Monday, April 29, 2013

Praying In Jesus' Name

What does it mean to pray "in Jesus' name?"  In John 14:12-14, Jesus says:
I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

So, commonly, Christians all around the world pray to God and end their prayers with the words "in Jesus' name, Amen."  But sometimes we don't get what we ask for.  I know I asked God to give me a million dollars before, and I never got it.  So does this mean that Jesus is a liar?

Well, what if asking for things in Jesus’ name means more than just saying “in Jesus’ name”?  In ancient culture, names were picked for their meaning more than for the way they sounded.  All over the Bible you’ll see that children were given names based on the meaning of the name – for example, when the twin sons Jacob and Esau were born, Esau was given his name because it means hairy; Jacob was holding onto Esau’s heel as he came out, and Jacob means "heel grabber".  So when Mary was told by an angel what to name Jesus, the original language was Y’shua.  Y’shua is like a nickname – a shortened version of “Jehovah shua”, shua meaning “saves”.  So Jesus’ name means “God saves”.  So the first thing we need to remember when we pray “in Jesus’ name” is that we are praying because God saves.

Secondly, in ancient culture a person’s name was more than just what you called them.  A name represented a person’s reputation or character – having a good name in town meant that one was respected and seen in a good way by the people of the community.  The fourth commandment – to honor your father and your mother – had a deeper meaning in Hebrew culture than the way it’s viewed today.  Today we think it merely means to obey your parents.  But in Hebrew culture, if a child lived in a way that was dishonorable, this would give his/her parents a “bad name” – it would damage their reputation.  So to live in a way that honored your parents meant that you were to live in a way that lifted up their reputation – when people see the way you live, they should think “he/she must have had good parents!” 

So when we pray “in Jesus’ name”, we should pray as ones in whom the Holy Spirit lives, and thus as people who are able to pray in His character.  We should seek the things He would seek, and in the way that He would seek them.  When we pray “in Jesus’ name”, we seek to pray God’s will over things on earth, and when you pray in this manner, Jesus WILL do it! 

But how can we do this?  How can we pray in Jesus’ character?  Well, there are many clues – one I’d like to highlight is a prophecy that Matthew claims Jesus fulfilled in Matthew chapter 12:
1     Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
 I have put my Spirit upon him.
 He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout
 or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
 or put out a flickering candle.
 He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.
He will not falter or lose heart
 until justice prevails throughout the earth.
 Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction.
Isaiah 42:1-4

This passage is a prophecy of Jesus, but I think it's appropriate to see this as a guideline for how we should live.  The word "Christian" was a term coined by the non-Christian population of Antioch as a derogatory term that stuck, and it basically meant "little Christ".  And the reason it stuck is because that's what we're really supposed to try to be.  We're supposed to be little reflections - yes, they are dirty, imperfect reflections; but reflections nevertheless - little reflections of Christ running around showing the world His glory.  So when I read this passage I notice some interesting things.  I notice that in verse 2, the passage puts two things back to back that might seem contradictory to our minds - we are to seek justice...but we're not supposed to shout or raise our voice in public.  How often do we seem to think that, because the cause we are fighting for is just in our eyes, it justifies shouting and raising our voice in public?  And verse 3 is terribly convicting to me, because it tells me that when we seek justice, we're supposed to do so gently, without crushing those who are weak and leaving a trail of damage in our wake.  But also it's terribly convicting because it tells me that we're not supposed to be seeking justice for the wrongs done to us, but justice for others around us who have been wronged.  And I see verse 4 as a promise that if we do this with determination - a determination to seek justice for others with a gentle spirit - we will receive respect.  And another thing that is interesting is that if you look back at verse 1, there are promises as well - the Lord will strengthen us, put His Spirit upon us, and He will find pleasure in us. 

In the past I’ve struggled with the fact that I was not given the things I asked for in my prayers.  But now I realize this is because all my prayers were so selfish.  I want to pray in Jesus’ character.  I want to seek the things He would seek, and pray His will in this world.  So I seek to pray for justice for others – justice for the weak and oppressed.  I seek to pray for justice that is achieved gently, and does not leave destruction in its wake.  I seek to pray loving prayers for healing, restoration, redemption, and peace.  And I believe that if our prayers are characterized this way, our requests will be granted.

