Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian. In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God. It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’). The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:
- God is the king of the kingdom
- The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
- To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God
In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible. This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians. It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later. First we will briefly analyse these three implications.
1. God is the king of the kingdom
The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam). The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’. To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal. All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.
2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God. There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age. The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign. This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later. There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience. The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’. I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…
Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible). The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith. The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe. Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’. Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical. Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically. God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it. The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms. As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.” The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.
3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God
Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom. We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.
The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’
Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think. Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself. I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’. What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise. This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties! The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.
God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us. It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church. Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation. In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live. Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.
As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)
As I mentioned last year, Lent is my favourite season. (See last year’s post for a brief explanation of the modern Lenten fast.) The physical act of preparing oneself for the Resurrection (Easter) is an especially effective reminder of the physicality of the kingdom of God. Over the past year I have experienced more fully the way that God is committed to expanding his kingdom in this world and in my own life.
There remains a tension as the Church uses Lent to prepare for Easter and to trust that God provides for his creatures. In the midst of his Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus states,
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
In this passage we see what looks like a guarantee that God will provide for the needs of his creatures. But in this world of famine and starvation, both by the ‘birds of the air’ and our fellow humans throughout the world (especially in developing countries), how can we believe such a guarantee?
From a broader perspective, in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount Christ is attempting to convince his disciples not to worry and to instead trust God. While the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount is very elaborate, complex and disorienting, I believe its thematic thrust generally revolves around how the Church is to live in the kingdom of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests in The Cost of Discipleship that in the end the “disciple of Jesus will be asked ‘Lacked ye anything?’, and he will answer ‘Nothing, Lord’. How could he when he knows that despite hunger and nakedness, persecution and danger, the Lord is always by His side?” While I believe Bonhoeffer has touched on a profound concept sewn into the very fabric of Christian discipleship, the more universal issue of unmet human need faces our discussion of this issue. Among others, R. T. France argues that such philosophical questions regarding starvation are not the subject of the Sermon on the Mount and while I agree that discipleship is in fact the focal point of this sermon, I also believe that the issue of universal need can and must be addressed in the context of Christian discipleship.
Perhaps this is where we can to be in our thought process:
- Christ is not lying concerning the disciples’ necessary abstinence from anxieties concerning what we eat or what we wear.
- There is a real problem in this world – only a chapter earlier we read the Beatitudes, where Christ is explicitly acknowledging human suffering in his mention of the “poor in spirit”, “those who mourn” and “those who are persecuted”. Even in Matthew 8, Jesus refers birds as having nests, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (20).
- Throughout his ministry Christ presents a real solution to the real problem.
What is this ‘real solution’? While this is not the focal point of this particular section of Scripture, the Gospel of the kingdom of God necessitates a hope, an earnest expectation that God provides. This beautiful hope causes us trouble because oftentimes the Church is sitting back, waiting for God to provide. The fundamental issue is that the Church has forgotten who it is. The Church does not realise the implications of being the Body and Bride of Christ. Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom of God and established the Church in order to be used by the Holy Spirit to continually demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of God. In this way, the Church is invited (and called) to be an active member in establishing and maintaining this kingdom. In such a way, the Church has the responsibility to invite all people to the feast that is the kingdom of God. We as the Church are called to meet these certain needs and in such a way we will be causing this world not to worry, but to trust in the abundant grace and provision of God.
As we enter into this Lenten season, let us be mindful of the ways in which the present kingdom gives us hope and drive for the values that bring redemption into this world. Let us not only trust God to provide for our needs as the Church, but extend grace in an active way that gives us a trust that God is providing for his creation continually through the climactic event that is the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. God has invited us to participate in his justice!
May we be encouraged during Lent to take time to reflect on the magnitude of the Gospel and in that the great provision of God for all of his creation.
Hanging as a vine upon the Wood,
O Christ our Saviour,
Thou hast made the ends of the earth
to drink from the wine of incorruption.
Therefore do I cry aloud:
I am darkened always by the hateful drunkenness of sin;
Give me to drink from the sweet wine of true compunction,
and grant me now the strength, O Saviour,
to fast from sensual pleasures,
for Thou art good and lovest mankind.
St. Joseph the Studite, Lenten Triodion
My favourite time of the year is here! Some look forward to the Christmas season, and while I admire the cooler weather, shorter days, and magnificent prospect of the Incarnation, it is the Anastasis—the Resurrection—and everything building up to it that I find most compelling.
As an Ecumenical Christian I am often asked (by others and myself), “What makes an Ecumenical Christian such?” I am excited to spend the rest of my life exploring this question, and one way that I can do that is by looking at the ways that the Church has historically rehearsed the Gospel, and one way to explore that rehearsal is through adherence to the liturgical year. Lent is upon us (when it began is dependent on whether or not you adhere to Western or Byzantine Lenten practice), a time in which Christians are challenged to participate in a communal fast. The whole concept of Lent, as you may know, is rooted in the narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus is baptized by John and is taken into the wilderness to be tempted, fasting for forty days and forty nights (3.13-4.2).
The severity and imposition of such fasts has changed dramatically throughout Church history. In 1966 Pope Paul IV issued the Apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, granting more freedom with regard to fasting based upon various economic situations. Paenitemini also orders that the abstinence that takes place during Lent ought to be substituted with “external acts of penitence” (Paenitemini, Chapter III). I find Paenitemini to be a very authoritative and valuable assessment of fasts, and so in my exercise of the Lenten fast I have made it my aim to first abstain with the trust that God will provide for my needs both physically and spiritually, and exercising discipline by the power of the Holy Spirit of God to give up some things and take up activities with the goal of very intentionally experiencing life in relationship with God. I believe that there are great benefits as one experiences life relating to God in the community of the Church, and essentially Lent is a great time to adhere to the Church calendar while practicing spiritual discipline (such as abstinence from food, communicating with God through prayer, spending time in solitude to meditate on the Gospel and God’s character, etc.).
I encourage you to take the time today, Ash Wednesday, to confess your sins before God and experience the great grace of the Gospel, one that invites us to participate in the mission of God—a mission fixed on recreating our hearts and minds as well as the hearts and minds of our neighbors—all for God’s glory. And maybe spend the next month-and-a-half abstaining from something you enjoy, replacing it with a focused practise to know God more intimately.
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian