Monday, September 13, 2010

God's Upside Down Kingdom

A pilot practicing maneuvers in a jet fighter turned the controls for what he thought was a steep ascent and flew straight into the ground. He was unaware that he had been flying upside down.

Maybe that is true for many of us. We have been so conditioned by our culture that we don’t know what is up or down. So when Jesus flips our world upside down in the Beatitudes he is really turning it right side up.

The second beatitude in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Jesus is not giving his disciples timeless truths about the way the world is, for the world is not this way at all. In the world mourners often go uncomforted, but not in the kingdom of God.

This beatitude is based on Isaiah 61 where, in its broader context, the prophet is lamenting the desolation of the holy city and the spiritual and social condition of the people of God. Jesus reflects this spirit when he looks out over Jerusalem and cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

Jesus mourned the spiritual and social state of his people, and yet he exuded an abundance of joy and peace. He, through God’s Spirit, was able to hold the contradiction together. He was in great agony in Gethsemane, not only as he contemplated his own death, but perhaps more significantly, as he mourned the state of the covenant people whose leadership was mired in legalistic stipulations, aristocratic pride, and religious manipulation. And yet, in the shadow of the cross, he said to his disciples, “My peace I give to you . . . these things I have shared with you so that you may share my joy” (John 14:27; 15:11).

Clarence Jordan is a more contemporary example of a disciple of Jesus living with this contradiction. He and his interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia felt the prejudice, hate, and wrath of the powers that be. Their farm was boycotted and their people shot at. Their roadside market was destroyed by dynamite. In the middle of the violence against them their very lives were in danger daily. And yet Jordan was known for his laughter, his clever wit, and his love for life. When the local and state powers boycotted their farm, this little community relied on friends throughout the country to get their pecans to market. Their slogan was: “Help us get the nuts out of Georgia.”

This is the paradox: Even when we feel life diminished by the losses, suffering, and injustice of the human condition, we also discover that life is enhanced by the Spirit of Christ, immersing our lives in God’s goodness and in God’s dream for the world. Even as we mourn the poverty, oppression, and tragedies of life, as well as our own personal losses, we are sustained and strengthened by a deeper peace and joy.

Often, in our experience, either sadness or joy has the upper hand. We sometimes journey through grief into joy, where the Psalmist says that our mourning is turned into dancing. Our grief through our own personal loss and our ache at the evil and injustice in the world invites us to place our grief and hurt in larger hands. In one sense, there is no healing without woundedness, no growth without suffering, and no resurrection without death.

And yet, in Christ, we are able somehow to experience both grief and joy simultaneously and live with the tension this creates. The living Christ enables us to hold these incongruities together. The living Christ invites us to share in both his suffering and joy. (This is Part 2 of the “The Beatitudes”)

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