But we shouldn't stop there.  The Christian mission does not stop at privately uttering a prayer to God.  We ought to seek to make our very lives a prayer to God.  We ought to live our prayers in the world.  We are citizens of Heaven, and we ought to live as though we were bringing Heaven to earth.  All too often I fear that we are trained by our religious upbringing to see the Christian life as being about pious living, and singing praise songs on Sunday.  But that's not what God wants!  Those things are not for God - they're for us!  Purifying our lives is about removing the things that would prevent us from loving our neighbor and loving God, and singing praise songs is about renewing our spirit - God isn't waiting on the edge of His seat every weekend thinking to Himself "oh gee, I really hope they sing my favorite songs this week!"  Don't believe me?  Take a look at this passage:
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” 
Amos 5:21-24 (MSG)

Wow.  Awkward! 

Justice is really important to God.  All throughout the Bible if you look for passages about justice you'll notice something - God is always talking about how He wants us to seek justice for...whom?  For ourselves?  For the powerful?  For the rich?  No - God wants us to seek justice for the oppressed, for the poor, for the widow and the orphan.  God wants us to seek justice for the powerless - for those who are unable to seek justice for themselves.  In Leviticus 19:9-10, Israel is instructed to leave the crops at the edge of their field unharvested for the poor to gather.  In Deuteronomy 15:11, they are commanded to share with the poor.  Psalms 82:3-4 says to "give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute.  Rescue the poor and helpless; deliver them from the grasp of evil people."  Isaiah 1:17 shows us that when we seek justice, we should be seeking it with the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows in mind, and then this theme is repeated in verse 23.  Later on, in Isaiah 10:1-2, Isaiah pronounces sorrow upon judges who issue unfair laws that deprive the poor, deny the needy, and prey upon the weak.  When Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, the King's measuring rod for justice was to examine how those being judged dealt with "the least of these."  I could go on, and point out many other passages where God's sense of justice deals with how the poor, the weak, and the powerless are treated - and Jesus repeatedly turned our idea of who is important on its head during His ministry. 

So how does one develop a sense of how God views justice?  It's so contrary to our own selfish way of seeing things.  In the New Testament, the commandment to love is the most repeated command.  Jesus says in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples by our love.  So the way I see it, when I take that into context with the way the Bible portrays justice, I believe that if our hearts are filled with God's love, our vision of justice will be changed.  We will no longer see justice as treating rich and poor alike - through the eyes of love we will see it as giving special care to the poor, and protecting the powerless, lifting up the sick and the weak and those who are despised by culture.  And if we seek that kind of justice, I think we'll be living in the character of Jesus.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Responding to the "Rise of the Nones"

Over the last year or so, I have noticed books, articles, and blogs talking about a trend known as the “Rise of the Nones”.  On October 9, 2012, the Pew Forum conducted a study that explored this trend.  With issues like this, it seems that it is all too easy to take a pessimistic sort of response that essentially says “see, I told you this country was falling apart!”  But I am more interested in what lessons we should learn from this, and in how we should respond – every problem is an opportunity for growth.  So I wanted to explore and present my thoughts on how to respond to this situation.  But first I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine.

