If it’s not a club, what is it?

I was immensely encouraged by the wise comments on “the saved and the unsaved” last week. My hope in writing last week’s entry was to demonstrate that the image of the Kingdom of God as an exclusive club is simply bogus. There is just no support in the Bible for this line of thinking. As soon as you start to think you can categorize people as insiders and outsiders, another verse comes along to challenge your certainty.

But if the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven – Jesus uses both phrases – is not a club, what is it?

Jesus does not offer definitions. Instead, as John Sherk notes, He gives analogies. He says God’s Kingdom is like yeast that a woman works through large amounts of flour to create dough. (Luke 13)

Or it’s like a seed scattered on the ground that, day and night, sprouts and grows, even though we don’t know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head, until it is ready for harvest. (Mark 4)

Or it’s like a mustard seed – the smallest of seeds. Yet when planted it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch it its shade. (Luke 13)

Or it’s like a hidden treasure in a field, found accidentally by a trespasser who sells everything he owns to raise money to buy the field. Or it’s like a flawless pearl found by a merchant, who sells everything he has to buy it. (Matthew 13)

And then there are the stories: the Kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants; like the owner of a vineyard; like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son; like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet a bridegroom; like a net lowered into a lake; like a farmer sowing seed on good ground and bad.

And finally this: “The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you – or “among you,” some translations say. (Luke 17)

My imaginary Kingdom

I love all these analogies. They bespeak a Kingdom that is both small and great; ordinary and precious. It is hidden, and yet has a far-reaching impact. It is in us, among us, and yet beyond us too.

I do wonder, though, whether the phrase “the Kingdom of God” is an analogy worth exploring in itself. It certainly corresponds with my own perceptions and experience. In the Kingdom of God in my imagination, there is an inner circle of people close to the King, eager to do his will and enjoy his company. Some may be chosen by the King, others seek out the position. They live close to the King, converse regularly and are intimately acquainted with his thoughts.

There are also the solid citizens who do not know the King personally, but are keen to uphold their citizenship responsibilities and work for the Kingdom’s welfare. Some are born into the Kingdom and remain loyal to it. Others are born into the Kingdom and take its benefits for granted. And then there are immigrants and refugees – people who came out of curiosity or desperation and became citizens. I am one of these. I took out citizenship because I saw hope of a richer and more grounded life than in the Kingdom of my birth. But there are also visitors such as the Three Wise Men – people who come and see, but return to their birthplace.

It would be naïve to suggest that this Kingdom does not have enemies, both within and without. Within, there are those who claim citizenship but whose words and actions so undermine the King that they bring the entire Kingdom into disrepute, discourage immigration and lead loyalists to the King to live in exile. And there is the enemy without – the Bible calls it darkness – that ensnares and enslaves, and infiltrates even the King’s inner circle. But it does not follow that every other Kingdom is an enemy, and there may be potential for alliances wherever goals coincide.

Friends, this is a rather fanciful riff on the Kingdom of God. But I am wondering whether there is an analogy – either one you have read or one you have imagined yourself – that has special resonance for you.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “If it’s not a club, what is it?

  1. Thanks, Joy. I really like the inclusiveness of this post.

    An early Quaker said “If heaven is so great, why wait?” That’s another way of saying that we need to live the Kingdom of God here and now.

    I like the image of the lion lying down with the lamb (the Peaceable Kingdom), which the Quaker painter Elias Hicks painted so many times.

  2. Richard Hopton

    What is it? Exactly!! At least Morpheus showed Neo what the Matrix was. We swallowed the red pill and are still left guessing.

    I don’t quite understand what you love about the analogies. And I never understood why Jesus taught in parables. Yes, I am aware of the various ‘explanations.’ But none of them make any sense to me when I read passages like the following from Matthew 13 :
    He drew His disciples away from the crowd. They said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

    The bible says that without faith it is impossible to please God. But why are only some given the ‘gift’ of faith?

    Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” ……You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

    Huh? You can’t tell where everyone born of the spirit comes from or where they are going? What the (bleep) is that supposed to mean?
    Sounds like a lot of hot wind to me.

    • Paul Connelly

      I’m not sure how “right” or “true” my response is, but my reaction to the questions at the end of Richard’s entry are that perhaps these words of Jesus have less impact now than they would have had at the time. I mean, for most of history, where and to whom you were born pretty much determined your life.

      Basically, the overwhelming majority of people did what their parents did. For half the population, that meant being a wife and mother. For the men, that meant following in your father’s footsteps (farmer, artisan, merchant, member of the nobility, etc.) Even in my own parents’ day there were millions of people who never travelled more than 50 miles from where they were born, and that, I suspect was true for the majority of the population. It is only in our age that this has changed.

      In that perspective, the notion that Jesus presents that those born of the spirit can move as unpredictably as the wind would have been a strange and unsettling concept for his listeners. Because of their own birth, their path in life was pretty much set. But here is Jesus saying that those “born again” were now freed up to follow a new path. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus also said that he was “The Way”.)

      That must have been a powerful image, one that, as I say, has only lost some of its power very recently in history. Or maybe not lost its power, exactly, but obscured by the view of being “born again” that is more linked in the public mind nowadays to the American televangelist groups.

  3. Some of the best comments aren’t posted to the blog — they arrive in my email box. The comment I received yesterday was so good that I asked the sender whether I could post it. Here it is, slightly amended to take out a few personal notes.

    I am nearing the end of a course on Postmodernism and Christianity and of course, one of the key issues that comes up frequently is the postmodern suspicion of all “totalizing” claims to truth. Modernity’s claim to be able to tame the world with reason and scientific certainty has produced some fairly oppressive realities in many parts of the world, particularly when modernity is in the service of western material aspirations. One could say that to be in the west is really to be “saved” while to live elsewhere, without western economic engines, is to be “unsaved.” Or, to put it another way, if you disagree with the totalizing western approach to life is to be a heretic.

    That said, the bible contains some pretty exclusive language and some fairly ‘totalizing’ claims. This, really, is the nub of the course I am in: is there any way that the Christian faith can actually speak with anything genuine to say to a generation of folks that mistrusts claims of this sort. All is provisional; all is up for grabs; my story is as true and powerful and legitimate as your story, and so on. (To my professor’s point: when the KKK attempted to move into South Riverdale a few years back, did they have the right to live out their story in downtown Toronto, or, should other stories take precedence? Does the Christian story then get to say: you are most definitely wrong, we will not invite you to live here? In the end, they were forced to leave and several Christians were part of the move to push them out.)

    With all of this and much more swirling in my head, I started to think about the language of “saved versus unsaved”, Kingdom of God and so on, and was also confronted with some of the really BIG claims in the bible. It does claim to be a pretty comprehensive picture of things from beginning to right on through to the end, or, really the next beginning and beyond. And it seems that the language of ‘saved and unsaved’ is a particular example but not the only flashpoint when looking at such exclusive types of language. However, with particular reference to “saved and unsaved” I started to think then in terms of the language of “free and not free.”

    I think that when Yahweh led the people of Israel out from Egypt, they were saved; they were freed. No longer slaves. Yes, they went on to enslave themselves in many and sundry ways. But who would doubt that at least one of the words on the lips of the Israelites as they left Egypt was that they had been saved. They were free.

    This, of course, can lead to some uncomfortable realizations. If we, like the Israelites need to be “freed” (saved), what are we being freed from? And what are we enslaved to? Perhaps as Christians we are sometimes more ‘enslaved’ to the culture in which we live and also need to be ‘freed’ (saved)? And if alternative versions of reality and alternative stories don’t offer any real help me for me to be ‘freed’ (saved) from a corrosive culture that excludes and marginalizes many (enslaves them), then is there a way that we can look to the bible, to Jesus’ story and see that he wasn’t talking about some sort of conceptual salvation, but to a freedom. And sometimes he is saying, perhaps: real freedom begins with me? And I’m willing to bet my life on it.

    These are some of my thoughts; provisional perhaps at best. Perhaps what I saying in the end is that there might be a way of looking at the language of “salvation” and recasting it in another way that gets to its intent. Was Pharaoh free? Or in the end was he enslaved by his own policies of oppression?

  4. Since I kinda sparked off this discussion, albeit unintentionally, I thought mebbe I ought to respond to it. I also thought mebbe it was high time I kick-started my own blog, which I’ve been neglecting, though it is not actually supposed to be about these things but about art and creative process but hey – I’ll go where the conversation is.

    So click on my website (http://www.hamrob.com) and there it is….

  5. Paul Connelly

    Hamish’s remark to the effect that “it is only…when self-sufficiency is abandoned, that salvation becomes necessary and community becomes possible” seems to me very much in tune with something that Jean Vanier might say. And also in tune with the anonymous emailer above who asked what do we need to be freed from, maybe the need to cling to a culture that “rewards me” at the expense of marginalizing others.

    I confess that, perhaps due to a defect in my upbringing, the question of whether or not I am saved has never loomed large in my consciousness. (I realize of course, that my tradition purported to address that issue on my behalf by saying “no salvation outside the Church” – capital “C” intended – but that always led to a discussion of the meaning of “Church”, at which point I got bored.)

    So then I got to thinking about people like Jean Vanier, like Mother Theresa, like Helder Camara, who seem to be approaching the issue from a different angle, namely “how do I, myself, as a person, deal with the single, individual person confronting me right now.” Vanier’s response is to say the person society deems as “handicapped” is in many ways more free than he is, because he is trapped by his own wealth and privileged position. So he wants to live with and learn from that person. Mother Theresa famously started a number of efforts to help the most outcast of the people in Calcutta. Dom Helder Camara, to get back to an earlier point I made, fed the poor but also confronted his own society by asking what forces led to the poor being hungry.

    In all of these situations, I think, those people are trying to fight against the all-too-human need to divide everyone into groups (“my crowd,” however I define it, and “everyone else.”) And this effort to stop creating groups is, I think, the essence of following Jesus’s message. Any time he met a person, Jesus took that person seriously, as a fellow human being. He refused to condemn the person the “in crowd” wanted to stone, he told the Samaritan woman the time was coming when the differences between Jews and Samaritans would become irrelevant, he healed the blind man while avoiding the sterile debate about whose sin “caused” the blindness, he discussed with Pilate the meaning – and the limits – of power.

    And I think (again, because I need to be reminded of this a lot) that I’m being called at each moment, not to worry about whether or not the other person is in a different “club” but how can I respond as genuinely as possible to that other person, how can I make the differences between us irrelevant?

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