The Politics of Kingdom Discipleship

Recently, we started a series in the lectionary – a month reading through Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a sermon about what it means to follow Jesus. This is, in Matthew’s gospel, the first “close-up” we get of Jesus’ ministry – it’s what’s of first importance for us, the disciples who have been passed the baton of mission, to know about this life of discipleship we’re embarking upon.

One of the themes in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus introduces at the very beginning in the beatitudes, or blessings, is the contrast between the vales and lifestyle of a disciple of the Kingdom of God and those of the Empire. The word in the Greek for “kingdom” in that phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is basileía. It is the same word used in the Greek in the Roman Empire. Jesus’ disciples would have immediately heard the contrast that Jesus was setting up – this is a juxtaposition of two empires, the Kingdom of God and the Empire of Rome. Jesus is describing a political discipleship in that right from the start he makes it clear that his disciples’ allegiance – their values, their loyalty – is to another sovereign. And if the tension of that opposing loyalty is not clear in the first blessing – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – it becomes much clearer when Jesus repeats it in verse 10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Rome, and the people who pledge allegiance to Rome, will punish those who live according the to the values – the righteousness – of the kingdom of God, because they are values in opposition to the values of the Empire.

Jesus is, of course, describing himself in the Beatitudes, and describing the ministry that is before him. He is inviting and warning his disciples – this is what following him will be like. Jesus himself associates with the poor, is a man without a home, is rejected in his own hometown, and is so provocative in his preaching that the religious leaders hate him and plot to destroy him. His lifestyle, his ministry, his associations, and his preaching are so provocative and powerful that Empire is threatened by him. There is nothing “Minnesota nice” about Jesus! He is divisive, dangerous, and unwilling to back down from the mission of his Father’s Kingdom. He would rather be executed by Rome than play nice with the powers that be. And he has the audacity to tell his disciples, to tell us, that following him is where we find God’s blessing – even though following him leads to a cross.

The question the Sermon on the Mount poses is which kingdom or empire will get our allegiance. Which will we spend our lives pursuing – the blessing of the American dream, or the blessing of the Kingdom of God? Because there is no empire or kingdom, or political party or candidate, of this world which does not, in some way, sooner or later, stand in opposition to the values of God’s kingdom. We will eventually always find ourselves at a crossroads with a decision about which empire to pursue. Jesus sermon asks us: Do you believe that God’s blessing is more valuable than the promises of American security and prosperity? And are you willing to risk persecution, being reviled by your neighbors, to seek the way of God’s justice (righteousness)? If we do, Jesus tells us to rejoice and be glad – because our reward in the kingdom is great.

Blessings, fellow disciples!

Pr. Lucy Wynard

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