We’ll call my friend Simon.  Simon grew up in a church that had a tendency towards fundamentalism.  Simon likes to call his church background “The Church of Don’t”, because it seemed like that’s what being a Christian was to them: a long list of “don’ts”.  Simon grew up being told what to believe, and was given simple answers that favored literal interpretations of Bible verses, but Simon has a very rational mind, and a high intelligence.  When I met Simon, he had been out of the church for a while, but he went through an experience at one point where he stayed home from work for a few days because he was having a panic attack and couldn’t bring himself to leave the house.  He was told by a therapist that what he was going through was Religious Decompression syndrome.  Basically, Simon had left his “Church of Don’t” and had begun to defy some of the teachings of that faith.  But even though he didn’t believe in these teachings anymore, he was ridden with guilt and a feeling that he was messed up, even though he is quite a normal and gentle fellow.  I had the pleasure of meeting Simon’s therapist, and I’ll never forget one thing he said: truth does not need us to protect it.  See, often it seems that within Christian fundamentalism, questioning is discouraged.  But the Bible tells me that the most important thing is Love - because Jesus said that all the law and the prophets can be summed up in two commands: love God, and love your neighbor.  And with the parable of the Good Samaritan, paired with the command to love our enemies, I know that my neighbor is anyone and everyone.  And I John 4:8 tells me that God is love.  So the most fundamental of all truths is simply: love.  I Corinthians chapter 13 says that Love is patient.  Love does not demand its own way.  And love never fails.  So if love is fundamental to truth, then truth does not need us to protect it from questions or even from doubt.  Truth patiently bears our questions and our doubt, not demanding its way, knowing that it will prevail.  When Thomas said that he would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw the holes in Jesus' hands, and put his finger into them, and unless he put his hand into the hole in Jesus' side, Jesus did not come and condemn Thomas.  He appeared before Thomas personally and said "Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!"  Too often I fear we make the mistake of reading an angry tone into this passage.  But Jesus bore the full weight of evil on the cross without ever rebuking or condemning his persecutors - in fact, while he hung there gasping for breath, he said "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Now, if he can forgive that, don't you think he can handle a little doubt?  No, when I think of Jesus appearing before Thomas, I bet you Jesus had a little bit of a smirk on his face when He called Thomas over.

So how do we respond to “the Nones”?

Love them
It’s all over the Bible, and is the single most repeated command in the New Testament.  Jesus says in John 13:35 that the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another – love is supposed to be the defining characteristic of Jesus’ followers.  So it seems fairly obvious to me that in responding to “the Nones”, we need to examine what the Bible says about love.  So I go to I Corinthians chapter13, and I want to speak specifically about a few of the things it says about love:

Love is patient
Bringing back “the Nones” is not going to be instantaneous.  It won’t be easy.  It’s going to take some real work on our part.  But love demands that no matter how we are responded to, we keep trying.  It’s important to realize, however, that this does not mean that the way to bring back “the Nones” is to call them up every so often to tell them how wrong they are and how they have sinned and must repent, and to never give up in this endeavor.  That would be to ignore the very next part of the definition of love in I Cor. 13: love is kind. 

Love is kind
Kindness means that we are gentle and giving.  If we are kind, we lift the other person up – wrapping them in affection and being considerate of their needs, seeking to meet those needs in any way that we can.  Kindness does not expect anything in return, but continues to give – this goes along with the phrase in verse 5 which says that love is not self-seeking.  Some dictionary definitions of the word “kind” even include the concept of being indulgent – if we’re kind, we indulge the doubts of “the Nones” and give them a thorough examination. 

Love is not proud
This is going to be a tough one.  But the church needs to humble itself.  It needs to stop to listen to the voice of “the Nones”, and hear whatever accusations they may present.  The church needs to listen to the reasons why our modern church has seemed hypocritical and uncaring to them.  And it needs to consider if maybe, just maybe, it got some things wrong.  Yes, it’s possible that the church will need to change!  It’s even possible that these churches that have been left behind have misinterpreted the Bible!  Love means abandoning your pride in your knowledge, abandoning your pride in your superior principles, and examining what the beloved has to say with an attitude of humility while taking into account the possibility that the beloved may have a point.

Precisely because pride is so hard to eschew, and precisely it is so important that pride be left behind, I am spending more time on this concept than any of the others.  So I thought I’d provide a few quotes from other authors that I think go along with this principle of humbling ourselves, and of the importance of listening:

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is to confuse their interpretations of the Bible with the Bible itself. To come to a new understanding of a text or a passage than a traditional view of it, due to study of language, context, history, archaeology, etc., is not to change the Bible, but one’s understanding of it, and perhaps to be more faithful to it.”
- Brian Berghoef

"The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either – they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

"If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don't find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don't cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God's truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition."
- Brennan Manning

"Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: 'We don't discuss those things here.'

