“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Reflections on the nature of the Spiritual Journey

Sermon for Michaelmas presented by the Right Reverend Dennis Drainville

In Genesis 28:10-17 we read:

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder stairway or ramp’);”* set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13And the Lord stood beside him stood above it’);” and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed shall bless themselves)* in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ 16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

There is in this passage a great reliance on the concept of PLACE. In Genesis we see that Isaac blesses his son and sends him to find a wife of their own people in the land of Padan-Aram. On the long journey there, Jacob stops to rest for the night and finds that the place where he is, becomes the focal point for an encounter with God. He thought it was merely a stopping place, but it proved to be the place where God chose to meet Jacob. It was also the very land that God was going to give to Jacob and all the successors of Abraham and Isaac.

However, in this case equally important to the promise to bless the descendants of Jacob is the fact that God chose to reveal himself. The place, although it looked ordinary, was a holy place. It became so because a righteous man was in the process of righteous action. He was seeking to fulfill the covenantal promises vows and commitments that had been made by Abraham and Isaac before him. That righteous action oriented his life and faith and led him to encounter the God of his ancestors.

What is most striking is the transformation of Jacob’s spiritual sight before the dream/vision and after, before the encounter with God and after. In a sense his spiritual maturity in following his Father’s advice and traveling back to the land of his family was crucial. Paran-aram was not a brisk walk down the road, it was many weeks journey over rough terrain. His willingness to choose the right road brought him to the right place where he was capable of entering the divine encounter. On waking up he found that the place looked different. But truly, it was Jacob who was changed or altered, not the place.

In Psalm 103:19-22 we read:

13 As a father cares for his children, *

so does the Lord care for those who fear him.

14 For he himself knows whereof we are made; *

he remembers that we are but dust.

15 Our days are like the grass; *

we flourish like a flower of the field;

16 When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *

and its place shall know it no more.

17 But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever

on those who fear him, *

and his righteousness on children’s children;

18 On those who keep his covenant *

and remember his commandments and do them.

19 The Lord has set his throne in heaven, *

and his kingship has dominion over all.

20 Bless the Lord, you angels of his,

you mighty ones who do his bidding, *

and hearken to the voice of his word.

21 Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, *

you ministers of his who do his will.

22 Bless the Lord, all you works of his,

in all places of his dominion; *

bless the Lord, O my soul.

The picture of the Psalmist is of the omnipresence of God who rules and directs the heavens and the earth and all that is therein. In this picture God is everywhere and is in control. We are exhorted to bless the Lord. We like the angels, God’s hosts and ministers and all the created order wherever they exist are to bless the Lord and do his bidding in the world.  By living out God’s commandments and keeping his covenant we are guided to see and experience the fullness of the created order. In fact it is only by living righteous lives that the true nature of the universe reveals itself.

In John 1:43-51 we read:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Jacob did not know that he was on Holy ground until his righteous action brought forth an encounter with God. The psalmist portrays the revelation of how the universe is structured for those who live a righteous life and seek to know God. In John’s Gospel knowing Jesus, the Son of God, means knowing the Father and therefore living in communion with the divine presence. In that relationship or state, we are drawn into the universal experience of seeing the world as it really is. It is as if we put on pair of glasses through which we can see clearly the spiritual dimension of things. You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The question of “what is reality”? or “What do I really know?”, is as fundamental to theology and faith as it is to philosophy and science. The answers may not be precisely the same. But the importance of asking the question is equally vital to both. Since the very mists of time, humans have sought to understand the universe of which they were a part. And the asking of these fundamental questions has led some toward encounters with the divine.

In our own day we still have seekers who yearn to pose the eternal questions and assess the world that they observe and experience. But it takes more than the five senses to plumb the depths of spiritual reality. It takes what I describe as “inner vision”. Inner vision as differentiated from outer vision is necessary for humans in their quest to understand the fullness of reality. The poet William Blake in the late 18th and early 19th centuries captured this capacity to see spiritual reality in the first four lines of his poem “Auguries of Innocence”

 

To see the world in a grain of sand,

And heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour

 

Voir le monde dans un grain de sable,

Et les cieux dans une fleur sauvage,

Tenir l’infini dans la paume de la main,

Et l’eternite dans une heure du temps qui passe…

 

The lessons we have heard tonight, exhort us to choose the spiritual journey or quest. In other words we are challenged: to seek, to ask questions, and to open ourselves in this journey of discovery to the experience of encountering and knowing God. May we be blessed with courage and perseverance as we take up this exciting challenge. AMEN.

