As a Christian, if you were asked what Jesus talks about in the Gospels more than anything else, what would you say? Would you have an answer?
Some contenders leap to mind immediately:
- Justice, for example. We know that Jesus champions the poor and the marginalized, the widow and the orphan
- Love – as our Presiding Bishop reminds us, love is at the heart of the Gospels
- We know, too, that Jesus talks a lot about money – He apparently never got the memo that it was socially unacceptable to broach that sometimes awkward topic
- Or, for that matter, another sometimes taboo subject – religion. Also a good possibility. Jesus is deeply concerned to reform what He views as the abuses of religious practice and personal piety.
While all of these concepts are important and central to the teachings of the Gospels, none of them – not even love – is at the top of the list. The hands-down winner is “kingdom” – as in, the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Greek word for Kingdom appears more than 150 times in Christian Scripture, with roughly 120 of those instances attributed to Jesus Himself.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that while Jesus does talk about divorce and adultery, He says nothing about what we would call sexuality, or sexual identity. I just think it’s helpful to bear that in mind.)
In our context sitting here in 21st century America, the idea of God’s “Kingdom” is sometimes seen as problematic. Our country has a history of resisting the authority of monarchs, after all, and the gendered language of “Kingdom” is not very inclusive – especially given that Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for over 68 years now, ranking her among the longest-reigning sovereigns in world history. We like to think that we are more enlightened than that, and so the slightly softer word “reign” is often used instead. The idea of God “reigning” over Creation somehow feels more palatable than the notion of God as King. We tend not to be very good at being subject to anyone, but at least the word “reign” is easier to stomach for some.
I get that semantics matter.
The problem, of course, is that context also matters, and Jesus lived and taught and preached at a particular moment in history, in a particular place that was ruled by a foreign power. Judea at the time of Jesus was subject not only to the rule of the Emperor, Caesar, but also to the reign of the local Kings, the “monarch on the ground,” the Herods – first Herod the Great, who was on the throne when Jesus was born, and later his son Herod Antipas. Let’s just say that neither father nor son enjoyed a particularly positive reputation among the Jewish people of the first century, and for good reason. Jesus doesn’t call the King “that fox” for nothing!
Set against a backdrop of oppressive and capricious authority, God’s Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is, of course, very different. Throughout the Gospels Jesus paints a vivid picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like, in contrast to the “powers and principalities” of this world. It is a Kingdom based on love, where everyone belongs, regardless of class, or race, or economic status, or marital status, or illness, or past sins. It is a Kingdom founded on forgiveness, where we are told to go to extraordinary means to bring wayward members back into the community. It is a Kingdom with open borders, that invites more people in. Where people care for each other. Where greatness is defined by service. Where hope and optimism and joy spill over, even in the midst of pain.
I have to say that this is precisely why I am a Christian. That Kingdom is so attractive, so appealing, that I want to live there, too.
But here’s the catch: The Church teaches that, with the Incarnation, the birth and life of Jesus, God’s Kingdom has broken in to human history – it has a toehold – but it has not yet been realized fully. (As I like to say, at least I hope that it hasn’t been realized fully…I’d hate to think that the world as we know is God’s vision for Creation!) So Jesus comes seeking partners to help Him usher in God’s Kingdom on earth, to re-imagine the worldly power structures in God’s terms.
That, of course, is where you and I come in. But what a lofty job description! “Usher in the Kingdom of God? That’s way above my pay grade.” How tempting it is to convince ourselves that we can’t change a thing, that we can’t make any difference whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. I think that, at this moment in history, this may be particularly true. Speaking for myself, I suffer from “learned helplessness” at points, the idea that I have no agency, or that I cannot effect any real change.
- The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed…
- Or a treasure hidden in a field…
- Or a merchant in search of fine pearls…
- Or a net that was thrown into the sea…
You may remember a story from about ten years ago, when the world watched and held its collective breath in horror as a pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Qur’an – allegedly in the Name of Christ. From around the globe, faith leaders, politicians, and even Hollywood celebrities fervently denounced the minister, and the message was universally clear: Such actions are in no way of God. Secretary of State Clinton was quoted as saying, “It's regrettable that a pastor…with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distressful, disgraceful plan, and get the world's attention.”
Thanks be to God, that pastor eventually backed down and the Qu’ran burning did not take place. But we overlook or minimize the lesson here at our own peril: Indeed, it is more than regrettable that a church of no more than 50 people could get the world’s attention with an outrageous, disgraceful plan. But 2000 years ago, a ragtag band of no more than 11 got the world’s attention with the most outrageous and challenging of Good News – and they changed the world forever. What is to stop this church from doing the same? Why do we have such trouble imagining the spread of evil and destruction, but not the Gospel?
The truth is that nothing is stopping us, if we are willing to lean into the Kingdom values of welcome, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and love. A little goes a long way. And that may mean softening some harshness and reconsidering some judgmentalism. When people see and hear us, do they see and hear the love of God? After all, God jumps and sings and dances with glee, with utter abandon, when one who has gone astray is finally found. God does that for you, God does that for me, God does that for the person who gets on your very last nerve, God does that for our enemies halfway around the world. We may not like that, but there it is. God cares desperately for each of us. Not one of us is perfect. We are all sinners. That’s the reality. It’s what we do with that reality that makes the difference.