One of the principal concepts in the Jesus texts we have is ‘kingdom’. (And yes, I know there are problems with both the ‘king’ and ‘dom-ain’ parts of that word). In the common day understanding of first century Jewish Galilee it meant there would come a time, hopefully soon, when God would step in and takeover, the tables would be turned, the enemies of God would be laid low, and justice would come. This ‘takeover’ however would require some strength, some power, even some military muscle, armies of angels or whatever.
Jesus though didn’t do strength and power and muscle. He did weakness and love and loss.
So, not too long after his death, his apologists and those who like happy endings (which admittedly is most of us) developed a ‘second coming’ scenario. The short version being that the first coming of weakness and love and loss was a kind of warning to get our act together before his second coming of strength and power and muscle.
The ‘second coming’ theology was developed because we wanted to win, to have our saviour as a winner, and if we are honest his first coming no matter how we massage it looked like losing. If the kingdom was among us, as Jesus is reported as saying, that kingdom looked weak and was.
Similarly to have an ecclesiastical institution, as the Jesus movement would in time become, you need one that looks like a winner. Something attractive. It needs to feel like a kingdom of winners on earth and in heaven. And it needs too a consistent currency of carrots and sticks (incentives) so that its prescriptions are adhered to and the good know they are good; and the bad know they are bad. In other words love isn’t good enough by itself, institutions need rules and laws and order. Just like a government or a kingdom with kings and domination.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul suggests that the kingdom of God is folly from the point of view of the powers that be in the world. Paul suggests there is a divine irony at work here, upside-down thinking, a holding sway that does not hold with strength and power and muscle.
This kingdom of God is a weak force (like the wind-blown mustard weed[i] in the parable, not the tall stable cedars alluded to); a weak force without an army to back it up; the powerless power of the kiss or kindness, not of the power of the command or the club. To speak like this is to speak of kingdom and God very differently from that common day understanding. It is to speak of a kingdom without a king in the common sense. It is to speak of the soft sway of something without power as the world knows power. We are not talking about winning, and we do not use weakness as a strategy in a game in which God finally makes the winning move (which is how preachers often preach the crucifixion). Instead we are talking about a powerless power of gift and grace, but without the power that we associate with supreme beings and kingdoms, secular or ecclesial.
A prayer long associated with Jesus has a line, “Thy kingdom come.” And in Matthew 25:31-32 we see an early ‘second coming’ scenario all spelled out of what Jesus might have (though I doubt it) intended: the Supreme Being shows up surrounded by all His angels, seated on His throne of power, with the nations arrayed before Him. “All Hail the Chief!”
This is Christendom make-believe, and make you believe. This is enforcement from above; that was then replicated with thrones for bishops, popes, and even a throne-like chair for the minister of St Luke’s (this thinking drips all the way down). This Supreme Being, and his earthly religious replicas, would then create a reward and punishment system so that Jesus’ love, Jesus’ kingdom, would come, by hook or by crook.
But, and it’s a big ‘but’, if love is commanded is it still love? If love is something we do for reward or to avoid punishment is it still love? You can command compliance and obedience, but not love.
The kingdom of love – that is the kingdom that Jesus lived and breathed and touched others with - calls to us, whispers, lures us on its own; it is not enforced from above. The kingdom of love is a form of living already here, already among us, which seeks us, as a free gift seeks one to receive it, as a free gift seeks one to give it. So, to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ is to pray/live into this dream/insistence of non-coercive giving, gifting, grace.
I was involved with a heterosexual couple a while ago who were having relational difficulties. It emerged in conversation that he was keeping count. Somewhere in his head was this calculator calculating the time, energy, money, and affection that he was giving to their relationship. The woman’s eyes bulged when he said this. She was operating – as I hope most of us in relationships try to – in a totally different economy, one marked by the grace that never keeps count. Frankly, I would say that the man was not in love. He was in something; but not love.
