So far so good: kingdom means community formation through commitment to
Jesus. That community brings justice and it ends every form of
oppression. Jesus’ kingdom vision will mean a total spiritual and
social make-over for Israel. With everything now in place, Jesus takes
an about turn, faces his disciples, tells them they’ve got a blurred
vision of what God is actually doing, and creates an entirely new
vision for what kingdom means. Kingdom, formerly connected with
triumph, will now be connected to cross.
How does Jesus do this? The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus solicits from
his followers a confession by asking them who they think he is (Luke
9:18-26). Peter blurts out that he thinks Jesus is “God’s Messiah.”
Lest we tame this word “Messiah,” don’t forget that in Jesus’ day
“Messiah” flowed out of the Story of the Bible and it always meant “the
Davidic king who would liberate Israel and establish peace and justice
for the community.” If there was any word in Israel’s dictionary that
was clear, “Messiah” was it. So, Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and
knows exactly what he means. So does everyone else. It means the final
king and his kingdom. The Magnificat is a perfect expression of that
view of Messiah.
But Jesus will alter the meaning of Messiah forever.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s perfectly orthodox answer was at odds with everything the apostles had in mind. Completely at odds. Instead of Jesus saying, “Finally, someone gets it! Finally someone has figured out who I am!,” he jumps to Daniel 7’s wiki-story of the mysterious figure he calls the “son of man.” Here is what Jesus says in Luke 9:22:
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
The apostles must have been repelled when Jesus connected Son of Man to “suffer.” Jesus’ response is “Yes, I am Messiah. Now for the inside scoop: Messiah is not what you think. This Messiah will be crucified (and raised).” No one expected the Messiah to be crucified. Messiahs rule with power and glory in their kingdom. But Jesus deconstructed their kingdom vision by deconstructing the meaning of Messiah.
As this Story unfolds in the pages of the New Testament, the cross becomes more and more central. So, these words of Luke 9:22 can be taken as the first words of a chapter that will explain the significance of Jesus’ death. It is not possible here to do anything but sketch what is said, but I like to use three expressions to explain the cross. Jesus died
with us – in total identification;
instead of us – as our substitute to do what we could not;
for us – giving us forgiveness and oneness with God.
The entire Story of Jesus is reshaped by the cross that Jesus predicts. Kingdom will not be forever connected to cross. No cross, no kingdom; no kingdom, no cross.
Not only did he deconstruct their kingdom vision, he also deconstructed their understanding of discipleship. There is no doubt the disciples’ image of discipleship had to do with ruling next to Jesus when he ascended onto his kingdom throne. This is exactly the question James and John, put up to it by their mother, ask Jesus – “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37). What lit up their minds was the prospect of being in charge; maybe some vindication too. Until they heard Jesus say this in Luke 9:23:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
We are now facing in Luke’s wiki-story a paradox the apostles could barely fathom. There are four elements here in this scene, and the disciples completely understood part one and two but parts three and four made absolutely no sense:
1. Kingdom is present
2. Jesus is Messiah
3. Messiah Jesus must suffer on the cross
4. Messiah’s disciples are to take up the cross.
So now we ask once again of Jesus: If the kingdom is the solution, what is the problem? Oppression, violence against God’s people, and the yearning for the Messiah who will deliver them. And the solution, still the same, is a community without oppression and marked instead by justice. That’s been clear since Mary’s Magnificat. But now Luke adds something we haven’t yet seen: the way to end oppression and violence and the yearning for the Messiah is to embrace the Messiah who will be crucified and raised from the dead. “Impossible!,” the disciples must have muttered to themselves. Kingdoms don’t emerge out of suffering and crucifixion; they follow the flash of swords and ascending onto a throne.
But this is precisely what Jesus was saying: the messianic kingdom community will be marked by the cross and not the sword. The way to rule is to serve and die.
By the way, if in reading this you were frustrated by how social and national and political and economic the kingdom vision was presented by Luke, and if you felt some sense of relief by this last section about the cross, then I want you to know that is exactly how Luke wanted you to feel – this is what it means to read the Bible as Story and to let Luke’s wiki-story be what it is. If instead, you tossed this book down and accused me of being a social gospel guy, then I like that too, because Luke’s wiki-story presentation is indeed quite social. But, if instead, you denounced this sketch in Luke’s Gospel and ran over to Romans 3 to console yourself for how you thought the Bible was to be read, you may well have missed out on the incredible reality of what it was like for the first followers of Jesus to undergo the transformation from their vision of kingdom and Messiah to Jesus’ vision of kingdom and Messiah.
If you are like me, you are now muttering to yourself: “Show me what this kingdom community looks like.” The messianic community shaped by the cross (and resurrection and Pentecost) comes next in Luke’s wiki-story.