What is the Kingdom of God like? Over the years, this question has been asked as a kind of “ice breaker” in a variety of church settings – small groups, youth groups, bible studies, and retreats.
It’s actually kind of fun. It gives people a chance to describe the realm and reign of God in their own words.
Over the years, I’ve heard children, teens, and adults answer the question in many and various ways.
The kingdom of God has been described as:
- Butterflies and puppies
- A lush garden
- A beautiful bouquet of flowers
- Cake and ice cream
- Former enemies washing one another’s feet
- People sitting at table enjoying a rich and elaborate feast
What would you say the Kingdom of God is like?
In all the responses I’ve heard, I have noticed common themes that run through these diverse descriptions of what the Kingdom of God is like – peace, beauty, harmony, or as Marie Kondo likes to say “whatever sparks joy.”
Jesus does something similar when describing the Kingdom of God. Jesus never really explains the Kingdom of God. Jesus uses images, pictures, parables, and stories to describe the kingdom. Still, there is something unique and very particular about the way Jesus describes the Kingdom. He honors the Kingdom as a mystery and invariably surprises us. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, synonymous with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is what will one day be all-in-all AND is very much about the present, the Kingdom unfolding in life as it is here and now.
Throughout the Gospels, the kingdom is described as a tiny mustard seed, yeast, a great net and much more. These descriptions often surprise us, catch us off guard, challenge us, and sometimes even offend us. Like the parable of the workers in the vineyard. I prefer to speak of it as the parable of the Gracious Landowner.
At the start of day, the landowner hires workers who toil all day in the vineyard. Later, he finds folks standing idle in the marketplace and hires them. The same thing happens at Noon and then at 3:00 and then at 5:00. And at the end of the day, everyone receives the same wage. All are paid the same: those who work all day, those who work half a day, and those who work for only a few hours All receive the same.
Here Jesus speaks of the boundless love of God, but it doesn’t sound very nice because it offends our sensibilities. All receiving the same wage? It just isn’t fair. That’s now how the world works. You get what you deserve, right? You are given payment for what you’ve achieved. It is a matter of simple economics, of how things work in a capitalist society. Everyone receiving the same? That’s more than a little outrageous. It offends our sensibilities. It is not how the world works. It is scandalous.
When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, he speaks of God’s boundless love of God all right, but in ways that go deeper than pure sentimentality. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom is ways that shock us, might even make us angry, and often upend our attitudes and ways of living but it is Jesus who is always calling us to go a little deeper than we prefer to go.
In this parable of the gracious landowner, when someone complains at the end of the day, the landowner replies: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The very boundless love of God that we know to be good news can also come to us as news that may not make us feel so good, plays with our minds, and messes with our ways of viewing the world.
You know some of the other parables of Jesus …
An irresponsible son leaves home spewing the family inheritance and is welcomed home in the forgiving arms of his father who ends up throwing him a party. Outrageous! The elder son who did all the right things complains: “No ever gave me a party!”
Or what about the shepherd who goes after one lost sheep. Why would you go out of your way to find one at the risk of losing all the others?
Or what about the parable of tax collector and Pharisee praying in the temple? The religious guy brags about all he has done and thanks God that he isn’t like this crooked tax collector. All the tax collector says is “Have mercy on me.’ HE is the one who goes home in good stead with God.
… the boundless love of God sounds great, especially when it applies to us, but when it is given to people we have judged to be unworthy, we be scratching our heads because it sounds nonsensical or just plain wrong, but that is how the Word of God often functions: a word from outside of us that cuts through our presuppositions, easy moralism, feelings, and tidy ways of being.
And it isn’t just the parables, it is what Jesus does that gets scribes and Pharisees grumbling, and offends the people in power. They don’t like it all when Jesus dines with tax collectors and sinners or breaks the rules to help someone in need on the Sabbath. Jesus welcomes all because in the realm of God no one is excluded.
It’s all about grace. God’s unmerited and free grace. In the realm of God, payment is seen as a gift. God’s love freely given to all. The news of God’s grace fills us with hope and joy and God’s saving grace makes Lutherans, in particular smile. The problem is we often tend to stop at the free grace part and fail to take it further.
