The Kingdom

In this series of sermons we are going to be thinking about the major themes of the Advent season. Advent prepares us to embrace the full meaning of the birth of Jesus, not just as a sentimental tale, but as the truth that God Himself has drawn very close to humanity and acted decisively in a final way. It is with these ultimate themes that we shall be concerned in this Advent series.

So first we look at the Kingdom. What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God (or Heaven as the Gospel of Matthew uses)? It is beyond all doubt that the Kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and that what he taught about it and how he himself lived it led people to identify him with the Kingdom he proclaimed. He became its reality and presence.

But just what is the Kingdom of God? Some questions reveal the range of understanding within the Christian tradition:-

  • Is the Kingdom a present reality or a future hope?
  • Does it belong to this world as a Christian Utopia, or is it a heavenly Kingdom for the next world only?
  • Is it something we can work for or only wait for?
  • Is it the imposition of divine rule, a divine totalitarianism, or the living goodness of God shared with humanity?

These tensions in the interpretation of the meaning of the Kingdom are reflected in the history of the church and in its willingness (or not) to understand Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom as a call to engagement with (or disengagement from) the world. For instance, some parts of the church have emphasised the church’s task of working for the establishment of the Kingdom in this world as an ideal society characterised by equality, justice and truth. The Kingdom is used as a critical tool by which to evaluate present structures and to challenge them, whilst holding out the vision of a new order of justice to be worked towards. Other reject this interpretation and see the Kingdom of God in more individualistic terms as primarily a personal hope, particularly of heaven.

What then about the teachings of Jesus? Do they help us answer the questions above? It has to be made clear at the beginning that Jesus did not offer any definition of the Kingdom or of God’s reign. His concern was not to clarify a concept nor to tidy up religious thinking but to declare the Kingdom of God as a present reality, to demonstrate it and to incorporate those who would into its life and freedoms. He did this by his actions in healing people, by associating with those on the fringes of society and respectability, and by his own suffering. He did it by his teaching, using a rich profusion of metaphors and comparisons to bring the Kingdom of God closer to people in a way no mere definition could. What was radical and original about his teaching and actions was his message that the Kingdom of God is here, is now. Israel had long held onto the hope that the day would come when God’s truth, mercy, justice and peace would be established, supreme and sovereign. The Gospels echo with Jesus’ proclamation that this hope is now fulfilled:-

  • "That day is here."
  • "Today in your hearing this text has come true."
  • "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see and did not see it."

This message is so closely tied in with Jesus’ own identity, presence and authority that the first disciples came to see Jesus and the Kingdom as inseparable. As one theologian has put it recently,

Jesus is simply the Kingdom of God in person. Jesus brings the Kingdom of God to us human beings in his own unique way and guides us into the breadth and beauty of the Kingdom. To see the Kingdom, look at Jesus and enter in to the things that happened in his presence and that still happen today in his Spirit.

Jesus did not define the Kingdom but made it present. As we go back again and again to the gospels and read the stories and hear the parables we see the Kingdom taking shape, we see its character and its power to transform and liberate. This is what happens when God draws near and people accept and receive Him. Look at the people Jesus mixed with, ate with, touched and allowed to touch him. We begin to see and feel what it is to be in God’s Kingdom, to share in God’s life. There is a turning upside down of expectations and values and judgements. We see that the reign of God is inclusive, liberating and reconciling. The lost are rescued, the estranged embraced, the hungry are fed, the feasts are thrown open to the poor, the marginalised occupy the palaces, the sick and disabled are no longer excluded or disadvantaged, and people experience the companionship of God in the person of Jesus. And we experience God’s Kingdom when we are involved in something like this. The Kingdom of God is the energy of God’s love breaking open our exclusivity. Whenever we see that happening be sure that the Kingdom of God has drawn near.

Yet this also brings with it a challenge. It is dsturbing and faces us with hard choices. There must be a letting go of all holding onto power and all that binds us in to exclusiveness and into the scramble for privilege. How hard it is for those rich in this world’s privileges to experience the Kingdom of God. So Jesus points us, to help us, towards the poor and the children as those who most naturally experience and receive God’s life, His Kingdom.

So how does this help us with their questions I posed at the beginning ? Let us draw some conclusions about each of them.

  • The Kingdom is a present experience wherever the energy of God’s love and truth break through the harness and oppressiveness of human structures and sin. The companionship of God is not just a future hope but present experience. But it is also like a mustard seed. We await its full growth and flowering when the springtime of God’s Kingdom becomes its summer and God’s light fills everything. Experience and hope belong together and strengthen each other.
  • The Kingdom is about this world and its transformation. This involves challenge and judgement about the way things are in this world. But of itself it is not a political programme capable of being institutionalised.
  • The Kingdom is something we are caught up with and invited to share, to live and to bear witness to. This means we are not just waiting for the fulfilment of the Kingdom, but praying Thy Kingdom come not only in word but by our actions. We are commissioned by Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and that must take us into the political realm. But the Kingdom is a gift from God not a human achievement. It is to be received and celebrated as we are doing when we celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Finally the Kingdom is not a form of divine dominance but the transforming life of God and His presence. The Kingdom of God is the energy of God and Jesus is the Kingdom of God in person.

Leslie Morley, Rector
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997