At Pip n Jay, we are spending this term with our interns looking at what God’s kingdom is really about. Life defined by God’s rule is, we believe, something for now as well as a hope for more in the future. But what does it look like, and how do we know if we have it for real?
I wanted to get into the mind of Jewish people in Jesus’ day, and see if we could empathise with those who felt they were following God faithfully, but couldn’t believe that Jesus was the long promised bringer of God’s kingdom. We looked at various expressions of kingdom through the Old Testament and history up to the time of Jesus, starting with Genesis 1. We couldn’t help but feel how important a recognisable kingdom was (and is) to people struggling with issues of security and identity, forced exile and imposed foreign rule. No-one wants to be walked over, and if your history tells you that you are God’s chosen people, destined for much greater things, it’s totally understandable that a lot of thought and effort would have gone into the escape plan, the redemption, the hope of God’s kingdom to come.
We believe what so many found hard to accept – that God intervened in an unexpected, if long prophesied, way. He did not just send a blessed man to revive a kingdom which looked like David’s or Moses’ day. Much more radically, he gave himself to the world through Jesus, and asked for our lives in return. God’s kingdom which is here and still coming through Jesus is not the human construction of a nation, but God’s original plan for the world. It’s Genesis 1, life with God, three dimensional in nature: loving God first, and our neighbours as ourselves.
So by looking at Jesus and trying to follow him, we have an idea of what kingdom should look like. Many of Jesus’ examples are organic. For example, from Mark 4: God’s kingdom is like when a farmer scatters seeds which grow (“whether the farmer sleeps or gets up”). Without the farmer understanding how, grain appears, which the farmer then knows he should harvest. I used to think this farmer was God. But God doesn’t lack understanding – that’s more like US! In God’s kingdom we are called to be farmers (just as Adam and Eve were to look after the land) and we have roles – e.g. to scatter seed and harvest grain – but growth itself is a job we don’t understand. God designed the seed so that it would happen, but it appears to happen “all by itself”, not because we made it so.
I wonder how different this is from our expectations and practice when it comes to kingdom growth, or at least church growth. We are so tempted to measure our work and define our success by growth – numerical or spiritual. More people through the church door, or more commitments made, more money raised, more money given away, or more activity visible – all kinds of numerical growth look good to us. Spiritual growth is harder to measure, but we probably think we have a sense of it – increasing prayer, bible engagement, personal maturity, maybe even engagement with spiritual gifts, signs and wonders… all good stuff. Growth is good AND totally expected in healthy lives, and we believe Jesus’ promise that God’s kingdom is about life in all its fulness. But does this growth come about by our understanding of it and working for it directly?
I think there is a tremendous temptation to think that we must understand growth in order to see God’s kingdom come, and that this can lead us into construction where we should be farming. (I know Jesus also uses construction pictures for the kingdom, but just stick with me on this for a bit…)
If the kingdom is like a tree which grows from a seed, this is a picture of reproducible life. More seeds will follow, meaning more trees can grow. But we can, instead, construct something which looks like a tree. It might look a lot like a tree, enough to fool birds or even people. The differences:
- A real tree starts small and grows unpredictably. A fake tree is simply constructed into a predictable tree-like shape.
- A real tree needs the right environment for growth. A fake tree can be placed anywhere.
- A real tree needs our attention for nurturing, but grows by itself. A fake tree requires us to do everything to make it the right size and shape, and never grows by itself.
- A real tree will reproduce. A fake tree will not.
It strikes me that there is a LOT of work needed to make and maintain a convincing fake tree (check out the gallery pics above), and it’s a very different type of work from farming.
Evangelicals aren’t usually big on mystery. We want projects we can work on, things we can build, life we understand. We want to get to grips with scripture and so we pay attention and take Jesus’ words seriously. But Jesus speaks of the farmer and growth in Mark 4:27 – “He doesn’t know how it happens.” The farmer does know his role, planting and harvesting, but God takes care of the growth, something also affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6.
Reproducible kingdom is real trees. Man-made trees are not reproducing. So what are we working with? Are we seeing decline in Western European Christianity because God has withheld blessing or changed the hearts of our neighbours so the gospel doesn’t get through? Or have we somehow ended up switching our attention away from reproducible kingdom by investing in institutions, buildings, denominations, even growth plans which look kingdom-shaped, but are simply sterile because we felt had to take on God’s role to make things grow, and ended up constructing fake trees?
Here is my dilemma. I love to study, understand and shape things. I enjoy feeing like an expert and useful as a teacher or guide. So life leading people to construct a beautiful looking kingdom-shaped tree might actually look quite attractive. But I want to be the farmer who sees real kingdom growth and a harvest. I’m reminded that it’s God’s kingdom, not mine.