One of the interesting things about the text today from Matthew 25, which in its final form has twisted and subverted the economy of gift into the economy of counting, offers us (if we do some untwisting) insight into what that non-coercive kingdom of love might have looked like in the early Jesus movement: Every time food, drink, and clothing are given, every time the stranger or the sick are welcomed and cared for, and every time the imprisoned are visited, the weak kingdom of love, grace and gift comes. The inclusion of outsiders (the racial or religious or sexual others; the inclusion of the medically and socially contagious; the inclusion of criminals, the mad and the bad), and the addressing of need (sustenance, shelter, clothing), comes as a call within, not as a command from without. It comes as spark, an igniting, of the lamp and energy of our love. The face of the stranger calls to our face.
These six actions, sometimes called ‘the works of mercy’, are what mark us: feeding, clothing, giving drink, visiting the sick and imprisoned and welcoming strangers. The call is to cross boundaries, as love does. The call is to leave our comfort and our creeds to one side, as love does. The call is to offer the grace of welcome and support, with no expectation of reciprocation or sign-up to our values, or our beliefs, or our church. It is an economy of gift, unconditional gift.
This is why I have a problem with the church thinking, popular over the last few decades – I suspect in response to decline in attendance - which wants to set strategies and performance goals for churches, like a good business does. The problem is using the techniques of the counting economy to measure the performance of the economy of gift. Can love be measured? And if you think it can, is it love you’re measuring? What does success look like? Does it look like crucifixion and abandonment; like Golgotha? Do strategies, goals, programmes, and the like help us hear the weak non-coercive call to respond to need with mercy? The answer is mostly no, and sometimes yes. Just like the answer to ‘is the church a business?’ My task, and the task of our eldership, is to safeguard the counter-cultural abnormal unruly economy of gift, with its works of mercy, in the dance with the culturally normative rules of the economy of counting. Or to paraphrase St Paul, ‘how to be in the world but not owned by it.’
What we are doing in the economy of gift, to quote Rodger Smith, is ‘godding’. We are, to quote Meister Eckhart, ‘giving birth to God’. And to quote John Caputo[ii], we are the ones God needs to supply the insistence of God with existence, to make what is being called for in the kingdom of God come true. And the folly of God is to let so much depend on us.
The works of mercy are the works of love of the other, friend or foe, and they are performed without anything else in view, without knowledge of or motivation by some deeper reason to do them. They represent a gift in the truest sense, done without expectation of reward or the fear of punishment. They are carried out without the least knowledge of any Big Story in which they are playing their appointed part.
What Big Story? Well, the half-blasphemous and half-mythological one that turns love into a strong force that makes our enemies our footstool, like we find in Matthew 25. Here the phrase ‘son of man’ (a term that originally meant a simple mortal, one of the nothings and nobodies of the world) was turned into the (uppercase) Son of Man, a high and mighty being coming to judge. This Son of Man, once the weak loving loser called Jesus, is now a powerful royal judge. It’s all twisted.
The twisting continues: he is judging those before him on how they exercised mercy – mercy, note, just to fellow believers (our club) not suffering humanity as a whole (Jesus’ body is now owned by the church). And the kingdom of God is not found in doing deeds of mercy but as a reward for these deeds of mercy.
Twisting on, the royal judge (He who does fury not forgiveness) decides to send those who haven’t done acts of mercy, who haven’t met their KPIs, to punishment; and not just a little punishment but eternal roasting punishment. Does a God of grace and forgiveness do eternal punishment at all??
This is a different Jesus here. Let’s be clear: this is a corruption of the kingdom Jesus was on about. This is not about weakness and love and loss. This is about strength and power and muscle. This is about being a winner in a successful winning God team, with a trophy to take home and put on the mantelpiece. This version of the kingdom and its God-figure who keeps a count is the one most people think the Christian religion is about.
However there is another version, sung softly, sung seldom, ‘a road less travelled’, which doesn’t trumpet success or offer trophies, where love is without reason (foolishness really), done not for the strong God’s sake or for our salvation, done not to obey or to please or for our health or our sense of purpose; but done without a ‘why’. Love is just what we do and are and are in. It’s the economy of gift, the kind-dom of grace, where all the wounded are here, welcoming and being welcomed.
[i] Matthew 13:31-32 NIV 31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
[ii] See the article by John called “Does the Kingdom of God need God?” in The 4th R, Vol 30, No. 5, Sept-Oct 2017. I have used this article extensively in this sermon.