the return of the kingdom

A recent conversation on the kingdom of God reminded me of an essay I wrote not long ago. I especially liked reading over this last part. I find myself eager to hear again that the experience of the kingdom of God is available to us now (whether or not those around us embrace it), and that we shouldn't confuse the kingdom with our limited church organizations, which so often disappoint us:

This saying of Jesus in Luke 17 was spoken when the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God was coming. Jesus answered:
"The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst." (Lk 17.20-21)
That last phrase has also been translated "the kingdom of God is among you." Which suggested that the kingdom of God was already present, already among them, appearing in the lives of Jesus and his followers. But Jesus' words about it not coming "with signs to be observed" are curious. And he said that we couldn't point to it and say "there it is!" What kind of kingdom could this be?

Those who insist that the kingdom of God must exist as distinct, organized communities of people usually want to emphasize that the kingdom is not merely "internal" or "individual," but exists enfleshed in people and their real, visible love for one another. And they are right about that. The kingdom of God exists as real people, wherever the followers of Jesus stand, and these people are not alone or isolated but are connected by real relationships, demonstrated by real acts of love, and truly united in the one kingdom that Jesus has established and invited us into.

But the fact that it is one kingdom challenges the idea that it appears as the distinct Christian communities and organizations that we see, which are not all united. And the fact that the kingdom of God has one King (and is God's kingdom) also challenges the "kingdom" claims of the many communities that we see organized under many different leaders and leadership structures, with membership and group identities determined by the human beings who have organized those communities. The actual all-too-human history of our organizations also makes it clear that these are not themselves the kingdom that Jesus announced. (Even the community of Jesus' twelve disciples included a traitor.) We can certainly point to a Christian organization or intentional community and say "there it is!" But what we cannot say is that any of them are the kingdom of God, or that the kingdom must appear in such distinct, organized communities.

Jesus once said, "The kingdom of God is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." (Mt 13.33) I think this describes well the nature of the kingdom of God, mixed in among the people of the world, effecting its influence in small, often unnoticed ways, like leaven. We are not able to point to a distinct, clearly organized group and say "there is the kingdom of God," but it does exist among us. Mixed in with our organizations and communities, but not defined or ruled by them or limited by their borders. Coordinated not by any human board of directors or organizational structure, but by God's one, all-permeating Spirit. And made up of those who truly follow Jesus in his kingdom life, bound together by love in the real relationships that connect and unite all the children of God.

"The kingdom of God is among you." Its boundaries are not distinct, nor its organization obvious, but it is real and the life of those in it is miraculous, just as Jesus' life was. And that life of the kingdom of God can be ours now. Not by our own long and difficult work, but as a free, undeserved gift from God.