“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9
A few years back in Kolkata, I was working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying where I met another American who had just finished his doctorate studies in Ireland. The theme of his studies was the politics of peace. His desire was to work with the United Nations for the establishment of peace policies, but he wanted to come to India to get some experience working with people. I thought that India was an interesting place for him to come because of the dire poverty, the threat of different forms of violence, and the variety of faiths, cultures, languages, and histories. I asked him if in his doctorate studies he had ever seen a place where policy-making had successfully created peace. He said that policy-making never created peace; it could only create space for dialog or create structures that maintain peace.
I told my new American friend about an organization that I had visited a day earlier called L’arche that cares for people with handicaps. I told him that it was a hopeful model of people from different backgrounds living together in peace. Though the organization was founded by Christians, they accept people from different faiths, and in India that means people from the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian faiths as well as others. The name of this particular home was appropriately called Asha Niketan “Home of Hope”, and that is what I saw it to be. There people came together each day in prayer to be closer to God and to serve those with handicaps. Though we may criticize the lack of persuasion to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the community exists in self-giving love. There they make peace. They do not curtail conflicts in the name of peace, but they work through them for the sake of peace. That is because peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice and love. And love, justice and peace are fruits of the Spirit and not the fruits of policy-making.
At the L’arche community, it is evident that the poor have the potential to be a point of meeting for people of diverse cultures, beliefs and histories to come together and serve on their behalf. In a world where violence breeds violence, the poor give us the opportunity to lay down our weapons of destruction and to pick up tools of service. The weakest and most vulnerable provide a place where we can come together, and they show us the potentiality of striving for peace, justice and love. As Christians, we are called to love the poor. But we are not so naive to think that the poor can be separated from the world in which they live – a world of godlessness and idolatry. As we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and as we minister to the distressing disguise of Jesus in the poor, we must soberly engage the whole world with all her “regimes of truth.”
Mahumut Aydin said, “[I]n a globalized world, the duty of adherents of different religious traditions should not be to claim the superiority of their own religious tradition as an a priori entity, but to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good” (“Globalization and the Gospel: A Muslim View”). Many of those living in pluralistic societies share this view and see it as a way in which we can live together while keeping “our religion” private. Though Aydin is saying something important, his statement cannot be normative for the fundamental motivations of the Church’s mission.
We do agree with Aydin that liberation of the poor does point to faith. We recall that throughout Jesus’ life, He pointed to the liberation of the poor as a sign of the coming Kingdom and to point to His Sonship (Luke 7:19-22). Likewise, faith in God does develop the common good. When the God of love indwells His people, His people love. Where His Kingdom is, the world cannot escape the goodness of God. That is why Jesus says that He causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45), and it is not insignificant that the evil are mentioned before the good.
We must also recognize that Aydin is correct in saying that the integrity of our Christianity can be measured by our relationship with the poor. Jesus says that “Whatever we do to the least of these, we do it unto Him.” If we are not serving the least of these, how are we being Christian? James reminds us that true and pure religion is this: ministering to the orphans and widows and remaining pure in the world.” If we – you and me and not just the institutions to which we belong – are not ministering to the defenseless and marginalized, how is our religion true? One does well to remember that religion (religio) means “to bind” in Latin. This term can have two diametrically opposing connotations: bonding or bondage. When we bond with the poor through solidarity and service, our religion is true; when our religion simply becomes a worldview that saves us or legitimizes our lifestyles, we live in bondage.
We can also follow Aydin in affirming that Christianity is not a religion of superiority. Christ leads us to seek the last place, even the place of death. We are not called to what the world sees as victory but to what it terms victimization. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul outlines how our faith is victorious when it is vulnerable. Unfortunately, we usually reject this place of vulnerability. Desmond Tutu said, “I fear that we have all been so seduced by the success ethics that we have forgotten that in a very real sense the church was meant to be a failing community.” The missioligist David Bosch said, “A church which follows the model of the victim-missionary is one that is called to be a source of blessing to society without being destined to regulate it. It knows that the Gospel ceases to be Gospel when it is foisted upon people.” At the same time, we believe in Jesus Christ because He is worth believing in. We therefore can stand before the world with what Lesslie Newbigin terms “proper confidence” which is a firm commitment to truth.
