Allegiance or Admiration?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

I am generally protected by my choice of media from the glamour and gossip side of the news. I don’t consume all that much of it and what news I read and hear is limited, mostly, to the websites of the established newspapers or the carefully worded renderings of NPR. But on occasion a story that is clearly the domain of the grocery store magazine rack makes its way even to the most serious news outlets. Such has been the case with “Megxit,” the leaving behind of the British royal family by Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan Markle.

There is just something about royalty that worm its way through even the most disciplined journalistic standard. Perhaps it comes from our childhoods where all the best stories are replete with kingdoms and palaces. There just aren’t that many fairy tails, ancient or modern, about the deliberations of democracy.

Perhaps our curiosity about formally recognized royals is also born from the truth that we are all in fact kings and queens of a kind, with power over a realm all our own. As the philosopher and spiritual teacher Dallas Willard has put it, “Every last one of us has a ‘kingdom’–or a ‘queendom,’ or a ‘government’–a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens.”

Our kingdom extends to the limit of our effective will, where what we say goes. The worst assaults on human personality are always those that limit the extent of that will, but all of us retain, even if only in parts of our minds and imagination, some control of some domain of ourselves. This is, in part, what it means to be human. What royals have on a grand scale and in a recognized way is what all of us have and so perhaps that is why a good story of royal intrigue is so fascinating to even the most serious reporter.

In our Gospel for this Sunday, we find the mission of Jesus’ ministry to be none other than the invitation for all of us to join in a Kingdom; the God’s kingdom where the domain of our rule, the extent of our effective will can be expanded and strengthened. In Jesus’ day, and continuing into our own, there were many nations including Israel that had become vassal states of one kind or another. In order to have more power or to have a larger army for protection, they had given up some of their own power in order to become a part of a greater kingdom. For most of Israel’s history these alliances were negative, in large part because they represented Israel’s trust in an earthly power rather than God’s rule and reign. But Israel, and all those who followed God, were really supposed to be vassal states of God’s kingdom. It was a relationship that was always meant to provide more freedom and good for all of those who were its members than could be had all on their own. As our passage from Isaiah expresses, when we join the domain of God’s reign we can praise it as a time of liberation, praising God saying:

“For the yoke of their burden,

and the bar across their shoulders,

the rod of their oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

When Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God has come near, he does not mean to signal that something new has arrived on the scene. God’s Kingdom, the domain of God’s effective will, has always existed and it had been known to many people and nations including Israel in its history. What Jesus was announcing was that through his life and ministry, God’s kingdom was now available and accessible in a new way.

I remember when the internet first arrived on the scene. It was just before I was in High School and people started signing up for services like AOL and Prodigy. Behold, the kingdom of the Internet is at hand. What had existed for some time before hand was now suddenly available for everyday citizens. But of course, we could choose whether we wanted to sign up or not, if we wanted to have all of that information streaming into our home and whether or not we wanted to pay the cost for it. Those who chose to sign up found the new connections it enabled to be life changing in many ways and over time those changes were so great and noticeable that most people now have internet access of one kind or another, for good or for ill.

God’s kingdom is available to us in Jesus in a way that allows us to enter a new kind of reality and align the kingdom of our own lives, our own effective wills, with his. To connect to this kingdom we do not need a modem; to join in alliance with God’s reign we require no formal treaty. Instead, Jesus calls on us to undergo a radical change of mind and therefore of life.

The call to join the Kingdom is “repent,” but I’m not sure that word means what it should for us. In Greek the word is literally to change your mind and so I like the Common English Bible’s rendering: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

When we join God’s Kingdom we are meant to undergo a process through which our effective will is joined in harmony with God’s will. This is not so that our wills become simply subsumed into a vast divine whole, but rather that our wills come into an alliance with God. This alliance extends and empowers us in the ways that are truly good and fulfilling for our lives and the domain of our influence.

There are of course other options than simply joining up with the Kingdom. The whole discussion of Megxit in the news has revealed the complexities of Commonwealth countries for those unschooled in the domain of the British crown and its influence. There are a number of former British colonies that have the Queen on their currency and claim membership in the Commonwealth. But in reality, those ties mean little in practice or consequence. Most Commonwealth countries are simply admirers of the Crown rather than subjects to it.

It seems that this is the option that many of us fall into with relationship to God’s kingdom. The choice Jesus gives us is to become disciples and undergo a radical change of mind and life and many of us like what we can see beyond the border of that kingdom. We are tempted to join in that domain, but not quite ready to give up our own agendas. We decide that rather than rejecting the Kingdom of God all together we’ll just put its emblem on the coinage of our small kingdom and leave it at that. We decide that we’ll be admirers of Jesus rather than disciples.

In his commentary on this passage Stanley Hauerwas relates a conversation between Clarence Jordan, a Christian who started an interracial Christian community called Koinonia Farm in the midst of the Jim Crow south and his brother Robert who had political ambitions for state wide elected office. When Clarence asked Robert to represent the community in some legal issues, Robert responded:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

Clarence assured his brother that everything was in fact what Koinonia might lose without legal help, to which Robert replied, “It’s different with you.”

“Why is it different?,” Clarence asked, reminding Robert that they had both pledged to follow Jesus as boys.

“I follow Jesus…up to a point,” Robert replied.

“Could that point by any chance be–the cross?” Clarence retorted.

“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

Clarence wouldn’t have it. “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple,” he told his brother. “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”

“Well, now,” Robert offered in defense, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church would we?

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church.’”

This is the question we are challenged with as we hear the Gospel, this Sunday’s reading and all of the teachings of Jesus. Will we be admirers of Jesus and live as a commonwealth of the Kingdom, a fan club of Jesus? Or will we follow the call to become Jesus’ disciples, changing our hearts and lives in allegiance with God’s reign?

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