For what is God’s boundless love and mercy say about the way we live and how we bear witness to the Gospel? Does not the boundless love of God shape our hearts and minds?
I think, in practice, we in the church has often made faith so private, so interior, that our message can come across as “God loves you” and when it comes to what that means in how we live, we can either be deaf or deliver a kind of message that says it’s up to the person to sort out. I’ve come to believe that such messaging is unsatisfactory. The Kingdom described by Jesus and enacted by Jesus is something we enjoy and proclaim and live out together, and it shapes our worldview.
We know that God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. What does that look like as we our practice of faith?
When the Israelites grumbled about being hungry in their wilderness journey, God heard their complaints and God provided. God rained manna in the wilderness. God put God’s boundless love into practice.
You know the back story: at the Red Sea, God freed the people from their misery of serving as slaves in Egypt, but the celebration of this divine act of deliverance was hard to sustain in the wilderness, especially when the pole got thirsty and then hungry. They were so embittered and so hungry that they were wishing they had died back in Erupt. The God of grace and boundless love rained manna from heaven, enough to last them 40 years.
And it came with instructions – gather as much as you need, not as much as you desire. And on the sixth day, God will provide enough for two days, including the seventh day which is Sabbath, a day of rest. These are pretty clear parameters around how best to use the gift of manna and how best to shape our lives in a manna kind of way.
Some gathered more manned and some less, but those who gathered much had nothing left over and those who gathered little had no shortage. Many began to hoard the manna so that is began to stink! Folks began to produce a different kind of economy, one familiar to us and contrary to God’s economy.
This is a picture of God’s economy. Bread for all. Bread for everyone. No one is supposed to get more or less than the others. All receive the same. At the end of the day all are given the same. Here is a lesson about the economics of God: God’s abundance is sufficient for all but with enough food for all the world to share, still millions go hungry. The manna story signals the malady – we’re not content with everyone receiving the same bread from heaven.
Not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, we acquire more than we need and those of us who have more adopt a way of living where we like to acquire what we want and we get caught in a never-ending cycle of grasping for more.
But what if we were to practice manna style living? And how might we, the church, live in a different kind of way and bear witness to God’s economy of grace and boundless love?
And what will it take, what does it take for us to put the boundless love of God we so freely receive into practice?
Well, we continue to do what we do every Sunday. Come to the table. And when you come to the table see the economy of God played out. For when we share bread and cup in this holy communion, all are treated the same. Those who labored all day and those who worked only part of the day. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white. No one is left out and everyone gets what they need. Around the table of holy communion, we participate in the economy of God where none are left out and this shapes the way we live.
Now, here I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, because you, dear beloved St. Luke’s have put this vision into practice. You make a bee line from this holy table to the holy tables in the kitchen. Edible Hope is God’s economy put into practice. The economy of God experienced here flows into the ministry of feeding hungry neighbors.
One of the early practices of the church was for each worshiper to bring some bread, some wine, and some food to the Sunday liturgy. Some of the bread and wine was brought to the table for the Eucharist and the rest was set aside to be given to those hungry at the end of the liturgy.
I wonder what it might be like to reclaim a practice like that?
On the walls of many medieval churches there are depictions of God raining down manna from heaven with a depiction right next to it of Christians sharing the communion meal. In some, manna was depicted as small round communion wafers.
I wonder how such images might invigorate our sense of mission and ministry?
At this table God provides manna, bread from heaven and there is enough for all.
Once I was asked by a parishioner why we sing and speak of a feast when, in reality, each of us only gets a little piece of bread and a sip of wine.
Well, it is a foretaste of the feast to come, it is practicing God’s economics where all are given the same food and drink, and it is a somber reminder that we come to this feast still hungry, painfully aware that millions go hungry. Here is holy comfort: all are included and receive the same gifts. And here is a holy summons to be Christ’s body, to bring food to a hungry world, to share the boundless love of God with neighbors.
What is the kingdom of heaven like?
The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. Here around this table, God rains down manna from heaven and all receive the same.
Come again today to receive who you are and be what you eat. Amen.