Some years ago, what we then called The Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, now known as Episcopal Relief and Development, put out a little Advent calendar. There was a suggestion for every day in Advent to spur donations. Noting that a certain percentage of the world’s population was under-clothed, one suggestion sent me to my closet to count the sweaters, daring me to contribute a quarter for each one. When we added up all the sweaters of the four of us, I was appalled to discover that we perhaps had nearly a hundred sweaters of various sorts. At that rate, my contribution would amount to a major tax deduction. Each day the calendar reminded me and my family of what we had relative to the bulk of the world’s peoples. We counted cans of food in our pantry, rooms in our house, blankets, kitchen utensils, appliances. I am glad the calendar didn’t “charge” us for every book in the house or I would have been bankrupt.
Looking back on it, I can fairly say that my life changed that Advent. Until then I don’t believe I actually computed how much I had. Like many middle class Americans, I had always thought of myself as living rather modestly. I awoke to the fact that I was, by the world’s standards, very rich indeed.
Along about that time I read a book by the Quaker author Richard Foster in which he suggested that I go through my house noticing the things I was attached to. He pressed the idea that I might ponder giving those things away. I tried it. I gulped. I balked. That painting? That set of books? Mama’s loveseat? My piano?
Growing older has its compensations. One of them is that over the years you come to see how holding onto something is really rather useless. Things take up space. They breed clutter. That can choke life.
And that is why grasping and holding on to stuff—not just physical stuff but attitudes, habits, opinions, positions—is so at odds with what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Nothing that chokes life, that stifles growth, that encourages the human spirit to collapse in on itself is consonant with the freeing, exhilarating, dynamism of the Kingdom.
So I want you to think with me about what the New Testament refers to as the βασιλεια του θεου, which in English has generally been translated as the “kingdom” of God. It is, incidentally, not so much the place, the territory, or even the state of being in which something is practiced, as it is the sovereignty, the rule, of God. We can think of it as Ultimate Truth and rightness with universal application. “Realm” or “commonwealth” or other such words don’t quite get at the heart and thrust of βασιλεια [pronounced bah•si•LAY•ah].
According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the βασιλεια (I am going to call it that from here on) formed the center of Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew it is the βασιλεια of heaven, while in Mark and Luke it is the βασιλεια of God, but the two terms are synonymous. Jesus comes onto the stage proclaiming that the βασιλεια has come near, or is at hand, or is present. He then proceeds to exhibit the characteristics of the βασιλεια in his teaching, his healing, his preaching. In teaching, especially in parables, Jesus’ tells us about the βασιλεια. It is both present and future. There is a sense in which it has already come, as witnessed by the mighty acts that he himself performs. Yet it has not been fully realized, as it will be in the future when the rule or sovereignty of God is completely expressed and recognized. But Jesus is clear that in both present and future, life in the βασιλεια is a life of growth. It is a life of giving. Inclusiveness, generosity, determination, perseverance, forgiveness, adventurousness, courage, compassion, attention, watchfulness, patience, singleness of heart, and total dedication are some of the values and virtues that the parables and pronouncements ascribe to the βασιλεια. His powerful works likewise manifest the tremendous energy of love turned loose to feed, to free, to restore sight to the blind, to strengthen the weak, to cure the sick, to raise the dead. Over and over, Jesus’ discloses that God’s rule is on the side of justice, compassion, and liberation. In fact, the only people who are left out of the βασιλεια are those who presume to have God on their side, who oppress the weak, who neglect to do good, who keep the rules meticulously but abrogate the practice of charity.
So when we listen to today’s gospel, we hear part of a larger message of Jesus which has broadly to do with getting ready for the coming of the βασιλεια in all its fullness. It amounts to living in the present the way we will live in the consummated βασιλεια. “Do not be afraid, ” says Jesus, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the βασιλεια.” God is not about withholding the βασιλεια. Quite the contrary. God’s sovereignty is exactly about bringing the βασιλεια among people and bringing people into the βασιλεια. He tells us to sell our possessions, to give alms, to make purses for ourselves that are not about keeping money but about the treasures of the βασιλεια, which are right relationships, justice, and mercy. Expectancy characterizes those who are rehearsing, as it were, for the arrival of the complete rule of God: be like “those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” Whether this is the Early Church talking about the expected imminent return of Jesus himself, or Jesus talking about the total reign of God which is coming, it amounts to the same thing: stay in a state of preparedness. Live without fear. Have your eyes fixed on the values and relationships that characterize God’s βασιλεια.