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Your Kingdom Come (Part ll)

Christ the King, Judgment and Mission

In the previous address I endeavoured to give a brief overview of the Lucan approach and his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Central to the writer of Luke was Jesus as exemplar of the prophesied Suffering Servant. Important as well was the Lucan analysis of society and Jesus’ mission. In this respect Jesus is seen as both heralding and personally bringing in the Reign of God. This mission of the Christ or Messiah is characterized by a total reversal of the status quo of society. Jesus message is to the poor and marginal not the rich and powerful. The third element or characteristic is the implication that this social reversal is universal in its unfolding and of absolute importance to the life of all peoples.

In this address I will focus on what is, in my opinion, the most important scriptural passage having to do with the Kingdom of God: Matthew 25:31and following. This passage is placed in the Matthaen Gospel just before the beginning of the events of the passion of Jesus. In a sense it is the penultimate point of Jesus’ ministry whereby the writer of Matthew explains the divine plan of salvation and links it to the coming Kingdom of God/Heaven. Leading up to this point the writer of Matthew presents the three elements of Jesus’ mission: the proclamation and bringing in of the eschatological rule of God as a precursor to a reconciled relationship with the Father; the fulfillment of the demands of the Law and the prophets and thereby renewing a righteous relationship between God and humanity; and the establishment of a new community of believers based on eschatological hope whose mission is to evangelize the world.

To a greater or lesser extent all three elements can be seen to find their completion in this pericope of Matthew’s Gospel. To aid us visually, I have asked that Michelangelo’s Painting of the Last Judgment be shown. Let me briefly read an excerpt from the art interpretation provided by the Curators of the Vatican:

“The mighty composition, painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, is centred around the dominant figure of Christ, captured in the moment preceding that when the verdict of the Last Judgment is uttered (Matthew 25:31-46). His calm imperious gesture seems to both command attention and placate the surrounding agitation. It starts a wide slow rotary movement in which all the figures are involved… Next to Christ is the Virgin, who turns her head in a gesture of resignation: in fact she can no longer intervene in the decision, but only await the result of the Judgment. The Saints and the Elect, arranged around Christ and the Virgin, also anxiously await the verdict. Some of them can be easily recognized: St Peter with the two keys, St Laurence with the gridiron, St Bartholomew with his own skin which is usually recognized as being a self-portrait of Michelangelo, St Catherine of Alexandria with the cogwheel and St Sebastian kneeling holding the arrows. In the centre of the lower section are the angels of the Apocalypse who are wakening the dead to the sound of long trumpets. On the left the risen recover their bodies as they ascend towards heaven (Resurrection of the flesh), on the right angels and devils fight over making the damned fall down to hell. Finally, at the bottom Charon with his oars, together with his devils, makes the damned get out of his boat to  lead them before the infernal judge Minos, whose body is wrapped in the coils of a serpent. The reference in this part to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is plain.”[1]

So let us now turn to the passage at hand and enter into the vivid story presented in the Gospel.

Matthew and the Judgment of the Nations

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

The great vision of the judgment of the nations from the Gospel of Matthew both looks to the future, to the eschaton, and to the past. Up to this point the writer of Matthew has portrayed Jesus as the inspired communicator of the coming of God’s reign. In The Gospel of Matthew each step along the way unfolds the story of how the Christ is to help to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God.

In his ministry Jesus taught, healed, prayed and lived out in his relationships the message: that God’s plan of salvation was meant to draw the people of Israel into a closer communion with the God that had called them over the generations. As the story unfolds in Matthew, so does the plan of salvation begin to open up and become a plan that is universal in its application. For example, in 25:32 we see the words “All the nations will be gathered before him,” In the original Greek text we read “panta ta ethne” which essentially means on ALL peoples: both Jews and Gentiles alike.

