The Kingdom of God

Clarence Russell Skinner was the most influential Universalist minister of his generation. He wrote a wonderful book entitled The Social Implications of Universalism (1915). Skinner wrote that modern religion must sanctify the world. Our dominant motive and driving force as religious liberals, and as human beings generally, must be, not to escape from earthly existence into some supposed world above and beyond this earthly existence of ours, but to make earthly existence as abundant and happy as it can be made, notwithstanding all of the terrible things that happen in this world on a daily basis. No matter how broken we may be, we can be restored to fullness of life.

Unitarianism---now most often combined with Universalism---affirms the unity, that is, the essential oneness of all life, all persons, and all things. As I have often said---not that it's an original idea of mine---the One becomes the many so that the many may know themselves to be one. Universalism affirms and promotes the universal restitution or restoration of all things and people---that is, all things and people will eventually be restored to their 'source' or 'original essence'. This is referred to in the Bible, in Acts 3:21, as the ‘restitution of all things’, or the ‘restoration of all’ (apokatastasis panton). In Greek astronomical and philosophical literature apokatastasis refers to the actual re-establishment of the order of the universe. By what means? Another Big Bang or a series of Big Bangs? Who knows for sure? I am also reminded of what we have learned from quantum mechanics, namely, that the universe is one, indivisible and conscious entity of which the observer is an essential part. So, for the restitution or adjustment of all things, we give thanks.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, in the New Testament of the Christian Scriptures, we meet what has been called the ‘Anonymous Christ.’ Here are verses 34-40 of that chapter:

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”’

Jesus’ followers were originally known as ‘people of the way’. Jesus, in his vision of the Anonymous Christ, offers all of us---Christian or non-Christian---a vision and a challenge. The call to follow Jesus is not a call to worship Jesus. He never sought nor wanted that. No, the Way of Jesus is a call to follow Jesus’ path, to live as he lived, and to serve others as he did. ‘Then said Jesus unto his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”’ (Mt 16:24). What a tragic thing it is that conventional, mainstream Christianity has so totally literalized and carnalized the truly sublime myth of the dying and rising god, distorting its true meaning. Then, to make matters worse, there’s all the ‘butcher shop theology’---the ‘Jesus died for your sins’ stuff---which, at least in the form in which it is ordinarily presented, formed no part of Jesus’ original teachings but has its origin for the most part in the mystery religions. Forgive us, Jesus, for what we have done to you and to your teachings! The distinguished American Baptist minister Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick expressed it well when, in an iconoclastic sermon entitled ‘The Peril of Worshipping Jesus’ (in the collection of Fosdick sermons The Hope of the World), he said:

‘The world has tried in two ways to get rid of Jesus: first, by crucifying him, and second, by worshipping him. The first did not succeed. …

‘The world, therefore, foiled in its first attempt to be rid of Jesus by crucifying him, turned to the second, far more subtle and fatal way of disposing of great spiritual leadership---it worshipped him. … [T]hat has always been the most successful way of getting rid of Jesus.’

Dr Fosdick wrote that a Christian is one who answers Jesus’ two-worded appeal, ‘Follow me.’ The Presbyterian theologian Samuel Angus described a Christian as a person who is inwardly and whose life is moulded after that of Jesus. In other words, to believe in Jesus is to confess that in him we find the true essence of the sacred or divine (that is, what is of ultimate importance), which is love. ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8).

Now, this is my point. Many Buddhists I know, even many atheists and other secularists, live lives that are so much more nobly and deeply and closely moulded after that of Jesus than those fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who claim, ever so proudly, to have been washed in the saving Blood of the Lamb---a perverse and pernicious corruption and distortion of true Christianity if ever there was one---and who have forsaken the true human Jesus of the Gospels (who never used any language of sacrifice, bloodshed, propitiation or expiation) and who have substituted for him a Christ of dogmatism, metaphysics and pagan philosophy. I repeat, many people, who would not identify as Christians, are real followers of the way of Jesus. There is a wonderful hymn, in The New St Alban Hymnal, written by Marguerite Pollard, which contains this wonderful verse:

‘And there are some who love him well,
yet know not it is he they love;
he tends the holy fire within
and draws them to the heights above.’

