Song of Solomon, 2:10-13
2 Corinthians, 10:17‑11:2
Listen to the sermon:
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Agnes was a martyr, a churchy word that originally meant “witness.” A martyr bore witness, or testified, as in a courtroom. For nearly three hundred years after the resurrection, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, and some Christians were killed on account of their belief. These martyrs would not deny Jesus or change their testimony.
In our day, in some places, people kill Christians for their witness to Christ. Intense persecution of Christians continues today in North Korea, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other nations. These persecutions sometimes include killing people.
In the early fourth century, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a particularly fierce persecution of Christians, the bloodiest of all the Roman persecutions of Christians. The world, as always, was rapidly changing, and like many last gasp attempts to hold back the future, it was extremely ugly. When children are targets, the killers are desperate.
Agnes lived in Rome. In 304, when she was twelve or thirteen years old, she refused to renounce Jesus, and the authorities killed her. The horror provoked tremendous outrage. People questioned whether preserving old Roman ways was necessary, or worth, such extremism. Her execution may have been the tipping point, the point where people said, “No more.” Within a decade, Rome legalized Christianity and soon thereafter embraced Christianity.
Agnes’ official feast day is tomorrow, supposedly the day she was killed. To me, it contrasts sharply with what will be happening here tomorrow, Inauguration Day – two different kinds of kingdoms. Obviously, our government is far more just, egalitarian, accountable than most, and especially far more than Imperial Rome, but still the inauguration is a display of worldly power; for the most part, it celebrates the kingdom of this world.
My first passion was politics, the art of living together. I still find it fascinating and consider it enormously important. The decisions we make, or don’t make, significantly impacts billions of people. Working together we can make the world a more just and humane place, or not. In my youth, my strong idealism made me hopeful that good policy could create a near perfect society, alleviate most suffering, and help us live in comfort if not luxury.
I started to become a Christian, however, when I came to recognize that even if such a perfect society did exist, it wouldn’t matter without God. Humanity’s purpose could not be found only in this world. A couple years before I was baptized, I came to believe that for life to be meaningful, God had to exist, and humanity had to have some connection to God and eternity, connection to something beyond this world, other than this world. For me, the kingdom of this world, a human kingdom, no matter how perfect, was not enough.
Slowly I began to learn about the Kingdom of God. No doubt, worldly kingdoms shaped my conception of it; our views of this world typically shape our notions of greater realities. So my initial imagination of the Kingdom of God assumed that it was a place with a hierarchical structure, a place of the lesser serving the stronger, a place of exclusivity. My notion of the Kingdom of God was mixed up with all that St. Peter and pearly gates imagery, and it’s hugely misleading, implying external barriers to entry, implying that we had to earn our way to be welcomed. Nuts.
In today’s gospel, Jesus described the Kingdom of God. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who has the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” Matthew has revised a story in Mark’s gospel where the disciples fought among themselves about who was the brightest and best. (Mk 9:33-37) Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as bumbling, petty, and dim-witted embarrassed Matthew, who had a different opinion than Mark. So he re-wrote it and gave us today’s scene.
In the ancient Near East, determining the pecking order was very important.[i] Everyone had to know and act according to their honor status. It minimized conflict and promoted social stability. Being humble meant staying within your inherited status. The humble didn’t grasp for a social upgrade. If your status did improve, that necessarily meant at least one person, and maybe many, had a downgrade. Honor was a zero sum game.
A child had no status in society. Jesus told his disciples that if they were like a little child, a nobody, then they would be great in the Kingdom of God. Jesus completely undermined his culture’s fundamental convention about status. The Kingdom of God doesn’t have this strict hierarchy. He was saying, “Your social status does not mirror your value. You are of infinite value. Don’t think of yourself in terms of social hierarchies. It’s okay to be a nobody.” Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek.
The message was not only don’t seek a higher position, but be willing to give up the honor, the status, you currently enjoy; be willing to be treated as someone lower on the totem pole. According to Jesus, when we have that kind of inner conversion so that we can accept lower status, as we develop that kind of humility, then we’re entering the Kingdom of God.
The corollary of such humility is the imperative to extend hospitality, a ready and eager embrace of all. In effect, Jesus said, “When you welcome a little child, a nobody, you are welcoming me. See me in other people, especially those you hold in lower regard. And if you take advantage of the little ones, those who are weak or despised, you’ll be sorry because you’ll be cutting yourself off from me. It’s like being dropped in a lake with a huge rock tied around your neck.”
Let’s be clear: it’s not God punishing us. When we take advantage of someone with less position, or less talent and ability, when we grasp for higher status and snub people trying to climb over them, God does not come after us. Rather, by our own actions we separate ourselves from him and his Kingdom.
“Kingdom of God” is an unfortunate phrase. It’s much better to think about the Kingdom of God as God’s rule, or as Jesus’ personal presence, or the phrase John uses: “eternal life.” I want God to rule my heart, for Jesus to be present with me, to have eternal life (God’s life) in me. The story of our lives, our journey in life, is about learning to welcome God into our lives, being hospitable to his presence in us.
Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God [his rule, his presence] is not coming with signs to be observed; nor when someone says, “Look here it is” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20b-21) It’s in the midst of you. It’s here and now, not then and there.
When I pray the Lord’s prayer, which all about God’s kingdom, his presence, coming into our lives, being in our lives, I’m asking him to fill my heart and mind and being with himself, to awaken me to his presence and love and care of me, to make me more aware that God’s rule is already taking shape in the world. Heaven and earth are already coming together. In the resurrection, Jesus showed us a little of what this new creation looks like, of what our future looks like. This new order of creation has begun to appear.
We are now in the midst of heaven and earth coming together. It’s happening in the world and in each of us. The Kingdom of God, Jesus’ presence, already exists in you. We don’t have to wait for death or an afterlife to connect to life and heaven. It’s happening now. Just pay attention to this moment, to who’s with us, to what we are thinking and feeling, to what we are part of, to what’s going on around us.
If we connect to that life, that presence, that Kingdom, in us, it doesn’t separate us from this world; it makes us more attached, more involved, more committed to this world and to our nation. As we begin a new presidential term, I hope and pray that the next years are full of prosperity, strength, justice, peace, that we work better together, taking advantage of our opportunities and addressing our problems, and while our government may, or may not, move in that direction, we can.
We follow Jesus who offers an agenda, a platform, that no politician would ever endorse.[ii] Can you imagine any politician – and remember our politicians are, for the most part, merely a reflection of us, we get what we deserve – can you imagine a politician proclaiming Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) or Sermon on the Plain (Luke) as his priority? Can you imagine any politician making a campaign speech or an inaugural address saying,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Help those who hate you and praise those who curse you.
If someone punches you in one cheek, offer him the other.
If someone tries to sue the shirt off your back, give him your best coat as well and make a present of it.
If someone takes advantage of you, don’t respond tit for tat. Live generously.
Help and give without expecting anything in return. You won’t regret it, ever.
Be lenient, don’t jump on people for their failures or criticize them for their faults.
Don’t condemn, but be kind and easy on people.
Give your life away, and you’ll receive life with excess beyond your imagination.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Bruce J. Malina & Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 92.
[ii] Point made by Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant, Viking (2006), pp. 88-89. He quoted Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. I’ve added bits from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, paraphrasing from The Message and some of my own.