Tomorrow is the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday. We thought it worthwhile to ponder on the nature of the Kingdom Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed. We found Donald B. Kraybill’s book The Upside Down Kingdom. The author is widely recognized for his studies on Anabaptist groups, and is the foremost living expert on the Old Order Amish. It has been written about the book: “The Upside Down Kingdom not only challanges Christians to resist cultural conformity but also urges people to practice upside-down living rooted in God’s reign.”
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John the Baptist shouted these words of Isaiah to announce the advent of Jesus. The dramatic pictures portray a revolutionary new kingdom. Paving the way for Jesus, the Baptist describes four surprises of the coming kingdom: full valleys, flat mountains, straight curves, and level bumps. He expects radical shake-ups in the new kingdom. Old ways will shatter beyond recognition. John warns us that the new order, the upside-down kingdom, will transform social patterns but amid the ferment, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
In Mary’s song of exaltation, the Magnificat, ‘Mary sings her hopes for the new kingdom. Along with the Baptist, she expects the Messiah to inaugurate an upside-down kingdom filled with surprises.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has put down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
—Luke 1:49-53, emphasis added
Five types of people are startled and surprised in Mary’s vision. Those at the top of the social pyramid—the proud, the rich, and the mighty—topple. Stripped of their thrones, they are scattered and sent away empty. Meanwhile the poor and hungry, at the bottom of the pyramid, take a surprising ride to the top. Mary sings words of hope and judgment. Hope for the lowly, as she describes herself, and judgment for those who trample the helpless.
A poor Galilean peasant girl, Mary expects the messianic kingdom to flip her social world upside down. The rich, mighty, and proud in Jerusalem will be banished. Poor farmers and shepherds in rural Galilee will be exalted and honored. For several centuries the Jewish people had been ruled by outsiders—pagan outsiders. Mary’s longing reflects the age-old Jewish yearning for a messiah who will usher in a new kingdom. She spoke for the masses who prayed for the day when the Messiah would expel the pagan invaders and establish the long-awaited kingdom.
An Inverted Kingdom
The central theme in the ministry and teaching of Jesus is the kingdom of God, or as Matthew calls it, the kingdom of heaven. This key idea ties his entire message together. The “kingdom of God” permeates Jesus’ ministry, giving it coherence and clarity. It is the undisputed core, the very essence, of his life and teaching.
What did Jesus mean when he announced the advent of the kingdom of God? His fellow Jews expected a political kingdom that would protect and preserve the Jewish faith. Over the centuries, scholars, theologians, and churches have developed different views. Debates on what Jesus meant have swirled down through the ages.
Jesus does not portray the kingdom on the margins of society. He doesn’t plead for social avoidance or withdrawal. Nor does he assume that the kingdom and the world split neatly into separate realms. Kingdom action takes place in the world in the middle of the societal ballpark. But it’s a different game. Kingdom players follow special rules and heed another coach. Kingdom values challenge the taken-for-granted social ruts and sometimes run against the dominant cultural grain. But don’t misunderstand. Kingdom people are not sectarians protesting the larger society just for the sake of being different. Kingdom values, rooted in the deep Love and abiding Grace of God, seed news ways of thinking and living. ‘Sometimes the new ways compliment prevailing practices; other times, they don’t. In short, kingdom patterns arise from God’s love, not a sectarian impulse to oppose or withdraw from the rest of society.
In addition to being upside down, the kingdom speaks with authority today. In other words, it’s more than relevant; it’s also normative.3 More than dusty ideas in the trash bins of history; the message of the kingdom addresses our issues today. Kingdom ethics, translated into our contemporary context, suggest how we “ought” to order our lives. We won’t, of course, find specific answers in the Scriptures for all of our ethical questions. The Gospels don’t provide cookbook solutions for every ethical dilemma. But they do raise the right questions. They focus important issues and suggest how we can transform our lives today.