It is precisely at this point, however, that the Church keeps going off the rails. The first major thing that happened—you can see it in the New Testament itself—is that the overriding message came to be about Jesus himself. That is fine—after all one cannot entirely separate Jesus from his teaching—until three hundred or so years have passed. From then on, Jesus has been so remote from ordinary people that nothing he said or did seems to have much impact on the way we live. Consider the fact that we do not actually do what our divine Jesus said do or refrain from what he forbade. Instead, the Church has made sure, by and large, that Jesus has stayed locked up in stained glass, a god to be bowed down to rather than followed seriously. Sell our goods and give to the poor? Love our enemies? Take no thought for tomorrow? Generally, that does not go down well, certainly not when folks are affluent, well educated, and relatively powerful.
But a large swath of the Church keeps misunderstanding the βασιλεια in another way. We keep somehow imagining that this business about the βασιλεια of God being in the future means that we don’t get into it until we die and go to heaven, which, for most people, is somewhere up in the sky or at least distinct from this world. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching that supports the notion that life here is all about being scared to death that if you mess up you won’t go to heaven. But don’t tell that to many Christians! The whole game is widely understood not only by Christians but by a great many who don’t even believe in Jesus to be about an afterlife. Must I say yet again that eternal life, which is a synonym for the βασιλεια of God, is inherently something that has no end (and no beginning) but is indeed the Life of God itself? The last thing we need to be worried about is the veracity of Jesus’ saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the βασιλεια.”
So what, then, does it mean to live as a community of folk sharing the βασιλεια of God? It is impossible to reduce it to rules, and the temptation to do so is strong, to say the least. In fact there is something that lies at the heart of human experience that the βασιλεια calls us to address. That is anxiety. Anxiety is pervasive, cross-cultural, universal. Those who don’t know where the next meal is coming from or what to do when their hovel has been swept away in a typhoon or tsunami are understandably anxious. Those who stand some chance of bettering their life worry about how to get ahead. Those who have all they need are anxious about having even more. And those who have more are anxious about securing their wealth. Having things is no antidote to anxiety. Yet we have a culture, indeed a world, that is largely built on the premise that materia equals security and security erases anxiety.
To put our faith in Christ is to strike out, like all those heroes of faith we heard about in Hebrews, and live by God in the βασιλεια. Have you begun to do that, or are you interested in trying? It by no means shields you from suffering, but rather ensures that a providential God is with you in your hour of suffering, not infrequently in the form of a community that cares about you. It does not protect you from loss, but allows you to practice living through your losses in a way that can enable you to see beyond depression to a Center where you are held in deep love that exceeds both what you can feel and even what you can imagine. It is does not keep you out of darkness, but sends you into your own darkness to find that God shows up there, sometimes as a deep and dazzling darkness. The βασιλεια involves us in working for real righteousness, which in biblical thought means justice in relationships, rather than keeping us preoccupied with our own personal concerns.
And all of this consists in what virtually all of the world’s wisdom traditions consistently teach: let go. Let go. We have a choice of two basic stances in life: grasping or giving. That is what I learned about that hoard of sweaters housed in the rectory by the Dunn family many years ago. We didn’t even know what we had, let alone whether we needed it. It was only when we began to open up, giving away little by little what we had accumulated, that I, at least, began to experience what the βασιλεια ultimately promises: freedom. Have nothing that you cannot afford to lose. That is the meaning of discipleship and the heart of what it means to live in the βασιλεια of God.
To the extent we live that way, we begin to look more and more like Jesus. We begin to be recognizable as his beloved community precisely because letting go of everything is the one way we can surely become open; and being open is the first step towards loving; and loving is above all what Jesus and the βασιλεια are all about. To the extent that we take on the characteristics of Jesus, we take on the characteristics of God.
And then will have come to pass the saying that is written, “the βασιλεια of God is within you.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013