Updated: Jun 24, 2022
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 15th of Fifth Month, 2022
Speaker: Donne Hayden
Scripture: Luke 17:20-21
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Yesterday my younger grandson, Silas, who is on the autism spectrum,1 turned twelve years old. As an infant in his crib, Silas lined up his toys in ranks according to size. For his second birthday, I gave him a set of wooden blocks, sure that he'd really enjoy stacking them. But at two, he had limited experience opening presents, so first, he was distracted by the glittery bows on the package. And then by the wrapping paper. And then by the box. Finally, we got the box open so he could get to the true gift. But the blocks were wrapped tightly in plastic to hold them together, so he was distracted again and went back to the box and paper and bows while I took off the plastic wrapper. When the blocks were released, he didn't know what they were for. Indeed, compared to all that came before them, they were pretty dull. Only after I showed him how to stack them did he become interested. He stacked up a few piles and grinned at me. Then he lined them up in ranks as he did with all his other toys.
This strikes me as an apt metaphor for Christianity, and how it has approached the true gift of the Gospel, i.e., the Good News about the Kingdom of God.
For more than two thousand years, that true gift has been covered with distraction—beautiful distractions, perhaps—lovely ceremonies, rituals, words; it’s been buried in thousands of interpretations and re-interpretations, and even when discovered, the true gift so mystifies us that most of us go back to doing things the way we’ve always done.
I eventually discovered the true gift of the Gospel in a place I managed to avoid until I was in my 50s and at seminary: the Book of Revelation. It happened in Lonnie Valentine’s class, “The Bible, Violence and Non-Violence.” The text we used, in conjunction with reading the Book of Revelation, was Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther. These authors “unwrapped” the Book of Revelation in ways that led me to discover, hidden in two millennia’s worth of glittering distraction, the true gift of Christ’s teachings: “The Kingdom of God is here, now, within you.”
Until I took the class, I hadn’t really thought much about the “kingdom of God,” assuming it referred to traditional ideas of Heaven I heard as a child in the Southern Baptist church or something to do with the end of the world. For the writer of Revelation, however, “kingdom” and “empire” are central images, and Unveiling Empire gave me an entirely new way of thinking about the “Kingdom of God.” Most influential for my personal reading of New Testament texts is the authors’ discussion of the “‘bifurcation’ of thought,” specifically time and space, that was “common two thousand years ago in the Near East.”2 For instance, whereas Western Civilization is future-oriented, the ancient Near East was present-oriented, and in a present-oriented worldview, goals and objectives are located in the present, not in the future. 3 Thus, “The Kingdom of God is at hand” i.e., the Kingdom of God is here, now” means just that.
Those who lived in the 1st-century Near East could also hold in mind two distinct realities and perceive them as existing at the same time. In the world “on earth,” the Roman Empire was regarded as “a paragon of power and order” (though in the language of Revelation, “the Roman Empire was a Beast bent on bloodshed and a Whore set on seduction”). “Heaven,” the Empire of God, according to Jesus and his early followers, was wherever Love rules, where the poor are valued as highly as the rich, where the “least of these” is loved as dearly as those with earthly prestige and status, where all are accepted, the sun and rain falling equally on saints and sinners alike, and where compassion is the coin of the realm. Both empires—the empire of Rome and the empire of God—exist simultaneously, in the same place, enmeshed in and overlapping each other.
The following sentence from Unveiling Empire changed forever how I understand the message and thus the true gift of Christianity: “. . . wherever the lies and injustices of imperial Rome are given currency—there is earth. Wherever the truth of God is believed and practiced—there is heaven.” Suddenly I understood. People who emphasize the things of this world live in this world. People who emphasize the things of God live in the Kingdom of God, which is here, now, interwoven with our current form of empire. We may live in the same house with someone but live in different “kingdoms.” The kingdom of the world is mainstream culture, whereas the Kingdom of God exists in individual spiritual experience and in the way we treat others.
The world’s kingdom is loud, clamorous, and competitive. Wealth, power, material goods, vanity, and pleasure—these are manifestations of life in the world’s kingdom. Think of our entertainment—movies & games that stress grandiosity, sensationalism, violence, destruction and novelty. Think of our insistence on information—not wisdom, just information, which we often use to advance ourselves and/or hurt others. Think of our culture’s focus on consumption—Once we have a house full of stuff, a garage over-flowing with extra stuff we can’t bring ourselves to part with, a refrigerator and freezer and cupboards crammed with food we frequently eat alone, we never seem to have enough.
In contrast, the kingdom of God is found in simplicity, in nature, in silence, in quiet actions, in small things we do out of love, unconsciously, without motive or expectation of reward. Smiles of acceptance, encouragement or welcome, spontaneous sharing of space or food, lives dedicated to service, lives risked for others, any kindness, and all compassion. Whatever originates in love manifests the Kingdom of God. “Love is the first motion.”
