When we pray, “Your kingdom come” we are praying for a revolution.
Father Murphy walks into a pub in Donegal, and says to the first man he meets, “Do you want to go to heaven?”
The man said, “I do Father.”
The priest said, “Then stand over there against the wall.”
Then the priest asked the second man, “Do you want to got to heaven?”
“Certainly, Father,” was the man’s reply.
“Then stand over there against the wall,” said the priest.
Then Father Murphy walked up to O’Toole and said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”
O’Toole said, “No, I don’t Father.”
The priest said, “I don’t believe this. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?”
O’Toole said, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now!”
It’s one of the great misunderstandings in Christian theology. Many Christians focus on the future reality of going to heaven when they die. We have hymns about that: “I’ll Fly Away,” for example. We imagine heaven, pearly gates, angels plunking on harps, etc.
But while we certainly have hope for life after death, that hope for us is resurrection (as we learned in our series in Acts), and while heaven might be a temporary place of rest and refreshment for those who have died, the ultimate hope of Christian faith isn’t that we spend eternity in a faraway heaven. Indeed, as today’s section of the prayer that Jesus taught us reveals, we are looking for the life of heaven, the kingdom of God, to come here. That’s what we pray for when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So, in a way, O’Toole is right. Jesus is getting a group together, called the church, to be part of God’s kingdom right now!
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” (the terms are used interchangeably). For first century Jews, “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” was a way of orienting their hope for the present world, not a way of pining after the after-life. They weren’t looking to escape the world, but rather expecting God to enter into their world in a powerful way. For them, Kingdom of God meant “reign of God” – that God would come and dwell among his chosen people once again. When they heard Jesus proclaim that “The Kingdom of God is at hand” they would automatically and enthusiastically dial to the vision that the prophets had promised. In their minds, what Isaiah had proclaimed was going to come true:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” 8 Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. 9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God (Isaiah 52:7-10).
God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s return to the Temple was the hope of first century Israel and their obsession. They were living under Roman occupation, under the earthly reign of Caesar, seeing themselves as being exiles in their own homeland. The hope for them was that God was going to finally overthrow, once and for all, their taskmasters – just as he had done for the ancient Israelites in Egypt – and lead them to a new future of independence. “No King but God!” was the slogan of Jewish revolutionaries, who sought to overthrow the Romans by the sword and open the way for YHWH’s return. The Messiah, it was believed, would be the one to lead the charge.
So, you can see how Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom would have been exciting for his audience. Perhaps he was the “anointed one” who would bring in this Kingdom, who would defeat the evil empire and pave the way for God’s return. Wherever he went, crowds gathered, not simply because he was a great teacher but because maybe, finally, he was “the one”.
When Jesus talked about the Kingdom, all these themes were present – but in a much different way than the people were expecting. He taught that a new exodus was taking place – but it was a exodus from the slavery of sin and death rather than an overthrow of the Romans. He taught that evil would be defeated, but that the enemy was not the Roman empire – it was Satan and the power structures of this world. And he taught that God would return to Zion, but that return was already taking place in his own person, as Jesus embodied the work of the Temple in his own life and work.
In announcing the Kingdom, Jesus was announcing a revolution, but not the kind that the people were looking for. They were looking for a quick fix solution, while Jesus was talking about a long-term change. They were taking up arms, while Jesus was calling them to love their enemies. They were wanting to once again be in political power, Jesus was talking about serving others. They believed that they were the end users of God’s grace and love – Jesus said that God’s love always comes to us on its way to somebody else.
What Jesus was talking about was not a grand, cloud-opening vision of heaven – a place of individual eternal bliss, but more like a subtle and subversive takeover of the present world by the Kingdom of God. So rather than outlining a strategy with powerpoint presentations and bullet points (which we tend to like), Jesus instead announced the Kingdom with parables – stories with multiple levels of meaning. It’s an interesting way of teaching because, as Jesus explains to his disciples, it requires a different sort of imagination that engages stories and not principles—stories that invite us to find ourselves within them.
Look again at the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was not a program to be studied or a plan to executed, but a story to be lived out and lived in the present.. Matthew 13 is a series of rapid fire parables about the kingdom, stories that invite the hearers to think about their own response to God’s kingdom arriving on their doorstep. Like seed broadcast in a field, the coming kingdom lands in a lot of different places and situations—it can be misunderstood and snatched away, it can be a novel idea that springs up and then quickly dies without roots, it can be choked out by distraction with the concerns of the world—or, that seed of the kingdom can take root in the fertile soil of those who have the patience and receptivity to nurture it and allow it grow within them. Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom is like a mustard seed, starts small and then grows until one day it is reality. It’s like yeast that leavens a whole loaf. It separates the wheat from the weeds – the good from the evil. It’s so precious that it’s a treasure – a pearl of great price. All of these stories point to the larger story of what God is doing in making the kingdom come on earth as in heaven.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God was an already-and-not-yet reality. It’s here now in small and subversive ways, but one day it will come to a full harvest. It’s the culmination of the whole story of Scripture that had it’s beginning in a garden and continues in us and in our stories. The Kingdom of God is the story we find ourselves in.
When we pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, what we’re really asking for is to be incorporated into God’s story. We look for the Kingdom not as simply a future hope, but a story, a reality within which we find meaning for the stories of our lives – a story in which all of us are included.
