November 26, 2000
Rev. Steven A. Peay, Ph.D.
Heritage Congregational Church, Madison, WI
24th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Without a doubt, everyone gathered here knows and has prayed those familiar words from the Lord's Prayer. Our Congregational forebears viewed the prayer only as a model for prayer and not something to be recited in rote repetition. I'm beginning to understand why they took that position. When we pray that prayer are we simply saying nice, familiar words or do we really mean what we're saying? If we mean what we say, we'd better understand what is implied. As the fourteenth century spiritual writer Meister Eckhardt said, "The kingdom of God is no small thing."
When Jesus stood before Pilate to answer the question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" he was facing someone with a limited notion of kingship. In fact, most of us probably share Pilate's limited view that kingship is something political and territorial. When we think of kingship or monarchy our thoughts go to England or some other country that still supports a royal establishment. In the mind of Israel, however, God was the king of the Jews. Thus, Pilate had no idea what he was asking or that the answer he got carried enormous implications.
Early on the Jews had no monarchy. You can remember the story told in the book of Samuel about how they whined and complained that they wanted to have a king like everybody else. So, out of the hardness of their hearts and their unwillingness to be ruled directly by God, they got a king: Saul. Saul turned out to be a disaster and was replaced by David who, though a bit of a rapscallion, was the "man after God's own heart." Israel had a king and a dynasty, but the kings knew that it was really God who ruled and that their function was to be regents on God's behalf. If they forgot, the prophets reminded them of their true role! So God was the true king of Israel and any authority the king had was derived from God's gift of favor. Thus, we hear the words of David in Second Samuel testifying to God's covenant faithfulness, "Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure." There was an understanding that God's kingdom was Israel.
Jesus' response, "My kingdom is not of this world" was a powerful shift in the arrangement of things. Now Jesus is the regent and kingly rule moves from the earthly to the heavenly representative. Jesus comes to declare God's ultimate kingship (God's truth) and to assemble God's own people (everyone who belongs to the truth). Now the kingdom is not a matter of politics or territory, but of person and relationship.
Jesus' declaration that his kingdom is something not of this earth, something religious, tells us that God is showing forth his great love for humanity through him. Pilate never does seem to get it; he's stuck in the realm of policy. What is at stake here isn't territory, however, it's the human heart. Jesus comes to reveal the magnitude of God's love for us and this brings us to a point of crisis, of judgment, where we have to decide whether we are on the side of truth or against it. Jesus doesn't have followers to take up arms and fight on his behalf. Rather, he has followers who show forth love in the same sort of self-giving, life-affirming manner that Jesus himself does.
When we pray, "Thy kingdom come" we're asking for the very presence of Christ in our midst. Our prayer says that we're open to the reality of what God's kingdom means for us. To be in the kingdom of God is to be one who is IN the world, but not OF the world. In other words, our approach to life and values is, and must be, different than those around us. This is what is implied in these four very dense verses from the Revelation of John.
In these verses John the Revelator tells us about who God is, "him who is, who was, and is to come. . . .the Almighty." He tells us about who Jesus is, "the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead." And declares what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, "who loves us, freed us, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father." There's a great deal tied up right there, it's one of the most doctrine packed passages in all of Scripture. Ultimately, John reminds us when we pray for the coming of the kingdom that we're calling to mind our own obligation to service. We are freed, but for a purpose. Our freedom is one to serve and love God, and each other, with abandon just as Jesus did. When the early Congregationalists talked about "freedom" this is what they meant. Our freedom is a freedom TO, not a freedom FROM.
To pray for the coming of the kingdom, then, reminds us of our responsibility. Our prayers should also remind us of who we are. When Jesus comes among us preaching the kingdom, he is also proclaiming the royal personhood and dignity of every person made in the image and likeness of God. Thus the Psalmist writes: "You have made humans a little less than God, and you have crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands putting all things under your feet" (Psalm 8:6,7). In that same vein Meister Eckhardt said, "Every human person is an aristocrat. Every human person is noble and of royal blood, born from the intimate depths of the divine nature and the divine wilderness." To pray for the coming of the kingdom is to pray that God will help us see and realize who we are and what we are called to be.
Everyone who hears the voice of Jesus, who heeds his Word of truth and is born anew by it, is brought into this wondrous state of being. Christians are called upon to acknowledge this dignity in themselves and in others, and then to live accordingly. Long ago, Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland penned a prayer called The Lorica. A portion of it reminds us of God's kingdom in us and in others.
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me . . . .
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I
Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every person who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me . . . .
I arise today through the wonder of the Trinity.
What is true of individuals is even truer of the community of faith, the church. The gathered people of God are to demonstrate God's love for the world by their love for each other and their acts of service. Our call to life in God, to life in the kingdom, is a call to community. As Peter says in his first epistle, " . . .you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). It is unfortunate that we've not always lived up to what we're called to be. Around the turn of the last century the French Biblical scholar Alfred Loisy, who was excommunicated by the Roman Church for his use of modern methods of Bible study, complained: "Jesus came preaching the kingdom and what we got was the churches ö what a letdown!" Why did he say that? Because we pray for the coming of the kingdom, but we don't mean it. Because we are made royal persons by Christ, given the gift to transform ourselves and our world, and we choose to remain the same. What a letdown, indeed!
Eckhardt said, "The kingdom of God is no small thing." How true! And he wasn't talking about expanse of territory, or numbers of population, or breadth of policy. No, he was talking about relationship and the wonder of God's love made real in the here and now by ordinary people like you and me. It's not small thing to pray for the coming of the kingdom because it's already right here among us ö if we have the eyes of faith to see it. The kingdom was in front of Pilate and he had no idea it was there. The kingdom is all around us here, right now, do we see it? When we pray that prayer that Jesus taught us later in the service, perhaps we can try harder to mean what we pray and then begin to see the kingdom here among us. Together we should pray the coming of the kingdom and mean it by making it visible by the words we say, by the thoughts we think, and by the deeds we do. The world needs us to mean it when we say, "thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven." Amen.