13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Two weeks ago we looked at how we as the church are called to be a chosen race, a holy nation; some versions say “a peculiar people.” The kingdom of God is made up of people who chose and continue to choose to follow Jesus, even when the majority of the people around them have not. I met a little resistance from people when I spoke about how this might be lived out, but I believe that most of you agreed with me when I said that as members of the kingdom of God, our primary allegiance is given to the King of kings, the Lord of lords. We are called to put God first and I sure hope that none of us will argue with that.
We also looked at how the two different kinds of kingdoms spread. The kingdoms of this world spread and grow by a method that I call “power over” where force is used to acquire land and goods. The kingdom of God does not spread through power over others, but by power under them. The kingdom of God spreads through love; the kingdom of God spreads through service; the kingdom of God spreads when we are willing to die for someone else, even if that person is our enemy.
For the first 400(ish) years, Christianity spread like wildfire using the methods that Jesus taught. I really like the metaphor that Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God when he compares it to yeast. If you ever have made bread, you probably are at least somewhat familiar with yeast. Yeast is a living organism that causes bread to become light and fluffy before it is baked (which kills the yeast). The yeast consumes some of the carbohydrates in the dough and gives off CO2, which is why there are these little pockets inside a loaf of bread.
Here is an interesting thing about yeast: yeast is self-replicating. When you start making bread and you wake up the dormant yeast, it not only puts off CO2, but it actually makes more of itself. One yeast cell divides and it makes two yeast cells. Those two yeast cells divide and they make four yeast cells. The four makes eight, the eight make 16, the 16 make 32, and so on, and so on.
Jesus says that this is how the kingdom of God will spread, like yeast. If the bread dough is the broader culture, Christians are to be the yeast within the dough. My favorite way to sum up the Great Commission is to say that we are to be disciples who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples.
This is just what happened for the first 400(ish) years after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The church spread like yeast, even though Christians faced great persecution. The Roman Emperor Nero even outlawed Christianity in the year 64 AD, but the yeast kept spreading, the disciples continued to make disciples, who made more disciples.
So in spite of the persecution by the dominant culture, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds early on. Then something happened that changed Christianity forever. In the year 312 the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity because he believed that Jesus helped him to win a battle. The next year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity.
Now I am not going to say that Constantine’s conversion was all good or all bad for Christianity. There was definitely some good that came along with his conversion and there was definitely some bad that came along with it. The fact that Christians were no longer being persecuted and killed just for being a Christian was a good thing. But I also think that being a Christian lost a lot of meaning when Constantine became one. Because overnight, being a Christian went from being against the law to being advantageous. If you wanted to be on the good side of the emperor, you would say that you were a Christian. So we see with Constantine’s conversion what I believe to be the invention of a term: nominal Christians; people who are Christian in name, but really don’t look any different from the rest of the world.
Furthermore, when Constantine would defeat another country, he would force them to become Christians. Constantine would march the enemy’s army through rivers for mass baptisms. And 70 years after Constantine became a Christian and legalized Christianity, it became against the law to not be a Christian.
Again, I am not saying that Constantine’s conversion was all bad. Perhaps many of us wouldn’t call ourselves Christians today if it weren’t for Constantine. But the issue that I take with Constantine is the way that he spread Christianity. Constantine spread Christianity by using the powers of the kingdoms of this world: he used power over the people. The way of Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is to spread through power under people: through love and service to others.
Our scripture reference for today is one that I preached from about a year ago, but I want to point out something different about it today. The scripture begins with someone coming to Jesus and saying, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” This man wants Jesus to make a ruling, a specific ruling, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.
There were inheritance laws in those days and the older brother was operating within the parameters of that law. The law did not require that he share the inheritance with his younger brother. Sure, we would say today that it would be fair for the older brother to split the inheritance 50/50 and I believe that today in our country that unless a will states otherwise, inheritance is divided equally. So my initial response is to side with the brother that seems to have gotten the bad end of the deal. But what does Jesus say? He says, “Who made me judge or arbitrator over you?”