As we reject the world’s terminology of superiority and power, so we must be critical about legitimizing our faith through our practice or, as Aydin puts it, “to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good”. Of course, faith and practice are intricately related. Christian belief normatively shapes Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to the acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the obedient believe, and those who believe are obedient” (The Cost of Discipleship). But we must ask with Miroslav Volf, “What grounds what: belief or practice?” (Practicing Theology). Is our service among the poor rooted in our faith in God, or is our faith in God rooted in our service among the poor? Subordinating beliefs to practices, as contemporary popular and academic culture does, leads to the completely functionalizing of beliefs. We as Christians must realize, as Volf asserts, that “adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God.” We identify with God through beliefs, and we encourage practices for the sake of God (Col. 3:23, 24).
Because belief has priority, we must concern ourselves with the disputed truth claims about God and that unambiguously includes the “regimes of truth” of other faiths and ideologies. That means that as we go into the world to preach Good News to the poor, we engage other claims to truth. If we detour these truth-claims, we are not faithful to truth but permissive of lies, and we are not makers of peace but accomplices of injustice. All regimes of truth are critiqued by the Truth which we come to know in the person of Jesus Christ. Truth is a person which demands that we be personally involved. “Truth, then, is available only to the one who is personally committed to the truth grasped. Knowing cannot be severed from living and acting, for we cannot know the truth unless we seek it with love and unless our love commits us to action” (Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence). In response to Aydin that means that we cannot separate our faith and action at any point and that our service (truth-commitment) to the poor is rooted in our belief in God (Truth) who loves and identifies with the poor.
How, then, do we engage the world? How do we come together as human beings to serve other human beings? How do we minister among the poor? How do we become peacemakers? How do we affirm the truth within diverse beliefs while critiquing the false truth claims? I do not want to offer any simple answers to these questions, but I want to provide a platform from which we can respond.
The poor can be a point of unity. When we put aside our own initiatives and selfish motivations, we can come together for the sake of the Other. We can do this together with people from other denominations and religions. Often, in our ministry among the poor, we have had non-believers work alongside us. They are not defining our motivations or direction, but they are participating in this work which we pray is bringing glory to God. Here we are not accentuating our differences but celebrating our common humanity. Behind this base of relationship lies a theology of creation. The Bible tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Yet, we are not primarily looking at our commonness as humanity; rather, we are looking together at the God in whose image humanity was created. Monotheism led to the concept of a single humanity. This is the God of whom it is said, “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one.” The one God in whose image humanity is created intrinsically links every person to every other person. But, as I said earlier, this does not mean that we blindly accept one another’s beliefs. What it does mean, in effect, is that we have created a point of meeting where we can mutually challenge one another.
The poor can be an instrument through which God makes Himself known. Some theologians use the phrase “epistemological privilege of the poor” to describe the ability of the poor to understand and receive the gospel. To the poor, the Gospel really is Good News. Likewise, God often speaks and makes Himself known to the non-poor through the poor. Here we recognize a theology of the Spirit of Jesus. When we witness the injustice that the poor suffer, we can find hope in the God that is actively championing their cause. I know some non-Christians who are fervent advocates for the poor. As Christians, we can recognize and affirm the Spirit of Christ that moves beyond the edges of the Church into the world for which He died.
We can come together with all humanity to serve the poorest and weakest. There is a humble place of solidarity in our human frailty and inability. But we cannot come together to offer simple solutions. When confronted with poverty, we are confronted by suffering and dying that exposes our own powerlessness. We can confess that our solutions are exhausted. We take heart in something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Germany during World War Two – a time and place where “the Final Solution” was propagated. Bonhoeffer said that Christians should not base their faith on the scientific method. He said we are not seeking after solutions to problems; we believe, rather, in the redemption of sinful, broken creation. Here lies a theology of redemption. Taking our foothold in God’s action, we as Christians can speak of redemption in the face of problems such as death and poverty. We can witness to a God who suffers with us and who has defeated sin and death.
Today with the George Fox Discovery Team, we discussed the assumptions of different Christian approaches to the poor.
We looked at:
– Evangelism leads to social change
– Social action is pre-evangelism
– Transformational ministry
– Christian presence
For each approach we asked the following questions:
What are causes of poverty for this approach?
What are the assumptions of this approach?
What would this approach use for scriptural support?
What are other examples of this approach?
What are positives? What are negatives?
How would you answer these questions?
(I wrote this reflection in the spring of 1998, while living with boys that we were taking off the streets.)
Every time I return to the US, I have been asked by my brothers and sisters in Christ, “Seeing the poverty, did you realize how blessed we are here in the States?” It is difficult though for me to find a response. If we reverse the question, we ask, “Do you realize how cursed they are?”
Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” I am living with four children who have spent most of their lives scrapping to survive on the streets. They have known poverty. They have known hunger. They have known sorrow. And they are blessed? They have experienced disease, sexual abuse, and rejection. And they are blessed? Everyday I have to remind them of normal habits like to change their clothes, to speak without screaming, and to resolve their problems without beating each other up. And these teenagers are blessed?
I would say they are cursed. They have little education and little hope of reintegrating into society. They are stigmatized by a city who knows the faces of her beggars. They bear the emotional and physical scars of being beaten, being rejected, and being cursed. In turn they beat, they reject, and they curse. Sin and evil in people and society perpetuate the curse.
But as I seek to know Jesus intimately in the least, He begins to reveal their blessedness. It is hidden and sometimes evasive, but let me tell you how they are blessed. In a few words: they need a Savior. These boys realize they can’t save themselves, as opposed to some of the wealthy who do just fine on their own.
Last night I had a one-on-one discussion with each boy. They had each been misbehaving and asked me to discipline them. We discussed their consequence and then prayed. Each one asked God to forgive them and to change them. I wish I could so easily admit my errors and recognize my need for correction. They are blessed because this is the posture of the heart that pleases God, and God joins them and fights on their side. Blessed are the poor!
These former street children are teaching me how to seek God. My understanding of “blessed” is not God’s understanding. The Father sent the blessed Son to “redeem us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” He was not only cursed but became the curse for us. Jesus identified with the cursed of His day – those working in commercial sex, the outcast, and the diseased – and calls His church to do the same. Jesus even countered the blessings with the verses under which I tremble: “But woe to you who are rich, for are receiving your reward in full. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” In the past, I identified the blessed as having enough money to sustain a comfortable and healthy. But my own life identifies much closer with what Jesus warns against than with what He blesses.
And that brings me back to the question which I struggle to answer, “Do you see how blessed we are?” I think it is better asked, “Do you know how blessed they are?”
What is the goal of advocacy? We have said it’s “raising awareness.” Others who advocate say “to create change” or “to acquire justice.” I think we are saying, “to create relationships.” This is not “networking” – as I don’t really like the mechanistic language – but it is connecting people. We are a channel that connects the non-poor to the poor; we help create space where the voice of the poor is heard. Here too advocacy implies justice, but we understand justice as a relational category.
Here is a brief sketch of what I think is a good trajectory for the kind of advocacy we’re talking about:
The OT word for redeemer is “Go-el”. We read this word today as “personal Savior”, the One who has purchased us by His blood and given Himself as a ransom for all. That’s fine and good, but it’s bad exegesis to impose contemporary usage on concepts formed in a different historical context.
