Thursday, January 18, 2018

The kingdom of heaven

At Morning Prayer, I find myself thinking on the kingdom of heaven.

Kingdom is one of the great themes that runs through the Bible. It does not refer to some future and perfect realm—a utopia—but to the ability to see God at work in the changing fortunes of human history. That is why Jesus’ parables describing what the kingdom of heaven is like are so messy, so full of flawed actors—not simply as a foretaste of a delayed rule but as a rule that is fulfilled imperfectly. It is also why ‘apocalyptic’ is best understood as pointing to imminent events (and, secondarily, cyclic events) rather than end-of-time events.

At times in the Bible, the kingdom of God—the exercising of God’s sovereign rule through human rulers—is manifested in events his people find incomprehensible, such as the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon or to Rome. Or an innocent man hanging on a cross.

So, if we are brave enough to pray with Jesus, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ we must recognise that the answer to that prayer may look far from our ideas of justice. Or, we might find ourselves learning to see God at work in human history, even through the politicians and societies we don’t like.

That is not to preach resignation, or fatalism, nor to affirm political leaders—past or present—without question or challenge. Rather, it is to understand how God rules.

The conversion of Constantine was not a disaster that derailed the Church from her mission for a millennium-and-a-half. Christendom was the kingdom of heaven on earth. But now Christendom is passed; and that is not a disaster, either. Christendom gives way to new expressions of the kingdom of heaven.

To see the kingdom of heaven around us, as the parables do, is to have hope instead of despair. To rest, instead of striving. And to remind those who exercise power now that God, who raised them up, will also bring them down.

In other words, it is deeply subversive.

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