The Commonwealth of God Is Already Here
SLIDE 3: WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew the message of Jesus was different from John the Baptist: “the Commonwealth of God is not just near, it is already here.” But what did Jesus mean, when he said, “The Commonwealth of God is already here?” If the Commonwealth of God is already here, then why is war raging in Syria? Why are people still homeless? Why don’t we have a cure for cancer? And why are we taxing our poorest citizens, while wealthy corporations and many billionaires pay no taxes at all? Two scriptures, one in Luke and one in Matthew give us some clues.
SLIDE 4: I WAIT FOR YOU
In Chapter 17 in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was being asked, “When will the Messiah Come? When will God act to initiate the Commonwealth of God here on earth?”
Jesus’ response is similar to the famous Talmudic answer. You know the idealistic young person asks the Messiah, “What are you waiting for?
And the Messiah responds, “I wait for you!”
SLIDE 5: ALL WE HAVE TO DO IS BEGIN DOING IT
In Luke Jesus said, “The Commonwealth of God doesn’t come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says, ‘Look here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ And why? Because God’s Commonwealth is already among you.” Our ability to bring about the community of faith is within us! We don’t have to wait for some blinding divine action from outside of history. The grace of God is already within us to begin taking the actions that lead to a more just, forgiving, loving, sharing way of life. All we have to do is to begin doing it!
But how do we bring into being a community of love, and what does it look like? So, here we turn to the second scripture from Matthew as our clue.
SLIDE 6: LIVE GENEROUSLY
Jesus sent his twelve disciples out with this charge: “Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the Commonwealth of God is here and now. Bring health to the sick. Reach out and hold hands with the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.”
SLIDE 7: START HERE IN HUNTSVILLE
These were Jesus’ instructions as he sent the disciples out on their own to share the message of the Gospel. And let me add these are Jesus’ instructions to us today. You can think globally but act locally. Don’t go running off to New York City, or Chicago, or even Birmingham, start right here in Huntsville. And don’t assume you have to take on Governor Bentley, or Roy Moore or the Presidential Election. Instead, focus on welcoming people right here to the Sharing Table, and helping them to experience the miracle of sharing and love in person. Then tell them by what you do, that God is right here among us.
SLIDE 8: HELP PEOPLE FIND THE HEALING POWER OF PRAYER AND LOVE
Help people to find healing through prayer and love. Through your loving support help those who are sick understand they are surrounded by the prayers and care of a loving community. Help people as they wrestle with the demons of mental illness to know they are not alone. Support NAMI. Be willing to share your own struggles with depression, and other forms of addiction and mental illness, so when people come to the Sharing Table they know they are not weird or strange, but they are precious children of God. Make sure everyone knows they are welcome here in God’s community of faith.
SLIDE 9: REACH OUT AND HOLD HANDS WITH THE UNTOUCHABLES
Reach out and hold hands with the untouchables, by reaching across all barriers of social, class, educational and religious division. It’s O.K. to be gay. There is no shame in being poor. If you never had an opportunity to go to college or even finish high school, you are still valuable in this community of faith. Doesn’t matter if you come from a “good neighborhood,” or a less affluent area of our town, you are still welcome here. In fact, you might become our most effective form of outreach into the homeless camps. And you will not be judged by what you believe. Our faith is not what we think, but how we love that matters. And if sometimes we have doubts, or even a total faith melt down, that is alright because our spiritual friends sustain us as they pray with and for us.
SLIDE 10: YOU HAVE BEEN TREATED GENEROUSLY SO LIVE GENEROUSLY
And finally, says Jesus, “You have been treated generously, so live generously.” We have all been forgiven and so we are asked to become living fountains of forgiveness. And we are to practice that forgiveness within the life of the community of faith, so that others will look at us and say, “Gee that’s what love is like.” Forgiving living, breathing people we have to interact with week in and week out is not easy, and that is why God has called each of us to live in the community of faith, rather than claiming we can be just as good of Christians without coming to church. You know the phrase showing up is 90% of life? Well, showing up and loving and sharing with all of the various characters God brings to the Sharing Table is part of being the people of faith. Learning to love people we would not ordinarily be attracted to as social friends.
SLIDE 11: GIVE GENEROUSLY
Living generously also means learning to give generously. We are not a club, we do not collect club dues. We are a living breathing community of faith that grows and expresses our love by sharing generously. So in the words of a once famous President, ask not what the community of faith can do for you, ask what you can do for the community of faith.
SLIDE 12: DIVERSITY
Over the past fourteen years the diversity of our congregation has increased dramatically. Bill Viall one time shared with me a semi-serious story from United Church’s past that we were once so homogenous there was a serious discussion among some congregational leaders that only engineers should be allowed to join. They didn’t want to have to deal with people who didn’t think like engineers. No wonder our church experienced difficulty growing. And even if we weren’t all engineers back then we were pretty uniformly upper middle class.