From one point of view, the parable is very straight forward. We are presented with a final judgement in which there will be an unambiguous separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous are those who have performed ‘deeds of lovingkindness’ according to ancient Jewish standards. They have relieved the sufferings of the unfortunate, and in so doing they have obeyed the divine commandment to Israel, as set out in the books of the Law and the prophets. However, Jesus’ presentation of this standard judgment scenario is given a revolutionary twist. The king (of the parable) says to the righteous: “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, Iwas thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.” ie., the deeds of loving-kindness rendered to the needy have been rendered equally, in the same gesture, as it were, to the one described here as ‘the king’ namely Jesus himself.

Jesus’ parable, points out the lie that stood at the heart of the ritual alms that were given by the rich and powerful of his day. These acts were not at all given in the spirit for which the Law had originally been mandated. The Law in fact had failed to do what it was meant to do, and that is to make society more human and compassionate. What the parable does is turn the social division between superiors and inferiors on its head, by re-framing the way we assess social differences, because we learn that the king is, in fact, on the side of the have-nots. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

The Canadian Theologian John Simons, in a Sermon on the Parable of the Last Judgment  wrote about this spectacular reversal in this way, “It is significant that the one who speaks these words is invested with the status of the king because, in this ancient context, the king is not just the one who legislates and maintains order and executes justice; the king is also the one who dispenses honour, something that lives on in our society with the Queen’s honour list or the Governor-General’s awards. To be recognized by the king is to be given social status. All this being so, the point of Jesus’ identifying himself as king with the needy of history is to say that within the social order that reflects God’s way of valuing his creation, the haves are not more worthy than the have-nots. And the so-called ‘less fortunate’ are not inferior to those who are in a position to help them.[2]

In this radical re-ordering of society then, to do the will of God and align ourselves with the bringing in of God’s reign, means that our focus must be on serving the most vulnerable persons in our society. We know already that this is not how society functions. We know in fact that the world works contrary to both this parable and the Sermon on the Mount. That is why it is such a startling communication. The major point that the writer of Matthew seems to be underscoring here is that this is the basis of judgment. This is the norm by which we know who is doing the will of God and who is engaged in bringing in God’s reign. We will not be judged on how often we attended worship, or whether we gave the full amount of money that we were capable of offering for the work of the church, nor the number of church committees we worked on. Judgment will be rendered on the basis of our humanity and our capacity to serve God by serving our fellow human beings.

Finally, there is another issue that we in the Church today need to reflect on.  It is clear that Jesus repeatedly sought out and entered into relationships with individuals who were outcast in society. Prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, those who were sick, those who were considered ritually unclean and many others, found in Jesus, someone who would listen to their story, respond to their needs and affirm by word and action their own humanity. The challenge for us then is not just what action we are to pursue in responding to the needs of those who are poor or lowly or marginal but what are our own attitudes and pre-dispositions toward such human persons?  Do we seek them out? Do we get to know them in real relationships? Do we make a place for them in our heart and in our own community? Surely the startling reversal presented in the Gospel of Matthew must lead to the creation of a very different Christian Community than the ones of which we are presently a part.

During the 1970’s I had the good fortune to study a new approach to theology called Liberation Theology. Through Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierez and the other Liberation theologians the church was reminded of something quite jarring to the bourgeois Christianity we have inherited and that is that in the biblical perspective, God is biased; he has ‘a preferential option for the poor.’ The phrase gets at the basis of the judgement rendered by the king in this parable. God honours social rejects, the needy, those whose need alienates them from society. They are the brothers and sisters of Christ the king. And if they are the brothers and sisters of Jesus than we ought to be with them in our own communities, living, worshipping and struggling together.

Judgment

This vision of Judgment portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew is startling in its implications for us in contemporary 21st Century society. But before we look at what such judgment might mean for us, we must grapple with the discomfort that we of our age experience with the whole notion of Judgment.

We try very hard in our society not to get too close to anything that resembles judgment. We neither like to receive judgment nor to be seen as rendering judgment unto others. We often hear quoted Jesus exhortation, “judge not that ye be not judged,” even though, generally speaking, the individual quoting is doing so out of context and often as a defensive reaction. Jesus’ words considering judgment in Luke 6:37 were used in the context of explaining the radical love that was being called forth from all humans in their relationships one with another. We are exhorted not just to love our neighbour but indeed to love our enemies as well and to live lives of forgiveness and compassion.

