King's Acre Church, 9 July 2000
The Kingdom of God
Romans 14, verse 17: "For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
"The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
Mind you, after a delicious lunch like the one we had today, one might be forgiven for thinking that part of the Kingdom of God was food and drink, especially food and drink eaten as part of our fellowship together.
But Jesus also talked a great deal about the Kingdom of God, although he often called it the Kingdom of Heaven - he seems to use the two terms almost interchangeably, especially in Matthew's Gospel. That's partly, I suspect, because Matthew's Gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and Jewish people didn't, and still don't, like to mention God's name, so they say "Heaven" as a euphemism. We do, too, a bit, when we say things like "Heaven knows", or "For Heaven's sake!" So Jesus may have actually said "Kingdom of God", but Matthew, squeamish about saying "God", will have written "Kingdom of Heaven." Paul, incidentally, always uses "Kingdom of God".
2. What Do We Know About the Kingdom?
So what do we know about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus talks a very great deal about it. You probably remember some of his parables: the one where, for instance, he says that the Kingdom of God is like a pearl buried in a field, and someone sold all he owned to buy that field. And elsewhere, he says that it is like a tiny mustard-seed, which grew and became an enormous tree. But it doesn't grow unhindered; earlier, Jesus compares it with a field in which an enemy has sown weeds among the good crop, and they are sorted out at the end of time, with the good crop going for seed, and the weeds being burnt. And so on and so forth. Mostly in chapter 13 of Matthew's gospel; have a read of it again sometime.
Jesus also talks a great deal about the kind of people who will or will not be part of the Kingdom. In Matthew 7:21 we read, ominously, 'Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord", will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.'
He also reminds us that we must be like children - and don't forget, that doesn't necessarily mean accepting everything unquestioningly. Who, after all, asks more questions than a small child? Usually "Why?"
Jesus also says that it will be hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom. You can quite see why, of course; if you're obsessed with money and possessions - and rich people can be, although not always - then you can't at the same time be being obsessed by the Kingdom!
And he also says that tax-collectors and prostitutes - the lowest of the low in his society - will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of some of the so-called religious leaders. They, of course, were so obsessed with getting it right that they forgot about other people.
Paul, too, talks about the Kingdom of God. All the disciples did, of course; it was what they were sent to proclaim. Paul mentions it, not only in Romans, as in our text for today, but in some other places, too. He says that the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power. You and I can't make it happen, but God can. He reminds us that wrongdoers will not enter the kingdom of God. It's no good pretending to be God's person but not allowing God to change you, after all.
It is not, Paul points out, flesh and blood which will inherit the Kingdom of God; our status within the Kingdom depends on our spiritual status.
And in this verse in Romans which I have taken for our text this evening, he reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
3. Why Is He Saying This?
Now, we all know that a text without a context is a pretext, so why is Paul saying this? We need to look at our reading again, Romans chapter 14. It's basically about ritual, and rules and regulations. Some people believed, back then, that it was wrong for Christians to eat meat, since virtually the only meat available in cities such as Rome or Corinth was that which had been offered to idols. Other, on the other hand, took the line that since idols didn't mean anything - the gods they represented didn't exist - they could eat the meat quite happily. And there were other similar rules and regulations which some of the Christians believed you should follow, and others said it didn't matter.
Paul was trying to point out that in many ways these things don't matter. The Kingdom of God isn't about what you eat and drink, but it's about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
4. So What?
And Paul is right. But nowadays we don't offer our meat to idols; if we eat it at all, we buy it in Tesco's or from Armstrong's on Acre Lane. But people do still fuss about inessentials. Some Christians believe that we are meant to take the Creation accounts at the start of the Bible utterly literally, while others believe that they are stories to explain what God did, but the real account of how he did it are told in the rocks and the mountains and the streams and the trees. Either way, it couldn't really matter less, since it doesn't affect our salvation.
The point is, as St Paul says, that what we absolutely mustn't do is pass judgement on another person. And we need to respect their limits, too. If I worry that going to the supermarket on a Sunday is wrong, I mustn't accuse those who do go of not being proper Christians because they are shopping on a Sunday! And if I am quite happy shopping on a Sunday, I mustn't accuse those who aren't of having a faith which is based on rules and regulations! And, similarly, if it would distress my sister in Christ if I went shopping, I ought to postpone the trip.
A few weeks ago now, Robert and I went to an ice-dancing weekend at Bracknell, and on the Sunday morning, before the session started, the organiser had arranged a brief worship service for any who wished to attend. The minister who led it, himself a dancer of some note in those circles, said that so many of us had it difficult on a Sunday morning, as the cheapest ice time was very often just when one wanted to go to Church. Robert and I are lucky in that this isn't so here, and we can skate for two hours and still be in plenty of time to have breakfast before Church - although we will have to be careful after next weekend when the classes stop and we could stay on until 10.30 if we wanted to, instead of having to get off at 9.00 as we do now. But many people do still face this dilemma, and have their own ways of resolving it. All the same, one woman was horrified to be told by her vicar that she should put as much effort and energy into parish work as she was then putting into her local ice-skating club!
But the thing is, Paul is trying to point out that this kind of thing doesn't really matter. After all, many churches still have an evening service, so if you have something to do on a Sunday morning, you can still worship God in the evening. But even going to Church every Sunday can be a source of division among Christians - I've known people who thought that you had to go at least twice on a Sunday, or you weren't a proper Christian, while others find that they can maintain a perfectly delightful relationship with Christ even if they only go to Church every other week.
And so it goes on. People who make sweeping statements like "Of course, Christians don't smoke!" are apt to get shot down by the likes of those of us who either do, or used to, smoke! We each have our own views on such things.
But at the end of the day what matters, what really, really matters, is our relationship with God. As Paul says, the food and drink shibboleths we may have - and some folk even have them today; I know at least one person who is vegetarian because he believes that is how God intends his people to live, and our permission to eat meat nowadays is a result of the Fall. Anyway, as Paul says, all these things are as nothing. They aren't anything to do with the Kingdom of God. "The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Amen.
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