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Peace at any price?

January 12, 2015

Mark 1: 14-20                                                Monday 12 January 2015

Today’s gospel reading from Mark starts by telling us that Jesus went into Galilee to proclaim the Good News from God. Jesus talks of the Kingdom of God being close at hand.

What do we mean by ‘The Kingdom of God’? And, what is ‘The Good News’?

The Kingdom of God

So, firstly, we need to be very clear about what we mean when we talk about ‘The Kingdom of God’. It’s often misunderstood as being a reference to the world to come, our life after death in heaven with God.

First of all, let me explain why so many people think the ‘Kingdom of God’ is about heaven. Mark’s gospel was the first gospel to be written. Mark’s style is fast-moving, exciting, bold. Mark is obviously convinced about what he is writing, and he recognises it as a teaching that will change the world dramatically. The old order is gone, the New Covenant has arrived. Mark enthusiastically emphasises changes that becoming a Christian will make, with new social rules to demonstrate this to his readers: and an example of this is his bold use of the word ‘God’. Mark wants to demonstrate that through Jesus Christ, we humans will encounter our Divine Creator in a new way, a more intimate relationship with God. Not a relationship based on us being in fear of a vengeful, punishing God, but with a loving, forgiving God, with us pleased to do His will, working in partnership. Now, when Matthew came to write his gospel, he was a little more reticent about directly using the word ‘God’ – he didn’t want to offend the Jewish tradition of very respectfully avoiding the use of the word ‘God’. So instead of ‘The Kingdom of God’ Mark uses the phrase ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. Let’s be clear on this – Mark and Matthew are talking about the same thing – the Kingdom, on earth, ruled by God. Our mission as Christians is to work in co-operation with God to build His kingdom here and now, to build ‘Heaven on Earth’ if you like.

Incidentally, this reluctance in Judaism to say or write the word ‘God’ is still evident today – if you look up on the internet the homilies and biblical studies written by present day Rabbis they often write ‘God’ as ‘G-d’. And I would thoroughly recommend you do have a look at what is taught in the synagogues today: the teaching is often very good and very relevant to interpreting the Scriptures in our modern life.

This revelation to us, through the teaching and example of Jesus Christ – that we have a loving, compassionate, forgiving God, is something that is very precious in Christianity.

The Good News

Secondly, what is ‘The Good News’?

At the time of Jesus, ordinary people like us would have had a pretty good idea of the meaning of the phrase ‘The Good News’. And it was not anything to do with the God of Israel. It had a whole lot more to do with politics and the Roman gods; the ‘good news’ as far as day to day life was concerned was the good news of the rule of the god, the Emperor Ceasar Augustus. The Emperor of the Roman Empire at that time of Jesus was considered by loyal citizens to be divine. In fact, it was extremely dangerous to say anything against the Emperor because of his divinity. Actually, in the Roman Empire, it was only the Jews who were permitted to worship their own God. It was a concession made by the Empire because the Jews were so implacably opposed to the Roman pagan gods. And it was an uneasy compromise. Any hint of this religious concession being used to challenge the supremacy of Roman rule would be ruthlessly crushed.

The ‘good news’, as preached by the Roman rulers over Palestine, was that the Emperor Caesar Augustus had, sixty years earlier, brought political unity and peace to the subjects of the Empire by establishing a military junta to end 200 years of continuous war. Yet it wasn’t true peace. Pax Romana (the so-called ‘Roman peace’) was an uneasy truce at best, because to the Romans, peace didn’t mean the absence of violence – peace was when all opposition had been crushed and there was no resistance o Roman rule. Think ‘Nazi occupied Europe’ and all the propaganda that went with that.

In today’s gospel Mark summarises what Jesus meant by ‘The Good News’.

When Jesus says, ‘The time has come’ he is referring to things to do with God becoming directly involved in the history of mankind as has been previously promised. Jesus is referring to everything that has gone before in the history of the Jewish people – He is proclaiming that the final age, when the prophesies of Ancient Israel will come to be fulfilled is about to happen.

We know, because we believe that Jesus is God, that God’s direct involvement was being fulfilled even as Jesus said those words, because He Himself had come into the world. And we know that the Salvation History of Israel, the bedrock of our Christian Faith, came to come to its ultimate, triumphal fulfilment through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And when Jesus says ‘the Kingdom of God is close at hand’, He is obviously referring to a group of people, a community of people, not to individuals. You can’t have a kingdom with just one person in it. The Kingdom of God is a community of people. And Jesus proclamation of the ‘Kingdom of God’ was certainly not a call to violence against the Roman occupation, it was a call to place the true God, not false gods like the Roman Emperor, at the centre of our lives and communities.

This talk of ‘Good News’ was very dangerous because other people could read political meaning into what Jesus had to say: in those treacherous, fragile times of brutal dictatorship, there were spies and informers everywhere. John the Baptist had fallen victim to this violent regime, and Our Lord Himself was to be betrayed by one of His very own disciples.

Jesus’ call was to repent and believe in the good news that the prophesies of the Old Testament were being fulfilled. Jesus taught that embracing the Kingdom of God would lead to a life-changing encounter with God, giving up the ways of the evil world around us, a whole new way of interpreting the world. Despite the evil, oppressive Roman regime, people could discover a new relationship with God.

And that good news remains the same for us today. We are in this world but not of this world. We adapt to the difficulties presented by the secular world, but the ways of this world ultimately have no hold on us.

To those with no faith, to those mesmerized by the ways of the world, this relationship with God is very difficult to comprehend. They may even see it as threatening. The events in Paris last week highlight these tensions.

And for precisely this reason, we must make it our business to work and to pray for peace in this world, and though our lives to be beacons of the Kingdom of God present in the world.

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