What Jesus was not saying, is that judgment is irrelevant or that it is not a reality. In fact throughout the Gospels we see time and time again Jesus dealing with many aspects of the issue of Judgment. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is but one example.

As regards our discomfort or avoidance of the whole concept of judgment, we use many social strategies to pretend that it is not real. Our school systems often refuse to give children failing grades because we fear the adverse effects on the youthful psyche. We establish “no fault insurance” because we find the adversarial system of the courts too costly. And even when we speak to other Christians, how often have we heard the phrase, “I don’t believe in a God of Judgment”. This last one raises of course many issues which can’t be dealt with within the context of this address, but one wonders whether some people’s vision of God is modeled on a happy face along the lines of the popular emoticons.

So what is it that we fear about judgment? I believe that we live in fear of Judgment because we fear responsibility, accountability and the consequences of our actions and beliefs. We, the human race are by and large a people living in denial. We want to rule ourselves and our world but we don’t want to do it in reference to any other person or power that might inhibit or limit our choices and actions.

But as Matthew so dramatically points out in the 25th Chapter, to reject Judgement means also to reject Justice. In fact the things that we say and do, even if misguided, foolish, hurtful or sinful have effects and often those effects are not in the interests of either the common good or the lives of the poor and needy.

In William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the main character makes an insightful observation about himself, his plan to kill the king and the lot of human kind.  “But in these cases we still have judgment here. That we but teach bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague th’inventor.” In other words his actions are not neutral, they may lead him to the crown, but it is more likely that they will destroy him in the end, and they do.

Mission

So the “reign of God” is central to the Gospel preached by Jesus and therefore must be central to the Church. In the context of bringing about the reign of God the Church becomes both a symbol of the coming reign but also the focus for the ongoing work by which the revelation of its coming becomes manifest in the world.

In the reign of God we see that social boundaries or relationships become altered. They essentially become blurred as those who are traditionally excluded: the poor, the marginalized, the alien, and the sick are acknowledged as being intrinsically worthy and beloved of God. There is inherent in this new community an inclusivity that breaks down the walls of exclusion and social division.

This is more than merely an ideal. It is an unfolding reality founded upon our relationship with Jesus Christ who has become the head of the Church, the cornerstone of the Kingdom and the means through which God’s ultimate act of reconciliation finds its focus. In other words, the Church as it relates to the reign of God has a purpose: to be the vehicle through which we live out our reconciled lives in response to God’s call to preach the Gospel and live in communion with Our Lord Jesus and each other and to acknowledge his intimate presence in our lives.

As the Catholic Theologian Gregory Baum said in his fourth Massey Lecture, “God is here, not ‘over and above’ but’ in and through.’ Theologians call this God’s immanence. Of course, God is at the same time transcendent. God is sovereign unconditional origin. God is other. But divine otherness need not imply that God is far away, over and above, ruling the world from on high. God’s otherness here rather specifies what we call the mode of divine immanence. God is graciously present in human history, but never imprisoned in it. God is immanent, but forever transcending. God is forever new and surprising. God present in history remains forever judge of the world, condemning it for its injustice, and forever redeemer of the world, enlightening and empowering people to build a more human society.”[3]

Understanding the abiding and empowering presence of God in the Church is helped by focusing on the Five Marks of Mission established by the Anglican Consultative Council . They are as follows:

–          To proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God.

–          To teach, baptize and nurture new believers.

–          To respond to human need by loving service.

–          To seek to transform the unjust structures of society.

–          To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

–          (A sixth has been proposed by Canada. –To strive to bring about peace, and conflict transformation, and reconciliation.

In conclusion I stand here to both affirm and challenge you to be Christ’s own builders of a new society. A society based not on political ideology nor on the tenets of one economic theory over another. We are Gospel people who have been called to bring in the Reign of God. There is no question about the wonderful work that Churches all over the Diocese of Huron are doing and have done for generations. An observer like me only has to read the Huron Diocesan Paper to see the multitude of social ministries in which you all engage.

