This is actually a shortened and edited** version of a prior post.
**On a random note, I actually prefer the word “redacted” to “edited” because the former is easier to say and the latter sounds funny when said. If you don’t believe me, try saying “edited” a few times. I refrain from using it, however, because it is not as well known and it makes one sound a little haughty, with a hint of an overinflated estimation of one’s intellectual prowess.
If you “google” the phrase “top vacation destinations,” you’ll get over 400,000 results with a great diversity of responses and suggestions. If I were to ask you what your favorite place or places would be, what would you say? I imagine your responses would be just as diverse as the responses found online. Whether it’s places in our home or town, places we like to go on vacation, or significant places that marks the times and seasons in our life that we hold in our memories.
And if you’ll allow the comparison, this is true of the Bible as well. I imagine if you “googled” “favorite Bible verses or books” you’d get nearly as diverse of a response. Like vacation destinations, there are books and verses in the Bible that we find ourselves going back to over and over again. One’s that we’ve memorized, others that marked significant times and seasons and events in our lives, still others that made sense for the first time—maybe the only time—at a specific time and day that we readily recall.
And unless I miss my guess, you, like me, find some of those favorite verses or texts in the gospel of Luke, where we find John the Baptist’s call to bear fruit worthy of repentance. If nothing else we all turn to the “Christmas story” year after year, hearing it read in church or watching Linus read it in the Charlie Brown Christmas episode they show each year.
On the other hand, there are also others we don’t like to visit and seek to avoid. Or, there are places that we don’t like to visit under certain circumstances. I’m sure many places are coming to mind about now.
Think about kids and their rooms. Growing up I was pretty hard-headed and that got me in some trouble, and I often was told to go to my room. And it’s funny to think about the reaction I had and all children have when they’re told that. After all, it’s their room and is usually a pretty fun and cool place to be, but you’d think it was the most horrific place in all the world the way children react when they are being punished and told to stay there.
My point is that our context and circumstances clearly determine how we react.
A kid’s room is generally a great and wonderful place until they are told to stay there as punishment for misbehaving. And the same is true when we turn to the Bible. Certain passages we avoid if they push us too much, ask more of us than we wish to give, clash with the prevailing views of our day, and/or challenge long-held ideas, feelings or behaviors. The result is that we have a canon within our canon or a Bible within our Bible, which is defined by those passages and verses that we read and those that we avoid. Just like we have a relatively limited number of places that we visit and like to visit—we have a limited amount of the Bible that we visit and like to visit.
I’ve recently been working on summaries of the N.T. books, which has required me to study even the parts of certain books that I would usually move through quickly if at all. In studying the gospel according to Luke (and its second volume in Acts), I’ve found both familiar and cherished places and others that are not so familiar and not so cherished. I’ve found passages I like and embrace and others that I usually avoid and keep at arms length. I’ve found verses that comforted and others that challenged, and many that did both at the same time. And most clearly I’ve found a challenge to live out the ethics of the Kingdom of God, to live within the domain over which God’s ethic holds sway, to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, all of which means living a life that looks like Jesus.
Luke’s gospel is, through-and-through, a declaration of good news for the lowly, downcast, outcast, and marginalized. Luke’s is also a message that continually denigrates and condemns the haughty, mighty, wealthy, powerful, and mainstream. Just as our circumstances often dictate our experiences at a given place, so too do our circumstances often determine how we interpret and/or apply a given text. And coming to Luke-Acts from the place of the mainstream, well-off, and quite wealthy as far as the general standards of the world go, I find Luke’s message difficult and challenging at times.
In Luke’s gospel we find Jesus pushing against all of the social, religious, and political practices of the day, showing his followers another and a better way, a new way of life, a new ethic, known as the Kingdom of God. We find him challenging the accepted norms of his day—the quid pro quo, might makes right, me-first paradigm—which, in large part, remains the norm of our day as well.
And so, let me say as we begin, I hope that this message challenges and convicts you. And if it frustrates or upsets you in the process I’ll just have to be OK with that because it’s done that to me as well.
So with that being said, I want us to look at several texts in Luke that demonstrate this “Kingdom Ethic,” this Jesus-looking life, this fruit worthy of repentance that John the Baptist calls for in Luke 3.8.
Luke tells us in chapter 3 that John the Baptist is out in Galilean countryside preparing the way of the Lord by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and many are coming out to hear him and to be baptized. And look at how John begins: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come?” How many times do you imagine a pastor could begin his sermon that way before he got run out of town today? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance, in keeping with a changed life. Don’t merely claim that you are a descendant of Abraham as your security, for that ultimately matters little. That gravel lying over there in the parking lot is just as capable of being turned into descendants of Abraham. Bear fruit, good fruit, fruit that demonstrates your transformed life. For every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.”