Jesus goes on to say, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” If I was a disciple who had been with Jesus for some time, I might be thinking to myself, Well, at least he didn’t answer their question with a question. See, when Jesus is confronted with a decision to make, he often rejects the options presented to him and instead tries to call them to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God. When Jesus is asked about John the Baptist’s baptism, he doesn’t simply answer the question, he asks them a question. When he is asked about paying taxes, he asks them a question. Jesus rejects the easy answers and calls us to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God.
When he is asked to make a ruling on the inheritance of these two brothers, he calls their attention to the greed at hand. Is Jesus referring to the greed of the older brother who is refusing to share with his younger brother? Or is he referring to the greed of the younger brother who is seeking to make a buck when the law clearly says that his brother is not obligated to do so? I would say, “Yep.”
It would be wrong to say that Jesus is not concerned with our outward actions. We have just recently finished a series on the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks at length about how we are called to live as his followers. But just like in our scripture for today, Jesus isn’t just concerned with our outward appearances, but with what is inside us. Jesus doesn’t just want us to change our behavior, he wants us to change our hearts. He not only wants us to not kill others, he wants us to not even get angry. He not only wants us to not commit adultery, he wants us to not even lust. Jesus wants us to have changed hearts which will lead to changed outward appearances. When the man approached Jesus about sharing the inheritance, Jesus could have simply said, “Yes, he should share the inheritance” or “No, go and be happy with what you have already.” But instead he calls them both to consider their hearts and if their hearts were in-line with the kingdom of God.
I tell these stories because I believe that we as Christians have been going about changing the world in a fundamentally flawed way. Yes, we are called to change the world around us, but we are called to do so as yeast spreads through dough. I want to say up front that I am thankful that I live in a country where my opinion of how this country is run matters. Every four years I am asked to vote for who I want to lead my country. We are frequently asked to vote on what we believe should be made into law and what should be amended. I support the right that Christians have been given to vote and I believe that when you enter into the voting booth, you need to keep your Christian convictions in mind.
Because our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, we as Christians have a great power to influence the culture around us. But I want to say today that there is nothing “Christian” about voting. In fact, I think that many Christians have used our voting power in more of a Constantinian way than in a Christian way. We use voting as a method of “power over” to control the actions of those outside of the church rather than being the loving, serving body of Christ.
When I say that there is nothing particularly Christian about voting, I know that is a statement that I need to explain. Consider for me how many times Jesus ever spoke about how his followers are called to influence the government? Jesus never says that we are to use our political power to try to change the world. We are to try to change the world by serving and loving the world. Again, I would say that voting is a good thing, but it isn’t biblical and I think that when we Christians put too much faith in our ability to change the world through voting, that we fail to be the church to the rest of the world. Voting is good, but it isn’t our primary calling as Christians. I just want to highlight a couple of points that I believe over-reliance on voting causes for us as Christians and our mission to be the church.
There seems to be two main issues that Christians have taken upon themselves in the last number of years as they head for the voting booths: abortion and same-sex marriage. I am not sure why we chose these two issues when there are so many for us to choose from, especially when these are two issues that Jesus never spoke of and the Bible only makes mention of a couple of times. I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t be interested in these issues, but I am questioning why these are the issues for Christians? Why not poverty, which Jesus and the Bible speaks about frequently? What about gossip, anger, adultery and even divorce and remarriage, which Jesus does talk about?
Can you imagine a Constitutional Amendment outlawing gossip?! What about anger?! Why do we choose to petition against certain things that we call sin and turn a blind eye to other issues? I believe doing this hurts our witness as Christians to the rest of the world. The Bible has a name for people that criticize the sins of others while ignoring their own sins: hypocrites. And by trying to pass laws against some “sins” and not others, we are saying that the sins of others are worse than our own. Maybe we need to take the 2×4 out of our own eye.
I do believe that we are right as Christians to petition to change laws when we believe that a law change would help protect another individual. But I have a problem with Christians trying to enforce Christian ethics upon non-Christians. Simply following a law isn’t going to save a person. Only Jesus saves. So advocating for a law against gossip, anger, or things of this nature won’t make a person any closer to God. We are called as Christians to hold other Christians accountable in these areas, but are we called to hold non-Christians accountable to Christian ethics? As Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”
I am glad for the laws that keep people from killing one another. I have heard a pastor say that If the only reason that you don’t kill me is because there is a law against it and you don’t want to go to prison, then I am glad for that law. But I would rather that you chose to not kill me because you love me, even if you don’t like me.
