This is the galaxy we live in. The beautiful detailed spiral of the Milky Way.
Here we have taken a step back to picture the estimated 100,000,000,000 galaxies of the universe; 100,000,000,000 milky ways and mega milky ways scattered across the fabric of space.
It is awe inspiring to reflect that the Creator is beyond all that and fills all that. How beyond our imagining God must really be!
And yet for the God of the Universe there is something about the human beings on planet Earth that is so attractive to him and so valuable that he would continually watch and visit human beings, and enter individual human lives by his Spirit, and do other things to profoundly alter human society.
Those alterations to human lives and human society we call “The Kingdom of God” – or the manifestation of the Kingdom of God.
When I was a boy people imagined the Kingdom of God as something very remote. If someone said, “You’ll be waiting until kingdom come,” they meant that you’ll be waiting for ever and it might be better to assume it won’t happen. That’s how distant the Kingdom of God seemed to us.
But my faith has been informed by a tradition of believers who say:
- The Kingdom of God is about how we live now.
- The Kingdom of God is now – as well as not yet.
- The Kingdom of God is at hand – it’s something to be reached out for and taken hold of.
George Eldon Ladd taught this to John Wimber. John Wimber then sewed it into the fabric of Vineyard. And Vineyard planted it in my theological DNA!
Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels gives us lenses that enable us to recognize God’s ways in the here and now, and identify his activity out there. Because God is out there! He is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. He is trying to get into conversation with every human being on the planet. Some human beings are aware of that. And some people are not aware – or not yet aware. But my experience is that God is always Previous – to use a Watchman Nee phrase. God has always got there first to try and get people into conversation with Him.
Through the years there is a question I have asked of hundreds of people – from agnostics to pagans, from believers to atheists. When I ask “Have you ever experienced anything in your life that, looking back, you think might have been God?” it doesn’t matter who I ask, the answer is always YES! Everyone has a story – even the person who two sentences before was an atheist!
Because God is always trying to get into conversation with people, when we believers ask we often find that God has got to a person first. For some New Testament examples think…
- Apostle Peter meets Cornelius – an Italian already known by God, already in conversation with God.
- Aspostle Paul meets Lydia in Philippi – a person already gathering others to pray together
- Deacon Phil meets the Ethiopian Chancellor reading the book of Isaiah on the Azotus Road
- Priscilla and Aquilla meet Apollos in Ephesus – a man who was already touring with lectures on Jesus, even though he didn’t fully know the Gospel.
The Kingdom of God was breaking into the lives of all those people in Acts. But they needed the change explaining.
Through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in John 3 we understand that God loves to re-boot human lives by providing from his own Spirit a spiritual rebirth later in their lives; a rebirth that opens up their spiritual senses and enables them to participate in the ways and activity of his kingdom. Sometimes he makes that change before the change is explained to them.
- Alfred the Great was spiritually reborn in the 800s, on his own, in a Saxon forest, hiding from the Vikings, and calling out to God for help.
- Nelson Mandela experienced a spiritual rebirth – though he only rarely mentioned it – while in prison on Robben Island
- Eve Ensler, champion for women’s rights and author of The Vagina Monologues, does not describe herself as a Christian but clearly was spiritually reborn when she collapsed on an airport floor in the most acute psychological and emotional pain and called out to God to save her. He did. He relaunched her life and gave her a life-changing contribution to women on an international scale.
Eve Ensler – author of the Vagina Monologues
Some need the change they have experienced explaining to them. Because the Kingdom of God is breaking in faster than we can keep up!
My friend Dean was in prison for various frauds. A good church lady befriended him as a pen-pal and sent him a Gospel to read. Every time he started to read it his body began to fill with and amazing warmth, and his mind began to fill with an amazing peace, and his heat began to fill with an amazing joy. And it freaked him out!! So he put the book down and wasn’t sure if he should read it again.
Dean told this to the Anglican chaplain who didn’t know what to make of it. He told it to the Uniting chaplain (it sounds like a joke but it’s a true story!) and the Uniting chaplain said, “Yes that is weird!” But the Roman Catholic chaplain read it right. He said, “Dean, do you know what’s happening to you? You’re entering the Kingdom of God. You’re becoming a Christian. You’re going to be living a changed life!”
The Roman Catholic chaplain was right. Dean was getting spiritually reborn and he has been a Christian ever since! Note:
- The Kingdom of God break-in – God’s John 3 rebirthing activity – came first!