The logical questions that follow are how? and what? How do we bear this fruit and what does this good fruit look like? John’s reply to these questions in verses 10ff is significant, setting the tone for the rest of Luke’s gospel. The crowds, John says, are to share their clothes and food with those who have none. The tax collectors are to stop taking more than they ought. The soldiers are to stop extorting money and to be content with their pay. In sum, they are to opt out of the prevailing patterns of behavior in order to care for the poor and the lowly and the marginalized. They are to put others above themselves, using their place of privilege to better the lives of others less privileged than they are.
This, John declares, is the fruit worthy of and in keeping with a changed life. Such actions are central the ethics of God’s kingdom, because in God’s economy what matters most is that we always seeks to love and serve God and neighbor by putting others before ourselves. This is the gospel translated into action. This is what it means to find salvation and to enter in to the kingdom of God.
Well, you may be thinking, it can’t be that simple. Didn’t he leave out the part about believing certain things, or praying a prayer of salvation, or joining a church? Jesus did call people to follow him, believing that he was the Messiah, the one who had come to redeem the world through his self-sacrificial love, the one who was God-with-us, the one to show us what God was like. But he never offered up a set of doctrines to be adhered to or “prayer of salvation” to be prayed. Rather, he offered them a new way of life, a new ethic that he called the Kingdom of God.
This is why the gospel accounts always reveal salvation as a choice to follow Jesus. It’s never merely a matter of praying a prayer, walking an aisle, and then being immersed in water. It begins here, but these are the outward manifestations of an inward repentance, an inner transformation that redeems and restores the person and manifests itself in a changed life that begins, slowly but surely, to look more and more like Jesus.
Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN has noted, rightly in my opinion, that “somewhere along the way a twisted, abbreviated, Gnostic version of the gospel has made its way into Christianity where we reduced it down to a set of beliefs about Jesus rather than a commitment to live in the way of Jesus. But I submit to you,” Boyd continues, “that N.T. Christianity knows no such Gnosticism, as if you are saved by the theological content of your brain. It’s rather, living a different way of life, the way of Jesus…Christianity is anything but a personal, private belief system that a person embraces to escape hell when they die. No…if Jesus cared about the poor, we have to care about the poor, if we cared about the homeless, we have to care about the homeless, if he cared about the sick, the demonized and spiritually oppressed, we have to care about them too…if Jesus set aside all of his privileges to enter into solidarity with the least, we are called to set aside our privileges, whatever they may be, to enter into solidarity with the least. That’s what it means to be Christian, to be Christ like.”
The question before us, then, is what does it mean for you and me to live lives that look like Jesus? What does it mean for you and me to bear fruit in keeping with a changed life? For us to live according to God’s ethics, and thus within the Kingdom of God?
I wish that I could give you something specific,concrete, and comprehensive list of what it means for you, but the truth is that each of us must decide this for ourselves. The call is simply to follow Jesus, which means mimicking and imitating him in all that we do. Precisely what that looks like must be decided by each of us. We must immerse ourselves in Scripture, we must read and re-read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings, and then seek everyday to conform our thoughts to his thought, our behavior to his behavior, our life to his life.
This means that when we read about Jesus reaching out to and fellowshipping with those on the margins of society—outcast because they had a physical illness or were of a certain occupation or race or gender or ethnicity or any number of reasons—we must be doing the same in our own day, even if people ridicule us for doing so. Or when we read Jesus’ commands to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us,” that means we must opt out of the quip pro quo mentality of the world, in which you fight back against anyone who harms or threatens you, and instead do the crazy and foolish thing of loving and praying for even our enemies and persecutors. Or when we find Jesus declaration to go into all the world with the good news of God’s redemption grace, we must at least ask ourselves if we’re doing what he commands by seeking to go into the world and be the church or are simply spending most of our resources on a bunch of programs in a building. Or when we read Jesus’ parable about the man that had so much wealth he had to tear down his old barns and build bigger ones only to find that his life was to be over the next night, it means that we must heed Jesus’ warnings about what we treasure and how we use our wealth. It means that we must be on guard against all forms of greed because life in the Kingdom of God does not derive from a super-abundance of possessions, but rather from self-sacrificial love that gives up all privileges (monetary or otherwise) in order to serve and help and love and befriend and bless the least and lowliest. Or, as people who all have an abundance so far as the world’s standards go, when we hear Jesus’ declaration that it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God (Lk 18.25) it ought to at least give us pause, and when we read the parable about the rich man who allowed a poor man to starve at the gate to his house, we better consider whether we are doing much the same thing by failing to tangibly care for those starving across world while much of our nation suffers from a staggering amount of obesity.
Each of must begin, however slowly and faltingly, to manifest a life that looks increasingly like Jesus. And it requires spending time in the Scripture and, as best you know how, conforming your life to Jesus’ life and teachings.
So, by way of illustration, I want to close today by sharing some of my reflections from the past year or so of wrestling with what it means to be a Kingdom citizen and to bear fruit worthy of a changed life. But let me just emphasize that you’ve got to think through this on your own. You can’t just turn off your brain and wait for me or anyone else tell you what you’re suppose to believe and how you are to respond to the life and ministry of Jesus. The truth is, you may profoundly disagree with some things I’ve said or am about to say, and that’s OK, in fact, it’s a good thing because you’ve got to do the thinking yourself, you’ve got to wrestle with the gospel stories and teachings, and as best you can to determine what it means for you to follow Christ based on your time spent in prayerful study.
