Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Trees, Fruit, and Small Woodland Creatures: The New Eden

Brad Sullivan
4 Easter, Year A
May 7, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

Trees, Fruit, and Small Woodland Creatures: The New Eden

Jesus said, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits...The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Those who came before Jesus were those who were seen as a messiah, an anointed one of God.  There was a messianic fervor in Jesus’ time, a great desire for one to arise who would be the messiah, the anointed one to drive Rome out of Israel and to lead Israel into a time of peace and prosperity, a time that would last forever.  They were wanting a new king over Israel as the messiah, the anointed one, because the anointed ones were the kings of Israel.  David, king David who slew Goliath was the second of these anointed ones, these kings.  David was seen as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, and by what Jesus said, he was a thief and bandit. 

See, God was not overly enamored of Israel’s desire to have a king rule over them.  God even warned Israel what would happen if they placed a king over themselves.  In 1 Samuel, God said to Israel that if you place a king over you, he will take your sons for his chariots and horsemen; your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive orchards to give to his friends; and 1/10 of your grain and vineyards to give to his officers and his friends.  He will take your servants and the best of your cattle, 1/10 of your flocks, and “you shall be his slaves.”

Now, being that the people of Israel thought things through about as well as we do, they said, “sounds great; sign us up!”  Now, some of the kings of Israel were pretty good, some were ok, and some were rancidly terrible, but they were all anointed ones, all messiahs.  They were all seen as the new savior of Israel, and according to Jesus, they were all thieves and bandits.  They made war.  They conquered and were conquered.  They took from the people in order to bring about their conquests, and they took from the people in order to live in the opulence fitting for a king.

Jesus did something different.  Jesus did not seek conquest.  He did not kill.  He did not take from his subjects in order to live like a king, instead he lived simply.  Jesus was anointed by God, the messiah, and he led his people by being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  Many people had wanted to raise Jesus up as their earthly king, as their earthly anointed messiah to lead a revolt against Rome, and he could have let them.  He could have chosen that; he had every right to, being, you know, God, but he didn’t.  Jesus chose instead to be killed, rather than have thousands or even millions be killed in order to drive Rome out for the sake of some insults, some hardships, and a building. 

That’s really what it came down to, right?  Rome ruled over Israel and collected taxes from them, usually taking more than they were supposed to.  Corruption abounded.  They began appointing the high priest over Israel, desecrated the Temple in various ways, stole from the temple, and heaped contempt upon contempt for the Jewish people and their religion.  Insults, hardships, and a building.  Jews began to radicalize amidst the oppression of Rome and the messianic fervor of the age, and in the year 66, the great revolt began against Rome.  The Jews rebelled and won their first couple of battles again Rome.  After that, things did not go well.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed fighting in the great revolt, and in the year 70, the Temple was destroyed by Rome.

Then in 132, the Bar-Kokhba revolt began.  Shimon Bar-Kokhba was yet another messianic figure who led a three year revolt against Rome.  This revolt cost hundreds of thousands of more Jewish lives and also ended in defeat.  All told, estimates are that over a million and a half Jews were killed in these two revolts, the Temple was destroyed, and in the year 135, the entire nation of Israel was destroyed, the people taken into slavery or forced to move elsewhere.

“The thief comes in only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said.  The people of Israel followed thieves and bandits, and their lives were stolen from them.  Husbands and fathers became killers.  Men with livelihoods took up the sword and were killed.  Their whole way of life, indeed their entire nation, was destroyed. 

“I came that they may have life,” Jesus said, “and have [life] abundantly.”  The earliest disciples of Jesus followed a different path than the path laid out by the thieves and bandits who led Israel.  Jesus’ small band of disciples followed him as their shepherd, as the gate to fields of life abundant.  They followed in his ways.  When they were kicked out of the Synagogue, they did not argue that they deserved to be there, they simply met in people’s homes instead.  When Rome said they couldn’t meet in the temples of the Roman gods, they did not demand a right of worship, but met elsewhere.  They followed Jesus, the good shepherd, and God added daily to their numbers.  They were a people without a nation, a people of many nations, living wherever they were, following and believing in Jesus.  They didn’t have doctrine yet.  They didn’t have a set of beliefs about Jesus other than his teachings, his death, and his resurrection.  People followed him, believed in him and his way, and they received life, abundantly. 

Like the people of Israel, the earliest Christians were living under the corrupt and oppressive government of Rome which didn’t care one whit if any of them lived or died, but rather than fight that government, they banded together and provided for each other as there was need.  They cared about each other more than they cared about their stuff, and they cared about each other more than they cared about fighting against Rome.     

They were, as we read in Psalm 1, like trees planted by streams of living water.  I know, it’s a mixed metaphor, shepherds and trees, but we’ll go with it.  Trusting in Jesus, following in his ways, and banding together to care for one another, the earliest Christians became a forest fed and nurtured by the abundant life of Jesus.  Together, this forest had fruit in abundance, and they shared their fruit with others, even the small woodland creatures who were not a part of the forest, who did not work for their fruit.  They provided shade and fruit for these creatures living in their forest, and they and even let some make their homes in their branches, and these other creatures became trees as well, sharing in the abundant life of Jesus.  They were provided for by Jesus, by their trust and faith in him and in his ways, and they shared abundantly with others.  Now, men came with axes from time to time, the oppression of Rome, and this forest of the early church even shared abundantly with them.  Some of these men became part of the forest themselves.  Others of these men came and cut down some of the trees, but the forest remained and continued to have abundant life and to share life abundant, fed by the streams of living water of Jesus and his ways. 

This forest of the early church was the new Eden of Jesus.  That was Jesus’ kingdom.  That was the place where Jesus led his disciples, the new Eden, and the new Eden of Jesus and his way could happen in any kingdom of earth, in any place and in any time.  The people of Jesus’ way, of his movement, did not look for an earthly thief or bandit to lead them to steal what others had, to force their rights upon others, to kill, be killed, and destroy.  The people of Jesus’ way, his movement, looked to Jesus to lead them beside still waters, to be for them streams of living water so that they could be planted in any place and bring forth fruit and shade to care for those around them, to give to any as there was need.  That is life, the life abundant in the Jesus movement, life with Jesus as our shepherd. 

Looking at a modern example of a thriving church with life abundant, the church in China is in a similar place as the early church was.  The government of China is not overly enamored of Christianity, so while they allow it, they have state sponsored churches, led by earnest Christians, but regulated by the state.  Sounds a little like Israel under Rome, doesn’t it.  Rather than rebel against the government, however, many Christians in China are simply forming their own churches.  They are meeting in homes or other larger building that they own.  They aren’t demanding any rights from the government; they are just going ahead and meeting, being the church, and the government is letting them.  They come by and check the roles to know who is attending these unregistered churches, but without fighting, with no thieves and bandits to steal, kill, and destroy, these unregistered churches in China are thriving and growing.  They are becoming, like the early church, a forest planted by the streams of living water of Jesus and his ways.

Now some in this country still talk about Christianity being attacked by our government.  Rather than quibble about whether such oppression is true or untrue, I would say it is irrelevant.  Where the church thrives, it thrives not because a government allows it to.  The church thrives and becomes the new Eden whenever and wherever the people of the church follow Jesus, trust in him and his ways, and band together, caring for each other more than their rights as a church.  When the church follows Jesus and his ways, and when we band together and care for one another, we become the new Eden, a forest planted by streams of living water that thrives and has life abundantly. 

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