I’m not sure where I first heard this story, but it was love at first sight (hearing? reading? whatever!). In 1962, Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce walked into the oval office. She had been thinking for a long time of what she wanted to communicate to then President John F. Kennedy, and she finally had it. She walked into his office and said: “A great man is one sentence.” And then, she dropped the bomb: “So, what is your sentence?” Luce feared that Kennedy was trying to do too much, that he had too many priorities and too little focus. He didn’t have a sentence. He had a cluttered paragraph. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, had a sentence. It was: “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.” Franklin Roosevelt’s sentence was, “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.” Luce’s question was meant to spur Kennedy on to choose the one thing he really wanted to accomplish as president and then to pursue it with all his might. She wanted him to be able to articulate exactly what he felt called to do and then figure out the best way to get it done. A great person is one sentence.
Now, normally, at this point in the story, I ask, “So what is YOUR sentence?” It is a great exercise to help you determine your vision. And everybody ought to have a vision for who they are, what their gifts are and what they are called to do. But this isn’t a blog about vision. It’s a blog about how Jesus would define the word, “Christian.” But, whenever I tell that story, I have to ask the question to someone. So, let me ask Jesus. “Jesus, what is your sentence?” Would he say . . .
- “I have come to reveal the Father and do his will.”
- I have come to show Israel that I am her rightful king and Messiah.”
- “I have come to redeem my people by dying on the cross for their sins so that they can have eternal life.”
- “I have come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.”
Okay, trick question. The answer is, “All of the above.” (I know that wasn’t on the answer sheet, but that is what makes it a trick question). But HA! You fell into my trap! Because the correct answer is, “All of the above or NONE of the above.” Now, that sounds preposterous, but if you pull out one answer from the above tower, the whole Jenga Jesus comes crashing down. Pull out “A,” and you lose divine sonship. Pull out “B,” and you lose the Old Testament. Pull out “C,” and you lose redemption. And pull out “D,” and you lose Jesus because, as the synoptics clearly show, Jesus and the Kingdom are intimately connected. Bottom line: Jesus’ sentence must involve all four of these parts or Jenga Jesus comes crashing down. The implications here are staggering. Think about that. When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is saying that we need to follow him to the Father. And when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means we must follow him as Israel’s Messiah-King (which means the Old Testament is our book because there is only one people of God for all time). And when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means that we need to follow him as our savior. And when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means we need to follow him in the ways of the Kingdom. Now, we could talk about the implications of all four of these statements, but let’s just hone in on one. Since the Kingdom is essential to who Jesus is, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he is really saying “follow in the way of the Kingdom.”
But what does that mean? See, we’ve gotten silly of late and have redefined the kingdom into something esoteric and abstract. We think it means something like “an experience with God,” or “having Jesus on the throne of our heart” or simply a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But that is not how anyone in the first-century world would have understood it. Stop anyone on the street in Jerusalem circa 26 AD and ask them how to define the kingdom of God and they would mention three things. They would talk about the land. They would talk about a king. And they would talk about the people of the Messiah. They would talk of the promised land, a land free and clear of all Roman interference. They would talk of the Messiah, a king who would rule Israel with justice and righteousness (The word “Messiah” literally refers to one who has been anointed; and since kings were anointed, the words “King” and “Messiah” were used interchangeably). And they would talk of a people with single-minded devotion to this king. They would talk about the people of God being citizens of this kingdom. In other words, the kingdom for them was not some pie-in-the-sky abstract concept of spiritual fulfillment. The kingdom was God’s society come to earth. It was God’s dream for his world come to fruition. Far from being spiritual, this kingdom was very real and concrete. And we hear this sense in Jesus all the time. Scot McKnight writes:
“The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ most important prayer for expressing his mission, says this: ‘May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ That line is preceded by this one: ‘May your kingdom come.’ These two requests are to be read together: God’s kingdom coming means God’s will being done on earth -– in a society.”
All that to say, following Jesus is not some esoteric spiritual commitment of the heart or mind. It is following Jesus by giving ourselves heart and soul as God’s people to the Kingdom vision of Jesus.
I bought a book recently. I’m not sure I like it, but I often judge a book by its cover; and this cover had a great title, and as a result, I bought the book (curse you, marketing division!). The title of this book is, What If Jesus Was Serious? In other words, what if what Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) is not some pie-in-the-sky ideal, but is actually Jesus’ intent for us? What if Jesus was serious that we ought to be poor in spirit, that we ought to be meek and that we ought to be peacemakers? What if Jesus was serious that we ought to consider being insulted, persecuted and maligned as blessings? What if Jesus was serious that our righteousness ought to surpass that of the Pharisees? Yikes! What if Jesus was serious that anger was as bad as murder? Yikes! What if Jesus was serious about reconciling with people we don’t like before we can come to worship? Yikes – I would never come to church! What if Jesus was serious that looking and lusting was as bad as adultery? Yikes on bikes! What if Jesus was serious that drastic action needed to be taken to avoid what I would call harmless little sins? What if Jesus was serious that we should always turn the other cheek and go the extra mile? What if Jesus was serious that we should never turn away from someone who asks us for something (think of how we would have to redirect our driving patterns so that we could avoid the beggars at the intersection of Rolling Rd. and Rt. 40!). What if Jesus was serious that we are to love our enemies? What if Jesus was serious about all of this? And that’s only chapter 5! There are two more chapters to go! Holy Guacamole!
Now, thankfully, scholars have tried to get us out from under this load. Dispensationalists disregard the whole sermon saying it was directed to the Jews (thank goodness, I am not Jewish!). Others argue that this is an ideal to strive for, not a goal to be accomplished. Others argue that the purpose of the Sermon is to show us our sin and our need, not to give us imperatives to follow. Others limit the implications of the Sermon to our innermost selves, so these words become a private morality. Others want to say that the Sermon is Jesus’ highest call fit only for those who want to be his most radical disciples. And still others say it is an outline of Christian ethics for those who have been transformed by grace and live by the Spirit, an ethic that you grow into slowly, but find in heaven. All I can say is, God bless each of these interpretations and may these scholars find many more loopholes like these because, honestly, while I love the Sermon on the Mount on paper, I’m not so keen on doing these things. But we have our very best scholars working night and day so that we will not ever have to.
Two final thoughts? First, from Søren Kierkegaard because he hits the nail right on the head. Kierkegaard says:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Holy guacamole! Suffice it to say, I hate it when Kierkegaard is right.
Second, what if we define a Christian as one who follows Jesus, but Jesus insists that following him means that we give ourselves heart and soul to pursuing his Kingdom vision? And what if the Sermon on the Mount defines—maybe not completely, because we still need grace and forgiveness and the Spirit—but what if it defines to a large degree what it means to be a Christ follower? What if Jesus was serious about us giving ourselves heart and soul to his kingdom vision?
If that is the case, then “Holy Guacamole,” indeed.