We could make progress toward a more healthy, holistic, and inclusive Christianity if we spent less time talking about the need for faith in Jesus and more time emphasizing the faith of Jesus. The faith of Jesus centered on God’s kingdom.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) make clear that the heartbeat and passion of Jesus’ life and ministry was “the kingdom of God.” For example, in Luke’s Gospel when the people of Capernaum tried to get Jesus to extend his stay Jesus responded: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
What did Jesus mean when he proclaimed this good news? The “kingdom of God” is a rather dynamic and fluid symbol that has earthly, social, relational, spiritual, and political implications. Certainly, Jesus was talking about a transformation related to this world, not some heavenly or other-worldly reality. He taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Matthew’s Gospel employs the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” which has unfortunately been a source of much confusion and misunderstanding for many Christians. Matthew was following the common Jewish practice of substituting “heaven” for God in order to avoid the common use of God’s name. Matthew substituted “heaven” for “God” out of reverence for God’s name; he was not suggesting that God’s kingdom resided in some other realm.
Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, envisaged a time when the domination systems of the world would no longer run things. The prophets looked forward to a time when the will of God will be written on the minds and hearts of all people. This utopian vision anticipated the end of all injustice, violence, and poverty (see the poetic vision of Isaiah 65:19-25).
Recently, our church sent a mission team to visit Zambia. We help support the work of CBF missionaries Lonnie and Fran Turner through their Partners in Development. Last year we raised money to build a maternity clinic there (see the video on my Links). A key component in their work is providing fresh water to villages by digging wells. Upon our team’s return, a member noted that Zambia did not have a water problem. The water table was high and they did not have to dig very deep to find water. Their problem was not a resource problem, but a distribution problem. And that, of course, is a problem all over the world.
When the kingdom of God is realized on earth there will be no distribution problem. All will have enough. Some of us who have more now may have less, but all will have plenty for an abundance of life.
Obviously, there is a deep inner, spiritual, and personal dimension to this. In order to have transformed systems, institutions, and communities, we have to have transformed individuals. This is why Jesus talked about dying to the ego, about being born again, about being pure in heart, and about hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice.
Jesus called people to repentance (Mark 1:14-15): To stop living for self-glory, self-honor, and self-fulfillment, and live for the good of all humankind and all creation.
Jesus embodied this new world in such a way that the kingdom of God was realized in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Jesus rejected the security systems of wealth and power, and lived a very simple life. He believed in a God of compassion and told his followers to be compassionate to all people because God is compassionate to all people. He championed the cause of the poor and marginalized. He ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, extending God’s grace to all. He called women disciples, treating them as equals. He broke down barriers of race, extending God’s grace to Gentiles. He healed the diseased and demonized. He touched lepers and made them whole. He modeled and taught his followers how to act in direct, non-violent ways, protesting oppression by the powers that be. He forgave his tormentors and required his followers to do the same. He refused to be controlled by fear and anxiety, and believed God was with him every moment. He absorbed the jealousy, hate, and evil of the world in the hope and prospect of redeeming the world.
For Jesus, faith had nothing at all to do with believing doctrines, dogmas, and creeds. It had everything to do with a vision of a world healed, transformed, and made whole.
Jesus did not proclaim himself; he proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom. After God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, it was a short step for the early followers of Jesus to go from proclaiming the kingdom to proclaiming Christ, since Christ was believed to be the embodiment of the way of the kingdom.
The first disciples were known as “people who belonged to the way” (Acts 9:2). The early Christians did not mean what many Christians mean today when they say: Jesus is the way. Christians today think: “Way to heaven,” or “way to a happy and meaningful life.” The early followers of Jesus meant that Jesus incarnated the way of God’s kingdom and to be a disciple of Jesus meant learning from Jesus how to live that way of life.
When the Gospel of John talks about “believing in Jesus” it is not talking about believing doctrines about Jesus in order to go to heaven. It is talking about trusting in Jesus as the way into the truth and life of God’s kingdom. It means trusting in what Jesus stood for, believed in, fleshed out in word and deed, and ultimately what he gave his life for. Jesus told his disciples: “Strive first (pursue above everything) the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness/justice” (Matt. 6:33).
The primary meaning of “eternal life” in John’s Gospel is not life in heaven, but “life of the age to come,” fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We enter into such life now by trusting, following, living in the way of Jesus.
We don’t need more faith in Jesus; that is, faith as understood as belief. We don’t need any more creedal formulations and doctrinal statements about what to believe about Jesus. These have been an endless source of divisiveness and contention. We need more of the faith of Jesus; more faithfulness to the way of Jesus, faithfulness to the love, compassion, inclusivity, simplicity, courage, and hope of Jesus for a world healed and transformed.