310. "sermon" on the Kingdom of God
So a couple weeks ago I spent a few days in Hawaii visiting friends and family and stuffing myself full of poi and lau lau and katsu curry and ramen and other foods I missed. One thing I was really looking forward to was visiting the house church I used to attend before moving to Seattle. And a few days before the Sunday service, Blake, the guy who heads up the church, asked me to give a little message to the house church about what I’d learned since moving away – what had God been showing me about Christ and church and Christianity.
And I was stoked that he asked me because before I left the house church, we had been wrestling with a lot of big questions about what it meant to be a follower of Christ and what it meant to be the church and what it was that we were supposed to be doing with ourselves here on earth. And I felt as if I’ve been able to come up with…not exactly answers but some really promising and interesting ideas along those lines and was eager to share it all with them.
Anyway, what follows are from the notes I took for myself in preparing for what I shared that night at house church.
And it’s a good way for me to get back to the Layman’s Theology series I started more than a year ago.
I remember a bit before I left for Seattle, we as the house church were talking a lot about the Kingdom of God or as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven.
I remember we spent many nights talking about this kingdom – what does it look like, how does it work, is it already here or is it yet to come, what’s our role or place in this kingdom?
I remember that we spent a lot of time thinking about the Kingdom because Jesus seemed to speak about it all the time. Almost all of his parables are about this kingdom in one way or another but he’s often frustratingly open ended when talking about it. He calls it a pearl, a party, a net, like seeds and like virgins. And all of the metaphors seem to be pointing towards something that Jesus sees quite clearly but either because we can’t understand or because he can’t put it into words that we can understand, these metaphors aren’t entirely clear to us (and the gospels tell us that they weren’t clear to many he was speaking to at the time – even to his disciples).
And I remember being frustrated by this because I was in search of a new understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. See, I was raised with the idea that Christianity and being a Christian was only and all about getting people to accept Christ as savior so that they would spend eternity in heaven instead of hell. And while I understood the importance of that, I couldn’t help but think that there was more to Christianity than that – a lot more. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were somehow missing the point of the Gospel.
And so I remember being frustrated with this whole Kingdom of God idea because I felt that it was pointing us towards something vital and important – something that could expand our ideas of what it meant to be a Christian. But at the house church, although we had lots of discussions about it, we never seemed to be able to get at what this Kingdom was about – how it works for us today.
I ended up taking all of these Kingdom questions with me up to Seattle and partly because of an amazing church that I found there and partly because of some really key books1, I finally came to a new kind of understanding about what being a Christian is about and how this Kingdom metaphor works.
And so here it is – my thoughts so far on what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
First of all, it helps to get into the mind of the people Jesus was speaking to when he spoke about this kingdom. See, part of the reason it’s hard for us to understand the Kingdom of God is because here in America, we’ve grown up in a democratic republic. On top of that, because of contemporary critiques of colonialism and imperialism, we’ve come to view the word “kingdom” (and the ideas of conquest and oppression that it implies) with a great deal of skepticism.
But put yourself, for a moment, into the feet of those in first century Israel. For them, being a citizen of a kingdom was all they knew. Their entire history was made up of good kings and bad kings and being taken over by other nations and living under the thumb of foreign kings. In fact, as we begin this story, Israel is yet again living under the rule of a foreign, pagan nation – this time, it was the Romans. And so while it’s hard for us to understand what life was like in these (earthly) kingdoms, it’s important for us to try to keep this in mind if we are to see the radical, revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God. More importantly, it’s only in this context that we can begin to talk/think about how this Kingdom metaphor works for us today. But more on this later.
Now as an extremely religious nation, there were various segments of the Jewish religious leadership who had different ideas about why it was that Israel was being ruled by the Romans. They also had different ideas about why God wasn’t getting them out of this situation.
Some, like the Pharisees, thought that the reason Israel was under foreign dictatorship was because Israel was not living up to the standards of God – they were failing to obey the laws of the Bible. There were others, like the Saducees, who thought that the best we could do in this situation was to coddle the Romans – to try and work them as best we could. Then there were others like the Zealots (some of the twelve disciples were Zealots) who wanted to band together and take back Israel by force and bloody revolution. And there were the Essenes who moved out to the desert and isolated themselves from society – they were the ones who wrote and hid away the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This is the immediate social/historical context of Jesus’ time, but before I get into what Jesus did when he entered the scene, I want to bring up one other bit of history. This time, we go all the way back to Genesis 12:1-3.