SLIDE 13: SOMEHOW WE ALL LIVE TOGETHER AS GOD’S PEOPLE
Allow me to illustrate. When I first arrived as Pastor, I was told that the Deacon’s fund could only be used to help people outside of the church, and that is because we did not have any members who were truly poor. Well, that has changed. We still have many good solid middle class members, but we also have many people among us living on disability, food stamps, and public assistance, going to the free clinic for medical care, and somehow we all live together as God’s people. We are no longer a homogeneous congregation. We are diverse, and that does make living together more difficult. Not everyone in this church is just like us. We are just too different from one another. We have to stretch a little bit, and maybe a lot, to begin to embrace as good spiritual friends people who are unlike us. But we are living out the promises of God by proving that everyone no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey is welcome at God’s Sharing Table.
SLIDE 14: THERE ARE PLENTY OF CONGREGATIONS TO CHOOSE FROM
While we have yet to effectively reach across the barrier of race, we have become socially integrated by income and class, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, and theological background. And while some people don’t like that, it is O.K., because we are living out to the best of our ability the admonition to love one another as Christ has loved us, as a congregation of the United Church of Christ. Not everyone wants to be a member of United Church. Some people would much rather attend a church, where everyone is pretty much like them. There are plenty of other denominations and congregations to choose from. But making the commitment to become part of United Church is to embrace the more difficult way of Jesus. For here we are trying to bring the Commonwealth of God into the present moment.
SLIDE 15: BRING THE COMMONWEALTH OF GOD INTO THE PRESENT MOMENT
As we come away from our Annual Congregational Meeting last week with the challenge of giving of ourselves in order to continue proclaiming and living the reality of the way of Jesus, here is our call:
“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in Huntsville – both rich and poor. Tell them that the Commonwealth of God is here and now. Bring health to the sick. Reach out and hold hands with the untouchables. Overcome the demons of mental illness. You have been treated generously, so live generously.”
Good News, Good Ways
SLIDE 3: RECOLLECTIONS OF THE LIFE OF JESUS WERE SKETCHY
Luke was working from the very sketchy recollections of the life of Jesus over forty years after his death. Preaching a eulogy about someone’s life just a few days after his death can be difficult, but just imagine trying to summarize the meaning of someone’s life 40 years later with no written records? Well needless to say the biographical materials for the life of Jesus were a bit sketchy. For instance, we are pretty sure Jesus of Nazareth was from the little Galilean village of Nazareth, but at sometime he moved to the larger town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee before or maybe about the same time he began his public ministry.
SLIDE 4: BAPTISM, WILDERNESS, MOVE TO CAPERNAUM – NO TIME LINE
The recollections of the early church suggested that Jesus left Nazareth and visited the region of the Jordan River, where he was baptized by John the Baptist. The Gospels mention a “time” in the wilderness preparing for his mission. But there is no authoritative or detailed timeline for any of this period between Nazareth and the beginning of the pubic ministry.
So, when our scripture reports that he returned to Nazareth as part of a preaching tour of the Central Galilee, we have no idea how long Jesus had been absent from his native village. Had he been gone a few months, or maybe years? We don’t know.
SLIDE 5: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU ATTENDED A CLASS REUNION?
When was the last time you attended a class reunion or went back to your home town after being away for a while? Sometimes things have changed so much, you can’t really go home. Old familiar land marks like the A&W Root Beer Stand or even a Bus Station or Train Depot may have disappeared. Or like when we went back for Beth’s 50th High School Reunion, and she and her friend Sharon walked through “the old neighborhood” and everything was still there but changed. Usually what has changed the most, when we try to go back home is us. We’re not the same anymore. Life has moved on. We’ve changed and grown, and we no longer fit in as once we did. We remember most of the people at the reunion, and we have fun reminiscing, and vow that we will stay in touch, but back there just isn’t where our lives are anymore.
SLIDE 6: JESUS’ LIFE HAD BEEN TRANSFORMED
Whether Jesus had been away for a long time, or just a little, his life had been utterly transformed. When God said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” the message may have sounded warm and fuzzy, but God was choosing him for the most difficult mission we can imagine. I am reminded of a Still Speaking Devotion about Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber.
Recently Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber was interviewed on the radio program “Fresh Air.” She mentioned the earnest seminarian who at one of her speaking engagements asked, “Pastor Nadia, what are your ways, your spiritual practices, for getting closer to God?”
SLIDE 7: WHY WOULD I WANT TO GET CLOSE TO GOD?
“Why would I want to get close to God,” responded Bolz Weber.
“Whenever Jesus gets close to me I end up having to love someone I don’t like, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.” She went on to say that in her life it feels more like “God has come after me.”
SLIDE 8: JUST WHEN WE THOUGHT WE WERE SAFE
We do often seem to think of the Christian faith as our human search for God, our feeble attempt to get close to God. The Bible tells a different story, one more in line with Bolz Weber’s experience: the story of the God who keeps showing up, intruding, refusing to leave us alone, searching for us — a God who won’t take “no” for an answer.
