“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26 NRSV)
Here in my next entry on “Basic Christianity” I’m going to tackle what I believe is one of the most, if not THE MOST important concept in the entire Gospel: The Kingdom of God. Jesus spends more time talking about this than pretty much anything else, it is essentially at the core of his message.
But what is it?
I think if you ask many Christians in America you’re going to get an answer about “heaven.” You know, that place with the pearly gates where people who prayed the sinner’s prayer go when they die. It’s the paradise you get to go to when you play your “get out of Hell free” card. You’ll probably get some folks talking about Jesus establishing his kingdom on Earth at the second coming, after he smites all those who agreed with the Supreme Court on Marriage Equality with his mighty Mouth-Sword (oh, you folks love to read Revelation literally don’t you?)
Look, I’m not going to pretend to know anything about life after death or any kind of end times gobbledy-gook or eschatology. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not quite what Jesus was talking about with the “Kingdom of God.”
You see, when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God he talked about it being “at hand,” or right here, right now. It was something he had come to kick off, not something that you had to wait to experience until you died. It wasn’t something that he was going to come back later and set up, it was starting right then, and it is here right now.
When Jesus talked about a new Kingdom in his day, there were certain things that the people to whom he spoke were preconditioned to believe, there were certain expectations that they had about what that was going to mean. The common citizens of Judea, being ruled by the Roman Empire, were expecting a powerful political and military leader who would exercise power over the Romans and crush them, returning the land and it’s government to it’s rightful people. Even Jesus’ disciples were not immune to this. Despite several instances where Jesus pretty clearly tells them that he’s not a Military King who is going to kick out the Romans, they continue to believe just that. In fact, when they head off to Jerusalem for that final Passover that would lead to his execution, they thought he was going to Jerusalem to bust heads! They even get into an argument about who is going to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in this new kingdom!
In short, they still, at that late hour, expected something other than what they had been repeatedly told was going to happen. They expected to see their Messiah lifted up on a throne and crowned with gold. What they got was their Messiah lifted up on a cross and crowned with thorns.
God never seems to play by our rules, and he constantly defies our expectations.
Before Jesus was crucified, Pilate quizzed him about what the people (in particular the Pharisees) were saying about him. For if Jesus claimed to be a king, that would put him in direct opposition to the Roman Empire. Jesus answers Pilate by saying that his kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being killed. (John 18: 33-38)
So the Kingdom of God is not of this world, but something else. I think Gregory Boyd explains this well in his book “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” He draws a line between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the World. Both are here, operating right now, but the Kingdom of God operates in a totally different manner than the kingdoms of the world. The kingdoms of the world seek to establish their authority by exercising power over other people. This power over people helps to keep people in line with the values of whichever kingdom of the world you happen to be dwelling in. An example of this “power over” authority is a king on a throne, or a president in a White House, perhaps.
But the Kingdom of God is quite different. The Kingdom of God strives to secure it’s aims not through exercising “power over” people but by exercising “power under” people. Instead of doing their work through legal fiat, the people of the Kingdom of God strive to do their work by getting on the same level, and indeed going below the level of others. They strive to serve. They love God and their neighbor as themselves. The example of the Kingdom of God is not the king on the throne, but the Creator of the stars of night kneeling before dirty fishermen and tax collectors and washing their feet.
Can you see it? Can you grasp what a radical reversal this all is? Again, God fails to play by our rules and meet our expectations. We’re not called to become powerful figures who can use our influence and power over others to enforce the whims of our faith. We’re called to be selfless servants who mirror the attitude of the Serving Savior in our lives for all others to see.
We are called into the law of love. It doesn’t matter who it is. It could be the worst sinner on the planet, but we are called to love them, and to serve them. This begins the manifestation of the Kingdom of God.
But you know what? That’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do until you do two things, as mentioned above from the Gospel of Matthew. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Christ. We have to give up any notions of superiority when we deny ourselves. We realize where we’re really at. We realize that instead of counting the sins of others, we have a great many sins of our own. We realize that we need God’s grace.
That kind of sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s much more fun to pull the speck from our neighbor’s eye than it is to attempt to remove the plank from our own. The prospect of facing our own shortcomings is never enticing. But I have good news! When you do it, when you finally break down, face yourself and your shortcomings head on, stop focusing on others, and just receive Christ’s infinite loving grace…well it’s liberating. As the song says, it really is Amazing Grace.
All the sudden you’re not wallowing in your own prison anymore. You’ve realized that you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re forgiven for them. Then instead of dwelling on things and beating yourself up, you can truly embrace the opportunity for grace and learning when mistakes happen.
And guess what? You don’t feel the need to focus on the “sins” of others either. It’s not about whether they’re following the rules or not, it’s not about whether they offend your sensibilities or not, it’s about LOVE, pure, unconditional LOVE.
The Kingdom of God is here, among us right now, and the good news is we can be a part of it. We don’t have to wait until we die, or until the “end of time.” Every time we selflessly serve, every time we love without condition, every time we emulate the Master in these regards, we manifest the Kingdom of God RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. You never know: that person you served, that person you loved, they just might decide they want to be part of that Kingdom too.
All we have to do is deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ. It’s not easy, but since when is anything worth doing easy?
Thy KINGDOM come,
Thy WILL be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.