I welcomed the chance recently to dig around and ask the question “what (actually) is the Kingdom of God?” If you had to answer a quiz about it, what would you say? Here are five things.
It’s wrapped up with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and him sending the Holy Spirit. His death fixed things up between us and God. His resurrection was the first drop of new wine into the old wineskins of the world, and it broke a tomb. His Ascension was his coronation. Sending the Spirit to revolutionize human lives was his first act in office.
It’s now and not yet. It’s breaking in among but this is just the first installment. The rest is yet to come. So we enjoy peace now which is an appetizer for the peace that will break over the whole world at the end the age.
It’s internal and external. It’s about transformed hearts and revolutionizing society. It weaves together the quietist and the activist strands of the Christian faith.
It grows. Like a mustard seed or yeast, tiny but resolute, it can be poisoned, stamped out, wiped out, set back, but it keeps coming.
It comes in and through weakness. Hence the Beatitudes: ‘Happy are you who are spiritually bankrupt.’
A biologist friend of mine, a Christian, was telling me that what he saw through his microscope was … well … a bit ramshackle. It was a challenge, he said, to the idea of a Creator.
You would think a Creator would do something altogether more slick and wonderful. And of course, many biologists peer down their microscopes and do see shades of the beautiful and even the elegant. Perhaps biology is both wonderful … and a bit Heath-Robinson.
My friend and I were talking in our local Anglican church. And when I think of the words “bodged together” and “still a bit wonderful” the words “Church of England” follow quite naturally. The C of E did not spring, intricate, interlocking, gently humming with purpose, from its Maker’s hand, like an expensive watch. Nor, it appears, did Life.
We serve the God of cuckoo clocks.
Here’s my comic novel Paradise, which takes the themes of “redemption” and “ramshackle” to new heights, or possibly, depths. Free on Kindle as a gateway drug to the next ones in the series.
The case for being on the back row, third from the left
‘Though famous speakers and evangelists today can reach thousands of people with one telecast, discipleship is done one relationship at a time by those we will never read about. Their legacy is seen in the lives of those they touched. Perhaps I will never find the spotlight. But my value to the kingdom of God is not determined by my ability to attract or hold the spotlight. Instead, it is determined by my willingness to listen, learn, and be used by Jesus, whenever and however he desires.’
(Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship after Epic Failure
By Daniel Hochhalter)
I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Cowpland for (reading this book and) digging out this quote.
Just read a lovely blog post by cartoonist Jessica Abel that adds a healthy corrective to the business of not-dying-with-your music-still-inside you.
Don’t get too hung up on the idea is possibly the take-home. Or maybe, don’t make an idol out of it.
It is wonderful, and energizing, and satisfying, to launch out to do the thing you’ve always really wanted to do. But, she counsels wisely:
allow yourself some wiggle-room: You need not feel trapped by whatever you think you “must” be doing creatively. Maybe you want to be a musician. That can play out in dozens of ways. Some more likely to pay the bills than others.
Vocation doesn’t have to be epic or worldchanging: look for what you can do that’s useful, that gives you pleasure, and do more of that.
It’s kind of basic to being a Christian. We want to know God’s will and follow it. You can’t call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ and then go off and ignore what he says. We have to pursue obedience.
But for me the Christian life only works when we pursue joy as well.
My experience is that we try to do things faithfully and obediently but without joy we can manage to a certain extent—and we have to, because we all have to do stuff we don’t particularly like doing.
But if that’s all we do, and we do it for a long time, we start to run out of steam, get cynical, feel trapped. We may not know how it happened—we never wanted it to happen—but we know it has happened or is currently now happening. Externally we can look fine but internally, we know things are not so good.
(Of course the other side is true too. If we merely pursue pleasure and happiness, that too becomes rather empty.)
A kind of repentance
Somehow—it seems to me—the fruitful place is when we are under the influence of both faithfulness and joy. We obey Christ. But we lean towards, move into, preferentially choose, those tasks and roles that seem to answer a deep longing in our hearts, those things that nourish us, those things we love. ‘I have food’ said Jesus to the disciples, ‘of which you know nothing.’ He found joy and nourishment in his obedience.
Choosing joy as well is obedience is a kind of repentance. Why? Because it is turning away from a focus on jobs to be done and gaps to be filled and turning back to Christ himself. It is realizing, again, we have an audience of just One, and everything we do we do for him. It is seeking to have him re-create us again, a bit more in his image. It’s admitting our need and helplessness, not looking to him for a medal.
In a single month a while ago I made four visits and had four snapshots of quiet revolution.
A tour round Jimmy’s Nightshelter in central Cambridge
Taking some furniture to be recycled at the Emmaus community north of Cambridge
Buying some fairly traded food at the Daily Bread Cooperative in the North of Cambridge
Popping in to see the manager of our own St Martin’s Centre for the elderly.
Each place exuded peace and a kind of a quiet well-ordered-ness. Each place runs through the hands of many volunteers and a number of full-time staff who are not paid well. Each fights almost daily battles with bureaucracy and politics that threaten to capsize the whole ship. Yet each provides a vital service to a large part of a city.
Each is an expression of Christian faith that is unsung, long-term, wholly appropriate for the 21st century.
Then I read this quote — more appropriate to regions outside Europe, but still relevant.
‘Alongside the political, economic, social and technological revolutions … which have commanded enormous media attention and coverage … there has been this far less trumpeted, but equally important revolution in the status and standing of worldwide Christianity. Few have taken on board what is happening.’ (Kenneth Hylsom-Smith To the ends of the earth ISBN 978 1 842 274 750)
To make the maximum impact for good with your life:
keeping doing the simple things that you love and are good at.
It might be called the ‘horse chestnut principle’. If a conker can avoid being stolen by squirrels or collected by children, it can become a horse chestnut tree, huge and lovely.
Here’s an open letter, from a much-loved Sri Lankan Christian leader Ajith Fernando, to elderly theologian J I Packer. It’s a testimonial to Packer’s long lifetime, to Ajith Fernando’s consistent service, and to the compounding power of faithfulness.
As has been often observed, the old paradigm in the West is Christendom, and it’s disintegrating.
We now need to rethink this new day. But we have help.
The prophet Jeremiah also saw two paradigms in his own lifetime. He saw the idea of God’s-people-as-a-country, with its surface-mounted devotion, corrupt and hollow, collapse — the end of one paradigm.
At the same time he called on Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
This was astonishing. God’s people are no longer a nation, Jeremiah was saying. They were to be more like a network. In his way, Jeremiah was as radical as Moses, radical enough to see what of Moses to scrap.
No more separation from the non-Jewish people around you, Jeremiah told the people of God: get stuck in. Keep your faith, but build a good city along with them.
No more Promised Land: now the God of the Promise, present with God’s people in every land.
No longer propping up an abandoned structure: now they were starting a new build. No longer a national focus: now a global one.
This echoes down into the New Testament, and is our call now.
The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.
In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.
It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.
An inconvenient grace
This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:
Fewer people have a Christian outlook
God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.
The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.
What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?
It’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come. It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.
This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.
That’s the loss.
The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.