SERMON — On the Outskirts of the Kingdom

I’m not scheduled to preach this Sunday, but if I did, it would be something like this. This Sunday is All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday, and this is not the text for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I’m using it anyway.

Lectionary 31 / Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • Deuteronomy 6:1-9
  • Psalm 119:1-8
  • Hebrews 9:11-14
  • Mark 12:28-34

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28-34 ESV)

It was the first thing Jesus told the world in the Gospel of Mark:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The kingdom of God — βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ — is at hand. This thing, this place, this state of being, this condition that God is giving to us, this government, this arrangement of the world, is looming or impending or coming or just around the corner.

At hand. It is within reach. You can touch it. Hold. Feel it. Grasp it. This kingdom. This thing overseen by a king.

Jesus is constantly describing this Kingdom to his disciples — and to us. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t teach many parables. In chapter four, Jesus tells the parable of the sower who scatters seed, and some of it falls on bad soil and some of it falls on good soil. He also speaks of another sower who scatters seed and then waits while the seed sprouts — “he knows not how” — and then harvests that which he has not really worked for, plentiful fruit he knows has come but has idea what brought it into being.

And finally, also in chapter four, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed, a tiny seed, which grows into a plant of such size that birds find shelter and home in its branches and under its leaves. The Kingdom of God is like these things. This kingdom isn’t a place or a thing so much as it a verb — a sower scatters seed, a tiny mustard seed sprouts and grows. The kingdom in these few parables is a series of acts that, from beginning to end, show the mysterious work of God scattering and multiplying faith. And eventually harvesting the fruit.

And that’s about it for the parables in Mark. Mostly, in Mark, Jesus is on the move, never stopping, healing and casting out demons and feeding thousands and constantly confronting the pharisees over how — how, and not whether — to adhere to the law.

Because the law, the teaching God gives to Israel through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, is never in question in Mark. If he condemns the religious leaders of Israel for anything, it is a narrow legalism that takes the law literally without taking it seriously.

Jesus … Jesus takes the teaching of God seriously.

In today’s reading, Jesus answer a question from one of the scribes — “Which commandment is the most important of all?” — by quoiting the Torah itself. “Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord your god is one” and all that follows comes from Deuteronomy 6. Past what Jesus quotes is an exhortation to contemplate and talk about and teach this law, to think about night and day, from the moment we rise in the morning until when we go to bed at night.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19, and it’s an amazing bit of teaching that I’m going to cite all of here. Because God doesn’t just tell us to love our neighbors — God also gives us some very concrete ways that love will and should manifest itself.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:9-18 ESV)

It’s quite a list here, that ends with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “I am the Lord.” A longer list than the “thou shalt nots” we tend to remember. Because love isn’t just a feeling. God speaks of a love that insists upon actions. Love of neighbor demands consideration for complete strangers here, for the weak and the vulnerable, for clean hearts and a refusal to take vengeance for any wrongs suffered.

When the scribe praises Jesus’ answer, and adds that love of God and love for neighbor are worth so much than “burnt offerings and sacrifice,” Jesus replies:”

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Not far. Close. We don’t know how close — another three hours of travel time, next state over, or basically take a left and go two blocks and there you are. But close.

These things we do, in our relationship with God, to love God and to love neighbor — these get us close to the Kingdom of God.

Now, I’m a little ticked off by how this passage ends. No one asked Jesus any more questions. I mean, really? Because I’ve got a question. In fact, I’ve got several. How close?! What’s missing?! What’s left to do?! And who does it?!

And what is this Kingdom of God, this thing you talk so much about, Jesus, that you have proclaimed is near, so that we should repent and believe in your good news?!

I wish someone had asked. I wish we had an answer from Jesus. A real, concrete answer.

As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, we like to pride ourselves on discovering — or rediscovering, an Martin Luther and his co-reformers were fond of saying — a gospel of unearned grace. We cannot do the work of redeeming ourselves, and we cannot even begin to try. Christ did everything on the Cross, when he rose from the dead, dealing not just with the original sin that separated us from God and corrupted our own human natures, but also from our own individual sins. We are mere participants in the saving work of God, caught up in Christ’s passion, raised to new life in Christ’s resurrection, justified to … well, do what, exactly?

Because that’s been quite an argument over the years. Among Lutherans, speak of deeds and someone will, at some point, shake their head in stern judgment and utter the term: works righteousness. And suddenly, any notion that might have some kind of obligation to God, or to each other, gets stomped on, and set on fire, and doused with water, the ashes scattered to the four winds.

To such folks, our job is clear — to speak words of warning to sinners, grace to the repentant, and hope as many people as can hear will hear. And depending on their understanding, hearers will decide to believe in Christ, or (if you are a good Lutheran) the Holy Spirit will work upon their hearts and move them to Christ.

Scatter seeds. The rest of the work, well, that’s not really up to us.

But here we have an understanding of law as love — the love of God, and the love of neighbor — grounded not in belief, but in deeds. This is love that is as solid as the ground we walk upon.

And Jesus says that understanding — the one the scribe asks him about, and confesses his agreement to — is not far from the Kingdom of God.

Our deeds of love, respect, kindness for our neighbors, for the poor, for complete strangers in need — those deeds get us some way to this kingdom. To this place led, governed, ruled over, by a king.

We make this kingdom, at least some of it, by being people who love. That’s not a terribly Protestant understanding.

But Jesus is also clear. This love of God and love of neighbor by themselves are not the kingdom of God. We still have a way go, a few more blocks, some more miles, a few turns before we find ourselves there.

What is the kingdom? This is the question we Christians have long struggled with. And long disagreed about its answer. I’m not entirely sure what the kingdom is. I’m not. I wish I was. It is, I think, somehow embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — in what he did, his teaching and his healing, his calling the lost and the sinners to repentance, this is all some part of the kingdom. And yet, all that is also sign of its coming, a foretaste of the feast to come. Even in his life, we only have a taste. We don’t have the kingdom. Not completely. Not yet.

Perhaps its an understanding that when we love God as Deuteronomy teaches, and when we love our neighbor as Leviticus teaches — all things endorsed by Jesus — we are scattering seeds, witnessing the growing of something we cannot understand. And shouldn’t try to. All we know is that sometimes, and not because we really know what we are doing, there will be good fruit. A bountiful harvest. More than we could ever imagine.

I know we have a kingdom — because we have a risen king, who in glory sits at the right hand of the Father. He has judged the nations, and he rules them with a rod of iron. I can’t point to it, and I don’t rightly know quite what the kingdom looks like. But I know we have it. I know it’s here. Jesus said so. And I trust him.

Because of that, I know that when each one of us loves God, when we love our neighbors, we are not just living in anticipation of the kingdom of God, but somewhere on its outskirts. We are not far from the kingdom when we live according to the teaching of God.

For the rest, we trust our Lord. Our king. Who lived with us and died with us and rose so that we might rise to everlasting life. Because he is faithful and true. Because his is the kingdom. And the power. And the glory. Unto ages of ages. Amen.

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