But the challenge I bring you today is to go even further in response to God’s Call. It is a challenge I am about to make to my own Diocesan Synod next week. I believe that Jesus is calling us into a closer relationship with the poor and marginalized. As we look through our church communities, it is rare that we find numbered among our members people who are considered poor or who have significant social challenges. I believe that this is a sign to us. If we are to do the work that we have been sent to do, if the Reign of God is truly to come in, we must learn how to gift the Church by living in communities which are based on radical inclusivity. The preferential option for the poor clearly presented in Matthew’s Parable of the Last Judgement must become for us a paradigm of the future Church.

Surely, if Our Lord regularly sought the outcasts and the marginal and established relationships with them, we must do the same. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner is important and we are presently doing these things. I believe the next step is to live together in communities of solidarity and learn from the experience of living together. If all we can do is speak about the poor and marginalized from a distance, than we will miss the most important aspect of God’s Reign which is:  living in a dynamic community based on Faith Hope and Love, and I believe that profound community experience will bring us into the very presence of Our Risen Lord.

The day that we can look around our churches and see the full diversity of God’s Kingdom manifest around us: male- female, educated- uneducated, rich- poor, refugee- corporate executive, African- Asian, homosexual- heterosexual, unemployed- employed and know that we are one in the Spirit, and are willing to give our lives fully one to another. Then, I believe the Reign of God will no longer be a fleeting elusive concept but a shining beacon of existential reality. We will no longer “see through a glass darkly” but bask in the effulgence of Christ’s own light, reflected in the faces of those he has asked us to love, protect and serve.

Endnotes

[1] http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/CSNs/CSNs_G_Giud.html

2 John Simons; Sermon on the Parable of The Last Judgment

[1] Gregory Baum; Compassion and Solidarity: The Church for Others, p. 73

Your Kingdom Come

The Gospel of Luke and the Reign of God

A little boy, six years old is brought to the steps of the chancel of the United Church in Joliette Quebec. The minister, realizing that the boy is quite nervous walks down to him and extends his hand. The little boy didn’t know whether he was more afraid of accepting the invitation of the extended hand or the disappointment that all his family members and friends would feel if he fled the scene. He decided finally to put his faith in the kindly eyes and the gentle smile that beckoned him up the steps and along to the pulpit that dominated the centre front of the church. Then the minister announced to the congregation that this was a special Sunday because a member of the Sunday School was going to begin the Service of Worship this Sunday by leading everyone in the Lord’s Prayer.

Suddenly, the boy knew that it was the moment of truth. He stood there legs shaking and terror struck… What were those words again… Why were they difficult to remember now… He knew them last night…But …Then he felt the warm hand of the minister on his shoulder and his kindly voice saying softly, ”Dennis, its time to pray to Our Father in Heaven.” A lifeline, all of a sudden I felt my mind focus on the words I had prayed already for years.

 

Our Father who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy Kingdom come’

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory,

For ever and ever. Amen.

This personal experience from 1960 I am sure resonates with many of you who lived your childhood in the fifties and sixties. This prayer was the focus of our worship at Sunday school, our homes, our school, our Cub, Scout, Brownie or Guide meeting. It became an intimate part of our daily lives, and an integral part of every gathering.

We may live in different times with different public rituals but this simple prayer is still one of the most recognized addresses to God known to humanity. It is not surprising therefore to me that this year in Huron Diocese, the young people chose as their theme for the Youth Synod: “Your Kingdom Come”.

I applaud their inspired choice and the wisdom of the Diocesan Planners to follow their lead.

I am convinced, that focusing on the Kingdom of God, or the reign of God, as it is sometimes expressed, is absolutely the right thing to do in this time and place. For we live in an age of extreme alienation and distrust. The politics of expediency and a culture of greed have created a malaise that will, if unchecked, lead to the degradation of our social fabric and the denial of what we as Anglicans hold to be a fundamental truth: that God, in and through Jesus Christ, is leading us into the Reign of God whereby all people, not just the rich and powerful, will receive the blessing of God’s beneficent and abiding presence. In that Kingdom the poor, the outcast, the marginal and the ignored, will have an equal place and receive equal consideration.

This is not the vision of today nor will it be the vision of tomorrow if we do not take up the challenge to be the disciples of Jesus that we are called to be. Jesus said, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.” But what did Jesus mean when he spoke the words God’s Kingdom? 

I have asked that during my address that Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation be projected on the screen. I make this request as a means of having a visual reference point which illustrates so well How Divine Wisdom helped to bring the reign of God tangibly into the world through the agency of a young woman: Mary.