I think that when Christians try to enforce Christian ethics on non-Christians, we are operating out of a Constantinian, kingdom of this world model. The kingdoms of this world are concerned about outward appearances which can be enforced with fear, punishment and force. The kingdom of God is concerned with an inward change that will lead to a change in our actions.
I overheard my wife telling this story recently and it seems to apply well to our topic this morning. During the long, cold winter I found a pair of used speakers at a thrift store and I purchased them to install them in our kitchen as satellite speakers for our stereo, which sits in our living room. So as I am working on wiring the new speakers I take the stereo off the shelf and I place it on the kitchen counter to work on it. I step out of the room for about one second and I hear a big crash. Paxton, at about 12-months-old, had grabbed ahold of the cord and pulled the stereo to the floor. And nothing worked after that.
Well I am never one to throw anything out, so I took the stereo apart and worked on it for a little while. I got the radio and the tape deck working again. But there was a three disc CD changer on the stereo, and it wasn’t looking good. I took out the changer, worked on it for a while, tried everything that I could, but because of some structural damage, it could not be saved. So what am I to do? Throw it out and get a new stereo? Hah, of course not. I reassembled the stereo, leaving the CD changer out. And to look at it from the outside, the stereo looks just as it did before. Just don’t try to open the CD tray. It will fall off.
The kingdoms of the world are like my stereo is now when it comes to morality. The kingdoms of this world are interested in how things look on the outside. If you don’t kill someone, if you don’t steal, if you pay your taxes, all is good. And the motivation in this kingdom of the world for doing good is that if you don’t do good, then you will be fined or thrown into prison. There is punishment for not doing as the kingdoms of this world would have you do. That is power over. But we know that more is possible, better is possible. The shell of good person might be a good thing, but it is not what God had intended for us to be. God wants our heart; God wants all of our being. Not just people who act right on the outside.
The second issue that I take with our over-reliance on voting is that voting can give us the false sense that we have done our part. I do not hide that I am pro-life, though being pro-life for me probably means something different than is does for many other Christians. Being pro-life to me means that I am not only against abortion, but I am against the taking of life in war, in the executioner’s chair, or when a person has lived a full life (euthanasia). But it also means that I am anti-poverty and pro-exercise and good nutrition, even pro-seat belts and child seats and anti-cancer. For me, being pro-life means more than just being against abortion. Being pro-life means that I believe that life begins at conception and is intended to extend to a natural death. Being pro-life means that we recognize that God is the giver of life and we are never to take that away or allow that to be taken away.
I fear that too many Christians believe that their job is done in the 30 seconds that it takes them in the voting booth to vote for a particular candidate. Being pro-life, kingdom of God style looks radically different. Being pro-life, kingdom of God style looks like Jesus.
Being pro-life, kingdom of God style means that you love and serve others. What if rather than stopping at just voting a certain way we got our hands dirty? What if rather than thinking we had done our duty by voting, every pro-life Christian chose to suspend judgment of others and instead served the woman who is pregnant with an unwanted pregnancy? What if we told this woman that regardless of what she decides to do, we would be there for her?
I heard about this lady who was a trusted friend of a young woman who was living with her parents as she attended college. The young woman was raised in a Christian family but she made some bad decisions and found herself pregnant. She was terrified of what her parents would do and say and she feared that she would be kicked out of her home. So she went to this other woman’s home and confided in her the problem she was facing. The woman assured her young friend that she would stand with her through it all, regardless of what she decided to do. She stood with her as she told her parents and as they kicked her out of their home. She then invited the young woman to live with her rent-free. This provided a huge financial burden on the woman as she was a single person herself, trying to make it on her own. So when the baby came and the mother decided to keep the child, the friend had to take out another mortgage on her home to make ends meet and help her young friend finish college.
It is easy to vote against abortion, but since when have we as Christians been called to take the easy way out. There is nothing wrong with voting according to your conscience: in fact I would encourage you to do so if you feel led. But there is nothing “Christian” about voting. The follower of Jesus is called to love and serve others, to bleed for them, to give our lives for them if called to do so. That is how the kingdom of God grows.