Sunday, January 25, 2015

God's reign beckons

Where God reigns, there is welcome
Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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The Reign of God is calling us.
    Can you hear it?

Two weeks ago, on Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday
    I spoke of God’s reign in the world.
    I said we as a global Mennonite fellowship
        of many different cultures and languages and
            of different social-political contexts,
            and different histories,
        have one major point of connection.
    We voluntarily give ourselves over to a higher call
        as citizens of God’s kingdom.
    We have a common loyalty to the reign and realm of God.

Today, and the next two Sundays,
    we’re using the lectionary texts for Epiphany,
    and exploring three characteristics of the kingdom.

Our texts today affirm that where God reigns, there is welcome.
    Next Sunday, we see that where God reigns, there is obedience.
    And finally, where God reigns, there is wholeness.

Obviously, there are many aspects to God’s reign
    that would be fruitful to explore together.
    But as I looked at the lectionary readings for these three Sundays,
        that’s what stood out to me.
    And I think that welcome, obedience, and wholeness,
        are three things that are especially important
            to hold together, and not in isolation.

So let’s think a bit about the reign of God as a place of welcome.

You’ll notice I use different terms, interchangeably,
    for the kingdom of God.
    So I want to clarify.
        We are talking both about the reign of God,
            that is, the rule and authority of God,
                God’s nature and work of ruling,
            but also the realm of God,
                the place where God rules.

        This is not just a discussion about a mystical, spiritual, interior
            recognition of God’s authority in my life—
                as important as that is.
        We are talking about a real place,
            where God’s reign and authority gets fleshed out
                in the real life of real people and real systems,
                in real, embodied, socially-situated life together.

        So, maybe I’ll lean more on words like the “dominion of God.”
            I like “dominion” because it includes both
                the reign and the realm—
                    the authority and the place and people
                        where that authority is lived out.

This is especially important
    when we contemplate God’s welcome.
    God our Sovereign, welcomes us into God’s dominion
        with open and generous arms.
    The dominion of God is first of all, invitational.
        And we are all invited.

It’s easy to lose sight of that,
    because dominions and kingdoms,
        often call to mind boundaries and borders
            and emphasize the demands that the monarch
                places on his or her subjects.
        After all, a dominion is
            where a monarch exercises authority.
    We certainly won’t ignore that reality.
        I said next Sunday we focus on obedience,
            but I would argue that we need to begin
                with invitation and welcome.

    It’s core to our understanding of God
        that God invites us to become subject to God’s rule.
    God does not expand his realm by force,
    The Sovereign God—
        even though all power and authority and dominion
            are God’s alone—
        never enforces that dominion through hostile takeover.
    It is always invitational,
        always optional.
    The monarchy of God is unlike every earthly monarchy
        in that respect.
    The reign and realm of God is a reign and realm
        that welcomes all, and forces none.
_____________________

Take today’s Gospel story, for instance.
    It’s a classic story of invitation.
All it took from Jesus was a word – well, two words: “Follow me.”
    And four fisherman immediately walked away from their profession.
    Peter and Andrew, James and John,
        literally stepped out of their fishing boats,
        and into a world they knew nothing about.
    Just because Jesus invited them to.
    For some reason, at some deep level,
        they felt beckoned into God’s rule and dominion,
            in the person of Jesus.

Let’s look at it again: Mark 1, beginning in v. 14.
    Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee,
        proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
        “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
            repent, and believe in the good news.”
    In Mark, the very first words that come from Jesus’ mouth
        announce the goodness and nearness of God’s dominion.
    This dominion is nothing but good news.
        God’s reign and realm are good, Mark says.
        So the upshot is, come to where the good stuff is.
        In the very next verse, 16,
            Jesus calls his first disciples with two simple words,
                “Follow me.”
        And . . . as if they can’t help but respond to such welcome . . .
            they get up and follow Jesus immediately.

I have no doubt,
    based on how the gospel writer tells the story,
    that it was not Jesus’ charming, magnetic personality
        that attracted the fisherman.
    Forget the Jesus of popular film,
        who always has a resonant voice
            and a handsome face,
            and personal charisma,
                that leaves women and men alike reeling in his wake.
    For all we know, Jesus had none of those things.
        He might even have been awkward and homely.

    I don’t think it was the sound of Jesus’ voice, saying “follow me,”
        that prompted them to act.
        They heard something else calling them,
            that they probably couldn’t put their finger on.
        I think it was God’s kingdom calling.
        I think they heard a dinner bell, so to speak,
            beckoning them to God’s welcome table.

And further, it was not just an invitation for them—
    Peter, Andrew, James, and John—
    to come into the welcoming embrace of God’s dominion,
        to join the new and exclusive community of King Jesus.
    No, they were being welcomed into that community,
        in order to extend the welcome even further.
    “I will make you fish for people,” Jesus said.
    They, four fisherman,
        were invited to be part of a new kind of fishing industry.
    Their function as fisherfolk would be altogether new.
        They would no longer be dragging in fish against their will.
        They would now be about the task of inviting, welcoming,
            drawing others into a different kind of net—
            where the catch . . . is held by the power of love
                and always free to swim away.

