The Gospels are about a radical shift in understanding the kingdom of God from a literal/physical kingdom of power and might, to a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace. This is precisely the same shift that takes place when we go from a fundamentalist Christianity to a progressive Christianity. One could argue that fundamentalism believes in a literal/physical kingdom of power, might, and magic. A kingdom of violence, force, and coercion. Whereas, a progressive Christianity believes in a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this biblical term, “the kingdom of God,” what you need to know is that this was Jesus’ whole mission and message. The Gospel of Mark begins by saying, “Jesus came to Galilee. . . saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. . .’” This kingdom of God he went around teaching about is best defined as – what the world would look like if God was in charge. What the world would look like if God’s will was done. What the world would look like if people lived like Jesus. This is the kingdom of God. But this definition was totally lost on Jesus’ contemporaries.
Their understanding of the kingdom of God was a physical/literal kingdom of power and might where God would finally do away with Israel’s enemies once and for all like the Romans, and set up a physical throne in Jerusalem and from there rule the nations of the world forever as Isaiah and others prophesied. So when Jesus went around declaring, “The kingdom of God is at hand! The kingdom of God is near!” This is what people thought he was talking about. They thought he was talking about leading an armed insurrection against the Romans to purge them from the land, and then set up a physical throne in Jerusalem and inaugurate a messianic age. The story of Palm Sunday is a great piece of evidence for this if you want to look into it. Thus, again:
The Gospels are about a radical shift in understanding the kingdom of God from a literal/physical kingdom of power and might to a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace. The Gospels are about the death of one understanding of the kingdom and the resurrection of another. A radical shift from fundamentalism to progressivism.
Think of this being like that scene in The Matrix when Neo had to choose between the red pill and the blue pill and thereby choose between two versions of reality. The blue pill would take him back home to his familiar but false reality. The red pill would take him into a strange new world, the real world actually. He of course chose the red pill. In the same way, the Gospels give us the choice between a red pill and a blue pill and encourage us to take the red pill. And just as Neo experienced some pain and disappointment with this transition between realities, so Jesus’ contemporaries experienced some pain and disappointment when they realized that the kingdom of God wasn’t what they thought it was.
Imagine how disappointed they must have felt when Jesus not only didn’t liberate them from the Romans but was actually killed by them himself. We must understand just how traumatic it was for them to see their long awaited messiah, the guarantor of their glorious future no less, crucified and humiliated. And to be fair, they had every right to be disappointed. They had every right to expect Jesus was going to liberate them from the Romans and establish this kingdom of power and might because this was the God they were given by their parents, religious leaders, and their very scriptures.
The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is entirely about God rescuing Israel from foreign powers, most famously with the Egyptians and the Exodus story. But there was also the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and of course all the different tribes of Canaan that God supposedly helped them conquer like the Amorites, Jebusites, Amalakites, Hitites, the list goes on.
Of the 39 books in the Old Testament, 35 of the 39 are either entirely about or at least partially about God delivering Israel from foreign powers, often by supernatural means. Only four books in the Old Testament have nothing to do with this theme: Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Ruth. Every other book is either somewhat or entirely about God delivering Israel from foreign powers, sometimes after God was the one that subjected Israel to those foreign powers in the first place as some kind of punishment.
So it was entirely fair for Jesus’ contemporaries to be disappointed that he didn’t liberate them from the Romans. This was the God they had been handed by their parents, their ancestors, and their very scriptures. This was their definition of the kingdom of God and yet Jesus obliterates that understanding by not only *not* rescuing them from the Romans but by being killed by them himself. Thus, he destroys their worldview and the way they read scripture and understood God.
The Easter story, and for that matter, the entire story of the Gospels, is about the death of a particular understanding God and his kingdom and the resurrection of another. The Gospels represent the death of the Hebrew tribal God. The death of this God who promises Israel earthly kingdoms, power, wealth, land, and prestige. The death of this God who rescues them from foreign powers and helps them annihilate their enemies. This God dies in the Gospels, or better put, is revealed to of been mythological in the first place. We know that because the stories about this God and his exploits are mythologized in the Gospels into a kind of parable or a kind of poetics, particularly the most important story of all, the Exodus story.
Consider that just as Israel was baptized in the Red Sea and then immediately driven out into the desert where their faith in God was tested by hunger and doubt for forty years, so Jesus, after being baptized in the Jordan, was immediately driven out into the desert where his faith in God too was tested by hunger and doubt, not for 40 years but for 40 days. However, where Israel failed the desert test, Jesus succeeded and thus became a kind of new Israel, or a new Moses, capable of leading God’s people into the promised land of the kingdom of God.
This is but one example of how the Hebrew Bible is mythologized in the Gospels into a kind of parable. We could on and look at how the story of Jonah is mythologized in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 as symbolic for Jesus’ death and resurrection. We could look at how the story of Passover is mythologized. We could look at how the story of the Maccabean revolt is mythologized in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The list could go on.
The Gospel writers mythologized their history and scriptures into their writings as a kind of radical theology shift in the way they thought of God and his kingdom, or in the way they believed Jesus of Nazareth thought of God and his kingdom. It was no longer about a literal/physical kingdom but a symbolic/spiritual one. As Jesus says in Luke 17, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [or within you].” Jesus also says in John 18, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And yet it is certainly of this life because it looks like Jesus’ radical love, especially for the so-called other, the marginalized, and oppressed. This is the kingdom of God and it was a radical shift for many in Jesus’ day just as it still is in ours. And this shift often comes with a profound sense of disappointment and loss for us as it did for many back then.
