Day 49

Devotional by N.T. Wright-EASTER TUESDAY

All four gospels tell a story which many in today’s world have forgotten or have never even known. It is the story of how Jesus became the king of the world. That’s where we have been going, ever since, back near the beginning, Jesus came into Galilee announcing that ‘heaven’s kingdom is at hand’. So often this has been turned into a very different message, about ‘telling people how to go to heaven’, that we have ignored the far more startling truth that Jesus was actually talking about how heaven was coming to us. In other words, how God, the God of heaven and earth, was coming to earth to establish his sovereign, saving rule.

Now, risen from the dead, Jesus declares that it’s happened. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!’ In other words, the prophetic picture in Daniel 7, which Jesus quoted in 24.30 and 26.64, has come true. Jesus has been exalted to be God’s, right-hand man. All that God now does, in heaven and on earth, he will do in and through Jesus. (Within a generation, early Christian theologians like Paul, John and the author of Hebrews would point out that this is because Jesus, long before he became human, was God’s right-hand person in making the world in the first place.) This is the great message of the whole gospel. Jesus is King and Lord, not just ‘in heaven’ (that would be quite a ‘safe’ idea) but on earth as well.

But what-what on earth, we might say — does that actually mean? If Jesus is really King and Lord, why is the world still in such a mess? How does he exercise this ‘lordship’? How does this sovereignty, claimed so strongly in this passage, work out on the ground?

The whole gospel, once more, is written in order to give the answer to that. Again, it’s an answer many people today have not even begun to think through. Ask yourself this question: how did Jesus come to this point of being king? The answer is obvious. He didn’t do it in the way the disciples expected, in the way the crowds wanted, in the way which the chief priests and Pilate assumed he would behave. He didn’t follow the normal human path to power, pushing and shoving his way forward, fighting and killing until his position was established. 

He came as the Servant, the one who took people’s infirmities and diseases on to himself, the one who suffered insults and mocking and torture and death. He was obedient, throughout his life, to a different vision of power, a different sort of kingdom-dream. And his resurrection not only showed that he was right. It established his kingdom, his type of kingdom, once and for all.

But if that’s the sort of kingdom it is, it must be put into operation, not by his followers bullying and harrying and forcing the rest of the world to come into line. That’s what people are afraid of today when they warn against ‘theocracy’, a rule-of-God which would quickly turn into the bossy, self-righteous ‘rule’ of those who claim to speak for God. Sometimes, indeed, the church has behaved in exactly that way. But that is a denial of the Lord they claim to worship. 

Jesus’ followers are to implement his kingdom by going and making disciples, learners, students, followers who will be shaped by Jesus’ example and teaching. They are to ‘baptize’ them, plunging them into the very name and life and character of the true God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. They are to teach them everything Jesus commanded, particularly all those wonderful words in the Sermon on the Mount about the meek inheriting the earth, about a different way to be human. That is the character of Jesus’ rule, and that is the means by which that rule will be established.

We live at a time of great transition and turbulence in our society. Dreams of ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ seem to have produced the exact opposite. Supposedly civilized society has gone back to the use of torture. Supposedly grown-up society cannot educate the rising generation in anything but trivia. This same society regularly tells the church that it is on the way out. The Christian message is bad for you, they say; it’s out of date, it’s disproved.

This is ridiculous. There is every reason to hope that this year, or this decade, or this century, God will do new things. Jesus is still Lord — but he rules in the same way that he lived, taught and died. When his followers learn again to do the same, we shall see a fresh start. And the encouragement we need is found in the final words of Matthew’s gospel, picking up neatly the promise made to Joseph at the very beginning. His name will be ‘Emmanuel’, said the angel, which means ‘God with us’. That God-with-us promise, that heaven-on- earth assurance, has come true in Jesus. Millions of Christians know this in their daily experience, their praying, their living, their work for his kingdom. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ That is a promise you can stake your life on. It is also a challenge: if Jesus himself is ‘with you’, what should you be doing? How then should you live? Easter is a time to ask precisely that sort of question. It is also a time to discover God’s powerful answer.

Risen Lord Jesus, be with us as you have promised, and help us to go into all the world to bring all nations under the rule of your love.