Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Kingdom

If, like me, you happened to read the New Testament for the first time as an adult, without having any church background through which to interpret it, you might also have been struck by a surprising observation. In the four accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching collectively called the Gospels, he is described as preaching a very specific message to the people of Judea. This message is not a promise of life after death and a threat of eternal punishment. Instead, Jesus is constantly repeating the ‘good news’ that ‘the kingdom of God is near’.

The sayings, stories and miraculous healings attributed to Jesus were all ways of describing what this ‘kingdom of God’ (or in John’s Gospel ‘kingdom of heaven’) means. The kingdom is the place where those who are poor and the excluded are welcomed and respected, where there is no more exploitation or violence, where justice reigns and forgiveness flourishes. Those who are able to welcome the kingdom are not the rich and powerful, who are deeply invested in the status quo, but those who are dispossessed and excluded. It is ‘good news to the poor’ and bad news for those who want the world to stay just as it is:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort"
(Luke 6: 20, 24)
Jesus did not invent this vision; it is a powerful current in his own religious heritage. The Hebrew Torah is full of magnificent images of God’s reign of peace and justice. But what the Jewish prophet Jesus taught, and what got him executed, is that God’s kingdom is not far off - in an unworldly afterlife, or in the distant future. It is close - ‘the kingdom of God is near’. The stories and images he used to describe this kingdom constantly emphasise that it is not brought about by armies or dictated from the centres of power. The kingdom grows up among ordinary, disregarded people, in hidden ways in the midst of ordinary life, like yeast in bread, a woman sweeping the house for a lost coin, or seeds growing in a field.

The vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice on earth has had a profound impact on religious history. It has inspired passionate Christian movements as diverse as the Franciscans,  Anabaptists and Dukhoubors. But, paradoxically, its most world-changing impact has been in secularised form, as the emotional centre of the political ideologies that have aimed to bring about a perfect society, by force if necessary.

From the French Revolution to Soviet and Chinese Communism, this dream of a world of peace, freedom, equality and justice has continually resurfaced in the modern imagination. Crucially, though, for all of these ideologies the goal of peace and justice was always somewhere off in the future. To reach such a perfect destination, so far removed from the present squalid reality of inequality and oppression, it seemed legitimate to use any means for bringing it about. Since the promised goal was always somewhere over the horizon, the revolutionaries and dictators could not be expected to act as if it had already arrived. Instead, they had to be prepared to sacrifice their scruples, and to commit whatever violence or deception was necessary to realise their historical destiny. In this, they unwittingly repeated the logic of State-allied churches throughout history that still find it necessary to commit and condone violence and persecution, compelled by the unfortunate distance between the promise of the kingdom and the realities of power in the imperfect present.

Unlike the communist revolutionaries and patriotic bishops, Jesus taught that the reign of peace was not far off, on the far side of the messy crimes of history. It is present now, wherever people who have been humiliated recover their dignity, where walls are dismantled and resources shared, where people who have been enemies learn to listen to each other. This kingdom is here every day, signs of it are all around us. Even in this society, with its inequality, racism, and callous indifference to migrants and the distant poor, there are people who welcome strangers into their homes, who defend the neighbours they are told to hate, and who choose forgiveness over revenge. The good news is that this is happening all around us:

5 comments:

  1. Unlike you, I can't remember a time when I was not familiar with the Bible. I have noticed the distinction you refer to. Jesus promised those who will hear the voice of the Son will be raised to life (John 5) and he stated "The words I am speaking/have spoken to you these are spirit, these are life." (John 6:63) These passages from John build upon Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones, which ends with the assertion "Then you will know I am the Lord when I have opened your graves and brought you up out of your graves." The context of both the Ezekiel passage and the John passages refer to an event that happens now when we turn to hear the voice of Christ.

    One other thing. I was surprised when I looked up the meaning of the Greek word we translate "forgive". There is more to it than mere pardon. Forgiving also involves fixing the problem that caused the offense in the first place. So when Jesus proclaims that he has the power to forgive sin, he is stating that not only can he pardon, but he remakes the forgiven in the image of God, a living being. Then not only is the kingdom of God at hand, it is within you. While it does not come with observation, "Lo here, lo there," once come it does not remain hidden but explodes upon the scene in similar fashion as demonstrated by the apostles and the early Quakers.

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    1. This is really helpful, thank you.

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    2. Thank you for your thoughts. Helpful. Jesus is near. The good news is also in Gospel of St.John 3rd chapter verses 16 and 17.

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  2. Excellent post, Craig - my feeling exactly. xx

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  3. Thank you for this post. The early Quakers were also well aware that the 'Kingdom' was the central focus of Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, it features directly or indirectly in almost all their tracts--most certainly those written between 1652 and 1663. They had about 40 different names for the 'Kingdom' inc. the Seed, God, the Light and at times dependent on the context, Jesus.

    I believe that the 'Kingdom'--I call it 'The Way' in my "What Love Can Do", which is about the 'Kingdom' in the present day--can be the common language that modern Friends seek. It is unifying and inclusive, and gives birth to peace, justice and compassion---not merely peace and justice, for these on their own can lead to Auschwitz (Hitler, after all, believed passionately in peace and justice--his own warped brand). Peace and justice need compassion. I've learned in my own life to add the word 'compassion' when I speak of justice and peace.

    Early Quaker understandings of the 'Kingdom' and its peace, justice and compassion gave rise to their Lamb's War and thus our Testimonies. This wonderful trinity continues to underpin our Testimonies and, with them, our outer witness to the world.

    Modern theology tells us that in Lk. 17: 20-21, the Greek 'entos' is more accurately translated as 'inside', although it does carry understandings of 'within' and 'among' as you know.

    So, thanks again for the post. Great to see a modern Quaker inviting fellow Quakers to think more deeply of the 'Kingdom'/Way.

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)