Language Considerations Regarding the Kingdom of God or Reign of God?

Before we enter fully into a discussion of the nature of “the reign of God “and “the kingdom of God,” we need to be more specific about definitions. The word “reign” is the English rendering of the Greek word “hegemonia”. It is used in its typical form in Luke 3:1 ff where the reign of Emperor Tiberius is mentioned. The Greek word “basileia” on the other hand is rendered by the English word “kingdom”. In Mark 1:15 we read the words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [1]

The reason why modern scholars have chosen to increasingly use the word “reign” over “kingdom” is because, in the English language the word ‘kingdom’ seems to denote the formal structure of a political entity ruled by an Emperor or king, whereas the word “reign,” in English, captures the important dynamic of God’s intimate rule. The actual phrase, baseleia tou theou, or Kingdom of God, describes more fully the dynamic ruling activity of God over humanity and the created order. This phrase “kingdom of God” and its twin: “kingdom of heaven”  are so important in the New Testament that they are utilized over 100 times throughout the Synoptic Gospels. [2]

The use of the term Kingdom of Heaven entered into the written scriptures when the writer of Matthew leaned on the Aramaic concept of the “Malkuth of Heaven”. It is not meant to be something different from the Kingdom of God. Rather it is just another way of translating the same concept into “idiomatic” Greek.3

Another challenge in engaging the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God is the fact that the many references to it in the Christian Scriptures are often divergent or contrary. In trying to write with any precision about what the Kingdom is and when it will be in existence we are immediately faced with a series of very different descriptions which lead us to an assortment of possibilities. This has of course led to many different theological approaches in regards to the nature of the Kingdom of God. The late Professor George Eldon Ladd of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena was well known for his particular approach to issues around the Kingdom of God. In an article entitled, “What is the Kingdom of God”, he focused on the challenge to any person attempting to fit the various biblical references into a comprehensible whole.

“The very complexity of the Biblical teaching about the Kingdom of God is one of the reasons why such diverse interpretations have arisen in the history of theology. Isolated verses can be quoted for most of the interpretations which can be found in our theological literature. The Kingdom is a present reality (Matt. 12:28), and yet it is a future blessing (I Cor. 15:50). It is an inner spiritual redemptive blessing (Rom. 14:17) which can be experienced only by way of the new birth (John 3:3), and yet it will have to do with the government of the nations of the world (Rev. 11:15). The Kingdom is a realm into which men enter now (Matt. 21:31), and yet it is a realm into which they will enter tomorrow (Matt. 8:11). It is at the same time a gift of God which will be bestowed by God in the future (Luke 12:32) and yet which must be received in the present (Mark 10:15). Obviously no simple explanation can do justice to such a rich but diverse variety of teaching.”[3]

One would think that the wisest course for anyone to take after such a summary of the complexity of these passages would be to give them a wide berth. And yet, I believe that the present state of the world and the world economy demand that we, all of us in society, must seek to understand what is happening and respond in the most appropriate way possible. The earth and the humans and creatures who live on it are too precious to leave fundamental decisions about our future in

the hands of many who are guided by principles and values which are not in accord with what we believe and live.

As a Christian, the tools that I bring to bear are the Scriptures, the Tradition of the Church as it has been received, and whatever intellectual capacity that God has apportioned to me. However, we believe that these “gifts” are the basic tools that God has given to us as human persons, to help us to move in the direction that God is calling us to. So, God being our Guide, let us be courageous and engage the issue at hand.

The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament

At the centre of the Hebrew understanding of God as King and God’s relationship to the kingdom itself, are the covenants that God established with Abraham, Moses and David. These covenants were the basis upon which God promised to guide, direct and support God’s chosen people through history. The relationship was to be founded upon mutual commitment and adherence to the principle of worshipping the One God. This history of salvation received its constitution in the moral Decalogue or the Ten Commandments which became the core teaching around which the People of Israel would found a nation consecrated to their God.

In the history as it is recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures God acts repeatedly to guide and support the Chosen People; leading them out of Egypt, through the desert and wilderness for 40 years and into the Land that had been promised to Abraham. All of these experiences are portrayed as acts of a Loving God seeking to care and direct the people with whom he was in relationship.

