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 Source of the Cosmos must exist beyond all that must fill it and self-express through it. How beyond our imagining GOD – the Source of the Cosmos and Everything in it – must really be!
And yet for the GOD of the Universe there appears to be something about the life on planet Earth that is so attractive that the Spirit of GOD would be (in the words of the Prophet Joel and Apostle Peter) poured out on all flesh” tranforming human lives and altering human society. When we experience those alterations to human lives and human society we recognize them as manifestations of “The Kingdom of God.”
THE NEARBY KINGDOM
When I was a boy people conceived of 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 that the kingdom of God is nearby; that it is about the present as well as the future; that the kingdom of God is about how we should live with each other; that it is something to be reached out for and taken hold of.
George Eldon Ladd taught this to John Wimber, who then sewed it into the fabric of the Vineyard fellowships. And Vineyard planted it in my theological DNA!
Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels gives us lenses which enable us to recognize the kingdom of GOD in the here and now, and identify kingdom of GOD activity. According to the Apostle Paul in Acts 17, GOD is “that in which we all live and move and have our being.” Accordingly, GOD is potentially in conversation with every human being on the planet – somewhat depending on our consciousness of that connection.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus first toured with a sermon that said that the kingdom of heaven (which we might translate as the realm of the powers and principles of the cosmos) is at hand – ie available. If that is so then presumably people should be experiencing those alterations I spoke of. They are!
Through the years there is a question I have asked of hundreds of people – from agnostics to pagans, from believers to atheists. “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!
For some New Testament examples of this same pattern 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 manifesting in the lives of all those people in Acts. They simply needed the change explaining.
THE KINGDOM AND RE-BIRTH
Through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in John 3 we understand that GOD can re-boot human lives, initiating a spiritual rebirth later in their lives; a rebirth which opens up a new consciousness of the realm of GOD, and which enables them to participate in the ways of the kingdom of GOD Sometimes people experience that second birth before and separately to the change being interpreted for them. For instance…
- 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 alteration they have experienced interpreted for them. Because the Kingdom of God is manifesting in people’s lives faster than interpreters can keep up! That is what Apostle Paul’s team of kingdom of GOD interpreters found in the stories charted in the book of Acts.
Let me share a personal example. 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 heart 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. GOD is transforming you. You’re going to be living a changed life!”
The Roman Catholic chaplain was correct. Dean was experiencing a spiritual rebirth. The chaplain helped him to understand it and interpret what was happening to him in the light of the teaching of Jesus. That was the beginning of Dean’s journey of faith. Note:
- The Kingdom of GO Dmanifestation – the John 3 rebirth experience – came first!
- Then came the interpretation
- What resulted was a personal transformation
Now someone might say, “Paul, that’s a funny order isn’t it? Shouldn’t the repentance and change come first and then God shows up?” Not really.
Consider the sermon that Jesus took with him on his first preaching tour, referenced in Matthew 4. He said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or has come close – therefore repent (a word which means go beyond your mind)!”
This view of the kingdom of GOD is a wider perspective than a paradigm of Christian vs non-Christian or Church vs non-Church.
“NO” TO GOD. “YES” TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD?
In another place Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like two sons. The Father says, “Will you work today in the vineyard for me?” One son says, “Yes”, but it is no more than verbal assent. No actual work occurs. The other son says “No” to the father, but later decides of his own accord to do some work in the vineyard. So Jesus asks, “Which one did the will of the father?” Answer: the one who said “no” but actually ploughed the field.
Wait a second! In this story the Father represents GOD. That means that what we have here is a picture of a person who has said “No” to GOD – actually working his vineyard for him. Here is a person who has said “No” to God – actually doing the work of GOD!
Through this story Jesus is teaching us to perceive a reality among people in the world around us. Off the top of my head I can think of many people who have not said “yes” to GOD, or who have even said “no” to GOD, or to the very idea of GOD, whose love and work and care for people and whose beautiful character often appear to manifest the Kingdom of GOD more authentically than some religious believers do!
As a young Christian believer I sometimes used to look upon such kingdom-manifesting friends and wonder, “Why aren’t you a Christian. You should be a Christian! You would make an awesome Christian!!” But my framework was too small. The Kingdom of God is not a Christian vs non-Christian paradigm.
Rajiv Parti – author of “Dying to Live”
ENTERING THE KINGDOM AS A PARADIGM ALL ITS OWN
Consider the possibility that a person might experience a new birth, a soiritual coming alive – a person who, like Eve Ensler, then devotes her life to giving compassionately to others and living by the values of the Kingdom of GOD.
Then think again about Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in John 3. To perceive the Kingdom of GOD and enter the Kingdom of Heaven a person must experience a spiritual rebirth. This rebirth will be evidenced by participation in the life of the kingdom – the values and the realities of GOD
As a Christian I have tended in the past to read that passage all the while mentally substituting Jesus’ words so that the passage becomes a teaching about changing a person from a non-Christian to a Christian. In reality, that paradigm is nowhere in the text. (The language of “christian” belongs to another time and place. It was the label given in Antioch to non Jews who were accepting Jesus as the Messiah or Christ.)