- Then came the explanation
- Then came the change – the repentance and decision
Now someone might say, “Paul, that’s a funny order isn’t it? Shouldn’t the repentance come first?” Well no. Not really. Consider the sermon that Jesus took with him on his first preaching tour, referenced in Matthew 4. He said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand, or has come close – therefore…change/repent!”
Same pattern as Dean:
- The Kingdom of God is previous
- Then comes the announcement/explanation
- Then come the change/repentance
Now, to say that the Kingdom of God is previous – previous to us seeing and joining in – is to say that the Kingdom of God is beyond us. Yes the Kingdom of God is within us and among us. It is also beyond us. It is a bigger perspective than Christian/non-Christian or Church/non-Church.
For instance the Kingdom of God is like two sons. The Father says, “Will you plough the field for me?” One son says, “Yes”, but doesn’t actually do it. The other son says “No” but then decides of his own accord to plough the field. So Jesus asks, “Which one did the will of the father?” Answer: the one who said “no” but actually ploughed the field.
Hang on a minute! Wait a second! In this story the Father is God. In its original setting it played gentile outsiders vs observant Jews. That means that what we have here is a picture of a person who has said “No” to God – actually ploughing his field for him.
Here is a person who has said “No” to God – actually doing the work of God!
That’s not my story. That’s a story Jesus told to help us recognize a pattern in the world around us.
I think that most of us would know people like that; people who have not said yes to God, or have even said no to God, but whose love and work and care for people and beautiful character would seem to serve the Kingdom of God better than some believers do! If you’re like me you’re going “Why aren’t you a Christian. You should be a Christian. You would make an awesome Christian!”
But the Kingdom of God is not a Christian/non-Christian paradigm.
The Kingdom of God is like two builders. One who builds on sand is like a person who listens to the word of Jesus but doesn’t do anything about what he’s heard. One who builds on rock is like a person who listens to the words of Jesus and puts what he hears into action.
Both of these builders are listening to the word of Jesus. So it sounds to me like they’re both in the Church. But only one is manifesting God’s rule. Only one is actualizing the Kingdom. Clearly then Being in church and Manifesting the Kingdom – are two good things but they are not the same thing.
Let me recommend the Michael Moore movie “Where to invade next?” In it Michael Moore visits various countries around the world to steal their best ideas and take them back to America. In it we saw:
- Children cared for, nurtured and empowered in their education
- Addicts being helped rather than harmed
- Prisoners loved and rehabilitated rather than brutalized
- Employers loving and caring for their employees rather than fleecing them
- Sick people looked after and cared for, rather than abandoned.
Ruth and I watched the movies together and we said to each other: “If the Kingdom of God is when we do it God’s way, then that looks like the Kingdom of God!”
Of course we know this. We know that we can serve the Kingdom by:
- Caring for Children – think Heidi Baker or George Muller
- Caring for Addicts – think Jackie Pullinger or William Booth
- Caring for Workers – think Oscar Romero or George Cadbury
- Caring for Prisoners, or Refugees, or the Homeless, or caring for sick people – think the monastic founders of the first hospitals.
Heidi Baker – in her element
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus taught that if you are caring for any such people then you are caring for the King. You are serving his Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is so big as to embrace all our sense of cause.
What this also shows us is that Building the Church and Building the Kingdom are two great things, but they are not the same thing.
And there is an order to it. My point of view is that we don’t look for the Kingdom of God to build the Church. We look for the church to build the Kingdom, to bless what God is doing, to see what his Spirit is doing and join in.
Jesus said something else to keep us from being passive – as if the Father will build his Kingdom on his own. “The Father will do it on his own” was the perspective of the son who said yes but didn’t do any ploughing. He left it to the father. That’s like the builder who listened to the words of Jesus but took no action. The Father will do it on his own?! It was that kind of Passive Thinking that John Wesley saw as the greatest threat to the continuation of revival in the Great Revival of the C18th.
Jesus put it this way: “The Kingdom of God advances with force and forceful people take hold of it by force.”
If the Kingdom of God is at hand, we have to do something. We need to reach out and take hold of it forcefully; take hold of forgiveness; take hold of grace; take hold of healing, deliverance, justice, freedom, kindness, generosity – all gifts of the Kingdom for the taking. We need to go for them with all our energy.
In conclusion let me offer up some questions to chew on:
- What Kingdom activity have you seen beyond Christian and Church boundaries and what does it mean for us to join in and serve?
- What people or situation have you encountered where God was “previous” and what did it mean to join in and bless what He was doing?
- What aspects of the Kingdom of God do you need to forcefully take hold of in a way you have not done before?
- Jesus saw the proximity of the Kingdom as a call to change. What change is it calling for from you?