Just when we thought we were safe in some gated community (there are a lot of different kinds of gates and fences), God moves into the neighborhood, pitching her tent on the corner, down the hall, or next door. Just when we thought we were safe, we had our church family set up to function as our own private club, God comes along and calls us to become open and affirming and inclusive of all kinds of people who aren’t from our tight little social groupings.
SLIDE 9: GOD TOOK UP RESIDENCE IN THE LIFE OF JESUS
God took up residence in the life of Jesus and nothing was ever the same again. Led by the Spirit, and note the verb is more like “driven by the Spirit,” into the wilderness, Jesus spent time wrestling with the angel of temptation and his dark side trying to figure out the nature of the ministry to which God was calling him. And when Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee he began preaching beside the lake, “The Commonwealth is here now among you,” and when people came to him seeking healing, unexplainable miracles happened, that attracted large crowds of people to come hear him preach.
SLIDE 10: THREE MARKS OF THE MINISTRY OF JESUS
John Dominic Crossan has noted the three undeniable marks of the ministry of Jesus were the Commonwealth of God is here and now among us in a classless community, free healing within the context of community, and communal eating, shared food. Jesus’ preaching and his lived message were radical. His Sharing Table leveled all social hierarchies and bridged all divides of social distinction even religious categories of clean and unclean. No matter who you were or where you were on life’s journey, you were welcome in the community at the Sharing Table of Jesus. The life of Jesus and those who chose to follow him were transformed.
SLIDE 11: NETZER – SHOOT OF THE OLIVE TREE
From Capernaum Jesus took his mission on the road to spread the good word throughout the Galilee, and eventually, he came to his home village of Nazareth. If you visit Nazareth today, it is a bustling Palestinian Arab City of almost 100,000 people. In the First Century Nazareth was a tiny village consisting of a few houses and maybe four-hundred people of a clan, who called themselves the “Natzoreans.” Their name was derived from the term “netzer” which meant the shoot of the olive tree that comes up from the root system of the tree. This Natzorean Clan believed themselves to be descended from the House of David, and they thought of themselves as the remnant or the shoot that comes up from the stump of the olive tree that has been cut down mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah.
SLIDE 12: WHAT WAS UP?
And so when Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, his clan, his cousins and extended family wondered about him. Perhaps they wondered about him with some suspicion. They had heard rumors of healings and wonders performed elsewhere, but it was only after he had left the place of his birth. So what was up?
We do not know the Torah lesson for that Sabbath. According to Jewish tradition the Jews of the Galilee used a lectionary that rotated readings of the Torah, so that the full reading of the text of Pentateuch was accomplished in three years. But Jesus was not asked to read the Torah portion. So toward the close of worship Jesus was asked to come to the Ark of the Covenant, where he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The later chapters of Isaiah were considered the prophecies of hope. Here the prophet spoke of the restoration of the People of Israel and the promise of a messianic age, when God would establish a commonwealth of justice and peace.
SLIDE 13: THIS IS GOD’S MOMENT TO ACT
We do not know whether Jesus was free to choose a portion of Isaiah’s scroll to read, or whether the selection from the prophet was appointed.
God’s Spirit is on me; the spirit has aroused me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s moment to act!”
SLIDE 14: PROPHECY HAS BECOME TRUE – WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
As was the custom Jesus sat down, and then proceeded to comment upon the passage he had just read: “You’ve just heard Scripture become history. The Prophecy came true just now as it was read.”
Next week we can talk about what a stir Jesus’ comment created in the synagogue, but just for now, let’s ask what did he mean? And what does the passage mean for us?
SLIDE 15: WE ARE CALLED TO MAKE THE SCRIPTURE COME TRUE
Luke’s version of the passage certainly points to Jesus as the Messiah, but perhaps there is a larger meaning. Whenever good news is given to the poor, whenever the captives are made free, whenever we come to the Sharing Table and remember the love of God, then the Commonwealth of God comes into being if only for a few moments in the present. Yes Jesus read the scripture, yes Jesus was the Messiah, but maybe we are intended to make the scripture come alive in all that we do and say! Maybe we are the People of God intended to bring the Commonwealth of God into the present moment.
SLIDE 16: SHARING TABLE WELCOMES EVERYONE
Maybe we are called upon by the Spirit of God to make the Sharing table of Jesus come alive here and now, in this place in this time, even here at United Church, welcoming everyone regardless of social class, regardless of religious, intellectual, and cultural differences. Those who were formerly considered social outcastes, those who were formerly outside our social networks are welcomed to become part of the circle of God’s abiding love.
SLIDE 17: END UP LOVING SOMEONE YOU DON’T LIKE, GIVING YOUR MONEY AWAY, FORGIVING SOMEONE.
Becoming God’s people isn’t easy. As Nadia Bolz Weber says, “I end up having to love someone I don’t like, give away more of my money, or forgive someone I don’t want to forgive.” As we enter into our Annual Congregational Meeting today, consider that challenge to become the people God who bring the commonwealth of God into the present moment at the Sharing Table of Jesus.