The Hard Hope of the Kingdom

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-30)

This passage has often been misused by some in Christianity, and equally often ignored by others. As I read Brian McLaren’s new book, and as I’ve been blogging through it, I couldn’t help but think back to this text and similar sayings in the gospels.

See, despite my some-times harsh take on Brian’s arguments, I share many of his frustrations. We Christians really have lost sight of a great many biblical priorities. We don’t care about justice, about the poor and downtrodden, about oppression and brokenness. It doesn’t bother us that the world God crafted as very good has been shattered by human evil. Too often we do side with power rather than love; too often we do ignore wickedness because we buy into a narrative (although I would hesitate to call it Greco-Roman) that tells us God cares only about souls. We have a long history of ignoring unjust wars and death camps and racism, singing our hope that earth is a place we’re only passing through. We need a Christianity that can address these issues – not because the world should define our priorities, but because God should, and he is grieved by every one of these things.

What troubles me is that Brian’s solution is too easy. A doctor who rightly diagnoses cancer but then tells the patient to take two Tylenol twice a day and they’ll be fine is not just giving an incomplete assessment, but a dangerous one. The patient needs chemotherapy. The patient needs radiation. Brian’s solution to the world’s problems is in the end little more than encouraging people to “be like” his version of Jesus; to be a humanitarian. But how much hope does this really give us? We have seen brilliant minds apply themselves to the problems of our generation, and usually they only make those problem worse. We don’t need a savior who offers more of the same. We need the cancer of our sin cured.

This is what Jesus does, what the gospel is all about. He suffers the guilt that we bear for our million unnoticed sins of injustice and oppression. He buys us with His blood to make us slaves to righteousness, to healing. He conquers the forces of darkness in the world, taking the worst they can dish out and then raising triumphant from the grave. He sits on the throne of heaven, fighting for His creation. He sends the Spirit to transform out hearts so that we can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. These are not metaphors that encourage us to rely on ourselves and try harder; this is the exact opposite of what they are trying to communicate. Instead, these acts of Christ are objective realities. They are things you experience, things you apprehend, things you join, and things you can oppose.

That’s what Matthew 10 is all about. People living in their sin, people wrecking God’s good world (and even those trying to fix it while refusing God’s tools for the task) aren’t just a rung or two down the ladder. They are trying to knock the ladder out from under our feet. I realize this sounds troubling to many, as if I’m painting an us-versus-them picture of the world. I would submit that it’s more a God-versus-us picture, except that some of the us are brought over to His side by His grace and nothing else. This means we don’t have unbelievers. We don’t even see them as our enemies. But they are enemies of the kingdom, just as we are without God’s work in our hearts.

See, the kingdom of heaven is always opposed. God isn’t about affirming the way the world works, he’s about changing it. In the process, every institution we hold dear – the family, the state, marriage – is being torn apart. Not torn apart to be destroyed, but torn apart to be remade. Until we pass through this remaking, we are opposing God’s work to repair the world. This is the hard hope of the kingdom – that true peace will be won, has been won, by Jesus Christ, but that first false peace must be destroyed.

I hope this helps explain the tenor of my discussion of New Kind of Christianity, both thus far and as I continue to work through the book. I agree with Brian that too many Christians have ignored the disease of sin ravaging our world. But when he proposes his “New Christianity,” what I hear is this: “You have cancer, but don’t worry about those horrible treatments. They’re ugly and hard, and they make you lose your hair. Relax; just think happy thoughts and feel better.” This is monstrous; this is diagnosing the disease and then inoculating people against the cure.

Jesus didn’t come with positive thinking to overcome the world’s ills. He came with a scalpel, he came with a sword, and until you let him cut you open and operate, no true change will come.

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