If we allow the text to speak on its own terms it provides a lens for me by which I can recognize this story arc for what it is – a life re-defined by a radical change – a coming alive spiritually – which then opens the person up to the realm of God’s ways, his love, his values and principles and power – noting that this story arc might be found in the life of any kind of person – be they a card-carrying Christian or not!
The paradigms of the text are spiritual rebirth and kingdom. If I use those paradigms as my lens I suddenly perceive how expansive is God’s activity in all kinds of people. Eve Ensler’s story mirrors the John 3 story arc exactly!
For a powerful, detailed and immersive illustration of the John 3 story-arc outside of a card-carrying Christian context, let me highly recommend this book:
Rajiv Parti MD is an American Hindu Surgeon whose life was completely changed through a near death experience, which took him on a journey through hell and heaven and back to life to a process of repentance and change, henceforward to live a transformed, redeemed, reborn life. Rajiv speaks openly about the process, about the importance of God and the need for forgiveness, prayer and compassion.
For a paradigm to summarize and makes sense of the whole story, you will find no better text than John 3. Notwithstanding two Judaeo-Christian angels turning up to help him in his journey, Rajiv Parti is a Hindu. His wife noted this as an incongruity. “What’s wrong the the Hindu ‘gods’? Why did you get Christian angels turning up?!” Why indeed! But at this point in time I cannot label Rajiv Parti’s experience as a “becoming a Christian” story. It is an “entering the Kingdom” story. Just like John 3. Because the Kingdom of God is not a Christian/non-Christian paradigm.
To what else can we compare the Kingdom? Jesus said 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 Clearly, being in church and Manifesting the Kingdom are not the same thing.
Documentary maker, Michael Moore
THE KINGDOM AS DIVINE ACTION
Let me recommend another movie, the Michael Moore doco “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.
For many Christian believers the cause into which they feel pressed is that of building the Church. That is a great cause, though one absent from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel. Building the Kingdom evokes a wider vision of God’s purpose in the world.
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 – God’s people – 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.”
In Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand, is an invitation to reach out and take hold of it; take hold of ways of forgiveness; take hold of ways of grace; take hold of ways healing and deliverance by God’s power; take hold of justice, freedom, kindness, generosity – all gifts of the Kingdom for the taking. We need to go for them with all our energy.
If we can disentangle the words of Jesus’ message (as summarized at the beginning of Matthew in the fourth chapter) from the doctrines of churchianity we have layered onto the language, then the sermon Jesus toured with and demonstrated says this:
“Be transformed because you can be transformed.”
“And this is because the amazing power and principles of the Cosmos…”
(For the Kingdom of Heaven…)
“…are available to you – and to everybody.”
(…is at hand.)
What greater invitation to explore the “Kingdom of God” could there be than that?!
Try chewing on these questions:
- What Kingdom activity have you identified beyond the boundaries of Christianity and Church and what does it mean for us to join in and serve?
- What does it mean to acknowledge God’s rescuing, and re-birthing activity among people outside of the realm of the Christian Church?
- What people or situation have you encountered where God was “previous” and what did it mean to join in and “bless” what you saw that God 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 availability of the power and ways of Kingdom of Heaven as an opportunity for transformation. What change is it calling for from you? What transformation is it offering you?
THE KINGDOM OF GOD AS A POWER-PARADIGM
Just as in the past we have tended to confuse Jesus’ kingdom paradigm with “coming-to-Church” paradigms or with “becoming-a-Christian” paradigms so we in the churches have tended to do that with all of Jesus’ teachings.
But in the Gospels of Matthew and of John the kingdom is the paradigm through which we should be hearing all his teachings. So if we get our notion of kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven wrong then our take on all his teachings will be out of kilter.
If Jesus’ introductory really message is: “Be transformed because you can be transformed. And this is because the amazing power and principles of the Cosmos are available to you – and to everybody…”
…how does that message frame the teachings and activity that follow? That rephrased announcement makes me fully expect manifestations of healings, deliverances and miracles. How could it not?
When Jesus says that to perceive this higher dimension and enter into it I need a spiritual rebirth…then it makes me ask in a fresh way, how can I get that?
When Jesus says that not all who perform healings or deliverances and refer to him as their “Lord” are genuinely going to enter into in that higher dimension…that gets me thinking.
When Jesus says that a person operating by the cosmic principles of a higher dimension can do business so shrewdly that they can leverage a company crisis and, as an individual, come out of it better off than before…I want to learn how to do that!
If the interpretation I have suggested unpacks accurately the implications of Jesus’ language of the kingdom being at hand, then I have to go back to the Gospels and admit that this is a wider angle lens than I have looked through before. So what was Jesus on about? What has my narrower view missed. Suddenly the themes of the Gospel appear a little wider, more diverse and more mysterious. That’s a realm – a kingdom – I really want to get into!