Imagining the Reign of God

In today’s jargon, Jesus of Nazareth was a political radical. That can be a controversial idea or even taboo in some Christian circles today, but it’s not just a cheap line. It might be the reason that the fourth gospel, John, goes to some lengths to explain exactly why the Roman governor Pilate finds Jesus innocent of the charge of sedition levelled against him by some of the Judean religious leaders. After all, Jesus and his followers would be neither the first nor the last Judeans who attempted to liberate the province of Judea from Roman occupation by armed rebellion.

In the other canonical gospels, Jesus barely speaks during either of the trials that preceded his judicial murder by the Roman state. But in John, Pilate and Jesus exchange more than light banter. Pilate seems intent on determining if Jesus and his followers were prepared to rebel against Caesar and take arms against Rome. Jesus’s words indicate that he does not teach armed rebellion.

Pilate then went back into his headquarters and summoned Jesus. “So you are the king of the Jews?” he said. Jesus replied, “Is that your own question, or have others suggested it to you?” “Am I a Jew?” said Pilate. “Your own nation and their chief priests have brought you before me. What have you done?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting to save me from the clutches of the Jews. My kingdom belongs elsewhere.” “You are a king, then?” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “ ‘King’ is your word. My task is to bear witness to the truth. For this I was born; for this I came into the world, and all who are not deaf to truth listen to my voice.”
Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ With those words he went out again to the Jews and said, “For my part I find no case against him...”

(John 18:33-38)

And yet Pilate himself acknowledges that “King of the Jews” is a title that has been attributed to Jesus. The gospels record that Jesus himself takes the title of “Lord”, and claims to be the “son” of God. In first century Rome, there was only one king, only one lord, and one divinely appointed leader: Caesar. Jesus proclaims “evangelion”– “good news” - a description usually reserved for tidings of imperial Rome’s military triumphs. And the substance of that “good news”? That the Kingdom of God is coming.

How could this message, and these claims, be anything but ‘political’? No wonder that the fourth gospel, likely written and first circulated around the turn of the second century CE, makes a point of presenting Jesus’s defence against the charge of sedition. Some Roman emperors and local governors throughout this time period were explicitly anti-Christian. Like Jesus their Lord, many Christians were imprisoned and murdered by the state for their faith. The Gospel of John presents a deeply religious, spiritual, philosophical Jesus, perhaps specifically to present another way to view the stark claims of the other Gospel writings: that the preaching of Jesus heralds the coming of a new kingdom.
The phrase “kingdom of God”, and especially “kingdom of heaven” used throughout the Gospel of Matthew, appear in Jewish literature from the Second Temple era (approximately 500 BCE – 70 CE). It described the time of restoration and redemption envisioned by so many of the prophets of the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament). But in the Jewish world of Jesus, that time of restoration had taken on an apocalyptic character that was really only present in the Old Testament in the later chapters of Daniel.

In the book of Daniel, the prophet receives a vision of violent and destructive beasts, each more powerful than the last, representing a succession of implacable empires grinding the world - and the people of God - underfoot.

As I was looking,
thrones were set in place and the Ancient in Years took his seat; his robe was white as snow, his hair like lamb’s wool. His throne was flames of fire and its wheels were blazing fire; a river of fire flowed from his presence. Thousands upon thousands served him and myriads upon myriads were in attendance. The court sat, and the books were opened.

Then because of the bombast the horn was mouthing, I went on watching until the beast was killed; its carcass was destroyed and consigned to the flames. The rest of the beasts, though deprived of their sovereignty, were allowed to remain alive until an appointed time and season. I was still watching in visions of the night and I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him, so that all peoples and nations of every language should serve him; his sovereignty was to be an everlasting sovereignty which was not to pass away, and his kingly power was never to be destroyed.
Daniel 7:9–14 (REB)

Here is the source of Jesus's claim to the title “son of (hu)man(ity)". He identifies with this messianic figure in Daniel 7 whose rule unexpectedly, dramatically, and irreversibly supplants the violent empires of the world. It is this vision of a new kind of ‘kingdom’ that John’s gospel picks up on as it records Jesus saying to Pilate that, “My kingdom belongs elsewhere”. A kingdom ‘not of this sociopolitical order’ (that’s my own gloss on the Greek word “kosmos”) certainly fits the description of what we see in Daniel, Revelation, and other Jewish apocalyptic writings.

