Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 12, 2008
THE KINGDOM IS WITHIN YOU ALL
Texts: Mark 1:14-15; Luke 17:20-21; The Gospel of Thomas
I went searching for the kingdom of God this summer. I had no map, only a Bible and a yearning, and eyes to see. It seemed so far away, hard to see at work in me or in the world.
The kingdom of God was the main theme of Jesus’ message, but what is it, and where is it, and when is it?
The first words spoken by Jesus in Mark, the earliest Gospel, are a great summary of his preaching.
The time is fulfilled,
The kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.
What does it mean, the kingdom of God? Some translate it the “reign of God,” or the “rule of God” or the “realm of God.” Clarence Jordan in his Cotton Patch Gospel translates it as “God’s Movement.” Martin Luther King described it as “The Beloved Community.” Vern Dozier calls it “God’s Dream” for the world. Wendell Berry calls it “The Great Economy,” where everything and everyone is connected and everything and everyone counts, even the sparrow. He also images it as “The Membership,” where everyone is a member of one another. Lou Martyn and Leander Keck describe the kingdom of God as the “rectifying power” of God impinging on our world. The realm of God’s rectifying power is moving close to right what is wrong, to reconcile what is estranged, to heal and make whole.
God’s kingdom is the rectifying power and healing presence coming into our lives and into our world. Justice and joy, peace and love are its fruits.
...the kingdom of God is the time, or the time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who is in charge of the world. It’s the above all else for wild rejoicing – like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally, at long last, coming home.
Does that not make you want to pray with special urgency, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
The last sentence of our church covenant reads:
We covenant together to be priests celebrating God’s presence in community and in the world, believing we are participants in God’s kingdom on earth.
Yes, we are all priests, offering to others what God has poured into our hearts, and we are participants in God’s kingdom coming to earth.
Watch the verbs as Jesus talks about the kingdom. It has drawn near. It comes upon people and they are healed. It belongs to certain people -- like children. We receive it. And it is a realm we enter or do not enter.
How do we enter it, receive it? Jesus says one thing is necessary: we must change. Change and become like children. Bob Kile told our study group, “Forget what you think you know.” Change as in letting go of what you’re thinking is giving you life but is in fact robbing you of life.
The New Testament Greek word is metanoia, which means a changing of the mind. The English word used to translate it is “repent,” which causes us all to cringe a bit. Repent sounds like a guilty and shamed person groveling before God. I never see the word “repent” without a least a little guilt or shame coming to the surface. It’s a little like seeing police lights flashing in your rearview mirror. I may be going ten miles an hour under the speed limit, but I’m ready to say, “I’m guilty, sir.”
The great Hebrew word Jesus had in mind was shur, turn, turn to God, or return. Think of the word orient, or re-orient. Orient your life toward the kingdom, the realm of the rectifying power and healing presence of God.
Jesus’ voice does not sound like a police siren. It sounds like trumpets over the canyon at dawn. The kingdom of God is dawning. Turn and believe the good news. Or as the camp song goes: “Rise and shine and give God the glory.”
But I still went searching for it this summer. Sometimes the kingdom feels very present, sometimes far away. What is it, where is it, when is it?
Maybe if I read a few more books I could find it, or thirty more books. I searched for it and prayed for it, yearned for it, both in myself and in the world.
I was drawn to the passage in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 17. Religious leaders come to Jesus and asked, “When is the kingdom coming?” They wanted a sign, something they could see. Jesus had announced that the kingdom had drawn near. Well, where? When? Jesus answered elusively at first. It does not come “by observation.” We cannot say “Look here, look there.” We can’t take a digital photograph of it and put it on the Web. There are no geographical co-ordinates that take us to it.
Jesus said the kingdom of God is within you. Entos you. The NRSV translates it “among you,” and we’ll see why.
Part of my sabbatical journey took me back to Union Seminary to study and on up to New Haven, Connecticut, to see my beloved New Testament professor, Lou Martyn. We spent a day talking about Jesus and Paul, the kingdom of God and the new creation.
At one point I mentioned the Luke passage, Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is within you.” I was talking about the importance of the gnostic gospels for some of my people -- about the importance of finding God and finding spiritual authority within. One of the gnostic Gospel of Thomas’ most famous phrases is its version of Jesus’ words: “The kingdom of God is inside of you.”
Lou stopped me and said, “But Steve, the ‘you’ in the kingdom of God is within you is plural, not singular. The kingdom of God is within you, the people of God.” Within you all, or ya’ll, as we say in the South. That’s why most scholars translate the phrase “among you” instead of “within you” because it takes into account the plural you.
A light bulb came on in my head. I had been searching so hard for the kingdom inside myself, with its successes and failures. The kingdom of God is among us. Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name -- as Porter Merrill reminded our class on Wednesday.
The kingdom of God is where we meet as brother and sister. It is in the “I and Thouness” of us as we meet one another in a holy I-Thou relationship, not an I-It relationship (to use Buber’s thought.)
The more I thought about it the freer I felt. The kingdom of God is not all about me! About what I can or cannot experience. It’s about us, it’s about the people of God who are spread all across the earth.
Where is the kingdom? Behold one another!
You help me experience the part of the kingdom I cannot experience alone. When I’m weak, you are strong. When I’m blind, you can see.
The kingdom of God is a table where all are invited -- that’s what Jesus said and what he did, as he ate with rich and poor, tax collector and harlot, righteous and sinner, men and women, insider, outsider, everybody.
The kingdom of God is a table where we delight in one another as God delights in us. It’s a place where we experience more “fullness” than we can alone, on our own.
Paul used the image of the Body of Christ. In the Body of Christ one of you is the eye that can see better than I can see, the ear that can hear what I cannot hear, one with strong legs, or arms or back. Another with an Olympian soul. One is an activist, another is a contemplative. One sings, another prays, another works for social change.
And Jesus says we must give special honor to the parts of the body which some would call dishonorable or embarrassing. Special honor. Which means that God loves and accepts the parts of you that feel dishonorable or embarrassing.
Where is the kingdom? Behold one another!
Maya Angelou wrote this poem:
Lyin’ thinkin’, how to find myself a home
where the water is not thirsty
and the loaf bread is not stone.
And I came up with somethin’,
and I think I’m not wrong:
Nobody but nobody can make it all alone.
I began my summer feeling more the absence than the presence of this kingdom. My mind was like a bad neighborhood you don’t go into alone. God said, “I’ll go there with you. Will you go there with me?”
And there was that moment Lou Martyn said, “Steve, the ‘you’ of the kingdom of God within you is plural.” The kingdom of God is within you my family of faith at Myers Park Baptist Church, and I was returning to you!
The kingdom of God, the kingdom of God ... not the perfect dish prepared by the consummate chef with the perfect and exact ingredients. It is like stone soup prepared in th village square where everyone brings what they have and put it in the pot. And it’s the best soup we’ve ever eaten.
And the reason it’s the best soup we’ve ever eaten is not just because of all the good ingredients we’ve brought, but because we get to eat it together.