"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'"
-- Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
"The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
-- Taizé chant.
Bible scholars of varying persuasions seem to agree, for the most part, that Jesus' message centered on the "Kingdom of God" ( the basileia tou theou). Beyond that, the consensus starts to break down.
Just what is the Kingdom of God?
Certainly, if anyone knows the answer, a community of globetrotting ecumenical French monks must have it. I like the Taizé chant quoted above, which I've sung and played in worship many times. Repeating the chant can have a very soothing effect on the soul -- "The Kingdom of God is justice and peace." But what does that mean?
"Justice" and "peace" are words I hear and use a lot. The terms make us feel good on the surface; perhaps they shouldn't. Just dig a little deeper. What did the word "justice" mean to the late Troy Davis? And what did it mean to the wife of slain police officer who was convinced Davis had killed her husband? What does the word mean to our friend in Holyoke, Massachusetts, who is fighting to prevent the demolition of an historic low income housing complex? What does "justice" mean to the father of Trayvon Martin, and does it mean the same thing to the father of George Zimmerman? What does it mean to the firefighters who sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in a famous reverse discrimination suit?
"Peace" is a word we all should be able to agree upon, right? I grew up in a part of the country with a strong pro-military sentiment. We all assumed that a large and well equipped defense was key to keeping the "peace" at home and abroad. But I have radical Catholic pacifist friends who live down by the lake and who seem to have a quite different notion of what "peace" means. And then there are the police officers who have been mobilized in cities across the U.S. to keep "the peace" in the wake of Occupy protests. I've seen some pretty disturbing pictures of clashes that have ensued.
There are Buddhist styled meditation retreats engaged in Protestant parish halls with the stated objective of achieving "inner peace." There is the ever elusive ideal state of "peace and quiet" that the mother of the three-year old boy seeks in vain. But Jesus, for the most part, was anything but quiet -- except for those times when people desperately wanted him to say or do something.
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Whatever it might mean, the word that Jesus brings about the kingdom is not mere reportage or gossip but "good news" -- "Gospel." But just what does the word "Gospel" mean?
I recently engaged in an online chat with a brilliant young theologian. Somewhat impishly, I kept throwing question after question in his face -- much as I am doing to you right now. He and I did agree that the central question was how one defines the meaning of the Gospel. He gave a very clear and succinct statement of his position on this question, and I found I could affirm his statement nearly 100 percent. Still, from what I've read in some of his writings and from his comments that day, I still had some reservations about the conclusions he seems to be drawing in unpacking that definition of the Gospel. Why do we find it so difficult to agree about how to define the most important principles and concepts?
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Then a final question, for now, is how is the messenger related to the message. The 20th century theologian Rudolf Bultmann posed the central question of New Testament theology this way: How did the proclaimer himself become the proclaimed? In other words, how did the message about the kingdom that Jesus preached become a message about Jesus himself?
His very way of stating the question, of course, contains an explicit challenge to many traditional ways of talking about the identity and significance of Jesus. Still, I think, whatever her vantage point might be, the Christian theologian must allow herself to feel the force of this question, even if she disagrees with the ways that Bultmann and other modern scholars have answered it.