I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the book of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he's asked with...a question."
- Rob Bell

Love always protects
This might be another tough one, but if I love someone who is going through a time of doubt, I believe it means I protect their right to doubt – even if I disagree with their reasons for doubting.  Because I am not living their life, it would be insensitive for me to say to someone who is living in doubt: “well, the Bible clearly says A, so therefore you have no reason to doubt!”  No, if I love this person, I respect the reasons they have for doubting and I protect their need to go through this process.  But through it all:

Love always hopes
No matter what reasons a person has for doubting, monumental though they may seem, one who loves will stick with them and keep a hopeful attitude.  Hope means that no matter how bad the odds may seem, love is sure things will work out for the better in the end.  This insistent optimism takes quite a bit of patience for sure…which is probably why “love is patient” is the first item in Paul’s list of the definitions of love.  But we have great news in verse 8:

Love never fails
This is a profound mystery to us, because humans fail all the time.  So, naturally, we have a pessimistic expectancy of failure.  But love demands that failure is not an option.  Love refuses to leave the beloved’s side no matter what the circumstances, and love believes that no matter what happens the beloved is never beyond saving.  It might seem like it would take a miracle, but here’s the thing about miracles: I've seen a man and a woman, both in a place where they were profoundly and similarly broken, somehow cross paths and connect, despite all the reasons they should not have.  I've seen a heart that had begun to fear it could never be loved, and even that it might not be capable of loving back, find love that it could not deny was real.  I've seen a barren womb open with uncanny timing - saving a young relationship from a long separation that might have left the relationship to wither.  I've seen differences in a relationship that once caused strife and seemed like weaknesses cause great strength.  I've seen stubborn minds change.  I've seen broken hearts mended, doubt turned to hope, and a skeptic's dead faith resurrected with new vitality it never had before.  You bet I believe in miracles.  I was a “None”, and I am a miracle, and it’s only because of love.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rejecting Caesar's Gospel

I’d like to talk about an issue that troubles me greatly.  Those of you who disagree with me are going to want to immediately dismiss what I have to say as soon as you find out what this is about.  But please keep reading – because this is about so much more.  This is about how we should respond in the wake of the Boston bombings, and it’s about the most important thing in life.  Before I get into what this is about, I want to warn you: before you throw my opinions out the window because of your disagreement, keep in mind that the Bible commands you to test out what I have to say:
I Thessalonians 5:19-22
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

And how do you test out what I have to say?  Jesus tells you:
Matthew 7:15-20
Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

So hear me out, and decide for yourself if what I have to say is something that will produce good fruit or bad fruit.

The whole gun rights debate mystifies me, on many levels.  It mystifies me that those who clamor to either keep the gun situation the way it is or want more guns on the streets will shout out “congress shall make no law!” and “right to bear arms!” but ignore the “well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” clause.  I then am further mystified that often, when you point this out to people, they begin to argue that the militia is all of us, completely ignoring both the “well regulated” phrasing as well as Article I, Section  8 of the Constitution itself which states that Congress (ahem…the Federal Government…) shall have the power:
Clause 15:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

Clause 16:

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

Boy, that sure sounds like the purpose of the second amendment was so that every individual could have a gun so that we can overthrow a tyrannical government, eh?  (#sarcasm)  It further mystifies me that despite the fact that all of President Obama’s proposals have majority support of the public – and specifically that stricter background checks are more popular than apple pie, baseball, and kittens – the government can’t seem to get any traction on passing any new gun control laws (actually I'm not mystified - the NRA owns the Republican party).

But what mystifies, and disturbs me most of all is that often the people shouting the loudest about how we need to protect the “right” to bear arms of any kind and firepower for anyone at all are people who claim to be Christians – followers of Jesus.  I just can’t understand how someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus could think that He supports the “right” to bear arms.  And I want to give a thorough explanation why, but please keep in mind the Biblical command to test out what I have to say for its fruits.