I want to add three qualifications. First, you need to do this in community with other believers who can walk with you through the process, who can push you and challenge you, who think differently than you and can critique your thinking. And this means discussing matters with others in your church community and reading a wide range of books and listening to the thoughts of others with whom you may profoundly disagree. And second, if you find that some of Jesus’ teachings seem too hard or impractical and are tempted to spiritualize them to avoid their implications or write them off altogether, those are likely the one’s that you must seek to implement into your life with the greatest urgency. Because it reveals that you’ve conformed to the culture more than to the lifestyle of Christ and the ethics of God’s kingdom. Finally, when you’ve done this, begin again at the beginning. It’s a continual, on-going process that lasts our entire lives. We must continually ask ourselves what it means to be a Christ follower and what it means to be church in and for the world, because each of us must be continually converted by the good news of God’s great grace.
In the last year or so I’ve been pushed and challenged and stretched as I’ve looked at the current state of Christianity in America, at least as I perceive it. In this journey of reflection, I’ve come across individuals who seemed to understand and share my frustrations with doing church and Christianity as usual, with Christianity as it is often manifested in our country.
They are people like Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist preacher and social reformer at the turn of the 20th century, who recognized the fallacy of a gospel message that separated the physical from the spiritual and saw that the redemption Christ brings encompasses all of life, which means making sure people are fed and clothed properly and seeking that justice be done for the least of these because such things are central to the good news of God’s kingdom.
They are people like Greg Boyd whom I mentioned earlier and John Howard Yoder, who have recognized that as the church we need to stop looking to and trying to fix Caesar (viz. the government) in order to cure all the ills of the world, to stop placing our hope in getting the right people elected who will pass the right policies to force people to act a certain way, but rather to decide each and every day that we will be the church— a countercultural community that manifests an entirely new way of life by emulating Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, which has more power to transform and redeem peoples’ lives than any policy forcing them to behave as we believe is best. This echoes Jesus’ critique of the religious leadership of his day who were concerned about cleaning the outside of the cup all the while death lived within. Rather, Jesus says, we are to be concerned with cleaning the inside of the cup knowing that the outside will become clean as a result. Why? Because the Kingdom advances not by the power of the sword but by the power of the cross; not by the power of coercion but by the power of compassion and love; not by the power of policy but by the power of prayer.
They are people like Howard Snyder, Darrell Guder, and Lesslie Newbigin whose books concerning the identity and mission of the church have helped me see that our focus must always to move beyond our campus here at 201 12th Avenue to the larger community and world in need of grace and mercy and hope, because missions isn’t something we do on occasion it’s at the heart of who we are.
They’ve been people like a young pastor named Michael Dixon who spoke at a conference I attended recently and has started a church in a rented their facility, seeking to keep expenses for their weekly gatherings minimal so that they can invest their time and energy and money back in their community, and thus gain a hearing for the reason they were doing all these things.
And they’ve been people I’ve just heard about such as Shane Claiborne who began a ministry called The Simple Way in which he and several others live in a house in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia, living in solidarity with the poor in order to minister to them in their need, giving them the opportunity and the right to speak the good news of Jesus Christ into their lives.
To some these ideas may seem too extreme. A break from church as usual. A “radical” form of Christianity. And maybe it is. But when I read through the O.T. prophets, through the gospels, and through Acts I can’t help but get the sense that such thinking is closer to the what the church is suppose to be, closer to the ethics of God’s Kingdom than other perspectives and approaches with which we may be more familiar and feel more comfortable.
And, truth be told, if we would all choose live as Christ called us to live, if we would all take Christ’s words seriously and decide not to spiritualize his teachings away so as to be able to reconcile them with the way of life our culture exalts, we may realize that the word Christian can accept no qualifier such as “radical,” because a radically different, other-centered, countercultural, crazy and seemingly foolish way of life is, by definition, what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Living the way he lived, caring for the things he cared about, doing the things that he did. Imitating, mimicking, modeling Jesus in all that we do. This is what it means to be a Christian. For the truth is, we can profess all we want that Jesus is Lord, that he is the Christ the Son of the living God—we can be very orthodox, theologically astute, and get a 100 on any Jesus pop-quiz we may be given—but unless we, like the disciples, are willing to leave everything and follow; unless we live as he lived, unless we love as he loved; unless we are bringing good news to the poor and release to those in captivity; unless we are recovering sight to those blinded by all the darkness of this world; and unless we are helping the oppressed go free; however imperfectly we may do all these things—I have to question whether we’ve truly understood this good news that we profess to believe, whether we’ve entered into the kingdom of God (the realm in which God’s ethics hold sway), and whether, in the end, we’re failing to bear fruit worthy of a changed life by saying to him “Lord, Lord” but not doing what he commands (Lk 6.46).