Go-el meant “kinsmen redeemer”. It means that the next of kin, the closest family member, is obliged to buy back property or to buy out of bond-slavery. See Leviticus 25:25ff. The whole chapter is about the jubilee, the context of redemption, reconciliation and redistribution. See also Lev. 27:13ff.
Justice isn’t just positive for the poor; it is negative for the perpetrator. So, Go-el also means “avenger”. If your family member was murdered, the kinsmen redeemer would kill the murderer. If the murder was not intentional, the kinsmen redeemer would still seek compensation for the family. See Number 35:18ff and Deuteronomy 19:6ff. This is not, then, simply legal justice but relational justice that seeks restoration.
The word “Go-el” is close to the verb “ga-al” which means to liberate, to redeem, to ransom. The Go-el, then, is the one who pleads justice and does justice; he/she is the avenger, arbiter and redeemer. The goal is familial freedom and restoration.
If there is no kinsmen redeemer, then the Lord is the kinsmen redeemer. See Numbers 5:8.
In Job, he calls God his Go-el (19:25). “I know that my redeemer lives and that he shall stand on the latter day upon the earth.” Here there is a hint of resurrection and new creation.
Ruth is the best narrative on kinsmen redeemer because Goaz plays this role and redeems Ruth. Read chapter 4.
God is also called the kinsmen redeemer in Exodus. He hears the cries of His people and redeems them.
We can draw a lot from this and I think it fits well within the frame of awareness, worship and action.
– Family – We cultivate community among the poor, creating familial relationships, and take on the obligation of kin. God also calls the poor family and names Himself as their kinsmen redeemer. If He is our Father, then His family is our family. So, we also are kinsmen redeemers. It’s about being family to one another.
– Justice – We put justice in relational categories not legal ones. Raising awareness means creating relationships. We work towards modeling communities of liberty, restoration, reconciliation, and redistribution. Doing justice might be hard and even ugly, as the cross is hard and ugly, but it beautifies.
– Voice – The vulnerable are not voiceless; their voices are marginalized and silenced. We hear the cries of the poor and respond.
This article originally appeared in The Cry: The Advocacy Journal of Word Made Flesh vol. 11, no. 2 (Summer 2005). Ten years ago we were struggling to understand what it meant to be a sign of the kingdom of God, while serving among those who were promised that theirs is the kingdom of God. Those like Tom Wright, Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf helped us find some bearings. Although we continue to struggle with seeking first the kingdom of God, and although an article written today would look a bit different, I hope that this article may help others to find their bearings and provoke the ceaseless prayer: May Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.
In recent years Christians have become increasingly familiar with the phrase “kingdom of God”, but because its definition is rarely articulated, we do not always know what it means. Many equate “the kingdom of God” with an ethereal heaven for disembodied souls in the afterlife, building earthly utopias, or the expansion of the Church. Recently, “kingdom” has become a trendy adjective to indicate anything “truly” Christian: kingdom community, kingdom persons, kingdom culture, etc.1 But when a word is used without a clear and common consent of terminology, it loses its semantic value and leads to confusion.
The use and misuse of “the kingdom of God” means that we need to rearticulate the phrase if it is to carry any real meaning. In this short article, we will ask: what did the kingdom of God mean when Jesus said it, who were the primary recipients of His message, what is the nature of the kingdom of the Triune God, and what are some implications for us today?
The Kingdom of God in the First Century
“After John the Baptist had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel'” (Mk. 1:14-15).2Thekingdom ofGod was the central motif of Jesus’ mission (Lk. 4:43). When Jesus preached thekingdom ofGod, He was not introducing a new concept that had to be explained in first centuryPalestine. Rather, Jesus was evoking the burning expectations ofIsrael.
