"For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost" (Romans 14:17)
Kelly from Sinners and Saints borrowed a book from me, and then brought it back for me to look through since I myself had not read the whole thing yet, and she said it fit our recent considerations about who we were, and what we were becoming.
The book was "The Orphean Passages" by Walter Wangerin. So, here I am already having to mention something he said in the book, although I am only in the second chapter.
"We desire nouns because they presume the general fixedness of things: general categories, particulars in a general category, variations on those particulars, stages in which the variations might be caught and assessed- but always, always at our meeting them, fixed. Named. It comforts us."
The passage in Romans 14:17 gives us a picture of things which can be codified in law, written in lists, and weighed in pounds in contrast to abstract characteristics which appear to be the primary values of the kingdom of God. The abstractions do not have the same quality of fixedness as "meat and drink." They are abstract nouns without the fixity of measurable things.
The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink. It is not found in measurable items of consumption, nor is it based upon the same commodities which make the world in which we live turn. We trade in hard goods, and the person with the most commodities is the richest, the most powerful, and considered the greatest success. Such is the way of the world as we know it. Commodities are its riches, but the kingdom of God takes the most precious commodities of this world, and will walk on them as overly common goods. So the streets, it is said, will be made of gold, and this illustrates the plainness of those things we honor as valuable in this world.
Righteousness, peace and joy are not measurable in the same manner. They will not tip the scales. The length, the width, and mass of them can not be measured. They are issues of the heart - not the beating muscled organ which pounds inside our breasts, but that unseen, immeasurable part of our being which holds abstractions such as peace and love. These abstractions are nouns which are not things. They can not be seen, heard, felt, weighed by scales, or measured by speed guns.
Yet, this is exactly where many church leaders fall short in their attempt to build the kingdom of God.
In order to make sure that righteousness is easily measurable, we establish rules for living. The Old Testament called these laws, and the Apostle Paul spoke to this issue of codifying righteousness in his Epistle to the Galatians, "This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?"
In G.K. Chesterton's funky and wonderous novel "Manalive," he creates a character whose, "spiritual power has been precisely this, that he has distnguished between custom, and creed. He has broken all the conventions, but he has kept all the commandments."
History is filled with rebels who broke the rules of convention, and changed society for good. The Christian Church remembers and celebrates the names of Wycliff, Tyndale, Huss, Luther, Knox, and Wesley; but never would we suffer their behaviors toward us today. We have codified righteousness into a definition which looks like ourselves, and that which falls short is something less than acceptable to God.
All this time we may not be realizing that righteousness and the kingdom of God are less like a science, and more like an art. It may not be measuring for a more weighty righteousness which is of value, but like art there may be a time when 'less is more,' and those who have shed our rules of conventional behavior may be the discoverers of deeper truths, and a more simple righteousness apart from the law.
Controlling the Peace
Like we seek to codify righteousness by rules, and law, we similarly seek to establish peace through controlling our environment. If we can remove the uncontrollable factors in our lives, we can establish peace - we think. So we remove ourselves from immediate contact with those things which make us uncomfortable, or if we have enough authority we control the circumstances by requiring those around us to do things our way.
This method of creating peace can be measured in the number of events which go our way, and the restriction of circumstances which upset us. Becoming a control freak in order to create peace is no different than becoming a Pharisee in order to establish righteousness. Yet somehow the control freak who builds a large ministry is celebrated, while the man who returns to the Mosaic covenant to define the Christian life would be called a heretic. I am not sure there is a significant difference between the two.
Paul defines peace as a inner attribute which power resides not in manipulating circumstances and events, but in existing despite circumstances which seek to destroy that peace. "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, [therewith] to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Phil 4:11-13) Here we see Paul defining his contentment by a response of the heart, and not by the circumstances surrounding his life, and even going so far as to describe his ability to put up with things rather than manipulate them as strength which comes from God.
Whereas we seek to codify righteousness, and control peace, we find ourselves at odds with righteousness oftentimes as we attempt to measure joy as a commodity. In an attempt to create a general fixedness around this abstract value of joy, we begin to measure joy in events, and commodities we feel are joy producing.
This means of acquiring joy becomes the pursuit of the sensual. Not necessarily in a sexual sense, but in the classic definition of appealing to the senses. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel become the measurements of our joy. Though we need not become strict ascetics in order to attain a heavenly joy, we also can not discover joy in the acquiring of many things, and the experiencing of many adventures. So once again we find the apostle Paul speaking to this struggle to maintain a balance between discovering joy in the daily experiences of life, and seeking to find joy in the other kingdom.
"Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."
So, these virtues of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost" must remain flexible abstractions measured by other abstract virtues such as love, patience, and temperance. Once codified, manipulated, or measured they become either legalism, or in the case of the pursuit of joy - licentiousness. Of course, some will insist that I am becoming a relativist (as Josh suggested this morning that some might question.) What do you think?