When I was a child and the lectionary rolled around to passages about clean and unclean foods, kosher and not, Pharisaic daintiness and gentile appetites, I concluded that the bizarre past was intruding on the normal present. The idea that you could judge and be judged by what you ate was as alien as any other item in the Levitical code.
Many Christians can name the hour and the place of their salvation. For me it was answering not one but two altar calls at Billy Graham crusades in the 1960s. For Reinhold Niebuhr, who was asked if he could name the time and place of his salvation, it was “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s wall.”
I loved Denny Spear, my first pastor, because he knew my name and greeted me weekly. What I didn’t know was that Brother Spear, as I called him, was a man of great conviction. He had resigned from his previous church one Sunday when his members voted not to admit black worshipers.
On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I saw the Hope diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. It’s odd to think that a large piece of carbon, refined by millions of years of compression and cut by human hands, could draw such crowds. Yet people are continually huddled around the display case, which is wired with numerous sensors for security.
Medieval mapmakers, with their limited knowledge of distant lands and uncharted seas, sometimes depicted dragons on the far edges of their maps. Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons!”), they warned. Dragons do not appear on our modern maps. But bodies on the rail lines of Madrid and the streets of Fallujah leave no doubt that Something Ferocious stalks the edges of our political and religious maps. Nationalism, tribalism, empire and religion mutate in draconian forms, and we sometimes fail to recognize the beastly genes in our own DNA.
A strange king is likely to have a strange kingdom, and the kingdom of Jesus is no exception. The kingdom of Christ is a multilateral community, marked by a deep mutual love and an ongoing push to ever greater love. Our difficulty is not in envisioning the image of community. Our trouble comes with the necessity of confronting those situations in which community is broken, or worse, in which human beings are attacking other human beings. What are the international i