A Relational Kingdom
What exactly is the kingdom of God? The term defies definition because it’s pregnant with many different meanings. This, in fact, is its genius—this jiower to stimulate our imagination again and again.
In broad strokes, most biblical scholars agree that the “kingdom of God” means the dynamic rule or reign of God. The reign involves God’s intentions, authority, and ruling power. It doesn’t refer to a territory or a particular place. Nor is it static. It’s dynamic— always becoming, spreading, and growing.4 The kingdom points us not to the place of God but to God’s ruling activities. It is not a kingdom in heaven, but from heaven—one that thrives here and now. The kingdom appears whenever women and men submit their lives to God’s will.
It means more than God’s rule in the hearts of people—more than a mystical feeling. The very word kingdom implies a collective order beyond the experience of any one person. A kingdom in a literal sense means that a king rules over a group of people. Social policies shape the collective life of a kingdom. Agreements spell out the obligations citizens have to each other as well as to their Icing. The king’s ruling activity transforms the lives and relationships of his subjects. In the words of one scholar, “The kingdom is something people enter, not something that enters them. It is a state of affairs, not a state of mind.”5
Kingdom living is fundamentally social. It involves membership, citizenship, loyalties, and identity. Citizenship in a kingdom entails relationships, policies, obligations, boundaries, and expectations. These dimensions of kingdom life supersede the whims of individual experience. Kingdom membership clarifies a citizen’s relationship to the king, to other citizens, and to other kingdoms. Living in a kingdom means sharing in its history and helping to shape its future.
Although a kingdom is a social order beyond any person, individuals do make choices about kingdoms. We embrace or reject them. We serve or mock them. We enter kingdoms and leave them. We pledge our allegiance to them and turn our backs on them.
The distinction between an aggregate and a collectivity helps to clarify the kingdom idea. An aggregate is a collection of people who happen to be together in time and space. Consider for example, a cluster of persons waiting for the “Walk” light at an intersection.
Though standing side by side, they usually don’t interact with each other. They don’t influence one another.
In contrast, the executive committee of a local school board is a collectivity—an interdependent cluster of people. They influence each other, formulate common goals, and together decide how to reach them. A kingdom’s subjects have a collective interdependence based on the policies of their king.
The kingdom of God is a collectivity—a network of persons who have yielded their hearts and relationships to the reign of God. The kingdom is actualized when God rules in hearts and social relationships. Kingdom life is more than a series of individualized email connections linking the King to each subject. The reign of God infuses the web of relationships, binding King and citizens together.
What does God’s reign look like? What is the shape of the royal policies? How can we translate the lofty idea of God’s reign into daily living? The answers lie in the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth unveiled the secrets of God—the very nature of God’s kingdom.’ We begin to grasp the meaning of the kingdom as we study Jesus’ life and teachings because he was God’s final and definitive Word. Through Jesus’ person and ministry, God spoke in a universal language that everyone—regardless of culture, nation, or race—could understand. God’s intentions were not hidden in vague religious doctrines. With undeniable eloquence and clarity God spoke through the concrete acts of a person—Jesus of Nazareth.
The kingdom of God threads throughout the fabric of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. At the very beginning, Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom. He frequently introduced parables as examples of the kingdom. His sermons on the Mount and Plain describe kingdom life. The Lord’s Prayer welcomes the advent of the kingdom. The vocabulary of the kingdom frequents Jesus’ lips. Indeed the centrality of the kingdom in Jesus’ teaching is one of the things on which scholars agree.
In addition to his words, Jesus’ acts teach us about the kingdom. The Galilean Jew provides the most concrete example—the most visible expression of God’s rule. His words and behavior offer the best clues to solving the riddle of the kingdom. Over the centuries, Christians have used the words of Jesus to shape doctrine, often to the neglect of his ministry. Who he spoke with, what he did, where he walked, and how he handled critics offer clues to the nature of the kingdom. But in the final analysis it isn’t his kingdom, nor is it ours. Always and foremost Jesus points us to God’s kingdom.