One of my growing convictions is that we need to recapture Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom if we’re going to really be Kingdom people. We need to know what we’re praying for!
Most of us have been culturally conditioned to look at life as a linear continuum – one thing follows the next, one idea counters another. This kind of linear thinking has, I believe, distorted our view of what Jesus was talking about. Our linear thinking has made the Kingdom of God a destination – the end of the continuum if you will. Much of Christian theology has been focused on how the individual Christian reaches the end of the continuum – “getting to heaven” in popular terms.
Now, if you think hard about that, you’ll begin to see that this linear way of thinking in theology is not so very different from the consumerist mentality that is also dominant in our modern culture. If it’s all about me, all about my individual spirituality, my eternal destiny, my needs, my relationship with God, then I’ll seek out whatever will help me best get there.
Interestingly, and maybe even more sadly, many churches and church-goers have bought into this linear thinking. Churches have become more and more like stores in a competitive market, each offering their own “brand” of faith. Most churches now grow at the expense of others – we simply “swap sheep”, exchanging members based on which church is “hot” at the time. Brian McClaren says that churches with this linear worldview tend to become “gatherings of self-interested people who gather for mutual self-interest—constantly treating the church as a purveyor of religious goods and services, constantly shopping and trading up for churches that can ‘meet my needs’ better.”
It’s a worldview that kind of looks like this:
In this diagram, the largest concern is “me” – my soul, my personal destiny in heaven. The church, the world, the larger picture are less important as long as I get “what’s in it for me”.
But Jesus makes it clear to his followers, both then and now, that the Kingdom of God is not a linear concept. It requires a whole different way of thinking – an “out here” way of thinking we might call “emergent” thinking – emergent meaning “integral or integrated”. It’s a kind of “big picture” thinking that invites growth rather than continuity, wholeness rather than parts, stories instead of principles, and circles instead of lines.
Here’s what it looks like: Rather than a linear continuum, emergent thinking works more like the rings on a cross-section of a tree trunk. Rather than replacing or rejecting the rings that have come before it, each new ring of a tree comprises all the others and includes them in something bigger – a whole tree. The rings also tell the story of the tree, both the times of prosperity as well as times of disease and fire. Cut open a tree and you know it’s story. The tree continues to emerge from a seed to a small sapling to an ever growing, living, breathing reality. This happens gradually, steadily, intentionally.
I think that this is the image in mind that Jesus had when he spoke of the Kingdom of God. It is an emerging reality – just like a fruitful plant emerges out of a small seed. The mission of a seed is never to stay a seed, but rather to grow and benefit the animals and people who will use it for shade and for food. The kingdom of God gets planted in us so that it will grow and benefit the world right now in anticipation of a great harvest one day.
Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God makes it clear that you and I individually are not the end users of the Gospel. We are not consumers! In Kingdom thinking, emergent thinking, we exist individually for the benefit of a larger reality – a larger community…the whole human family “tree”. Like a ring on a tree, we encompass that which has come before us – our families, our faith heritage, our own stories but then, as we ourselves grow, we become incorporated into the larger reality of the Kingdom. Our stories, our lives have meaning because we are incorporated into the larger, emerging story of the relationship between God and humanity – the Kingdom of God.
In other words, a diagram of a Kingdom worldview would look like this:
My story integrated into the story of the church, the church integrated into the story of the whole world, and the whole world integrated and included in the story of the Kingdom of God!
Praying for God’s Kingdom to come means we’re asking to become part of the story – that our lives can be used to benefit the whole world, that what we do now has eternal significance because we do it for God and his kingdom.
From the beginning of the Bible, that’s been the idea. God told Abraham that he would bless him with land and many descendants – but Abraham would not be blessed in order to benefit himself. He would be “blessed to be a blessing” to everyone and we, as his spiritual descendants, as Kingdom people, are called to be the same…blessed to be a blessing…that’s emergent thinking, that’s Kingdom living.
Every year when we give out Bibles to our 3rd graders, I write something like this in the front of each – “I pray that you’ll find your story in God’s story.” I pray for those little ones – and for all of us – that we’ll catch the vision of Jesus, the vision of the Kingdom – that our lives can truly be blessed to be a blessing and that our church can become more than a spiritual store, but a community that is emerging – always emerging – as a sign of God’s Kingdom coming on the earth – as it is in heaven.
Indeed, the story of Scriptures ends with the kingdom coming down. Revelation 21 reveals what happens when the kingdom comes in its fullness—God dwelling among us, every tear wiped away, death defeated, all things made new—God’s rescue plan for his creation finished and made perfect. We live and work in the present with the hope of that future ever before us.
Truth is that we really are getting a group together to go to heaven NOW because it’s coming here and, indeed, is already among us. We not only pray for the kingdom to come, we work for its coming as well. This is the story that gives our lives meaning and purpose. We are all citizens of a kingdom that is both here and is yet to come.
How do we live that way of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? The rest of the prayer brings that forth. We acknowledge our dependence on God for daily bread and we share it with others, we forgive and are forgiven, we combat evil as God does, and we give God all the glory. Those are just a few of the ways we live in the kingdom.
And so, we continue to pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. May God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done in our lives as we work for what we pray for. Amen.
Brian McClaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan, 2006.