Through the leadership of Joshua and the rule of the Judges the People of Israel were again directed and supported in their mission. And through that mission, became observers and participants in the unfolding of Salvation history. The establishment of Kingship in Israel called into some question their loyalty to God as their King. 1 Sam 8. However, God’s commitment to the People of Israel did not waiver. Saul, David then Solomon followed as kings over Israel. All of them chosen by God and blessed by God though they all departed from the will of God and led their people into various problems which would not have happened had they been faithful to God’s teaching.

The division of the united kingdom into Judah and Israel, the degradation of the kingship, the exile, and the activities of the prophets responding to the People of Israel’s apostasy, led on one hand to a diminishment in respect for kingship but on the other a heightened sense of the kingship of God. We see through many of the prophets and throughout the Book of Psalms an exaltation of the position and role of God as King over Israel and the world. Zephaniah 3:15; Zechariah14:16-17; Isaiah 6:5; Psalms 22:28; 9:4; 45:6; 47:8 Although the term kingdom of God is not used extensively in the Hebrew Scriptures, these passages and many others portray: Yahweh as King, as ruler over both Israel and the world, and this included the created order.

Many passages also reaffirmed the Davidic concept of kingly rule whereby God’s commitment to the establishment of a Davidic Dynasty would find its fulfillment in the future. This, of course, fed into the yearning and hope for messianic deliverance which became a strong element during the period of the Maccabees and in the lead up to the time of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is clearly portrayed as the “anointed one” the Messiah. From his conception through to his birth; from the presentation in the Temple to Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit is present and active in affirming God’s involvement in his life. Even Mary’s hymn of praise and adoration prepares us for the calling which is to be his and reflects the Messianic vocation to which Jesus has been called. An interesting and important theme that the writer of Luke stresses is the servant role of Mary linked to the message of salvation sent to God’s servant Israel through the agency of Jesus who will become the Servant of servants. This focus has important implications for the kind of kingdom that Jesus is going to bring.

46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever
.’

One of the pivotal experiences that sets up our understanding of Jesus and his mission to bring in the Reign of God is the story of his return to Nazareth in Luke 4:16-40 This passage is not found in the other Synoptic Gospels. Unlike the writer of Matthew, the writer of Luke, by focusing on this passage of the prophet Isaiah, is trying to demonstrate, not so much that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies but that Jesus’ mission is primarily to be seen as he lives out the role of a servant. 

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
  because he has anointed me
  to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

In this passage Jesus sets the stage for a ministry which will be directed toward service rendered to the poor, the needy and the dispossessed. He is cast into the mold of the Suffering Servant as he was in the story of his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. The proclamation of the “Good News is not to be given to the rich or the powerful but to those who are down trodden and oppressed. This linkage between Jesus and the Suffering Servant is so important to Luke that we see nearly thirty references to passages in Second Isaiah.

So Luke is saying that the mission of the Suffering Servant is perfected in the person of Jesus through his servant ministry. The disciples were to emulate Jesus by going out and casting out demons, healing the sick and proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom. They were to do this by living their lives simply and rejecting excessive material possessions. Clearly this expectation springs from the sensible presupposition that if you are ministering to the poor and dispossessed you should look like servants not lords or nobles. Luke 9:1-6

This universal reversal is also seen in the Lucan version of the Sermon on the Mount. The difference between this version and the Matthean version is remarkable. Where Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes and implies that in God’s good time balance will be restored to the earth. Luke straightly and frankly implies a judgment on those who live privileged lives in the present, and hints at dire consequences for those who are not kingdom focused. He utilizes the common Ancient Near East written form of blessings and curses.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
21‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24‘But woe to you who are rich,
  for you have received your consolation.
25‘Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

In our own day a number of biblical scholars have documented the political, economic and social conditions of 1st century Palestine. Their scholarship has presented a clear delineation of how society in Jesus’ day was significantly oppressive. Palestine was a society ruled by the Romans with the complicity of the Jewish elite (at least in Judæa). The taxation system and distribution of land ownership meant that the wealth generated by agricultural production mostly went to benefit the urban elites. The system was oppressive, cruel, and religiously justified. Luke’s Gospel and his portrayal of the reversal of fortune in society found in the magnificat and the Lucan beatitudes is an attempt to show how revolutionary Jesus’ message was about the kingdom. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggeman, Marcus Borg, and Walter Wink have all documented and commented on the system of domination which occurred in First Century Palestine.

