A Gospel Takeover

MY FIRST YEAR at North Park University, I took Scot McKnight’s class, “Jesus of Nazareth.” It would have been a whole lot easier if he had just lectured and given tests. But he also challenged us to take Jesus seriously by actually trying to live like him and follow his teachings. This is why McKnight is one of the people I blame for what happened next.

McKnight talked the entire semester about “table fellowship.” Who Jesus ate with was significant. It was one of the ways he broke down barriers and modeled for his disciples the kingdom of God. So the next year when Thanksgiving rolled around and plane tickets home were too expensive, I threw a party at my campus apartment. A friend and I got donations from a local food bank and borrowed a school van under false pretenses (McKnight didn’t teach me that part). We picked up 15 people who were living on the streets of downtown Chicago, brought them back to my apartment, and celebrated Thanksgiving. We watched football, ate until 1 a.m., and everyone spent the night.

It is with this cautionary tale in mind that I commend to you McKnight’s most recent book, One.Life. No author is quite as dangerous as the one who can actually convince the reader to take Jesus seriously.

In One.Life McKnight tries to answer the very basic question, “What is a Christian?” His own answer used to be, “A Christian is someone who has accepted Jesus; and the Christian life focuses on personal practices of piety.” But, he argues, that answer is far too limited and entirely off focus. Jesus didn’t want to be “accepted” into anyone’s life; rather, “he wanted to take over.” So the answer to “What is a Christian?” is far simpler and much harder: A Christian is someone who follows Jesus.

McKnight asserts that if we want to understand what it means to follow Jesus, we have to understand what he has called us to be a part of: the kingdom of God. One of the top Jesus scholars in the country, McKnight’s historical and contextual insights into the life and teachings of Jesus provide an excellent picture of Jesus’ understanding of “the kingdom.”

In his chapter on justice, McKnight looks at Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 and poses the question of why Jesus came to earth. He answers, “Jesus came to bring justice by building the kingdom society on earth, beginning right now with you and with me.” In his chapter on peace he digs into what “shalom” meant for Jews of Jesus’ day and sums it up poetically, “When you’ve got what you need and need what you’ve got, when you love those you are with and are with the ones you love, and when you are doing good to others and they are doing good to you.” (And, of course, to those who aren’t doing good to you.)

After reading these chapters I started making a mental list of friends and loved ones who try to take the Bible seriously but are probably still more influenced by American politics than by Jesus when it comes to justice and peace. I was feeling pretty smug. But then I read the chapter on church. McKnight asks, “Why is it so easy to work for kingdom purposes but ignore your local church?” When I look back over the past few years, I realize that is often what I have tried to do: jump into the parts of the kingdom that I like and am naturally attracted to, while ignoring some of the harder and messier parts. As McKnight writes, “God’s kingdom happens when human beings are empowered by God’s Spirit to do God’s kingdom work in the shape of a new community.”

McKnight is great at blurring that regrettable line often drawn between good scholarship and Christian formation. His lyrical style allows him to switch from historical analysis to devotional meditation in one page. One.Life is for anyone who takes Jesus seriously enough to go deeper into the gospels—and isn’t afraid to let what they find change them.

Tim King is communications director at Sojourners.

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