This weekend is the start of kingdom season in the church calendar. It gives us an opportunity to think about what it means when we talk about the kingdom of God - also sometimes called the Kingdom of heaven. The kingdom can be a complicated idea to get hold off because we are speaking about something which is both now, and also not yet.
What does it mean for the kingdom of God to be now? A kingdom means that we are under the rule of a king, in this case God. So the kingdom is now insomuch as we open ourselves up to the rule of God in our lives.
Luke 6.20-31 tells us a lot about what it might mean to be open to God's rule. Jesus proclaims four blessings and four woes - this is the same formula as the law given in the Hebrew scriptures. Blessed are those who do this, that and the other. Woe to those who do such-and-such. But when Jesus uses blessings and woes he isn't giving us more do's and dont's. (That will come as a disappointment to those Christians who are very fond of do's and dont's.) Instead Jesus tells us that when we open ourselves up to God, what occurs is a change of heart. Submitting to God's rule simply means becoming more like him.
Someone once suggested that God is like a song ringing out across the universe and all creation. And we can choose to join in with it, or not. To open ourselves to God's rule in this sense means picking up the rhythm of his song and keeping in time with it. And perhaps, because we have been made with creativity and imagination we can also harmonize and improvise around the melody.
Jesus teaches us what it means to join in with God's universal song. The subject of that song is God's very nature. Loving, gracious, merciful and just. In short, God is abundantly generous. What Jesus tells us about the attitude of our hearts is that we should be joining in with God's generosity. Turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt too. Do good to those that hate you. Pray for those who abuse you.
Here is how Bishop Tom Wright puts it*: 'The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it for them. Think of what you'd really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead.'
We are recipients of God's generosity towards us and in turn must pass that on to others. So when we talk about God's rule - God's kingdom - being now, it is our willingness to adopt God's way of behaving with absurd generosity that we are thinking about.
But there is a sense in which the kingdom of God is also not yet. It is his promise to usher in a new era where we will live harmoniously together under his reign. Sometimes called the kingdom of heaven it is our future hope, as well as our hope for those of our loved ones who have gone before us.
God's coming kingdom will not be a democracy but a monarchy, the like of which we have never seen before. Every human system of government has flaws in it. In particular -- and this really bothered the Old Testament prophets -- there is systematic injustice which disadvantages the poor. The very people society should be looking after the most become even more oppressed because of the way government works. In this sense, the kingdom of God is always political, because it challenges the way we work as a society.
This week it came to light that as a result of the coalition government's cuts to housing benefit, some 200,000 of London's poorest people may no longer be able to be accommodated in the city and will be shipped out to cheap bed and breakfast accommodation in other towns (The Observer 24 Oct 2010). Nobody is suggesting that this is a deliberate ploy on the part of evil Tories to get rid of the poor. Well, alright, probably quite a lot of people are suggesting that. But I don't believe it is the case - simply that systems in society time and again work against the needs of the most vulnerable. And if nobody speaks up on their behalf the poor are powerless to do much about it.
The kingdom of God, by contrast, gives us a vision of life the like of which we have never seen. There is a king who is also a servant. There is justice in which judgement gives way to mercy. The poor will be blessed, the hungry fed, and the sorrowful will laugh with joy.
This is a kingdom that only God can bring about. But we can join in with his work. Everything we do to challenge systematic injustice, everything we do to feed the hungry, reach out to the oppressed, or comfort those who weep, is work that prepares the way for God's coming kingdom. That is a hard challenge. But if we open ourselves up to God's generosity now, and allow him to create a new attitude of heart in us, one which springs from his divine generosity, then our actions will be in keeping with that glorious vision of the kingdom of God.