Even though I have strongly put forward the view that the writer of Luke meant to communicate that the life and teaching of Jesus was meant to alter both our perceptions of what constituted society but also how we live in society, it needs to be said that this is not the whole story. Jesus is doing more than denouncing injustice and promising God’s blessing on the poor. More precisely what the writer of Luke is trying to do: is to show that Jesus’ prophesying social justice is an essential moment in his kingdom proclamation, in which God is shown to be doing something decisive through Jesus as a means of liberating the world from its alienation. The Canadian Theologian John Simons commenting on Luke 4: 18-19 expressed this view in this way.

“The Son glorifies the Father by showing what the world is to be under the Father’s deity. And so the Son at once announces the mercy and compassion of the Father and confronts the material conditions that immobilize human beings, that blind them, and that deaden human potential. The healing miracles dramatically illustrate Jesus’ intention in this regard. But social and political miracles are likewise evinced. . . . If the deity of the Father is affirmed in the liberation of a demoniac from possession; if the Father’s goodness is felt in the body of the woman whose hæmorrhage is stopped, felt in the skin of the leper who is cleansed and in the legs healed of lameness; why not also in the sharing of bread with the hungry crowds, in the banquet prepared for the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and, in the undermining of the religious and social subordination of women?”[4]

Taken all together, I believe that the writer of the Gospel of Luke has depicted  the ‘kingdom of God’ as a metaphor for God’s liberating and justice-making activity, i.e., for the most radical conceivable transformation of the conditions of human existence from oppression and alienation to freedom and community.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Scarborough http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/17432.htm

2 F.F. Bruce, “The Kingdom Of God: A Biblical Survey,

” Evangelical Quarterly 15 (1943): 263-68

3 George Eldon Ladd ,http:/ , What is the Kingdom of God?

/www.gospelpedlar.com/articles/last%20things/kogladd.html

[1] John Simons; The Challenge of Tradition, pp.31-32.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“But bishop why don’t you write theologically, Isn’t that what bishops do?”

Over the last year in my other blog: thebishopsviews.wordpress.com I have spent time looking at the issues of the day from my perspective as a human person, a citizen and as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada. I have not written as a journalist, an academic, a politician or as an expert of anything. I have written as myself a person like any other person who lives many roles and has many opinions. The joy of writing in a blog is that anyone can do it and no one is forced to read the texts that you supply.

Now that doesn’t mean that those who write blogs have total license to write whatever they choose with no responsibility for what they express. We must be accountable to the laws of decency and mutual respect. I have said some very hard things regarding a number of politicians and a number of political parties. I was known during my time as an elected member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as particularly hard on my own government and party. I believe we have a democratic right to hold politicians and governments accountable whether they agree when they are in power or not.

Recently, I have been asked by a number of people to write the theological basis for the political views that I hold. I have decided to do this by setting up a different blog which will afford me opportunity to write in a different way about many of the same issues. We are fortunate as Anglican Christians and as Canadians not to have to subscribe to the mindless doctrine that has gained much acceptance south of the border known as “separation between church and state”. This is not something we have traditionally believed in and this is clearly seen in the fact that the churches in Canada have a long history of engaging in public discussion and political activity throughout the history of Canada.

So, on these pages I will wax theological and grapple with the issues of our day and write from a slightly different perspective. I hope that if you resonate or take umbrage with something that I have written that you will so indicate. I include virtually all comments save those that are obviously hurtful and belittling to others or comments that could transgress the bounds of decency.

One last note if I may. I will post a few theological pieces that I have written for various addresses over the last few years as a means of starting this blog off.  Welcome, and let the exchange of ideas begin!

Tashtoo

Back Room at the Parlour

doreendixon

My little corner of the web

Harper Watch

Compiling the Harper Government's Assault on Democracy

Coaching For Life

Life and Relationship Coach

cancer killing recipe

Just another WordPress.com site

thebishopsviews

Views on Politics,Religion and Society

Kai Nagata

Writer / Videographer

Catholic Commons

Anglican. Canadian. Seeking the Kingdom.