27 July 2008

God's Kingdom

Today’s Gospel reading is all about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his hearers a series of stories to try to explain what the kingdom is like. I rather imagine he’s saying “It’s like this.....” and his hearers look blank, so he says “Well, okay, so it’s like this”, and they still look blank, and he goes on trying to paint in a picture of what it is like and finally when he asks if they understand, they go “ye-ess” rather dubiously.

Not too surprising, really, if you come to think about it. After all, the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven – the Bible appears to use the two terms interchangeably – is a very difficult concept. We tend to think of heaven as “pie in the sky when you die”, or have a mental image of the Muslim concept of paradise, with lots of pretty girls serving sweet drinks and giving you all your heart could wish for.... which is fine if you’re a bloke, I suppose, but what about the likes of me?

But Jesus doesn’t talk about it in those terms. Sure, he believes in resurrection – he makes that very clear elsewhere – but he isn’t describing what it’s like in the Kingdom; he is describing what the Kingdom is like.

He does, elsewhere, describe what the people who are in the Kingdom are going to be like: they love everyone, even those who hate them; they refrain from condemning anyone, or even from being angry with them in a destructive way; they don’t hold grudges or take revenge, value or use people just for their bodies, or end their marriages lightly. Their very words are trustworthy. In short, they treat everyone with the greatest respect no matter what that person’s race, creed, sex or social class. They also treat themselves with similar respect, looking after themselves properly and not abusing themselves any more than they abuse others.

Kingdom people are also in constant touch with their heavenly Father, praying, fasting and giving to charity. Not showing off, just quietly. They trust God totally, not worrying about the future, but living each day as it comes.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway! We aren’t all like that, but most of us aim to be that way, I think. We are told that the Kingdom of God is here, among us. But the Church is not the Kingdom; the Church is one of the ways in which God will bring his Kingdom, as the Kingdom is both “now” and “not yet”.

Jesus also describes the Kingdom’s values, which are quite the opposite of the world’s values. In the Kingdom, it is the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated – the people who are marginalised in our own society – who are the blessed ones; those who are rich, well-fed, content and popular are in grave danger of losing all eternal values.

And that brings me back to today’s reading, because what we don’t see on a casual read-through of these parables, or similes, or whatever they are, is that some of them would have upset people rather! We’re apt to think of mustard – at least, I am – in terms of the crop you see growing in the fields around Norwich or Dijon, but that isn’t what it was like for Jesus’ hearers. Mustard, apparently, was a fearful weed – nobody in their right mind would have actually planted it! In fact, rather the reverse: for religious Jews, deliberately planting or cultivating a weed would be a complete no-no.

And the bread we eat almost always is made of yeast, or perhaps sourdough. But if you were Jewish, you ate unleavened bread at Passover and major festivals, and were apt to think that unleavened bread was the best kind, and ordinary bread was somehow rather inferior. Leaven, or yeast, was rather looked down on – so for Jesus to liken God’s kingdom to yeast that was used to raise – or even spoil – a batch of dough might have squicked his hearers out, rather! And to make matters worse, it’s baked by a woman! Help.....

In the verses we didn’t read today, it appears that these first two stories were told to the crowds, and the last few just to the disciples. I wonder if they had Said Things about these rather odd stories.....

So Jesus changes the approach rather, and gives the two stories where someone sold up everything to buy the field with treasure, or the pearl of great price. Everything? Your house? Your car? Your television? Your computer? Your furniture? Your clothes? Your shoes? Everything? It’s what Jesus said.

But then, we have already seen that Kingdom values are very different to our own. And I can see the people listening to Jesus looking more and more puzzled. Everything? But Jesus says the people who sold it all did so joyfully. Joyfully, not greedily.

And then the final parable, which changes the approach yet again. The netful of fish, being emptied on to the deck, and the unwanted catch thrown back, just like the environmentalists are always telling us we ought not to do! This feels more like the sort of stories we’re more familiar with, the judgemental ones, where those who don’t measure up, the weeds from the wheatfield, for instance, are thrown into the fire. But is it? My first thought was that it was....

But I had second thoughts. After all, the other stories had been about growth, from something tiny and disregarded into something great. Or about something small that was of enormous value. Why then, suddenly, was it about throwing people out? In the context of the other stories, it didn’t really make sense.

But what if you turn it round? What if it wasn’t about the unwanted portion of the catch, but about the fish you want? What if it wasn’t God who was throwing out the unwanted fish, but we who sorted through the catch, keeping what we wanted. Keeping the valuable bits. Just like the farm worker selling all he had to buy the field because it had treasure in it; just like the man selling all he had to own a beautiful jewel. So the fishermen, disgarding the less-valuable parts of the catch to give themselves more room for the valuable part! The fish that are thrown out are not necessarily bad in themselves, but if you were fishing for squid, you don’t want to fill your holds full of cod, and vice versa.

The disciples finally say that they understand what Jesus was trying to say. I don’t know whether the really did, or whether they were just trying to shut him up, having had enough for one day! The Kingdom is patently something that won’t go into words very well!

But what does it mean to us? When we pray “Thy Kingdom come”, what exactly are we praying for?

It is partly about making disciples, of course. It’s also partly about the work we do in the Community, with Girls’ Brigade and Pop In and so on. And it’s partly about the work we do on ourselves, as we grow more fully into being God’s people. We do see the most extraordinary changes in people as they allow God to work in their lives, even just a tiny bit. We do find ourselves discarding things we once thought were important, in order to become more fully the people God designed us to be.

And as we grow and change and develop, we learn that more and more about God and God’s Kingdom simply doesn’t go into words; words only paint a partial picture, at best. And we learn, too, that we often don’t understand what God is doing when things seem to go quite dreadfully wrong. And that’s where our other reading comes in, from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. St Paul seems to have had a knack of putting things into words when they don’t really want to go! And this wonderful passage – I am sure that most of us must count it among our favourites – says it all, really, about what life in God’s Kingdom is like:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen!

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