Friday, September 26, 2008

“Seeking the Kingdom”

Matthew 6:24-34[1]

After spending the last 30 years of my life studying religion, I have come to accept the fact that great religious leaders are simply bound to be mysterious! And Jesus is no exception! Take for example our gospel lesson, where Jesus summarizes what it is that he asks of his would-be disciples by telling them to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice.” Elsewhere in the same Gospel, he says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field or a single pearl of great value that one buys even though it means selling everything to do it (Matthew 13:44-45). He also says that those who want to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross”; they must “lose their life for [Jesus’] sake” if they want to find it (Matthew 16:24-25). These are just a few of Jesus’ puzzling teachings, most of which describe a life of faith that many of us only barely attain.

Unfortunately, “the Kingdom of God” is not a sound-bite that most people are familiar with these days—even in the church! When people hear the phrase “kingdom of God,” I think they either associate it with some grand institutional hierarchy, or with some dream-like vision of a heavenly realm. I doubt that most people would associate the “Kingdom of God” with ideas like restoring peace and justice, or setting people in a right relationship with God. But that is precisely what Jesus was talking about. The “Kingdom of God” encompasses everything that God is doing in this world, [2] from mending the rift between humankind and God, to calling and gathering his people, to empowering the church to bear witness to new life in Christ, even including God’s promise of “making all things new.” In a very real sense, the “Kingdom of God” stands for God’s great gracious “Yes” to all humankind in Jesus the Christ; and that changes everything, at least potentially.[3]

If the “Kingdom of God” is Jesus’ name for what God is doing in the world, how is it that we are supposed to “seek” this “Kingdom”? “Seeking the Kingdom” definitely does not mean looking and waiting patiently for something that is not here yet.[4] To construe the “Kingdom of God” as something which essentially lies in the future is to overlook everything that Christian faith proclaims as “good news”! “Seeking the Kingdom” also does not imply that somehow we are responsible for constructing that kingdom here and now.[5] In a very real sense, the “Kingdom of God” is something that only God in Jesus the Christ can properly “build.” When we presume to do so, I’m afraid we’re only getting in the way.

In one sense, I think “seeking the Kingdom” means seeing the Kingdom in the midst of all the chaos and violence and other forms of “striving” that seem to define life in this world.[6] By “seeing” the Kingdom I mean recognizing that God’s purpose, God’s love, and God’s grace are the true basis for all of life, not the various competing “American idols” out there clamoring for our attention. It means seeing through illusions like “might makes right” and “winning is the only thing” and “looking out for number one” to be able to recognize the true reality that is already at work in this world—a reality that started with Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection to new life.[7] Seeing the Kingdom means refusing either to think that somehow we’re exempt from the struggle of human living because we’re “above it all” or to give in to the temptation to despair that all is lost,[8] but rather seeing ourselves and all creation as the object of God’s redeeming grace that never stops seeking us.

At the most basic level, “seeking first the Kingdom of God” means aligning our lives with what God is doing in this world. It means living our lives based on the principles and truth of God’s Kingdom.[9] In a very important sense, when we engage in the folly of “seeking the Kingdom,” when we promote God’s justice by sharing with those in need, and when we preach the Gospel by practicing unconditional acceptance for all persons, the simple existence of such a congregation constitutes a powerful sign to the whole world that God’s kingdom is already changing everything.[10] Our very life in this world serves to “infect” it with God’s Kingdom![11] Our proclamation of the Gospel that in Jesus the Christ all persons may now walk through the open doors to receive God’s welcoming embrace of love stands as a witness to the truth that the world and all its forms of “striving” are already passing away.[12] It is a testimony to our hope in the promise that one day Jesus will return to finish the work he started—however we construe that, it cannot be in terms that anyone will be “left behind,” but rather that he will bring everyone safely home by the grace and mercy and love of God!

To some extent, all those who have encountered the grace of God through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, who have begun to see the reality of what God’s love is doing in this world, who look forward to God’s future where everything will be made new cannot help but “seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice”![13]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/25/08 at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:598-99; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 76-98, where he speaks of the Kingdom of God in terms of God’s “liberating rule.” See also ibid., 190.

[3] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:622, 649-50, 660-61, 711-12, 789, 798-99; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 55-56, 187.

[4] See Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 165.

[5] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:629-33, 709, 829-30.

[6] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:716-17.

[7] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:687, 698, 714, 717; see also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 221.

[8] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:712-14, 722-24, 734-51, 773-74, 824-29.

[9] See Moltmann, Church in the Power, 163-89 for some specific areas where the justice of the Kingdom can be brought to bear in our world.

[10] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3: 675, 716, 794; see also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 191-92, 221-22.

[11] See Moltmann, Church in the Power, 84.

[12] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:771: God’s “omnipotent mercy rules over all without exception, … no matter how lost they are they are not lost to him.” See also ibid., 805-806, where he says, “God does not believe in the unbelief … of man.” Cf. further ibid., 809, where he speaks of the “never-resting love of the living God” that overcomes all other circumstances to claim all persons.

[13] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:599.

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