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The Kindom of God

Acts 1:1-14

You can read the sermon below or watch it here: Video

This is one of those biblical stories that falls into the category of—what’s the word? Is it miracle? Mystery? Fantasy? It is illogical, certainly. We earthlings are pretty familiar with the concept of gravity, and people do not take their leave by rising into the air. Over the years a wide variety of scholars have asserted “the impossibility of taking the ascension account literally.”[1] Classic theologian Karl Barth commented that it was difficult to glean even a “nucleus of genuine history” from the story.[2]

So the story can’t be factual, right? The writer of Acts needed a way for Jesus to leave the scene. He couldn’t die after he’d been resurrected, and somehow riding off into the sunset didn’t seem like the best solution, nor was it good if Jesus just disappeared with no explanation. Ascension stories were already known in the Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, so it was an author’s tool, writer’s privilege.[3] No big deal, right?

Except all these stories are connected. If you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then you believe God already broke some pretty serious laws of physics and nature. Rising up in the air is no big deal if you’ve already risen from the dead! So for some of us, it’s part and parcel. Yes, there are miraculous, mysterious stories in the Bible and we accept that they are true.

Except for those of us who don’t. So is it miracle or metaphor? I’ll let you decide. Ultimately the Bible’s power lies not in its historicity but in its mystery, not in its factualness, but in its truth.

So let’s take a look at what truths this story might have for us. At first reading, it appears that the disciples haven’t learned a thing. During Jesus’ ministry, those who believed that he was the Messiah also believed he was the one who would free them from the Roman occupation. After all, that’s what the Messiah was supposed to do, right? And they weren’t just grasping at straws, or making stuff up. Jesus started his ministry by sitting in the temple and reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Doesn’t that sound like liberation?

We always say the disciples didn’t realize that Jesus offered a different kind of liberation. But I’m not sure it’s that clear-cut. Nor am I convinced that the disciples are quite as clueless as we make them out to be. In the first portion of our passage, we are told that Jesus appeared to them many times after his resurrection, “speaking about the kingdom of God.” They would have to be really dense to not be getting it by now. “Jesus had proclaimed, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ The promised reign of God is about to break into human history. Already in Jesus’ ministry there were signs of that breaking in of God’s reign.”[4] Demons were cast out. The lame were made to walk. Blind men could see and alienated women were restored to community. This was the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

So the disciples naturally wanted to know when it was really going to happen—when it would be fulfilled—because although Jesus had been resurrected and all, his promise of good news for the poor and liberty for the captives didn’t seem to have arrived. “The people were not liberated. The hungry were still hungry. The broken hearted were still broken hearted.

And over 2000 years later the problem is no less acute.”[5]

There are several ways Christians have responded to the fact that the kingdom has not appeared the way we had hoped. “One is to postpone the vision. It is entirely future. It is utopia. Usually this is allied to a shift in location. The vision becomes a vision about heaven. One day at the end of the world, when Jesus comes again, or one day in heaven, these things will all be true, these hopes fulfilled. This solves the problem, because we now say that Jesus was not talking about life on earth, but about life in heaven. The fact that nothing much has changed on earth is not a problem. Jesus was not talking about change on earth, only the change which there will be for us in heaven….

If you postpone the reality of the vision to the future or elevate it into heaven, serious consequences result for the way we understand the Christian message. The main task becomes to tell people about the heavenly kingdom and how Jesus told us it was there and made it possible for us to enter. We don’t have to concern ourselves with any change for the poor and hungry, the humbled and broken spirited. What we offer is hope beyond, not hope or change within the world. The vision of the kingdom is a promise; it is not an agenda.”[6]

That’s the first response: to say the kingdom of God will only be true in heaven. The second response “does not limit the kingdom to a future event or a heavenly place which we enter after death. It identifies the hope of the kingdom as referring primarily to the spiritual dimension in people. It internalizes and spiritualizes the vision. Jesus’ promises to the poor and the hungry become promises to the spiritually poor and spiritually hungry.”[7]

“Another quite different approach is to assert that the Church itself is the kingdom of God. The Church is the promise. This is a way of institutionalizing the kingdom of God. But this can only be done by naively imagining that the institution of the Church is a little bit of perfection on earth. To suggest this is to kid ourselves.

Another approach which focuses only on the present is the one which takes the kingdom vision as a reform program. The vision’s reality is then something for us to achieve by our own informed efforts and strategies….

