Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, June 15, 2008, the 5th Sunday after Pentecost: Exodus 19:2-8a, Matthew 9:35--10:15
Then Jesus went about all the cities…proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.
As you go, proclaim the good news, the kingdom of heaven has come near (or “is at hand”).
I just returned from a conference called “the City of God” in Washington, DC and it has been one of those watershed moments for me. During the conference the Holy Spirit showed up in multiple ways, but personally to me in two.
The first thing the Holy Spirit had to say to me was keep on the path of self care that you are on. Do not waver from it. It is vital for your future and the future of Two Saints.
The second thing the Holy Spirit had to say to me was, “You’re back.” Here is your renewed voice. And I felt during the conference like I was on a battery charger, the words and experiences of the conference filling me up, restoring my resolve and my voice.
I think there have been moments of being “back” over the past few months, but, to be perfectly honest, I have felt somewhat tentative, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have come across that way. Well, it was what it was and probably needed to be what it needed to be, but I’m here to tell you, I’m back.
I don’t mean that things are now going to be the same as they were before—if nothing else there was that first word of the Spirit to me: “take care of yourself.” Nor do I mean that my illness is completely behind me and will no longer affect my life. That certainly is not true. Truth to tell, I don’t know exactly what I mean, but I know I mean it. I’m back.
So let’s get to the heart of things: the good news.
The opening address of the conference I attended began with this question: What is the good news? That question is the essence of the Christian way. What is the good news? Or, more importantly, what was the good news to Jesus?
Our Gospel reading today tells us in terms that could not be clearer.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.
The good news for Jesus was and is the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it. Proclaiming it was his life’s work. And he made it his disciples’ life work as well.
As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
The Good News for Jesus: the kingdom of heaven has come near, or is “at hand” (an honest alternative translation of “has come near”).
Notice Jesus is humble. He does not say, “I am the good news.” He says that the at-hand kingdom of heaven is good news. Now, of course, Jesus is good news to us, but only in that he is the embodiment of the kingdom.
So what is the kingdom of God? It is a metaphor, of course, and a powerful one in Jesus’ day. The Greek word he uses is basilea, the word used for the Roman Empire. What he was saying flew in the face of the powers that be. He was saying to the Romans, “God’s Empire is at hand.” To King Herod he was saying, “God’s kingdom is at hand.” It is no wonder that his preaching was not only seen as subversive by the religious authorities but also the political authorities. This was a political metaphor.
Eventually the church became somewhat afraid of this political metaphor, especially when the Empire under Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Suddenly Christianity was the religion of the Empire. So it is no surprise that Jesus’ political metaphor was spiritualized. It meant nothing on this earth; it meant an otherworldly heaven.
But this ignored the proclamation that it was at hand, near, among, even within.
Others came to interpret the kingdom of God as a metaphor for the church itself. But no one who spends any time in the church could possibly confuse it with the kingdom of God. An occasional glimpse of the kingdom, yes, it is that, but not the kingdom itself.
No, the kingdom of God remains a political metaphor. To translate it to today’s American context, we might better say “the Empire of God,” since some in high office these days actually talk about a new American Empire. We might also say the “government of God” or “the administration of God.” We often compromise and say the “reign” or the “realm” of God. I’m going to keep using the word kingdom.
What does it mean that the kingdom of heaven is a political metaphor? It does not literally mean that human government should be run by God or God’s followers in a kind of theocracy. Metaphors are not meant to be taken literally.
But it does mean that what Jesus is talking about has something to do with real life, lived out in all its manifestations, including the political, but also in every kind of relationship we have.
And, related to this sense, the most important thing it puts forward is that there is an alternative kingdom which demands our allegiance. There is an alternative way of being in the world to which we are invited. We are asked, day by day, to choose between living in the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God.
What does this choice entail?
I would sum it up this way. The kingdom of this world is the kingdom of consumerism, the kingdom of power and security attained by violence or the threat of violence, and the kingdom of competiveness as the only means to success. By contrast the driving forces of the kingdom of God are neighborliness characterized primarily by generosity and hospitality, reconciliation with those who would do us harm, and unconditional love for all regardless of their worldly “success.”
Those are the two kingdoms between which we must constantly choose. It is a day by day choosing, perhaps even hour by hour. And we frequently fall short. The power of the predominant kingdom of this world is strong; it is the seemingly natural story of our lives writ large. It is the way of life we are taught. It is the air we breathe. It is our every first impulse.
But God wants another, alternative way and he wants us to choose it day by day.
We Episcopalians love processions. But I don’t think we really know what they mean, what they symbolize. They symbolize the movement from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God. The first procession is into the sanctuary, the area of the Altar, the place of sanctuary, the place where the kingdom becomes manifest to us in the offering of bread and wine and the gathering of diverse people around a table in equality. The last procession is then back into the world, bringing the kingdom of God with us into our daily lives. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord (which implies not to love and serve the kingdom of this world).
Another way in which the political nature of the kingdom of God is important is because it signifies that this kingdom is a kingdom of justice and peace. If the kingdom of God is not a kingdom of justice then it is nothing at all. If the choice to live in the kingdom of God is not a choice to practice justice in all our doings, than it is nothing at all.
The kingdom of God calls us out to be God’s own people. Like the ancient Israelites we are called to be a priestly kingdom, a holy nation, born on the wings of God from the place of our slavery to the place of our liberation. That’s another way of contrasting the two kingdoms between which we must choose: the kingdom of slavery or the kingdom of liberation.
So one way to ask ourselves the question about which kingdom in which we are living is, “Does this make me a slave,” or, “Does this make me free.” And it is never just about me. Does this make people slaves or does this make people free? Being able to answer that question presupposes that we have taken the time to learn how to recognize true slavery and true freedom.
One lens we have for such recognition is the Eucharist itself. What we do here is meant to be a picture of liberation (although, of course, we do not always get it right).
This is just a start on understanding what the good news of the kingdom means. Over the next few weeks as we continue to read Matthew’s Gospel we will hear Jesus continue to unpack this metaphor, by use of parables and stories that demonstrate the kingdom of God and how it is different from the kingdom of this world. I hope we listen carefully. You’ll certainly be hearing more from me on the subject.
For today, let us be clear about two things. The good news of the kingdom of God that is at hand is the absolute essence of our faith. And this essence causes us constantly to decide in which kingdom we will live, the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of God. Let us pray for one another and ourselves as we make the daily decision.