For a Jew in the first century, the kingdomof Godmeant the restoration of the shekinah glory3, the return from exile, and the defeat of Israel’s national enemies.4 But Jesus scandalously redefined these expectations. When Israel was taken into exile and Solomon’s temple destroyed, the dwelling of God’s shekinah glory was displaced from the Holy of Holies. The promise of the coming kingdom meant the restoration of the glorious presence. But when the second Temple was built, the shekinah glory never came. Jesus asserted that Herod’s construction was redundant, affirming that His own body was the true temple (Mt. 12:5; 26:61). The shekinah glory tabernacled among us (Jn. 1:14) and continues to inhabit the earth through God’s people (17:22), moving towards the consummation of filling the earth as the waters cover the sea (Rev. 21:23; Hab. 2:14).
Israel was exiled as a sign of judgment for her iniquity. In the first century, only a remnant of Israelhad returned to Palestinewhile most remained in Diaspora.5 Even those who had returned to Palestine were painfully aware of their exile because the Roman soldiers were patrolling the streets. The prophets had prophesied that the return from exile (the real or new exodus) would come through the renewal of the heart, the internalization of the Torah and the forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-33). Therefore, when Jesus says “your sins are forgiven” and brings sinners into fellowship, it is another way of saying “you have returned from exile.” When Jesus summoned people to repentance and offered forgiveness of sins, He was inaugurating the kingdom of God (N.T. Wright, JVG, 269-72).
Jews believed that the coming of the kingdomof Godmeant the ousting of Israel’s national enemies. The Promised Land was being ruled by the Romans, who kept Israelin bondage to feed its empire. The battle cry for exiled and subjugated Israelwas “there is no king but Yahweh” (N.T. Wright, NTPG, 302). However, Yahweh’s kingdom was not made manifest through the ousting of Rome, but rather through the defeat of humanity’s real enemies: namely, sin, Satan and death. Jesus said, “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk. 11:20). This indicates that Israel’s God is becoming king and that the enemies – sin, Satan and death – that have held Israel captive, are being cast down. The kingdom of God denotes the coming of Israel’s God in person and power, and this, through forgiveness, deliverance and resurrection, is happening now. He will do again what He did in the exodus: come and dwell in the midst of His people. The kingdom is the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny. Israel’s God becomes king through Jesus’ work, life, death and resurrection. The people of God are summoned to follow Jesus as king. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace…who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God is king'” (Is. 52:7)
The Recipients of the Kingdom of God
The message of the kingdomof God was proclaimed to the poor because the poor suffer the most from exile. In the absence of God’s reign, they are most vulnerable to subjugation by worldly powers; they endure the greatest loss when marginalized or cast out of fellowship; and they are the first to bear the effects of sin and death. That is why the Magi did not find the king in Herod’s palace but among poor shepherds; that is why the shekinah went out to the outcast and touched the untouchable in the person of the King; and that is why death is crushed through the King’s death and resurrection. Jesus’ welcome of the poor and outcast was a sign that the real return from exile – the new age, the resurrection – was coming into being in the present time (Is. 35:1-10) (N.T. Wright, JVG, 255).
Jesus affirms that the poor are blessed because theirs is the kingdomof God(Lk. 6:20). The poor are given the inheritance of the King. They are made princes and princesses because the kingdom belongs to them. The kingdom is at hand and the primary point of its entry is among the poor:6 sick are healed, demons are cast out, lame are made to walk, deaf are restored to hearing, and Good News is preached to the poor (Lk. 7:22; Is. 61:1-4). God did in the middle of time through Jesus what the Jews expected He would do through Israel at the end of time (N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, 36).
In Mark’s gospel, the word for “people” or “multitude” that follow Jesus is ochlos, which denotes sinners, the excluded, the impoverished, and the disinherited. This is the preferred audience of the message of the kingdom. Jesus calls the people to the way of the cross (8:34), teaches them (7:14), has compassion for them (6:34), heals them (1:34), and identifies with them (3:34). The ochlos is the primary addressee of Jesus’ gospel, and the kingdom is revealed among them.
