Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the Church got off to a rather inauspicious start. Jesus, who is about to be glorified by returning to his rightful place at his Father’s side, just as he had asked in his prayer in John 17, tells his followers to spread his message to the ends of the earth, and the disappears into the clouds. And what do his followers do? They stand around like slack-jawed yokels, staring up at the sky and wondering what the heck they’re supposed to do now. But the worst part isn’t their confusion—because if we’re honest, I think we can forgive them for being a little mystified by what they’ve just seen. No, the worst part is the conversation that happens right before Jesus is beamed up.
What it amounts to is, “Are we there yet?” Every parent reading this just felt their blood pressure go up just a little bit, am I right? Sorry about that. “Are we there yet? Are you gonna bring in the kingdom now, Jesus?”
Do you mean they still don’t get it? Here’s what I’m beginning to think: I’m beginning to think that Jesus wasn’t nearly as great a teacher as the world thinks he was. Here we have eleven of Jesus’ very best friends—his very best students—who have been spending every waking hour with Jesus for the last three years. And now Jesus has died, Jesus has risen, and Jesus is about to disapparate from the scene, and they’re still asking stupid questions!
Perhaps we should go easy on these guys. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that now that Jesus has been raised from the dead, he really will, in fact, overthrow Judea’s Roman oppressors, restore the nation of Israel to former glory, and claim dominion over all the earth? I mean, aren’t we ourselves still waiting around for that very thing to happen?
No. Jesus taught them better than that. Jesus has taught us better than that. Somehow, though, we keep forgetting how this goes. There Jesus had been, teaching and feeding and healing and raising and dying and rising, and what do his disciples take away from all this? That maybe now is the time when Jesus will conquer Israel’s enemies. Admittedly, they missed the “my kingdom is not of this world” bit, since that was for Pilate’s ears only. But still.
But we’re savvy, twenty-first century Christians! We’ve had two thousand years to bone up on this Kingdom of God business. We’ve been well on our way to conquering the world for Jesus since the Edict of Milan brought Christianity out of the shadows! I mean, once we were the ones calling the shots, it’s been all peace and enlightenment and the brotherhood of man ever since, you know?
Well, maybe that’s because there’s been a whole lot of still-not-getting-it going on in the Christian Church for nearly all of the last two thousand years. How were those ancient Christians supposed to know that wedding religion to political power would result disastrously in collusion and compromise and, ultimately, corruption? Oh! Right. “My kingdom is not of this world.” I already said that, didn’t I? Well, let us thank God that history isn’t repeating itself today.
Actually, we’ve got prognosticators writing books about the late, great planet Earth and those who will be left behind on it, all the while assuring us that we can, in fact, know the times or the periods, regardless of what Jesus said. And there is no shortage of Christians who have willingly surrendered the love-of-neighbor ethic taught to them by Jesus for the love-of-power gospel promised to them by the halls of government.
It seems we’ve learned nothing in two thousand years. We’re still standing around like slack-jawed yokels, staring up at the sky and asking, “Are we there yet?”
The author of John’s Gospel is clever in writing a chiasm into the beginning of Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17. A chiasm is a literary device whereby a central point is surrounded on either side by layers of meaning and material. In verses 1 and 5, Jesus asks to be glorified. In verses 2 and 4, Jesus explains that he should be glorified, because he has completed what the Father had sent him to do. And in verse three, the verse at the center of the chiasm, we get to the very kernel of Jesus’ mission: “This is eternal life,” it says, “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3). Jesus asked to be glorified because his job was done, and his disciples were his proof. “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” Jesus’ earthly ministry was accomplished; it was time to go home.
As you may have noticed, however—and as the disciples themselves certainly noticed—Jesus may have felt as though his job was done, but the Kingdom of God appeared to be nowhere near completed. He promised God’s reign only to die; then rose from the grave… only to leave? What sense were the disciples supposed to make of that?
But before his departure, Jesus made it clear, in both the gospels and again in Luke’s summation of his instructions, given at the beginning of Acts, that it was the disciples’ turn. He was sending them out into the world to be his witnesses. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Today, we might call them missionaries. But when we use the word “missionaries” we also risk missing a very important point which is this: Jesus sends us, too.
The Nicene Creed, the last truly universal creed of Christians across the world before the church began to schism some 1500 years ago, declares that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. To be apostolic is to be sent. Jesus sent the apostles, who, in turn, sent those to whom they were sent, and so on and so on to the present day. We continue to be sent—we, too, are “apostolic” in having received the good news for the purposes of sharing it with others.
