It commits the worshipper to allegiance, to following this Jesus, to being shaped and directed by him. Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes, and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite (violence, money, and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists.
It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however “free” or “democratic” they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the “secular democracies” that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life. Worship creates—or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself—a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord.
Ideally then—I shall come to the problems with this in a moment—the church, the community that hails Jesus as Lord and king, and feasts at his table celebrating his victorious death and resurrection, is constituted as the “body of the Messiah.” This famous Pauline image is not a random “illustration.” It expresses Paul’s conviction that this is the way in which Jesus now exercises his rule in the world—through the church, which is his body. Paul, rooted as he was in the ancient scriptures, knew well that the creator’s plan was to look after his creation through obedient humankind. For Paul, Jesus himself is the Obedient Man who is now therefore in charge of the world; and the church is “his body, the fullness of the one who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). It is this vocation that gives the church courage to stand up in the face of the bullying self-appointed masters of the world, to resist them when they are forcing their communities to go in the wrong way, while at the same time demonstrating, in its own life, that there is a different way of being human, a way pioneered and now made possible by Jesus himself. “God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety,” is to be “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places—through the church!” (Eph. 3:10).
The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world.
This is the point at which a great deal of Jesus’s own kingdom agenda comes into its own. His great Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, which are normally read either as a special form of “Christian ethic” (“This is how you are to behave, if you want to be really special people”) or as the rules you must keep in order to “go to heaven when you die.” This latter view has been reinforced by the standard misreading of the first Beatitude. “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours” (Matt. 5:3) doesn’t mean, “You will go to heaven when you die.” It means you will be one of those through whom God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth as in heaven. The Beatitudes are the agendafor kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people—people, actually, just like himself (read the Beatitudes again and see). The Sermon on the Mount is a call to Jesus’s followers to take up their vocation as light to the world, as salt to the earth—in other words, as people through whom Jesus’s kingdom vision is to become a reality. This is how to be the people through whom the victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death is to be implemented in the wider world.
The work of the kingdom, in fact is summed up pretty well in those Beatitudes. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on. Just as God’s whole style, his chosen way of operating, reflects his generous love, sharing his rule with his human creatures, so the way in which those humans then have to behave if they are to be agents of Jesus’s lordship reflects in its turn the same vulnerable, gentle, but powerful self-giving love. It is because of this that the world has been changed by people like William Wilberforce, campaigning tirelessly to abolish slavery; by Cicely Saunders, starting a hospice for terminally ill patients ignored by the medical profession and launching a movement that has, within a generation spread right around the globe.
We have domesticated the Christian idea of “good works,” so that it has simply become “the keeping of ethical commands.”
These are paradigm cases. Jesus rules the world today not just through his people “behaving themselves,” keeping a code of ethics, and engaging in certain spiritual practices, important though those are. The Beatitudes are much more than a “new rule of life,” as though one could practice them in private, away from the world. Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things: jubilee projects to remit ridiculous and unpayable debt, housing trusts that provide accommodation for low-income families or homeless people, local and sustainable agricultural projects that care for creation instead of destroying it in the hope of quick profit, and so on. We have domesticated the Christian idea of “good works,” so that it has simply become “the keeping of ethical commands.” In the New Testament, “good works” are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.
What then, does it look like when Jesus is enthroned? It looks like new projects that do what Jesus’s mother’s great song announced: put down the mighty from their seat, exalt the humble and the meek, fulfill ancient promises, but send the rich away empty. The church made its way in the world for many centuries by doing all this kind of thing. Now that in many countries the “state” has assumed responsibility for many of them (that’s part of what I mean by saying that the state, not least in Western democracies, has become “ecclesial,” a kind of secular shadow church), the church has been in danger of forgetting that these are its primary tasks. Jesus went about feeding the hungry, curing the sick, and rescuing lost sheep; his Body is supposed to be doing the same. That is how his kingdom is at work. That is how he is at work. Acts begins by saying that in the first book (i.e., the gospel of Luke) the writer described “everything Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The implication is clear. The story of Acts, even after Jesus’s ascension, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. And the way he did it and taught it was—through his followers.
When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career.
But of course it doesn’t stop there. When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career. A good deal of what the church has to do and say will fly in the face of the “spirit of the age,” what passes for “received wisdom” in this or that generation. So be it. The day the church can no longer say, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality since the very beginning, and for many Christians it is still the case today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers.
N. T. WRIGHT is an Anglican bishop and a leading New Testament scholar and author