also true that "condemned" was the wrong word.
I know more questions than I do answers. So as regards the original question, should living in the Kingdom look different in America than in, for example, in India? We can only speak with true knowledge about the culture in which we live. I live in Mid-West America. Here, those who follow Christ, even in the "extreme" way of the early church, would face a very different form of persecution than did the early church, or the chuch in modern day India for that matter. I'm not even sure how I could characterize the risks of living in the Kingdom in Mid-West America. Seems negligible. I think the risk invovled, whether right or wrong, shapes our view of what it means to live in the Kingdom - though not the truth about what following Christ should look like. The high risk eliminates the half-hearted. Here, the low risk culture almost promotes complacency. Life in the Kingdom has always and should ever look like Matthew 5-7 and Acts 2-4. But if we look around and don't see that, what should we do?

scott said...

I can't speak for Joe, but my thinking on the original question, Adam, is this: I'm not overly concerned with how much persecution is involved (you're right, we don't truly experience any right now), but it seems like living The Way in the manner that some of those early Christians did? That might actually invite some *real* persecution.

For instance, going AWOL from the military can get you put in jail. And possibly ostracized from your community.

Selling off the majority of your belongings and moving into some sort of "House o' Sharing" wouldn't really invite true persecution, but it sure wouldn't be easy to explain to people.

Also, some of it depends upon how far you want to go with "refusing to pay religious homage to the empire." Our church choir and orchestra is playing a song about "what it means to be an American" later this spring at a large community event. I probably couldn't do that, then, nor could I put my hand on my heart and do the "pledge of allegiance" anymore. That wouldn't invite much true "persecution," but I can tell you now that I don't think I'd make a lot of friends in the church for refusing to do it. Because to most of us, our Christianity is steeped waist-deep within our Americanism.

Joe B said...

I don't really understand Adam's questions and comments about the church. But if the original question is "what it looks like to live in the [kingdom of God] today", it's fundamentally the same whether in the US or in India.

In either place, Jesus preaches a radical way of self-sacrifice: generosity (versus concentrating wealth), forgiveness (versus axe-grinding), contentment (versus ambition and lust), peace-making (versus alliance-building.)

There's nothing complicated in the concepts, it's just kind of unthinkable to actually LIVE that way. Won't you get run over? Left behind? Go broke? Become such an insignificant person in your meekness that the light of your witness would be wasted?

People do get persecuted in India in some places and at some times. But whether in India or the US, the biggest factor inhibiting the Jesus-Forward lifestyle is not the threat of violence. It is the risk of losing status and opportunity and position. Indian Christians have to battle the same human instincts as us, whether or not the persecutors come to call.

Christi R said...

Ok, I really wasn't going to post because, honestly, I hate looking stupid, but I think I'm missing something. I've read over everything (more than once) and I just don't think I'm getting the point Scott is trying to make.

Early Christians were persecuted for not giving their complete allegiance to Caesar and for worshipping Jesus as the Son of God, right? But we don't live in those times, especially here in the U.S. Our government doesn't expect us to kneel before it and worship it and it doesn't persecute us for being Christians.

I guess I don't see being Christian and being American as the same thing, but I also don't see a problem with being both. Why can't I love and respect my country AND love, respect and worship God?

To answer one of Scott's questions, no, I don't think those early Christians did take it too far. And I think we have a lot we can learn from them and what they did. But we live in a different place, in different times. I don't see that it's about being too American or patriotic; I see the problem in not fully living a Christian life. I'm just not sure I see the two as overly connected.

In the original post, Scott also asked, "do we remember that following Jesus is a whole life change?" I completely admit that I don't always remember that; and it's something I need to strive for and live. And yet, I don't think I'm actually confusing Americanism with Christianity.

Scott, I'm not trying to be difficult; I'm just trying to understand where you are coming from.

scott said...

Fair questions, Christi. I don't think you are really missing something -- just understand that I am, in this case, trying to ask the hard questions rather than I am trying to teach some hard-and-fast point.

I don't think the issue is whether or not we are persecuted by our government. The point, perhaps, is which "empire" we are truly giving our full allegiance. Can a full allegiance to an empire here perfectly coexist with the allegiance to the kingdom of God? I, like everyone else, am happy and blessed to live in a rich, free country. At the same time, I think that the Biblical and early-Christian notion of "the empire" did not just apply to Rome. Empires are timeless... As Joe mentioned in a recent email thread (hope he doesn't mind me reposting it here), "There is one Kingdom of Christ. There is one Dominion of Man, though its 'crown' get bounced from head to head. It changes faces over and over, and sometimes it has multiple heads. In 90AD it was Nero. But it's political and financial and ideological."