The kingdom to which we are called to bear witness is not a worldly kingdom in any way, shape, or form. Jesus does not need his disciples to “contend for the gospel” or fight for the Church’s hegemony in the world. Jesus is Lord; we—his witnesses—are not. It is not the Church’s job, it is not the Church’s divine call, to wield political power. The earliest Christians were instructed to play nice with the powers that be, to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus, and to win hearts and minds through exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world by offering an alternative ethic to that of the world. While Jesus said “Make disciples of all nations,” nothing that he had said before that suggests that he meant for it to be done at the point of a sword, by extorting the oppressed, by exploiting corrupting power, or by arguments and recriminations on Facebook. That’s the way kingdom-building gets done in the world, but Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.
In chapter 17 of John’s gospel, Jesus prays for us and for our participation in the ongoing work of kingdom building. His work as a witness to his Father’s word now completed, Jesus prayed for those who would take his place as witnesses in the world. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me… And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Far from establishing an earthly kingdom wielding the world’s power, Jesus founded a community of love and concern for the common good, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, empowered it to bear witness. And so what do the disciples do after hearing Jesus calling them his witness to the world? According to Acts, they “returned to Jerusalem” remained together in community, and “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” That is the beginning of the Church. While Pentecost is often celebrated as the “birthday of the Church,” the community of believers were already gathered, already given their mission and mandate, and were already practicing their religion through prayer and fellowship.
Prayer prepares us for the task of being Christ’s witness. It enables us to lay aside our pride, our ego, our thirst for the trappings and powers of this world, and seek instead the kingdom of God.
Or, to put it another way, I close with an allegory*:
Once upon a time, in the heart of the Western Kingdom, lay a beautiful garden. And there, in the cool of the day, the Master of the garden was wont to walk. Of all the denizens of the garden, the most beautiful and most beloved was gracious and noble bamboo. Year after year, bamboo grew yet more noble and gracious, conscious of his Master’s love and watchful delight, but modest and gentle. And often when the wind came to revel in the garden, Bamboo would cast aside his grave stateliness, to dance and play merrily, tossing and swaying and leaping and bowing in joyous abandon, leading the Great Dance of the garden, which most delighted the Master’s heart.
Now, one day, the Master himself drew near to contemplate his Bamboo with eyes of curious expectancy. And Bamboo, in a passion of adoration, bowed his great head to the ground in loving greeting.
The Master spoke: “Bamboo, Bamboo, I would use you.”
Bamboo flung his head to the sky in utter delight. The day of days had come, the day for which he had been made, the day to which he had been growing hour by hour, the day in which he would find his completion and his destiny.
His voice came low: “Master, I’m ready. Use me as Thou wilt.”
“Bamboo,” the Master’s voice was grave, “I would have to take you and cut you down!”
A trembling of great horror shook Bamboo…”Cut …me… down ? Me.. who thou, Master, has made the most beautiful in all thy Garden…cut me down! Ah, not that. Not that. Use me for the joy, use me for the glory, O master, but cut me not down!”
“Beloved Bamboo,” The Master’s voice grew graver still, “If I cut you not down, I cannot use you.”
The garden grew still. Wind held his breath. Bamboo slowly bent his proud and glorious head. There was a whisper: “Master, if thou cannot use me other than to cut me down.. then do thy will and cut”.
“Bamboo, beloved Bamboo, I would cut your leaves and branches from you also.”
“Master, spare me. Cut me down and lay my beauty in the dust; but would thou also have to take from me my leaves and branches too?”
“Bamboo, if I cut them not away, I cannot use you.”
The Sun hid his face. A listening butterfly glided fearfully away. And Bamboo shivered in terrible expectancy, whispering low: “Master, cut away”
“Bamboo, Bamboo, I would yet… split you in two and cut out your heart, for if I cut not so, I cannot use you.”
Then Bamboo bowed to the ground: “Master, Master… then cut and split.”
So did the Master of the garden took Bamboo and cut him down and hacked off his branches and stripped off his leaves and split him in two and cut out his heart. And lifting him gently, carried him to where there was a spring of fresh sparkling water in the midst of his dry fields. Then putting one end of the broken Bamboo in the spring and the other end into the water channel in His field, the Master laid down gently his beloved Bamboo. And the spring sang welcome, and the clear sparkling waters raced joyously down the channel of bamboo’s torn body into the waiting fields. Then the rice was planted, and the days went by, and the shoots grew and the harvest came.
In that day Bamboo, once so glorious in his stately beauty, was yet more glorious in his brokenness and humility. For in his beauty he was life abundant, but in his brokenness he became a channel of abundant life to his Master’s world.
As we answer Christ’s call to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, let us do so not with hubris but humility; not with power but peace; not with ranting but with reaching out. It is by showing the world what life in Christ-centered community—life within the divine dance of the Trinity—that we will win hearts and minds, and build a kingdom worthy of Jesus.
*It is deeply lamentable that my source for the allegory in this post, found here, was unable to attribute this work to a specific author.