Yes, the kingdom of God (also known as the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘eternal life’ in John’s Gospel [but also in the Synoptic Gospels], and the ‘beloved community’) is essentially a kingdom of humanity and of human concerns---irrespective of class, creed, colour, race, belief-system or any other little human distinctions---a kingdom of sensitivity between people, and of love and peace and goodwill for all the people of the earth, indeed for all created things. Jesus can never be restricted to one denomination, theological position or even religion---not even Christianity. As E Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist Christian missionary and theologian, pointed out, the kingdom of God is founded directly on goodwill and universal brotherhood---that is, life as it ought to be. It is a spiritual kingdom, a spiritual community of souls in whose hearts the universal spiritual values.

Now, the kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality all at the same time.

First, the kingdom is a past reality because it has been in preparation---and been prepared for us---from the very foundation of the world (cf Mt 25:34) in the form of:

‘… the Oneness
That spans the fathomless deeps of space
And the measureless eons of time,
Binding them together in act,
As we do in thought. …

‘… the unity
Of all that is,
The uniformity of all that moves,
The rhythm of all things
And the nature of their interaction.’

So wrote Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

The great American Unitarian minister of yesteryear Robert T Weston expressed it beautifully when he wrote:

‘There is a living web that runs through us
To all the universe
Linking us each with each and through all life
On to distant stars.’

The kingdom of God is for all humanity, and has both an internal and an external aspect to it. Externally, the kingdom of God is that creative oneness that holds, sustains and governs the entire universe and everything in it (past, present and future)---something that is truly beyond our mortal comprehension. Internally, the kingdom of God lives as a present reality in the human heart, in our innermost being. In the oft-cited words of St Augustine, ‘I sought you outside and you were inside.’ Jesus, the way-shower into the kingdom of God, was a human who was utterly obsessed by humanity. Samuel Angus wrote in Jesus in the Lives of Men: ‘Jesus made the great discovery of oneness with the Father which he lived out in its expansive fullness in his own experience; he invites each of us to rediscover that discovery and to live in its thrilling and life-transforming power.’

Secondly, the kingdom of God is a present reality. What did Jesus say about the kingdom of God? Well, many things, in fact far too many to mention, but perhaps his greatest pronouncement on the kingdom is this---‘the kingdom of God is within you’ (Lk 17:21). As a present reality, Jesus revealed, perhaps more so than any others, that the kingdom of God was present in his own life. But never forget this---Jesus never claimed anything for himself that he did not also claim for every person. The kingdom---that is, the power and glory---is present, at least in potentiality, in every person. We are all of divine worth.

Thirdly, the kingdom of God is a future reality. We accept the kingdom of God, and help to make it a future reality, by building it here on earth. The kingdom of God, sensibly interpreted, is not some supernatural event that will supposedly come to pass when this world comes to an end but a kingdom of this world in which there is justice, equality and freedom for all. ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40, 45). I mentioned earlier that in John’s Gospel the kingdom of God is generally identified with ‘eternal life’. Eternal life, in New Testament terms, is not so much ever-enduring life but life of a certain quality---life lived as Jesus himself lived his life, that is, a life of love and selfless self-giving to others.

One of Jesus’ most interesting and powerful, indeed confronting, parables is the one known as the Parable of the Wedding Feast (also known as the Parable of the Marriage Feast and the Parable of the Unwilling Guests). In Matthew 22:1-10 we read:

‘Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. ‘Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.”’

Do you notice how the rich and powerful---the so-called ‘big end of town’---were all too busy to come? Nothing has changed. The poor, the maimed, the hungry, the halt, and the blind---they are not too busy to show up. They are all around us. Take, for example, the asylum seekers and refugees. How very badly we are treating them in Australia---especially their children! The kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about---indeed, it was his entire message (what he called the ‘gospel of God’)---is a very different sort of kingdom (if it can be called one) offered by the present powers-that-be, whose 'kingdom' is an altogether disgustingly materialistic one to be enjoyed solely by the rich, the powerful, and the privileged. That despicable 'kingdom' is symbolized in the Bible by the great whore of Babylon.

Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i, Humanist, atheist or whatever---they are all man-made labels that serve only to divide as opposed to unite--the only important thing is that we work together to help bring about a kingdom of love, peace and justice for all---on earth.

Note. This article is based on an address delivered by the author on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South Wales, Australia.