Theologians have a word for the belief that the Kingdom of God is already here on earth: “realized eschatology– realized meaning it has already happened, and eschatology referring to the end times. According to the Oxford Companion to the Bible, a realized eschatology “holds that Jesus understood the kingdom of God to have arrived with himself.” I might quibble with this wording as it seems clear Jesus knew the Kingdom of God existed before he arrived on the planet. Consider Luke 17:20: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say Look, here it is! or There it is! For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you’” (or “within you”).
The earliest Quakers had a realized eschatology; that is, like “primitive Christianity,” they understood the Kingdom of God not as future development but as imminent reality. George Fox asserted that Christ had come to teach the people himself and that the Kingdom of God is accessed through living as Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount and through listening to the guidance of the “Inner Christ.” As George Fox phrased it, “I saw what was cast out from God and what entered into His kingdom, how by Jesus—the door’s opener by His heavenly key—entrance was given.” In other words, Jesus brought to humanity instructions for how to “enter” the Kingdom of God, instructions available to all who follow the Inner Christ or Inner Teacher, whether or not they ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth. In describing a meeting for worship, Fox said, “We do earnestly desire and wait, that, by the Word of God’s power, and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord and of his Christ.”
A few years ago, I discovered Gerard Guiton’s extensively researched book, The Early Quakers and 'the Kingdom of God' which I highly recommend. Guiton writes in his Preface that he was “astonished to find” that the “early Friends’ understanding of the Kingdom had been largely neglected by Quaker scholars.” According to Guiton, about 90% of Quaker writings between 1652 and 1690 “frequently and determinedly referred to the Kingdom” as taught by Jesus. Guiton asserts that “without Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom—it was the focus of his life’s work—a Quaker movement would not have arisen.”4
Perhaps the most poetic expression of Friends’ understanding of the Kingdom of God occurs in this often-quoted description from Francis Howgill (1618-1669):
"The Lord of Heaven and Earth we found to be near at hand; and as we waited upon him in pure silence, our Minds out of all things, his Dreadful Power . . . appeared in our Assemblies, when there was no Language, Tongue nor Speech from any Creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a Net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. . . . we often said one unto another, with great joy of Heart, 'What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men?'"5
Another Quaker eloquent on the imminence of Kingdom of God was the great reformer and abolitionist, Lucretia Mott. In an address to the Anti-Sabbath Convention of 1848, Mott said of the Kingdom of God:
“We wait for no imagined millennium—no speculation or arithmetical calculation—no Bible research—to ascertain when this shall be. It only needs that people examine for themselves—not pin their faith on ministers’ sleeves, but do their own thinking, obey the truth, and be made free.”
Twenty years later, in an address to the Free Religious Association, Mott said,
The kingdom of God is always nigh at hand. It was nigh at hand when Jesus declared it eighteen hundred years ago, and it has been entered many and many a time since then. I believe that it is very near us; that it is with us—although some here have an idea that we are not to look for the entrance until after death.
Jesus taught his disciples a prayer many of us can recite from memory, which begins in the King James translation with the salutation: “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” The first sentence of the prayer is “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” If Jesus intended this prayer to be in relation to the Kingdom of God, the words used to translate it might be different from the ones we’re accustomed to which seem directed toward life in the earthly empire. I consulted an interlinear translation from the Greek, and below is my paraphrase, not as poetic as the KJV, but aimed more toward living here and now in the Kingdom of God.
Our father who dwells in all creation, whose very name is venerable,
May your Rule of Love appear, and what you choose, arise among us in this world as it exists with you.
Provide us with what we need to survive each day.
Put aside the ways we offend you, to the degree that we put aside offenses others commit against us.6
Do not test us through difficulty but rescue us from peril.
For your Love is powerful and blessed through all eternity.
May it be fulfilled.
1 The sub-category “Asperger's Syndrome” fits him perfectly though that term is no longer used.
2 Stelan, John G. Review, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther. http://www.atbr.atf.org.au/atbr/images/review_unveiling_empire.pdf
3 The world is very different in a present-oriented society, as I discovered in my first teaching job on the edge of the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo language has no word for “tomorrow” and no future tense for verbs. Asking a Navajo student to turn in an assignment next week made as much sense in his language as having no word for “tomorrow” does in our language.
4 Guiton, Gerard, The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Inner Light Books, San Francisco, 2012, p. 4.
5 Douglas Gwyn, Seekers Found, page 233.
6 We usually end the prayer with “And lead us not into temptation / But deliver us from evil.” (Mat 6:13 RSV) and omit dealing with the two verses that follow (Mat 6:14-15) regarding judgment of others and “forgiving” or putting aside their mistakes: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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