Jesus also says that the kingdom of God belongs to the children (Mt. 19:14). He takes the first and makes them last, and He takes those that cannot compete and makes them greatest in the kingdom (18:1-3). Sometimes we refer to the “upside-down kingdom”, since Jesus subverts the ways of the world, but really nothing is more right-side-up than thekingdomofGod.
The kingdom of God is a gift; it is not imposed. We are invited to ask for it: Let Your kingdom come and Your will be done! (Lk. 11:2). In the Lord’s Prayer, we release our rule and our will and ask the Father to give us His. Lesslie Newbigin calls this an open secret. The kingdom is a secret revealed as a mystery through weakness, but it is open in that it is to be proclaimed to all (The Open Secret, 35-37).In Luke’s gospel, the invitation to the kingdom is made, but those bidden do not come. The master reacts by inviting the poor, the maimed and the blind (14:15-24). The King’s banquet table is made for fellowship with the poor. Those that are crushed by the worldly empires are particularly enthused by the promise of the coming kingdom, but those with vested interests in worldly empires, like the excuse-filled invitees, are not open to God’s reign or His will being done. The invitation is also a demand: all are invited to leave everything, to follow Him and to receive theKingdom ofGod (Lk. 12:32).
In John’s gospel, the kingdom of God is synonymous with life. Jesus says, “But a man be born again, he cannot see thekingdomofGod” (Jn. 3:3). ThekingdomofGodis a totally new reality represented as new life and as the true way of being human. All opposing kingdoms mean death – especially for the poor – and their beneficiaries cannot see or enter into this new reality. The only way to see, taste and experience eternal life in God’s kingdom is by receiving new birth from God’s life-giving Spirit.
The Kingdom of the Triune God
The kingdom of life is the kingdom of the Trinity. This is where the analogies between worldly kingdoms and God’s kingdom reach their breaking point. The kingdom of the Triune God confers a reciprocal loving relationship, not hierarchical power. The kingdom of the Trinity offers liberation, not domination. The kingdom of the Father, Son and Spirit is where justice and peace kiss (Ps. 85:10) and where all things are renewed (Rev. 21:5).
The kingdom of the Triune God ushers in the reign of love. God is lover, beloved, and love. The kingdom of the Trinity is not revealed as power but as love (I Jn. 4:8); His power is exercised only through His love. The Father loves us so He gives His Son. The Son loves the Father so He gives His life up. In the New Testament, Jesus is not Lord by virtue of His sovereignty, His power, or His rights as Creator over His creation; He is Lord by virtue of His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus says, “No one takes My life from Me, but I lay it down on my own initiative” (Jn. 10:17-18). Here power means surrender. The power of powerlessness is depicted on the cross labeled “King of the Jews”: nail-pierced hands outstretched and a brow crowned with thorns. Christ reigns from a tree. Powerlessness takes the place of power. In John’s Revelation, we see the slain lamb on the throne (Rev. 5:6). Worthy is the Powerless to receive all power (5:12).
Empires of this world divide and conquer; any resulting freedom is the luxury of the minority at the expense of the majority. The rule of the Triune God is translated as freedom for all. The Trinity reigns by creating community. St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). In God’s kingdom, lordship means liberation, not domination. Through our obedient submission, God’s reign liberates us.
The consummation of the kingdom of God is the New Creation, which is already taking place. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). That ‘already’ signals that which will be in full. The fulfillment of the kingdom of God is where the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of the Triune God (Rev. 11:15), where heaven and earth are renewed (21:1), and where humanity comes home and is filled with the shekinah which radiates from throne of God (22:3-4). The Spirit and the bride say to the Bridegroom, “Come! On earth as it is in heaven!”
The Kingdom of God Today
“Yahweh has established His throne in the heavens and His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). Christ is Lord and He challenges and ultimately defeats any other claim to His rule. The kingdom is manifested where Christ’s rule is accepted. It is revealed in the remnant through which God has worked and is working. It was Elijah during Jezebel’s reign (I Kng. 19:18), David’s ragamuffin band under Saul (I Sam. 22:1, 2), Daniel and the three Hebrew boys exiled in Babylon(Dan. 3:12), Jesus and His disciples (Lk. 6:12ff.), and small, often hidden, pockets of faithful today in what we call the church.
The kingdom of God is not equated with the church, nor is the expansion of the church equated with the building of the kingdom. The church is not the custodian or possessor of the kingdom. The kingdomof Godis not contained by the church but presses it beyond its frontiers (Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 22). “The meaning of the church does not reside in what it is but in what it is moving towards. It is the reign of God which the church hopes for, bears witness to and proclaims (Hans Kung, The Church, 96). The mission of the church is not the globalization of the church or the extension of a denomination’s programs. These agendas are submitted to the mission of the kingdom, which is to return humanity from exile and to fill the earth with the glory of the Triune God (Is. 6:3).
The Kingdom is not simply God’s own activity but His activity worked out through His people. Therefore, “we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom” as God’s gift and God’s initiative (Heb. 12:28), but we are also “seeking first the kingdomof Godand His justice/righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). Seeking entails surrendering our allegiance to the King and to His justice. In our surrender, God doesn’t make us His subjects, but active participants in His kingdom. God calls us co-heirs with Christ (Rm. 8:17), destines us to reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12), and sets us on thrones in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). The church is made a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6; I Pet. 2:9). Through participation, we co-labor with the King in establishing His kingdom.
In service of God’s reign, the church “is the supreme manifestation of the kingdom in any generation” (Dewi Hughes, God of the Poor, 76). But the church only serves the kingdom when she serves and identifies with the recipients of the kingdom, that is to say, with the poor. The people of God drop their nets, leave all, and follow Jesus in declaring the kingdom of God to the poor. It is only to the church of the poor that the King will say to her: “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:31ff.)
We do not, however, need to wait until the Last Judgment to know where we stand in the kingdom, for Christians are socialized into the culture of God’s reign. Dr. Samuel Kamaleson has taught us that in the kingdomof God, culture means values. He describes five non-values of the kingdom: pride (enthroning the self), prestige (elevating status), parochialism (finding corporate identity through exclusion), possessions (consumerism and prizing things more than persons), and passion of the flesh (gratification of oneself at the cost of another). This does not mean that the kingdomof Godis a moral code (Rom. 14:17), or that these are private values chosen by individual whim (Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season, 196).7 The values of the kingdom follow the historical life of Jesus, reflect His purposes, and clash with all opposing values. “The coming of the kingdom stands in combative relation to the anti-kingdom. They are not merely mutually exclusive, but fight against one another” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 126).
On the cross, Jesus confronts, challenges and triumphs over all contesting powers. On the cross Jesus disarms and unmasks the powers and principalities (Col. 2:14-15).8 That means that thekingdom ofGod confronts political, economic and religious powers.
The kingdomof Godis political.9 Throughout history the church used the “kingdom of God” to justify its political power and reign. More recently, the church has aligned with political ideologies to bring its version of the kingdom of God.”10 But this sinful misuse should not justify the church’s retreat from the political sphere. Though modernity tells us to keep ‘religion’ private and to not meddle in public affairs, Scripture tells us that Christ is Lord and will put everything under His rule. When the early church said that Jesus was Lord, they said literally that Jesus is Caesar, which was a defiant affront to the imperial cult and which resulted in persecution and martyrdom (Acts 17:7). That is why Paul said, “No one can say that Jesus is Caesar but by the Spirit of God” (I Cor 12:3). It is only by the Spirit that the church can courageously challenge political powers and call them to accountability before the cross of Christ. The people of the Crucified God offer their ultimate allegiance to Christ’s rule, meaning that they represent a subversive force to any other claim to power.