Like Jesus’ contemporaries, we too must grapple with the fact that God is not going to liberate us from our Romans, from the oppressive forces of this life and world. Rather, he himself suffers and dies at their hands just like we do. Therefore, to believe in the kingdom of God is to experience first and foremost, the great disappointment of Good Friday. To experience the disappointment that comes from realizing that the God we’ve been given by our parents, our pastors, and even our very scriptures, this God is dead. The God who promises us worldly kingdoms of success and power, or health and wealth, this God is dead. The God who promises to liberate us from the problems of this life and world, our Romans, this God is dead. But another God is resurrected in his place and this God invites us to believe in a kingdom that is not of this world but is very much of this life because it’s a kingdom that dwells within us and within the simple acts of love itself. This is the radical and subversive core of the Gospels. It’s about the death of one understanding of God and his kingdom, a fundamentalist understanding, and the resurrection of another, a progressive understanding.
It is to understand, as Caputo says, that the “The power of God is not pagan violence, [the power of empire and earthly kingdoms], brute power, or vulgar magic; it is the power of powerlessness, the power of a call, the power of a protest that rises from innocent suffering and calls out against it, the power that says no to unjust suffering, and finally the power to suffer with innocent suffering, which is perhaps the central Christian symbol [the symbol of the cross].”
This is the power of the kingdom of God. It’s a weak power, according to the world’s standards of what’s weak and strong. As Paul says, “The weakness of God is stronger than human strength and the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” The kingdom of God is a kingdom of weakness and foolishness according to the world’s logic. But God’s kingdom abides by its own logic, a divine logic that is quite foreign to the logic of this world, and looks even crazy and impossible to the world.
In the kingdom of God you leave your 99 sheep and go looking for the one who’s lost, thus risking the 99. In the kingdom if someone asks you for your cloak you give them your tunic too. If they ask you to go one mile you go two. In the kingdom of God, sinners are preferred to the righteous and strangers are preferred over one’s friends and neighbors. In the kingdom of God, a laborer who works only one hour is paid the same as someone who worked all day. The so-called impure and unholy are actually holy and pure and the so-called holy and pure are actually unholy and impure. In the kingdom of God, the last are first and the first are last. If you want to save your life you must lose it. In the kingdom, the physical and literal aren’t what’s real or true, but the symbolic and spiritual. As Caputo says, “The logic of the kingdom of God is set against the logic of this world and lives to antagonize it with reversals, paradoxes, contradictions, metaphors, and parables.” This is the logic of the kingdom of God. The logic of the cross and resurrection.
And perhaps the deepest meaning of the resurrection is that in the kingdom of God anything is possible. As Jesus said in Matthew 19:26, “With God all things are possible.” What is more impossible than a resurrection? But the Gospels are not really about learning to believe in the impossibility of miracles and resurrections, I think it’s safe to say that most people already did in the ancient world. Rather, the Gospels are about learning to believe in the impossible idea that we’ve got God and his kingdom all wrong. That it’s not about a physical/literal kingdom of power and might but a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace. I think that is what they really had a hard time believing back then.
I’m sure it seemed impossible to first-century Jews that the God of their ancestors and scriptures, the God of the exodus, not only would not liberate them from the Romans but would be killed by them himself. I’m sure it seemed impossible to them that their long awaited Messiah would be crucified and humiliated in this way. I’m sure it seemed impossible to them that the Messiah would identify more with all the so-called lowly things of the world (the poor, the outcasts, the infirmed, the diseased, the sinners, the women, the Samaritans), rather than the mighty and powerful things (the wealthy, and the religious/political establishment). I’m sure it seemed impossible to them that the covenants God made with Abraham, Moses, and David (to establish Israel as an eternal kingdom with peace and prosperity), were somehow fulfilled symbolically and spiritually in Jesus and in the church age. I’m sure it seemed impossible to them that they had misunderstood so much, but with God all things are possible, right? In this kingdom of reversals anything goes.
The Gospels are about the impossible idea that we’ve had God and his kingdom all wrong. This is a very pertinent message for us today because I think the church has misread the scriptures too. We too have been obsessed with a literal/physical kingdom of power and might, when we should be looking for a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace. Who could argue that the church over the centuries has not been obsessed with the power of empire, violence, force, coercion, and magic? Maybe the church has been this way because it seems impossible to us that love really is more powerful than the power of empire. Maybe it seems impossible that love and grace can really change us and our world, but with God all things are possible. The weak and foolish things of the world are really the strong and wise things.
Maybe it seems impossible to believe in a so-called weak God that doesn’t save us from our Romans, that doesn’t save us from the oppressive forces of this life and world but actually suffers alongside us. Maybe it seems impossible that such a God is worth believing in at all. What good is such a God to us? Maybe it seems impossible to believe that this is Christian faith, a weak and foolish faith that thinks a symbolic/spiritual kingdom of love and grace is stronger and wiser than a physical/literal kingdom of power and might. Maybe this seems impossible, but with God all things are possible.
The Gospels are about this impossible, weak, and foolish kingdom and how it was a radical shift for people in Jesus’ day. In this way, the Gospels destroy fundamentalism then and now. They destroy our false kingdoms of power and might. Those kingdoms die in the text and another is resurrected in its place. The question is, can we believe it? If we do, we will know what it means to be “born again” and “saved.” (This post comes mostly out of my Palm Sunday and Easter sermons this year. Sorry for any undetected typos. It was written to be spoken, not read.)