Where God reigns, there is love and welcome!
    There is good news! There is joy! There is freedom!
    There is healing! There is forgiveness! There is restoration!
        In other words, there is salvation.
    God’s dominion beckons those who want a full life,
        restored to God’s creative intent,
        located in a kingdom of peace,
            a dominion of shalom,
            a community of love and justice.
    God’s reign beckons and welcomes all.

    The kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim and to live
        was not a kingdom of condemnation.
    As another Gospel writer put it,
        “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
            but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

If we understand God’s mission to be a saving and reconciling mission,
    then the invitation into God’s dominion
        has the same compelling, beautiful, life-giving purpose—
        to save, to reconcile, to heal.
    God’s reign is a reign of welcome.
_____________________

We see evidence of the same in our reading from Jonah today.
    Jonah, the reluctant prophet,
        announced the dominion that God intended to exercise
            over the wicked city of Ninevah.
    It was an announcement of doom, naturally.
    Ninevah was a city and people repulsive to the Israelites,
        full of unspeakable evil, idol worship,
        and the capital of the dominating, oppressive Assyrian Empire.
    From the perspective of any Israelite,
        Ninevites were the arch-enemies of God,
            and of the people of God.
        They were not worthy of God’s attention,
            much less, God’s love and mercy.
    So repulsive were they,
        that Jonah wanted no part of going there,
        even to carry a message of doom and destruction.

    But we know that’s not the way the story unfolded.
        Even here in the Old Testament—
            the part of the Bible where God’s dominion
                is often expressed with a heavy hand of judgement—
            we have this glimpse of God’s grace-filled welcome.
        Even the sworn enemies of God are welcome and invited,
            if they are willing,
            to come under the loving dominion of the God Yahweh.

    It’s an amazing picture of grace and welcome.
    It’s Old Testament Gospel.
_____________________

So what does this picture of God’s dominion mean for us today?
    Here? At Park View?

This notion that God’s dominion is beckoning us, in love,
    to yield ourselves to the rule of God’s love,
    to voluntarily become subject to God’s authority,
        has everything to do with how we posture ourselves as a church.
    Our primary missional task
        is not to fortify and strengthen the borders,
        as important as borders often are.
    Our primary missional task
        is to embody the welcome extended by our Sovereign God.
        It is to open ourselves, and our community, to the other,
            so that we may invite—
                as an expression of the unconditional love of God—
            all who desire to enter into God’s reign and rule.
        Bar none!

Easier said than done . . .
    in a context where we in the church
        sometime feel under siege.
    We have external pressure
        from a materialistic, individualistic culture.
    We have internal pressure
        from conflicting visions and convictions.
    The temptation is with us always
        to move toward a fortress mentality,
        to act like other kingdoms that use force or coercion
            to reinforce their dominion.

    But we have an upside-down kingdom—
        God’s upside-down dominion—
            whose reign is established by the power of love,
                and invitation,
                and welcome,
            and whose dominion is truly good news
                for all humankind and all creation,
            and whose so-called “battle-cry”
                is shalom and justice for all!

I dream of the day that Christians in our culture
    are known primarily for their welcome
        and their unconditional love for those not of our tribe.
That’s not the case now, as you probably know,
    if you’ve heard public opinion research.
    Polls show that only 16% of non-Christians in their teens and 20s
        have a “good impression” of the church—16%!
    The most common impressions of the church
        according to non-churchgoing young adults,
        is that the church is judgmental, hypocritical,
            old-fashioned, political, and anti-gay.

    It’s easy to make excuses, and say well,
        these young people just don’t understand the church,
        and what we’re all about.
    But increasingly, it’s not just young adults who hold those views.
        Intergenerationally,
            more people see the church as judgmental,
            as more concerned about itself than the world around it.
    The bottom-line is . . .
        those looking in on us see judgment, more than welcome.
    That ought not to be if we align ourselves with God’s dominion—
        with this reign and realm of God,
        that draws, beckons, welcomes
            every soul on the face of the earth,
            inviting them to come into and under
                this dominion like no other,
            and be transformed by the unconditional love of God.

Then, as we walk together,
    we will address the truly demanding ethic of God’s kingdom,
        an ethic that invites us to give our all, to lay down all,
            and to walk in a new life-giving way.
    But our first call as a church is to faithfully represent
        the reign of God that beckons and welcomes all,
        that fulfills the vision of the prophet Isaiah,
            who described the kingdom as a mountain
                rising above all the hills,
            drawing and inviting all nations to it.
    Isaiah saw a dominion toward which
        the peoples of the earth would stream, would come in droves,
        saying, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
            that he may teach us his ways
            and that we may walk in his paths.’
        So compelling was God’s reign,
            that the nations longed to be subject to it.

May the dominion of God that we represent—
    here, at Park View, as one expression of the body of Christ—
    be just that compelling, that magnetic, that welcoming,
        to all who look in on us . . .
        to all seekers of God,
            from the deeply committed to the faintly curious.
    May it be so, God helping us.

—Phil Kniss, January 25, 2015



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