The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably…” (12:28), making clear that the kingdom is not something that we build, bring, or “establish”. Rather, it is given, received, and welcomed. It is God’s gift to a hurting world; the faithful response of God to groaning of his creation. The end of the Story (which may in fact be the beginning of an even grander Story) depicts the consummated kingdom of God, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:2-4). We testify to it, plant seeds of it, engage in acts that speak of it … but ultimately, the kingdom is not our doing. It is God’s.
The way you hear most people in church-world talk these days, it is clear that this point is not grasped. We think that “kingdom” is our job. Pastors talk about “bringing the kingdom of God to such-and-such place” through their efforts and the efforts of those who follow them. Even social justice advocates talk and behave as though kingdom were a sort of moral attainment. “Kingdom” thus becomes a cipher for our best ecclesial and social visions and hence a mandate given to us.
But Jesus never called us to “found” the kingdom. He merely called us to announce it… and then receive it with joy. And all of that means, I think, that we have the time and space to do things well as we patiently wait for the Holy City to come.
Several years back, the pastor I worked under in Tulsa, Ed Gungor, was invited to an ecumenical dialogue at the Vatican. The purpose of the dialogue was to discern what the Spirit was doing around the world in order to help foster renewal in the Church globally. While there, one of the bishops said (to Ed’s great surprise), “You know, we really think that by setting a few things in motion today, we could really begin to see some positive change 100 years from now.”
WHAT?! 100 YEARS!? We don’t have time for that! We need to figure out how the get things done now! What about this fall?!
Of course, when you live in a church milieu that has no sense of history (as most of American Protestantism is devoid of) and thinks the kingdom is some kind of responsibility given to us, you’ll never have the foresight to plant seeds that may bear fruit 10, 20, 30, 50 or 100 years from now. But if kingdom is a gift, then we have the time and space to plant … and wait. For in God’s world, everything is gift. Everything is grace.
Frankly, remembering this helps me immensely. It saves me from being a frantic bundle of nervous activity, and gives me the confidence that my “work” is as much about prayer and patience as it is about toil and sweat. Maybe the monks have it right: ora et labora – pray and work, work and pray. We can … because God gives what we hope most for. In the meantime, everything we need is right here, right now. We lack nothing we need.
By now I have spoken too much … so I’ll leave you with this. In 1980 the Bishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated while celebrating the Mass. Before he died, he penned these words. May they bring joy to your heart and give you the confidence that in God’s good world, there is time and space for you to patiently wait:
A FUTURE NOT OUR OWN
It helps, now and then, to step back
And take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection…
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
Knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
And to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results…
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen. So be it.