But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:23 NRSV)
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. (Romans 12:9-10 NRSV)
When the Romans built the most powerful empire of the ancient world, they ruled brutally and ruthlessly at the point of a sword. Those who stood against them, or who disobeyed their laws were summarily dealt with, and often made an example of.
The whole point of taking those who had been sentenced to death and parading them through the streets to a very public execution at the city gates was to serve as a warning to others. “This is how we deal with those who cross us.”
But, at the risk of sounding like someone from a “Monty Python” film, the Romans were not just savage brutes, they did some positive things as well, copying the Greeks to develop their civilisation into something which many have looked back upon with admiration.
They were, for example remarkably tolerant of various religions and, crucially, they understood that for most people, while they may take pride in their imperial prowess and prestige, other more basic concerns (like food, clothing and safety) would always predominate.
The Leaders also knew that people also needed to feel that they could somehow participate in the imperial enterprise and so the emperors responded by building huge amphitheatres and stadia for the games which people could enjoy. It’s where we get the rather cynical notion of “Bread and Circuses” from – keep the people fed and distracted and all will be well.
However, in the middle of this dangerous and politically charged realm, a new Kingdom was being established; and its founders knew that it would face opposition, even persecution.
And although this Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, had been inaugurated by Our Lord in what would have seemed like the most inauspicious of circumstances, it was, within a very few years of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, already beginning to flourish and grow. Little communities, little groups of people were gathering together to worship God and follow the teachings of his Son Jesus Christ.
For Jesus’ Kingdom would be a very different one from the Kingdom of the Romans, or any other regime for that matter. And it was a Kingdom where behaviour mattered just as much as belief.
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows us just what happened to poor old Peter when he tried to apply his understanding of worldly leaders, to the one who would be Lord of God’s Kingdom. Control, manipulation, revenge and the ruthless use of power have no place in this Kingdom.
Although Jesus does talk about the importance of belief, it is the consequences of that belief which matter. God’s Kingdom is built on those consequences.
Jesus explains the values of God’s Kingdom very early on in his ministry, and he keeps returning to the theme, and I find it amazing that so many Christians, in their obsession about believing the “right” things, simply miss what Jesus is saying.
We can say that we believe all kinds of things about God and Jesus, but if our beliefs don’t percolate through into our day to day behaviour and decisions, then our beliefs are nothing more than a bit of personal comfort.
What is required before we can even begin to understand the nature of God’s Kingdom is actually a change of heart and mind to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, the eyes of the Kingdom, rather than through the eyes of contemporary culture. And that has always been true, for the last 2000 years.
That process of changing our hearts and minds so that we think in the ways of God’s kingdom – that process is called repentance. Repentance is much less about anguished breast-beating over real or imagined sinfulness, and much more of a change of heart which reorients us to live the values of the Kingdom.
St Paul, in his letter to the little community of believers in Rome, seeks to add flesh to the bones of their belief. Being part of God’s Kingdom means that they must think again about their attitudes and actions, to each other and to the wider world.
Just listen to some of his words:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Paul is saying to them, “The life you have in Christ together is a precious gift, because it is nothing less than the life of God’s Kingdom. So you should outdo each other in your enthusiasm to live by God’s life-enhancing ways, the ways of Christ.”
The Christian faith is much more than can be defined by the narrow definition of a religion. I don’t think Jesus came to found a new religion to add to the world’s strife and conflict. At its best, (and I mean at its very best), our Christian faith is much more than a set of religious practices and beliefs.
At its best, it is nothing less than a worldly manifestation of the eternal Kingdom of God.