I'm just looking at those quotes from early Christians at face-value. They don't want to acquire costly furnishings and dwellings. They despise titles of honor and government office. They refuse to participate in any profession that goes against Jesus' nature. They are forbidden to kill, even insofar as not participating in the military.

A Biblical basis for all of that can easily be found, yet as I said, our current "American" version of Christianity often teaches a strong support for war and military strength, riches ("it's okay to make tons of money and buy nice things, just don't LOVE it too much!"), and political achievement ("let's win the 'war on culture' and get the right laws put into effect!").

I'll admit that I've been prodded to ponder these questions and ideas as of late, because of some books I've been reading (you don't actually expect me to have 100% independent thought, do you?). Here's an interesting quote from a book I'm in the midst of:

So among the book of Revelation's many messages is a clear message to believers: come out of that maddening whore of an economy that is pillaging the world. As we shared earlier, "coming out" for the early Christians meant sharing all things in common, selling possessions, and giving to anyone in need (Acts 2, 4). Just as ancient Israel was an alternative to the exploitive economies in Egypt and Canaan, so too these early Christians understood themselves as set apart in all areas of their lives, including economic. Christians didn't need Caesar's power to create an alternative society. They lived life in the spirit of Jubilee. They practiced economic sharing, so much so that it could even be said they ended poverty in the small pockets they lived in. One of the results of the birth of the church at Pentecost was that the church ended poverty: "and there were no needy persons among them." The community itself became good news to the poor. They lived near one another, sharing a common rule of life, daily sharing worship and friendship...

All of that may have provided more questions than answers, I'm not sure. And now I'll allow the dissenters to tear me to shreds! :-)

Christi R said...

Thanks for the clarification, Scott. It makes more sense to me now and to be honest those are really hard questions. At least for me most of what you are talking about is completely foreign and certainly nothing I've ever considered before. What I think you are in essence talking about... is taking our Christianity to another whole level. Like in a really big way! Which is exactly what those early Christians did! I get it; still, it's a lot to take in and think about. I'll have to ponder it some more and get back with you.

Joe B said...

Scott was particularly thinking of a certain kind of corruption of the faith that especially afflicts American conservatives. Because of the trash he's been reading. (;-)

But that's just one flavor among many. The point is that people fool themselves and reshape Christ's Kingdom to conform to their pet causes, whether liberal or conservative or American or African. That's corrupt worldly thinking, not spiritual Christian thinking.

The Beast in Revelation has many heads and wears many different crowns. We shall not serve any but Jesus himself. And you will not find me, for one, saluting flags and honoring any war in church. Burn me alive if you wish.

Rev Darin Hansen sent me this snippet from Oswald Chambers just this morning, it seemed to fit:
"When the Spirit of God has shed abroad the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5), we begin deliberately to identify ourselves with Jesus Christ’s interests in other people--and Jesus Christ is interested in every kind of man there is. We have no right to be guided by our affinities; this is one of the biggest tests of our relationship to Jesus Christ! The delight of sacrifice is that I deliberately lay down my life for Jesus' Friend, who is therefore my friend. I lay it down for Him and His interests in other people, not for a cause.

Jan Kelley said...

i dont think the early Christians "took it too far", but i dont see how this can be accompished in our communities today, unless, perhaps, a bunch of us believers move to a "community" away from others and then we can live "for" Jesus by living "for" each other and ridding our little community of poverty. But then, we have taken ourselves totally out of the world and, thus losing any influence for Jesus will be lost except for the tremendous impact we would have on the elect who have made it into our little commune. How far should we take it? what is "it"?

Joe B said...

Wow, Jan, you're not the first one to respond like that. It is somehow programmed into us that there are only two choices: live exactly like our suburban neighbors or live in a cave somewhere.

I wonder why we so quickly assume that isolating ourselves from the world micht somehow help us life the life Christ demands?

Jesus is the one who came from the Father to lost humanity for the purose of living a while among us.
How could we imagine we could live a Christ-like life if we were sequestered from the world he came to embrace?