So why am I mystified by Christians who fight for gun rights?  It’s because of my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  See, Jesus taught us to love one another – in Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on the commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And when asked who our neighbors are in Luke 10:25-37 (verse 29), Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who acted like a neighbor to an injured Jew, while the religious elites of Jesus’ day ignored him.  To put this into context, it would be like if Jesus told the story today and the Samaritan was a Muslim while the ones who ignored the injured man were an Evangelical Minister and a church deacon.  And Jesus further broadened the definition of the command to love our neighbor when he said in Matthew 5:43-48 that we should love our enemies as well.  And Jesus had already helped us to understand how we are to love our enemy when he said that we should not resist an evil person; if we are struck in the face we should turn the other cheek to allow them to strike that side as well; if anyone wants to sue us for our shirt we should give them our coat too; if anyone forces us to go a mile (Roman soldiers had the right to force a citizen of the empire to carry their pack for a mile) we should go two miles (Matthew 5:38-42).  But Jesus gives us more clues about how to interpret “the Law” when he tells the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, saying that if anyone has done an act of kindness for “the least of these” they have done it for Him.  And the Apostle Paul picks up on this clue in Galatians 5:14 when he says that the entire law is fulfilled in loving our neighbors.  And if we love our neighbor, Romans 13:10 says that we will do no harm.  Seems to me like Jesus wouldn’t be pushing for us to own guns, since they don’t seem to go together with not resisting, turning the other cheek, or not doing any harm.

But wait, there’s more.  I believe American Christianity has been deceived by a misconception that being a Christian is about escape – it’s about escaping this world and going to heaven.  But I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all.  I didn’t realize just how wrong this impression was until I understood what the gospel was.  See, if you had asked me before what the gospel was even 6 months ago, I would have quoted for you Ephesians 2:8-9.  And that’s a halfway decent answer, but it’s not the gospel – it’s Paul expounding on the gospel; unpacking it; exploring what it means.  I don’t think many of us understand the Gospel here in America because we’ve forgotten what the word itself means.

To understand, we have to understand the historical background of Israel being in captivity to the Roman Empire.  In the Roman Empire, when a new Caesar came to power, he would send out messengers throughout the Empire to tell them the news – basically they would go throughout all the corners of the Empire and tell the governors (the political elite) that “everything is going to be OK now – I’m in control of the Empire now, and I’m going to set things right.  I am Lord now, and you will be saved through me.  I am the savior through which you will find economic stability and safety from your enemies.  There will be peace and prosperity through me.”  This was called the “euangelion” – or, gospel – and it was good news for Caesar’s friends.  But to the new Caesar’s enemies, the news was not good. 

Jesus’ gospel was an answer to the gospel of a new Caesar, but it was a stark contrast.  When Jesus was born, an angel told Shepherds that there was “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  (see Luke 2:8-11)  Notice two contrasts here:
1)    The news does not come first to the elites, but to lowly shepherds.
2)    The news is good and causes joy for all the people.

Then, when John the Baptist began to “prepare the way for the Lord”, what did he preach?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (see Matthew 3:1-2)  Now, this phrase has also been translated into English as “is near”, “has drawn near to you”, and “is at hand.”  I, personally, prefer the “at hand” translation because I feel it is ripe with metaphorical imagery – it tells me that though the kingdom is not yet fully realized, it’s so close that if I were to simply stretch out my hand in faith I would be able to touch it; to grasp a small piece of that kingdom now, in this world and time.

After Jesus was baptized by John, he was tempted, and after he was tempted, Matthew 4:17 tells us that he began to preach “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

Later on, in Matthew 10:7-8, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and he tells them to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.  Freely you have received; freely give.”  See, these are all signs that what they are saying – that the kingdom of heaven is at hand – are true.  This is another contrast to Caesar’s gospel - Caesar proves his gospel through violently destroying his enemies.  Jesus proves his gospel through healing and restoration – even for his “enemies”.

This message is repeated all throughout the New Testament, and this should indicate to us its importance!  Not only is the message “the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand” repeated throughout all four gospels and then later on in Acts and even the epistles, but most of Jesus’ parables start out with “the kingdom of Heaven is like….” 

