Jesus’ first teaching was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I picture Jesus spending the first thirty years of his life deciding what he would say first, and this was it.
I grew up thinking this phrase meant, “Be sorry, because God is coming to get you — and soon!”
It scared me to death.
With the help of my Greek-knowing wife, I’ve learned that Jesus’ words could be translated like this:
“Learn to think differently, God’s power is close enough to touch.”
Jesus didn’t leave it there. He invited some ordinary men to follow him through villages and around the countryside while he healed diseases and cast out demons.
What was he doing?
He was showing them.
“See? The kingdom is this close. Close enough to touch.”
When I was in college, Jesus asked me to repent, to learn to see things differently. To change my mind.
He lead me and a group of friends to downtown Knoxville, to a neighborhood called the Old City.
We loaded backpacks with meager snacks and carried around a thermos of coffee. We used these supplies to meet Knoxville’s homeless in the middle of the night.
I want to spend the next few weeks sharing some Old City stories.
One Friday, around midnight, I sat next to a man on a bench outside an Old City nightclub. He was smiling and holding a 2-liter bottle of generic soda.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He turned to me, still smiling, and said, “It’s Peter.”
My college buddies, Neil and Charles, approached us and offered Peter a snack. Peter said, “I’d really like some fried chicken. You got any fried chicken?”
Charles ran into a nearby restaurant and ordered chicken tenders. While we waited, Neil introduced himself to Peter.
“What’s your name?” Neil asked.
“It’s Paul,” Peter answered.
“Wait a second,” I protested. “I thought your name was Peter.”
Peter/Paul turned to me, smiled an even wider smile, and whispered, “It’s Mary.” Then he laughed and laughed.
We laughed, too.
Then Charles reappeared with a plate of chicken tenders. Peter didn’t start eating, but sat the plate on the bench next to him.
See, the Commodores’ song “Brick House” had stared to play from the club’s outdoor speakers, and Peter could contain himself no longer. He had to dance.
At that point, a couple more homeless men approached us. Peter stopped dancing to offer them a piece of chicken. They were more than happy to join the feast. In fact, Peter passed the plate of chicken around and we all had a piece.
Then Peter extended his 2-liter to Neil.
Time stopped as I watched Neil stare at the unnaturally murky soda and consider the offer. Finally, he grabbed the bottle and took a sip.
This seemed to be a “welcome to the tribe” moment. Before we knew it, all of us were laughing and dancing together on the sidewalk.
Peter chose to share his meal with strangers and it erupted into a kingdom of God party.
It was holy communion.
As we danced, I could hear Jesus whisper to me, “See. It’s close enough to touch.”