Scripture Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 - Psalm 16 - Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - Luke 9:51-62
What is the Kingdom of God, basileia tou theou? How might we address that using “king” and “kingdom” to talk about God and God’s activity often reinforces authoritarian structures that are antithetical to the community Jesus Christ creates in the Church. We should recognize that exclusive use of King and Kingdom without attention paid to the meaning given to basileia tou theou is part of the problem. We should also note that “king” and “kingdom” are not static terms, and even in our modern contexts can refer to differing forms of governance. The Kingdom’s of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands (to list some current kingdoms in the international landscape) all vary to some degree or another from each other. All are Monarchies in some sense but the role and power of the monarch, the king or queen all differ. This all suggests that as we run across “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven” in the Scriptures we should pause and ask questions about what we bring to that phrases. We should also pay attention to how Jesus or Paul qualify “king” and “kingdom”.
In the United States we have a distant and ambivalent attitude towards of Kings and kingdoms. We have fantastical and fuzzy romanticized view of say the British Royal family which is a sort of celebrity worship, or we think of monarchies and kings and queens in the autocratic and tyrannical version of monarchies that emerged as the kings in Europe developed the notion of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. It is true that Christian theology and the church hierarchy was used to develop these notions of kings and kingdoms. What we tend to remember in the United States is that God and kings were often elided in this attempt to shore up European royalty and kingdoms, Absolute rule by a singular being was upheld as the natural order of things, and authoritarian hierarchy was put forward as what good Christians and citizens of the nations should accept for good order. If we listen to Jesus’ parables and what in our text Paul describes as being contrary to the Kingdom of God, we can readily see that the above connotations of king and kingdom don’t easily apply to the ways in which Jesus and Paul speak of the “Kingdom of God”.
In order to not bring the above senses of kingdom to what Jesus and Paul seek to direct our attention with basileia tou theou we can use other language in place of Kingdom of God that draws out the various metaphors and stories Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of God”: beloved community, the reign of God (The it remains that monarchs or maybe champions are what reigns, presidents and elected officials don’t reign), the Kindom of God etc. Yet we will still run accoss throughout the new testament we can’t get away from basileia tou theou, which in the very least means “reign of God” and usually translated Kingdom of God. We still need to understand what is going on in Scripture with this language. First we can recognize if we are aware of what we bring to “kingdom” and “king” and allow our notions of king and kingdom be disturbed, by the varieties of ways that the seeing God as basilei with a basileia, doesn’t conform to the authoritarian and autocratic. I’d argue that this is part of what the use of “king” for God and ‘kingdom of God” are to do, we are to experience the dissonance between what God’s revelation tells us about God as “king” and the “Kingdom of God” and what we know of “kings” and “kingdoms”.
The history of God’s people, shows us that we can often miss or refuse this revelation. God’s intention with the freeing the Hebrews from bondage and bringing the people of Israel to Mount Sinai and presenting them with a Covenant, was that they would understand two things: 1) that there was only one God and one king, and that they were to see this one God as their king. This wasn’t abstract authority over, but relationship with, a covenant between a people and their king. In this sense kingdom isn’t territory over which a king has sovereignty and controls all that is within that domain, rather it is a relationship between a people and a sovereign in which each freely enters into tis relation in which each has responsibilities and privileges.
We get the contrast between the reign of God under the covenant and what the people of Israel ultimately chose to have a human king. These human kings more or less poorly represent the reign of God and most fail miserably acting as we’d expect kings to act, in autocratic and authoritarian ways exercising power over others, in terms of coercion and force and not covenantal relationship.
What Paul sets up as contrary to the basileia tou theou, the beloved community the reign of God, could be read as a summary of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures, 1 2 Samuel, 1 2 Kings, and 1 2 Chronicles. God sends prophets, beginingwith Elijah and Elisha , to call the people of Israel back to the Covenant that their kings lead them away from in their autocratic and authoritarian whims deemed necessary by real politic and the clash of empires and nations for dominance and control. Israel is as we know eventually overthrown by these forces of empire and real politic of the clash of kings and kingdoms seeking to control and dominate over others and territory.
The reign of God, God as king is polar opposite to the above history of the kings of Isreale. Paul in our text today says, the Beloved Community the Kingdom of God is characterized by love of Neighbor- this is the covenant God as king makes with us that we love our neighbor (and enemy)- and Paul further states that what then characterizes the Kingdom of God”, the beloved community is “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control..” These are the fruit of the Spirit, the evidence of living by the spirit of being ruled by the love of God. To live the life of the Spirit is to live in the freedom of the Kindom of God.
I hope we are being able to experience the tensions and dissonance, that Jesus’ and Paul’s use of the Kingdom of God should elicit. Of course this troubling of “king “and kingdom when used of God and what God accomplishes in the world and in us, only comes by taking the time to see what Basilea tou theou refers to, and its contrast to the clamoring for power and the desire to have control over others.
We find similar juxtapositions in the icon we blessed today and in the imagery of the beloved community the reign of god used in the iconographic depiction. Most immediately relevant is the depiction of Christ enthroned in heaven. This is a diction of an Emperor, a King of Kings, Jesus Christ triumphant and victorious all powerful, Pantocrator in Greek. The text in the Gospel is from Colossians 1-5-20. The cross can never be far from any depiction of Jesus Christ. All depictions of Jesus Christ must have the cross inscribed in the halo, along with the words O ON, in Greek meaning the One or the Being or the one who is, it is a reference to the unpronounceable name by which God names God’s self to Moses. In the halo and depictions of Christ we have the fullness of the Gospel, the one who is, the unpronounceable unknowable circumscribable one, joined with humanity in Jesus of Nazareth and died on the Cross and rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father. But this icon of Jesus Christ isn’t the only icon. On the reverse of this icon we find another depiction of Christ. Jesus as a child in Mary’s arms. This is God the all-powerful, vulnerable dependent upon the care of his mother. God in the infant Jesus is God vulnerable dependent upon the love of another. The paradox and tensions of the incarnation. Here again you will see that cross and the Name are there to remind us this is the same one who is seated on the thrown among the heavenly powers the 4 living creatures. And although not depicted in this icon at every service upon this alter sits a crucifix and we see the same halo so inscribed the same letters indicating Jesus Christ. The childe the Pantocrator and the crucified are all the same one, all depicting for us God as king and thus the Kingdom of God.
In this icon with Mary Mother of God embracing Jesus Christ and Peter and Paul embracing, we see the Reconciling love of God at work. In these depictions we are invited into the embrace of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. These images draw us in and we may recognize ourselves in the embrace of our mother God, whose pinions gather us in in protection and warmth. We also see God at work Reconciling differing interpretations of who is included into the beloved community and how they may be so included. Christians and the Church still wrestle with this, and on this Pride Sunday, we are painfully aware that as Christians we are divided on if and how to include and embrace LGBTQ. Yet, it is in embrace that God’s Kingdom leads us. These re images of Love, Reconciliation and inclusion, and they are images of God’s reign, of the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God. Peter and Paul were divided they were at enmity with each other in the early church, in the Jewish and Gentile factions each seeking God’s will, yet each right and wrong, each had to be drawn into the embrace as each recognized how those seen by the other as unclean or foolish and haughty could be drawn together into the beloved community.
Contemplate these images Scriptural and iconographic, learn from them, let them soften our heart, may these images of God as King and the Kingdom of God, transform your heart, set you free, to embrace your enemy as God embraced us in Jesus of Nazareth and upon the cross that we may live together in the Beloved Community of Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen