There’s a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “If you like laws and sausage, you should never watch either being made.” I will add one exception to the rule: when it’s God who is creating, it’s always a good idea to watch carefully. Let us pray: Lord, you give commandments and we ask Your power to obey. Create Your will in our hearts, that we may love what you love, serve those whom you would have us serve, and live forever under Your reign. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
I like to think I’m an idealist – I like to imagine the best about the people around me. I like to think that Jesus came to help us along the road to heaven – that we were doing pretty well on our own, but that Jesus can get us there faster and better. I like to think that people just need to be gently nudged into good behavior and care for each other. I like to think that we are, at heart, good people. I like to think all of these things, but I’m deadly wrong about all of them.
I’ve been married for over seven years. I like to think my wife is the ideal woman for me, and many days I do – until she wakes up. She likes to think that I’m the ideal man for her, and many days she does – until she wakes up. We are not ideal people – this is not an ideal world – God is not worried about ideals at all.
Paul knew something about falling short of ideals. He and Silas and Timothy spent some time creating a church in Philippi. They worked hard in Philippi – Paul was a tentmaker who preached, and so everywhere he went he stitched and he preached and somewhere in the middle churches were born. But in Philippi something went terribly, terribly wrong. Abuse and persecution were not uncommon for Paul and his friends, but there was enough of it in Philippi that Paul mentioned it in his letter to the church of Thessalonika. What could it have been? Verbal abuse? Very likely. Imprisonment? Probably. Beatings? Possibly – Paul admits in several of his letters that he bears scars for the gospel of Christ. In an ideal world, Paul’s proclamation of the gospel would be met with enthusiasm and joy – but Paul does not live in an ideal world.
And yet – Paul doesn’t stop, either. To the church in Thessalonika, Paul sends a tender, loving letter that speaks of beautiful days and wonderful people. “We were gentle among you,” Paul says, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” That’s a love letter – and doesn’t that sound like an ideal church?
But the church in Thessalonika wasn’t any more ideal than any other church – it was neither better nor worse. They struggled with morality – they were persecuted for their beliefs – they quarreled with each other – and Paul addresses all of those things in his letter. Ideals, it seems, are not what Paul is working toward – Paul and God have an entirely different goal in mind.
“It is not living that matters,” wrote Socrates, “but living well.” For Christians, living well means understanding the power and the limits of the law which restrains and convicts us. Under this law, ideals are not what God has in mind. If God were after an ideal creation, would there be a need for a restraint such as this? This is the holiness code: the law by which the Israelites are to show themselves to be God’s people. This is how Israel must show that they are God’s ideal nation, so to speak: yet every law involves a word against certain types of behavior. “Don’t cheat – don’t be partial to one person or another – don’t lie – don’t exploit the people around you – don’t hate – don’t take revenge.” There are no ideals here: this is a word that restrains us; a word that binds us; a word that holds us back. Taken to its furthest end, the Law is a word that kills us dead in our tracks, because every word of it speaks against something in us, some desire that God wants stopped right now.
Ideals are fine and dandy, but they only go so far. Ideally, we wouldn’t need to be restrained – but we don’t live in an ideal world. Ideally, my desire for myself would be overwhelmed by my desire to serve my neighbor – but we don’t live in an ideal world. Ideally, your neighbor would be far more willing to accept your right to exist as you are – but we don’t live in an ideal world.
God restrains because the world is far less than ideal. God restrains because individually we cannot restrain ourselves – we would grow and flourish and expand until we had consumed everything in sight – and then the famine of self-destruction would begin. God restrains because we think of love as something we want to get – and God has always intended that love would be something we give.
Douglas Hare – “In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 [and Jesus’ words in Matthew] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.”
We are talking about Kingdom love – love that exists under the reign of God and thus submits itself to God’s authority, wisdom and intent in loving, obedient service to God and neighbor.
Kingdom love does not obey out of obligation, but out of commitment. The Spirit alive in us commits us to live out our salvation through creative morality – a morality that limits us as individuals so that as a people we might flourish.
Through this creative morality, God is doing a new thing – making and remaking the world as it has always been intended. This creation isn’t the ideal; it isn’t utopia; it isn’t a rigid landscape of checks and balances, careful measures and corrective measures. This creation is the Kingdom of God. It is marked by commitment to others, the sanctity of all human life, and most of all an understanding that we cannot love God without loving our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor without loving God. Here is the Kingdom which God creates, over which Christ reigns, and into which we are invited through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here is the kingdom into which we are invited – it is a world where my neighbor bears God’s image within herself and must be honored as such. It is a kingdom where I am to be impartial: I give of myself to all who come to me. It is a kingdom where I may not speak evil of my neighbor; I may not even speak the truth if it is spoken without my neighbor’s knowledge and consent. It is a world where I may not profit at the expense of my neighbor’s life – a world where I am wounded if my neighbor’s blood is shed. This kingdom is a world where sin that is condoned is sin that remains on my head – but I may not reprove with violence; I must reprove in a spirit of gentleness, kindness and restoration. This kingdom is a world where all of the selfish, conceited love that I bear for myself may be turned and lavished upon the people around me – and only when all this is accomplished, when I am dead in my sins and have nothing left for myself, only then will I know what it means to be a child of the Kingdom of God.
All this comes as a gift from our Lord Jesus Christ, through His mercy and love. Though we question Him, though we probe the law looking for loopholes and means of impressing God, He takes our hearts, scrapes out the rotten, poisonous, life-destroying sin that holds us in bondage to ourselves, death, and the devil, and Christ fills us with His love for His Father and for His creation.
As the Kingdom of God is marked by loving service, so it was begun in loving service. As the Pharisees discovered, the Messiah is more than just a king from the line of David, and the kingdom He created is through all times and all places marked by love, not by power. Our Lord, maker of heaven and earth, knelt and washed the feet of His friends – died on a cross for His enemies – rose from the dead, not to bring vengeance, but to reclaim those who could not believe. It is only under this cross, with its condemnation of human selfishness and its exaltation of God’s reckless love, that we find the Kingdom come to us. It is only at the cross, the ugly, brutal, blood-soaked end of all our questions and all our rebellion, that the Kingdom is created. It is only at the cross, where Christ poured out His life for us, that we may be filled with His love. Your ideals have been shattered – here you may find them replaced by something better. Your burdens are heavy – here you may lay them down. Your sins are many – here you may leave them all. Your life is full of questions – here you may find all the answers you need. You’re running on empty – stop here, under the shadow of the cross. Rest easy, be filled with His love, and renew your citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Amen.