Oppressive, autocratic regimes still exist in our modern world, of course. Christians still fear for their lives and die for their faith in some countries in the Middle East, Asia, and even Africa. To them, perhaps, the anti-imperial screed of Revelation and the radical inversions in Jesus’s teachings are more obvious. To those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where we are free to practice and preach? Not so much. How can we empathise with Judeans under the occupation of Rome, Greece, Persia, or Babylon? How can we understand the trauma of Israelites taken captive by Assyria, or enslaved in ancient Egypt? No more than we can comprehend the present daily reality of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Assyrian Christians in Iran, or even Christians in parts of India and China.

What, then, can we say about the “Kingdom of God” when our daily civic and social life is so far removed from the experience of oppression and repression shared by all of the Israelite, Judean, Jewish, and Christian writers of our scriptures? How can we convey the significance of a ‘kingdom’ based on love and justice, rather than military and political dominance? And how can we underscore the radically inclusive message of Jesus, the Judean rabbi who healed Roman military slaves, debated with women in public, elevated children from the bottom of the social hierarchy, and ministered to those of other religions? What can we say that can convey the same message that broke barriers of nationality, ideology, sectarianism, class, gender, age, sex, social status, and imperial power?

When we come to the Lord’s table, the Eucharist remembrance, we often quote the apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 11:26, that “every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.” What exactly are we proclaiming, and how can we describe the “good news” of his coming?
I think that our tendency is usually to focus on the future. We can look around at every terrible thing happening in our own country, and around the world, and long for a time of redemption and justice. Like the passage from Daniel 7, many scriptures describe this future intervention. It is a powerful promise and a potent hope.

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne:
“Now God has his dwelling with humankind! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!”
The One who sat on the throne said, “I am making all things new!”

Revelation 21:1-5a (formatted after NRSV)

But this future hope is only half the story. It raises the question: why should anybody desire to live in this new society? What does the Lord’s table offer that a person should wish to accept? Who wants to live forever?

Consider the vision of the prophet Micah.

In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house will be established higher than all other mountains, towering above other hills. Peoples will stream towards it; many nations will go, saying, “Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God, that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” For instruction issues from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will be judge between many peoples and arbiter among great and distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will never again be trained for war. Each man will sit under his own vine
or his own fig tree, with none to cause alarm. The LORD of Hosts himself has spoken.

(Micah 4:1–8)

The people of the nations do not arbitrarily choose to follow “the word of the LORD from Jerusalem”. They are specifically going “to the house of Jacob’s God”. The people of the nations have seen the life of the people of God and decided that it is a life worth pursuing. When people look to us, and the table that we keep for our Lord, they must see that the life we follow is worth pursuing.

Our world, our societies, are no less polarised and divided than was the ancient world of Jesus, though it may be easier for some to overlook. Over the last few years, even the most oblivious of us can surely not have failed to see the injustices and inequities that have been here all along. But unlike the Roman province of Judea, and unlike some of the countries in which our Christian brothers and sisters live today, we have the freedom to openly reject this sociopolitical order. We can reject its intolerance and inequality, we can defy its social conventions and constructs. In that context, the challenge of Jesus to us is great. We can welcome everybody with the unashamed and unlimited love of God.

The Pharisees asked [Jesus], “When will the kingdom of God come?” He answered, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!”
(Luke 17:20–21)

The meaning of Jesus’s last sentence has been much debated, but probably does not describe a purely personal, individualistic, inner spiritual reality. Jesus - indeed all of scripture - never describes the kingdom of God in this way. The kingdom is a communal hope and a shared reality among the people of God. To convey this sense, French scholar François Bovon provides this translation in his three-volume commentary on Luke: "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is in the space that belongs to you."

What we teach and believe about the reign of God on earth is constituted not in what we say, nor even entirely in what we do in our personal life, but in how we set the Lord's table. Who do we invite? How do we, as a church, treat them and each other? What are we doing in the space that belongs to us? How we bring the promise of God's reign to life now is not only a question of study and teaching, but of interpretation and imagination. To accept the invitation to participate in the life and purpose of God - that is, to share in the spirit of God - is to accept that any other person considering that invitation may look to us. And the one who does so will decide from what they see if the news that we bring is actually "good"; if it is worth hoping for the kingdom, the reign, the redeemed society, of God.

Scripture quotations taken from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.

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