[This post is to briefly expand and hopefully clarify some comments from my sermon yesterday that may not have been as clearly expressed as I’d intended. I don’t know what the cross-section is of those who read this blog and hear me preach (if you’re interested, podcasts can be found here), but these comments should be able to stand as some short theological reflections on their own.]
One of the many things I appreciate about serving the Lord at Bellefield is the privilege of working with a very thoughtful, reflective, and theologically mature staff. In my sermon yesterday, I made a comment that wasn’t as clear as it should have been, and it generated some great discussion earlier this morning between a few of us in the office. While I regret not communicating my intended point as well as I could have, I’m also grateful for the feedback it produced and some comments that helped me sharpen my own understanding–so thanks to our staff for that.
In the midst of a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, we spent a week exploring the phrase “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven” (Matthew 6:10). I first went about trying to identify the nature and character of the kingdom of God, noting that it is spiritual in nature, and that it is revealed as the realm in which God is glorified as God and his people live as his people. To flesh that out a bit: it is the the realm in which God (the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is glorified as God (he is known and worshipped for who he is and for what he has done, chiefly his redemptive work accomplished in and through Jesus Christ) and his people (those whom he has called and claimed in Jesus Christ) live as his people (those who are being remade by the Holy Spirit into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, and who delight to walk in his ways).
Then, I made the comment that sparked all the follow-up discussions.
I said that we do not build this kingdom.
“Building the kingdom” is language that I hear often in Christian circles, but I think it is unhelpful and imprecise. Though I mentioned that yesterday, I didn’t spend enough time clarifying what I meant, so here’s an attempt to do so.
Scripture speaks often about the kingdom of God–and about our relationship to it–but Jesus never uses the language of “building” to indicate our activity with regard to it. He tells us to seek the kingdom (Matthew 6:33) and to enter the kingdom (Matthew 19:24), because the kingdom has come near to us (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). Jesus said that we receive the kingdom (Mark 10:15) and inherit the kingdom (Matthew 25:34), that we look for it (Mark 15:43), and preach it (Luke 9:2). We testify to the kingdom (Acts 28:23), because we have been made worthy of it (2 Thessalonians 1:5), and can even be said to be a kingdom (Revelation 1:6, 5:10).
The notion that we build the kingdom leads to at least two potential problems. First, it reduces our understanding of God’s agency by implying that he gives us the tools and abilities, as it were, and then steps back to watch us bring about his reconciling work. Even if we give nod to the role of the Spirit, God’s role in this schema comes across as more of an instrumental cause than an efficient cause (to use an Aristotelean framework). Rather than God working in and through us to accomplish his purposes, the implication is that we are the primary agent–even if we do our best to acknowledge God’s presence and participation in the work. Perhaps this is an extreme implication, but I think it’s present nonetheless.
Second, I don’t find it to be good news, or to inspire any real sense of confidence in the certainly or quality of the project, to say that we build the kingdom. Our finitude and sinfulness renders us incapable of building anything well. Look at what we build and the quality and motives with which we build. We construct fractured families, corrosive workplaces, unjust systems, and myopically narcissistic ideologies designed to advance our own petty kingdom-building projects. If the construction of the kingdom of God were up to us, then I’d hold out no hope for its success on a quantitative or qualitative level.
So we don’t build the kingdom because it is beyond our ability to enthrone Jesus in the hearts of others. Indeed, apart form the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, we cannot even enthrone Jesus in our own hearts without them first being renewed (Ezekiel 36:25-27). That’s why I think it is unhelpful and inaccurate to say that we build the kingdom. Rather, it is Jesus Christ himself, through what the early Church father Irenaeus called his “two hands” of Word and Spirit, who builds his kingdom. It is Jesus Christ himself, heralded in the gospel and born witness to by Word and Spirit, who calls men and women to himself, lifting those who are dead in their sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1) into the newness of life that is only found in him. It is these same people, then, who live in ways that bear witness to this grace and are called to reflect Jesus Christ in all that they do.
This witness must be brought to bear in every area of our lives, however. To say that we have been redeemed and are being remade is not to advocate some internalized spiritual pietism, as if a new set of affectations is all that is produced. Rather, this grace that has drawn us up from the grave calls us to new ways of living that ought to impact and inform every area of our life. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father though him” (Colossians 3:17). Our union with Jesus Christ–by grace through faith–is to transform our lives, our relationships, our workplaces, our families, our communities, our congregations, and our world.
By living as those who have been redeemed, we bear witness to the kingdom. We help to reveal it to those around us. We testify to it through word and deed. In a certain sense–and with some qualifications–I’d even be comfortable saying that we participate with God in bringing the kingdom to bear within our various spheres of life and culture. I didn’t spend enough time saying those things in my sermon yesterday, though I should have. Without some of these broader comments, my brief initial comment may not have been as clear as it should have been–though I’d still say it again: we do not build the kingdom, and thank God for that!