These approaches may not be wrong in what they affirm. But they are wrong in what they deny. When we think in these ways, we are massively truncating the vision of Jesus. Jesus’ vision of God’s reign was not an invitation to withdraw from the world into a religious ghetto community or into pious and moral individualism. It cannot be reduced to a reform manifesto of ideals to be achieved by human effort. To seek the kingdom of God was never to pick out a part of reality where God might reign or a time in reality when [God] might reign. To seek the kingdom of God never meant anything less than to seek God’s promised rule in the whole of reality, in space and time. Everything is included. Everyone is included. This is the promise Jesus proclaimed.”[8]

I’ve been quoting very freely from a scholar by the name of William Loader. To put it more simply, in my own words, the kingdom of God is always AND. It is in the physical world and the spiritual world; it is now and later; it is on earth and in heaven. The kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet,” both fulfilled and yet to be made real. The kingdom of God is about you and me, about us and them, about insiders and outsiders, that they may all be one.

So maybe the disciples understood this. Maybe the disciples finally, after all this time, figured out what Jesus was talking about. Maybe they weren’t asking, “When is the kingdom of Israel going to rise again,” but when will this kingdom of God come to Israel? When will this kingdom of inclusion and equality come back home? When will God’s kingdom—God’s vision for the world—come here, now?

It was a really good question. It is a really good question for us, too. When will God’s kingdom come to America? When will this vision of inclusive love come to America? We pray “they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” but we’re sure not seeing it. Hate crimes have been increasing exponentially in recent years. In 2015 crimes against Muslims increased 67% over 2014 numbers. Anti-Jewish rates of hate crimes were up 9%, anti-black up 8%, anti-LGBT up 5%.[9] And that was in 2015. Think of what has happened in 2016 and 2017. Southern Poverty Law Center is now tracking 917 hate groups in the U.S. It would not be inappropriate, I don’t think, to speak of an epidemic in hate crimes in the last six months.

We look around us and we don’t see an in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Or maybe we’re looking at it wrong. Years ago there were efforts in progressive circles to update the “kingdom of God” language. King is undoubtedly a male term, so kingdom of God enforces male language for God. Many people suggest using “the realm of God,” but that can easily be interpreted as a location—the realm of heaven, for example, which limits our understanding rather than furthering it. Others suggest that we leave out the “g” in kingdom. The kindom of God. I’ve never been a fan of this word because it’s awkward to say, but these days it is growing on me. In the realm of God we are all family; we are all kin. So the kingdom of God is a kindom.

We see this occasionally. Three men in Portland Oregon stood up for two Muslim women on a train who were being verbally attacked by a white supremacist. Two of those men paid with their lives. When the bombing occurred at the pop concert in London this week, two homeless men were hailed as heroes because they ran to help the injured and dying. We see love in action around us, if we look for it. We see the in-breaking of the kindom of God. We just don’t see enough of it.

During my last real conversation with Ed Saxby, I told him that I had been thinking about what happens when we die and about the afterlife. I said, “What if heaven is whatever we think it’s going to be? If it’s whatever we imagine? What if, after death we live in an altered state of consciousness that can create a world? So if we imagine heaven is streets of gold and angels and harps and clouds, then we get streets of gold and angels and harps and clouds. And for the Star Trek fans, then in the second life we are beings of light that flit through the universe. What if we create the afterlife? Which leads to the correlating question: what if we create this life? What if this world is just as creatable as that one? I asked Ed if that made any sense and he said that it did. We agreed that there are things in life that we can’t control, like cancer, but he said, “We always have the choice of how we respond, and I have lived my life trying to create that kind of world—that I want to live in, that I want my daughter and granddaughters to live in.”

So we ask God, “When is it going to happen? When is this vision of yours going to be made real?” God responds to us the way Christ responded to the disciples: “You will receive power and you will be my witnesses.” You’re the ones going to do it, people, though not by yourself. Jesus’ work in human form is done. This part of it is ours. And notice where he told them to start—Jerusalem, right where they were. That’s where we start, too. At home.

What would that look like, if God’s realm was alive in your house? What would it look like if God’s will were done in South Portland? What would it look like if the kindom of God was fulfilled in Maine? When will the kindom of God be fulfilled in America? We can be part of the in-breaking of the kindom of God. How cool is that, yall?! How cool is that!?

 

[1] Parsons, Mikeal C. “Commentary on Acts 1:6-14.” workingpreacher.org.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Loader, William. http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BeingtheChurch1.htm

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] These numbers are from the FBI, as quoted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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