God’s Realm is a Republic of Nobodies.
(Or maybe not; maybe Kingdom citizenship is easy?).
_A clear, hard look at Jesus’ truly upside-down values._
_Sunday, September 24, 2006._ First Congregational United Church of Christ,Open & Affirming, Santa Rosa, CA. _Rev. Bob Cramer, Eucharistic Minister._
When I began publishing these communion meditations, as part of my website, www.rfcnews.com, I got responses only from dyed-in-the-wool traditional Christians who considered me quite ignorant. They weren’t all that helpful, and I soon stopped accepting responses!
Today we have another scriptural challenge that would tick off those who are very sure that Jesus makes sense, that is, common sense, or a human way of thinking. It is human thinking, of course, that says “might makes right.” That says “Grow up: be a man.” That orders pre-emptive strikes thinking it will keep the world safe. Stuff like that. Jesus as a God-filled truly human being challenged everyone who thought God must think like we do. God does not.
Here’s what Jesus says in this morning’s gospel reading:
_They came to Capernaum. When he got [there], he started questioning them,”What were you arguing about on the road?” They fell completely silent, because on the road they had been bickering about who was greatest._
_He sat down and called the twelve and says to them, “If any of you wants to be ‘number one’, you have to be last of all and servant of all!” And he took a child and had the child stand in front of them, and he put his arm around the child, and he said to them, “Whoever accepts me is not so much accepting me as the one who sent me.”_ [Mark 9:33-37, Scholars Version, adapted.]
The gospels present Jesus as saying time and again that God’s Kingdom is for “children.” Sermons and Sunday school lessons that tell us we are ourselves to become childlike seem somehow to miss the point that our very attitudes must be re-born, reoriented in a radical way. Go forward towards heaven, not back to the womb.
Jesus is not suggesting that we should be as lovable and non-threatening as a child usually is. Jesus is wrongly ridiculed by some as being himself childishly naive. He’s not.
I have been learning from the highly-respected text scholar, John Dominic Crossan, who tells us that children in Jesus’ time and culture, and all through the wider world at the time, were not at all objects of sentimental affection. Children were too often just throw-aways, worthless.
Here is what Crossan says: “What would ordinary Galilean peasants [hearing Jesus] have thought about children? Would [Jesus’ words] ‘like a child’ have immediately [signaled to them] being humble, being innocent, being new, being credulous?
“Go back, if you will, to those papyrus fragments quoted in this book (“The Historical Jesus”) and think for a moment of the infants, often female but male as well, abandoned at birth by their parents and saved from the rubbish dumps to be reared as slaves. Pagan writers were, according to Menahem Stern, rather surprised that Jewish parents did not practice such potential infanticide, but still, to be a child was to be a nobody, with the possibility of becoming a somebody absolutely dependent on parental discretion and parental standing within the community.
“That, I think” (Crossan continues), “is the heart of the matter with all other allusions or further interpretations clustering around that central and shocking metaphor. A kingdom of the humble, of the celibate, or of the baptized comes later [in Christian thinking]. _This comes first: a kingdom of children is a kingdom of nobodies.”_ [HJ 269.]
I come to communion with a challenge too great, from Jesus, to be easily or quickly met — if ever. I am loved for my faith and I am forgiven for my lack of faith. I am given the bread and cup in spite of my resistance to the plain, if ugly, truth Jesus taught—first, that heaven is not pie in the sky, later; it is now. And — I will meet in “heaven” (now) those persons I take the most pains to avoid, those I have no intention of becoming like. Nobodies, like those that one of my teachers, Mahlon Smith of Rutgers, believes Jesus is saying constitute the divine commonwealth, a “kingless kingdom, beggars’ opera, unsupervised kindergarten”—really, there, somebodies.
“God’s domain,” says Gene Stecher, an online writer, “is where the untouchable are touched.” To God, there are no nobodies.
David Boulton, humanist British Quaker who thinks deeply about Jesus, echoes Mahlon Smith’s thought, deepening it a bit by saying if the kingdom has no king, it is more like a republic—the public rules a domain turned on its head: a republic of nobodies— hungry, distressed, ridiculed—and ridiculous—become somebodies.
If this all seems outlandish, then it must be high time we heard a radical-Jesus message: Be naive, pure? No! Be untouchable. Be loved.