Likewise, the kingdom of God contests economic powers: the god of Mammon. In Revelation, John describes the economy of Babylon(18:9-13). At the top of Babylon’s system of values is gold; at the bottom is humanity. The kingdoms of the world are built on the backs of the downtrodden; their wealth is financed by the souls of mankind. In the economy of the kingdom of God, humanity is on top and gold on the bottom. In the New Creation, the streets are paved with gold. That is to say that gold equals dirt and asphalt and takes its proper place under humanity’s feet (21:21). Though it is dangerous and risky, the church must call worldly economic powers to submit to the lordship of Christ.
The kingdom of God also calls religious powers to account.11 Religions challenge God’s reign by claiming exclusive access to God, by holding the “keys of knowledge” about God, and by controlling forgiveness. Religious power is used to subjugate people to their control (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 83). Jesus condemned the Pharisees and priests for “tying up heavy loads and laying them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Mt. 23:4-25). The church must denounce any religious justification for the use of power and resist the temptation to employ religious power.
Amidst sin, death, exile and distance from God, we see signs of the defeat of humanity’s enemies, the glorious presence of God, and just fellowship. The kingdom of the Triune God is breaking in. It is like a treasure buried in a field (Mt. 13:19): in a field of inhumanity, a woman, dying in her own blood and excrement on the train station floor, is embraced and held. It is like leaven (13:33): a multi-colored dragonfly dances over the open sewers leading to a slum. It is of a child (19:14): dozens of smiling children, forgetting their malnutrition and nakedness, skirt around, grab fingers or pant-legs and lead us forward. It is the welcome of the prostitutes (21:31): in the dark, worn brothel rooms, door after door opens, not to service usual clients, but to receive God’s radiating, pure love and other options for life. It is the pearl of great price (13:46): moving from the wealthy American suburbs to a hidden third-world slum to share in sufferings, to discover beatitude blessing and to live out the gospel among the poor. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (13:31): though the world is broken, impoverished and in despair, an insignificant seed of hope and compassion falls to the ground; slowly and secretly it forces its way deep through the soil and grows up into the greatest of trees in which all will find life.
1. See popular works like Experiencing Godby Henry T. Blackaby and The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey as well as the Lausanne papers.
2. ‘Kingdom of God’ is synonymous with the Matthean ‘kingdom of heaven’. In this article, I also use the synonyms ‘reign of God’ and ‘rule of God’. See N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, 203.
3. Shekinah, rooted in the word ‘tabernacle’, is the descent and indwelling of God’s presence in space and time at a particular place and era in history (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 47; Gustavo Gutierrez, The God of Life, 75).
4. In this section, I am following N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) and Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG).
5. The dispersed Jews living outside Israel.
6. The theological ‘ultimate’ is the kingdom of God, and the ‘primacy’ is the liberation of the poor. This does not reduce the whole of the kingdom of God to the liberation of the poor, rather it sees the whole of the kingdom of God from the point of view of the poor (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 122).
7. See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
8. “It is not that structures can sin…but structures demonstrate and actualize the power of sin and, in this sense, make people sin and make it supremely difficult for them to lead the lives that belong to them as children of God” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 123). See also Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers.
9. See John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.
10. The church in the USA has often aligned itself with conservative political parties and lobbies and has recently lent itself to the rise of religious nationalism. For a concise description of the church’s workings with American politics and its link to dispensationalists, see Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
11. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann speaks of the “royal consciousness” that exploited the poor by the “economics of affluence” (I Kngs. 4:20-23), the “politics of oppression” (I Kngs. 5:13-18, 9:15-22), and the “religion of immanence (I Kngs. 8:12-13).
A few months ago, I spoke at the Steeple Church in Dundee, Scotland. I spoke on Becoming a Church that Sees: http://sermons.thesteeplechurch.org.uk/index.php?option=com_sermonspeaker&task=singlesermon&id=10159&Itemid=15
I accidentally called Ishmael a “donkey-man.” Oops.