Now, as a side note, it should be noted that the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” is often replaced by “the Kingdom of God”, and this may cause some confusion, but it is easily explained.  When Moses asked God what His name was, God says “I Am Who I Am” – this isn’t really a name.  And God never really gives himself a name, though the Jews used many names for Him.  But the phrase, “I Am Who I Am”, is often represented by the Hebrew letters “YHVH”, which do not produce a pronounceable word, or name.  Many Jews believed that this, in conjunction with the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, meant that they should not ever say the name of God, and so they would substitute the word “Heaven” for his name.  So when Jesus preached, he kept his audience in mind, and in some areas he would say “Kingdom of God” – because they had no qualms with that phraseology there – and in other places he would say “Kingdom of Heaven”. 

But what I’m getting at is that the goal of American Christians to “get to heaven” is not Biblical!  Our goal is not escape – our goal is to bring “heaven” to earth as citizens of the Kingdom of God!  Don’t believe me?  Then why does Jesus say to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), and when He teaches us to pray, why does he use the phrase (in Matthew 6:10):
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, in Colossians 1:15-20, Paul uses political language that is lost on us today.  It was a very politically subversive message – in Rome at the time, Christianity was a very small percentage of the population.  But Paul is turning things around in verses 16 and 17 by saying that, because – through Christ – God created everything, Rome is just a small piece of God’s kingdom.  Then Paul says that Christ is the “head of the assembly” (note: many translations use the word “body”) in verse 18 – this was political language.  In Roman, their legislative branch was known as the “assembly” and Caesar was the head of it.  This language is all too often lost on us today, and it is to our detriment as we seem to believe church is all about singing songs and praying.  Which I’m not knocking – those things are beneficial.  But that’s not the end goal – the goal is to be a citizen of God’s kingdom, and to act as if we have responsibilities to inaugurate His kingdom on earth.  You see, because we believe in “heaven escapism” we push Isaiah 2:4 into the future and think we have no responsibility for it:
The Lord will mediate between nations
    and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
    nor train for war anymore.

Do you understand the imagery of hammering swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks?  What that means, as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, is that we are supposed to turn away from instruments of destruction and violence and turn towards instruments of cultivation, and we ought to encourage everyone in the world to do the same, since “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1 and I Corinthians 10:26)

You see, we’re supposed to be followers of Jesus.  And Jesus showed us how to make peace.  When the soldiers came to arrest him and take him away to the cross, and Peter cut off the soldier’s ear, Jesus rebuked him and said that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  And then Jesus said that if he wanted, he could call on His Father and twelve legions of angels would come down.  (Matthew 26:53)  Jesus had more power in his pinkie than an AR-15, but he gave it up and took up the cross.  Going back to the politically subversive imagery in Colossians 1:15-20, in verse 20, Paul says that “He (Christ) made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”  Caesar makes peace through the cross – if anyone is stupid enough to defy Caesar’s rule, he hoists people up on it.  Caesar makes peace through violence.  Jesus makes peace by giving up His power and subjecting himself to violence.  And the New Testament is full of commandments for Jesus’ followers to die to self and take up our cross.  After all:
[Jesus] [w]ho, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
(Phillippians 2:6-8)

And yet we have people here in America calling themselves followers of Jesus who wish to make peace through violence – who preach that the only way to have peace is to have more instruments of violence.  My friends, this is a false gospel – it is false prophecy and it bears the fruits of fear, anger, hatred, and violence, and I refuse to remain silent but will call it what it is.  We have people insisting on grasping at power in the form of weapons, and seeking to save their lives in this way.  But Jesus said that we must take up our cross and follow Him, for “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)  People keep telling us we need to take refuge in guns, but "I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'"  (Psalm 91:2)  If I were to take up a gun, or to encourage another to do so, I would no longer be preaching Jesus’ gospel, which proves itself through healing and restoration even towards my enemies – I would be preaching a false gospel.  But I reject Caesar’s gospel that says peace comes through violent means.  I say this is Jesus’ kingdom, and He brought peace through showing us how to love.

Matthew 5:9
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.