Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The kingdom of God is among you

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’

Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them —it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.’ Then they asked him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’

- Luke 17:20-37

This interesting passage is at the same time rather puzzling to me. There are things about it that I don't understand. I haven't extensively studied the language in Greek, but I will make a comment about my impressions at this stage.

First of all, in the first paragraph for today's reading, there's a very important statement to the Pharisees who ask about the kingdom. In light of all that we have read this past month in Luke, especially in Jesus' preparation and directions to the Seventy, I think the response is in the same vein as his instructions about preaching. "The kingdom of heaven has come near you," Jesus instructed the Seventy to preach to all those they went to - whether or not they became followers. And so Jesus says the same to the Pharisees. The kingdom of God is here. It is present. It is not something tangible or observable with the common use of our physical senses. Often, the translation of this phrase: "the kingdom of God is among you," is also made "the kingdom of God is within you." Both translations are reputable: in fact, we have seen Jesus teaching that the kingdom of God is near - it is in the relationship to the kingdom that is within and with Him, and within and with his disciples. It is present where there is life and action and choice "in His name" - in relationship and in the sharing of that Personhood, including the spiritual gifts that have come with it.

I haven't read - in preparation for this particular post - commentary on the statements that follow (in the second paragraph above). But reading it now, it seems that a few things must be a part of this message. First of all, carrying on with the theme that Jesus has already extensively preached that the kingdom is within them and/or among them, he continues to his disciples that they must not be misled by those who would tell them that the kingdom has appeared somewhere special. They must trust his word that he has already preached to them. Furthermore, there's a warning here that there will be days in the future when they will long to see him physically - but they must not be tempted by tales that they must travel somewhere, to some place, to observe him. When he does come, when the appearance of this kingdom is to be made, it will be unmistakable. And clearly, and most importantly to my mind, it will come to them.

In apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament (esp. the Book of Daniel), the phrase Son of Man is used in conjunction with Judgment. Here there seems to be a pronunciation of what it is that happens in this experience of Judgment: the relationships that we call earthly will not apply. Nothing that we see of the rules of life through our daily lives is going to prepare us in advance for what Judgment means, because what that Judgment reveals is what is in the internal person, what is in the heart of a person - and belonging to this kingdom is not defined by traditional relationship of neighbor or kin. It is, in a sense, a warning that this reality, when revealed, will come in a way that it is only possible to prepare for by practicing faith, by doing what is already preached and expected, and not through signs or portents or those things available to a select few who can observe or who have heard secret news. Jesus elsewhere has said (in Matthew chapter 10) that he has "come not to bring peace but a sword", and this text, to my mind, is illustrative of this point. It's the sword of truth that separates us along lines of this reality that is within us and among us, although not observable in a conventional sense. It is about what is in our hearts and minds, to what we devote ourselves, what we accept about what guides our choices, what we choose to love and in which to have faith.

The disciples ask him, ‘Where, Lord?’ and Jesus responds, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’ In other texts, this is commonly translated using the word "eagles" instead of "vultures." But regardless of the images we may associate with these terms, I think the allusion is clear to death, to the end. If our spiritual death is indicated here, it is a clear idea of what it is to have made a choice - again an internal reality. This is a living kingdom, where God is "not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Mark 12). We must remember that we are to live it. We do not own it as a possession. This is how it dies. A corpse is a body without life - in this context, without spiritual life, that active spiritual participation in the kingdom, as in Jesus' statement to a would-be follower earlier in Luke to "let the dead bury the dead." We must be spiritually alive. We must take care to live this internal reality of the kingdom, of relationship and the indwelling Spirit. We don't put our hand to the plough and look back, again, as Jesus has already instructed. He is teaching his disciples to remember his words, and not to be tempted with false teachings. This reality must be lived, and we must remember to live it, to be living members of it, to give our lives to that, for life in abundance.

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