1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (NLT)
This is basically the moment that the nation of Israel is born. It is because of this promise that Abram leaves his home and sets in motion the events that will lead to the nation of Israel. To me, the key parts of this promise to Abram are the lines about blessing – at the end of verse 2 God says, “I will make you a blessing to others. . .” and then again at the end of verse 3, “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”
I mention t
his because I think the main reason Israel got taken over so many times in the past and the reason why they were being ruled by Rome in Jesus’ day was because they had forgotten this part of the blessing. They knew that they were God’s chosen people but they had forgotten that they were chosen so that they could be a blessing to the other nations…but again, more on this later.
So then, Jesus enters the scene and some believed that he was the Messiah – the one who would deliver Israel from the Romans and return Israel to a place of power in the world. These people are looking for an earthly, political revolutionary. What Jesus preached instead was an entirely different sort of world order. They wanted someone who would kick some Roman ass. What they found was someone who told them that if someone (like a Roman soldier) told you to carry their pack one mile, that they should carry it two miles. He told them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them.
And then just when he made his way to Jerusalem and people thought that he was finally going to take his rightful place on the throne and oust the Romans, he died on a cross.
Three days later, he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples as well as to other witnesses. Some were still looking for a political Jesus – a Jesus to overthrow the Romans. Instead, Jesus tells them two basic things. Wait for the Holy Sprit and then tell everybody about me. And then he’s gone again.
And I’m not sure how exactly it happened (perhaps this is part of what happened at Pentecost?), but eventually the disciples and the followers of Jesus came to understand that this Kingdom that Jesus kept talking about wasn’t a political sort of Kingdom. It was, indeed, unlike any kingdom that had ever come before it.
His is a kingdom, not of physical, political power but a kingdom of love and forgiveness and reconciliation…wait, let me expand on that. The Kingdom of God can/should/will have physical, political effects but these effects do not come about through physical power (war). It isn’t a kingdom that comes about by force or violence but by sacrificing one’s self.
So then, finally, I can begin to talk about what I’ve come to understand about this Kingdom of God.
If you want a quick glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like, there are three places where it is especially clear. You can look to Eden before the fall of Man or you can look to the prophets when they talk about what the world will look like once God returns and redeems all of his creation. However, the clearest example of what this kingdom looks like is found in Matthew 5 – 7 (the sermon on the Mount). In those three chapters, Jesus outlines a radical new outlook on what it is to be a human being, on what our priorities should be and how it is that we live out our kingdom citizenship.
I said earlier that although it’s difficult, the Gospels must be read through the lens of those for whom monarchy was the only political structure they knew. For them, if they were living under the rule of an unjust king, they had two choices – live with it or overthrow it. In the Gospels, Jesus offers a fascinating, new alternative. Jesus offers his followers citizenship in a kingdom not of this world but a Kingdom of God/Heaven. And Jesus spends his time on earth teaching and modeling how a citizen of this Kingdom behaves here, today, now.
What does that mean for us? As followers of Christ in America, although we live in and pay taxes to our government, we are actually citizens of the Kingdom of God – our lives, are to be lived out as citizens of God’s Kingdom. And for me, the easiest way to understand what this means is to live now the way we would if the fall had never happened or the way we will when God returns to redeem his creation. The more we live this way, the more the Kingdom of God enters into, redeems, and blesses today’s world.
And that last bit about blessing is especially important. Remember earlier when I talked about how I thought the reason Israel had so much trouble through its history is because they forgot that they were chosen so that they could be a blessing to all the nations? In a sense, part of what happened through the cross and the resurrection is this task of blessing got transfered from the one specific nation of Israel onto all who called Jesus Lord – we Christians.
And while this will probably get me into trouble, I really want to emphasize this idea of being a blessing to all nations because I think large segments of the church today are in a similar position to that of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time who thought too much about being God’s people and not enough about being a blessing to those around them.
There are segments of today’s church that, like the Pharisees, think that the reason why Christianity isn’t the force they think it should be is because our nation has lost its moral compass. Then there are other segments (I’m thinking of the Christian entertainment industry here) who, somewhat like the Essenes, seem to think that what we need to do is to withdraw into a subculture – in this case, it’s not a geographic withdrawal, but it is still an escape from or alternative to the culture at large. And then there are those like the Zealots who use the language of war when talking about the duty of Christians (think of those who wave those “God hates fags” signs or those portrayed in the movie Jesus Camp). Other parallels can be made but those most readily come to mind.
These segments (and, really, the church at large) can be seen as putting too much emphasis on being God’s people and not enough on remembering that we are God’s people so that we can be a blessing to all the nations. What I’m trying to say is that while it is true that Christians are God’s people, our task as the people of God is to be a blessing. And this blessing comes about most naturally and readily as we live the kind of sacrificial life that Jesus taught and modeled for us – as citizens of the Kingdom of God.