With Brian McLaren's new book The Secret Message of Jesus reaching stores in a few months, I've been thinking a lot about what Jesus came here to do. What was the point? I'm not sure of the exact direction Brian has taken, but I have some thoughts of my own about the nature of Jesus’ commission.
Of course we all have our Christianese answers, mass-marketed, canned or prepackaged for easy digestion. But I know we're missing something, and more and more, those of us taking part in the emergent conversation are realizing just how deep our misunderstandings have buried us.
Let's begin the long climb out...
Without being overly disparaging of the Church (as I confess I have a deep and overzealous inclination to do) I believe that Jesus' "Kingdom" was meant to be both spiritual and physical and that as a religious movement, Christianity has lost sight of its central focus – the Integral Mission of the Church.
Let me elaborate: when we talk about the Church's greatest commandment - its central purpose - its mission statement - we cite the Great Commission. “Go make disciples!”
But why? Why must we make disciples? What are they supposed to do, and what's the point of our discipling?
We talk a lot about Discipleship today in terms of "accountability partners" or personal mentors. The Shepherding Movement of the 1980s was a good example of this view of discipleship taken to an extreme. In some instances, one's personal bank account statements were reviewed to ensure "holy living." That's a whole other can of worms to be disected, but a good example of what I still tend to think of when discussing “discipleship.” Overbearing, high pressure “mentors.”
The other view of a disciple is much more passive, both in its meaning and in its manifestation among believers. Essentially, disciples are regarded no differently than "believers" who accept (i.e. mental assent...) the teachings of Jesus. Little action. Little change. Shiney happy subculture.
Back in college I used to dream of joining the Peace Corps, but I specifically remember hearing a sermon about evangelism and "realizing," with a note of self-condemnation, that nothing but salvation had value... it was sad. How typical of the church as a whole! We have so devalued the Earth and the Life God has given us that we turn our heads, close our eyes and pretend we're already in Heaven.
Alright, perhaps I'm getting off track on this discussion of discipleship - or maybe not… I believe that the practical expansion of the Kingdom of God (the Kingdom of Heaven... maybe the same, maybe slightly different... semantics...) IS the Great Commission of Jesus. The Great Commission is to make disciples, and the purpose of the disciples is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. This is both a physical and a spiritual kingdom, as we take care of the poor and the widows, and as we call on and manifest the power of the Holy Spirit.
The dictionary definition of disciple is "One who embraces and assists in spreading the teachings of another." I think we (the Church) stopped at "One who embraces" the teachings, and forgot about “assistance.” Let's face it, even Marcus Borg said in one lecture: "Mental assent is easy - show me how your faith transforms lives and communities." He's right, even if you disagree with his theology. Borg is responding to a failure of the church to understand what the Kingdom really means and how our commission as believers fits in.
We pushed the Kingdom into the far future of dispensational eschatology so we wouldn’t have to worry about it.
"The Kingdom is God's problem. We just have to get people saved!"
But no it isn't just God's problem - and there's so much more to saving people than simply changing their worldview. There’s a deep discussion there, too: Christianity as a Worldview vs. Christianity as an Endeavor.
Jesus promised transformation and healing in the Kingdom of Heaven, but that was too tall an order for us! We dumbed it down for our own sanity (who, afterall, could imagine taking Jesus words literally?) and made Salvation into a long-term retirement plan with a small initial investment and no subsequent payments.
Does that make sense? I think the Church has failed to globally manifest the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, on the other hand, I believe we can see glimpses of the Kingdom when the Church feeds the homeless without requiring them to sit through a sermon or recite the sinner's prayer. I think the Kingdom is visible when the church stands for justice, even outside of its own church walls, denominational lines, or religious identity (say, standing up for human rights in a Muslim nation). When the church selflessly gives itself over to blessing humanity out of love, not out of evangelistic agendas, it is truly manifesting the Kingdom of Heaven.
I think that Jesus intended for His Kingdom to be established in every facet and aspect of our lives, of our cultures, of our consciousness. No secular vs. spiritual. ALL is spiritual.
Instead, the Church has manifested the Kingdom as a Movement of Ideas, not a Movement of Movement… Meaning: less action than thought.
Without action, the Integral Mission of the Church cannot permeate politics or economies, ecological systems or communities. Historically, the church HAS made incredible contributions to the arts and the sciences. These days, instead of art we offer kitschy spiritualized knockoffs of genuine secular art (secular often because we make it so) and fight science with reactionary rhetoric coined in the 1950s.
I used to send money to a mission in San Francisco on a monthly basis. My church sent a group down several times to work with them, and I saw such practical goodness MIXED with evangelism. I wanted to help! But on the third trip I took there – three years after first visiting – I watched how care for the poor seemed a forgotten focus or a minor distraction. All the resources were aimed at "saving souls," and the disappointment and disapproval in the eyes of the street people was palpable. It tore my heart to make the decision, but I stopped giving them money.
Revealing my own kitschy-Christendom, I remember a song by Michael W. Smith entitled "Live the Life." It lists the ineffective methods of evangelism we've taken and again and again repeats: "THAT'S NO LONGER GOOD ENOUGH!"
we're passengers aboard the train, silent little lambs amidst the pain…
Jesus has so much more in store for us. Let us listen closely. Let us be on our way! It's time to change the world!