This is Part III of a 4-part blog series I am writing on the theological concept of the Kingdom of God, to correspond with the classes I had been leading at my church. You can read Part I by clicking here, and Part II by clicking here.
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We are at the heart of the first century in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a new culture is being developed. Contrary to the culture of the Roman empire and even many of the traditions of old, this new society is built upon communities that seek to live out the message of the Messiah–of Jesus Christ who lived as the ultimate human example and died as a source of redemption for all the times in which we would end up succumbing to all that ran counter to that example.
Leading the charge in this new experiment are Jesus’s former disciples and a new recruit named Paul, who had previously been an adversarial figure to these people he now refers to as brothers and sisters.
Their goal: advancing the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke so frequently and passionately.
The means: not through overpowering the Powers That Be (much to the dismay of many), but by instead forming communities built on love for God and others, compassion towards the outcasts, and the pursuit to choose this better way of life both through radical outreach and inclusiveness, and through fermenting the homegrown communities that are present today so as to be brought down and continued for generations to come.
But, as is the case with every human effort, this cause does not come without its fair share of struggles, confusion, and conflict both from the outside as well as from within.
This becomes evident through even a surface-level study into the latter books of the New Testament, most of which are letters written to the early Christian communities by the first major leaders regarding how best to advance the Kingdom of God within their own respective contexts.
For the church in Corinth, Paul was adamant about ensuring that access to the Kingdom of God was not hindered by people’s skills; rather, their goal instead was to define their communities by the ways in which they loved one another. For the church in Galatia, Paul was outraged when they were causing unnecessary divisions because of poor interpretations of ancient laws. And in so many other places, Paul and the early churches found themselves constantly struggling to figure out how to handle everything from slavery, to gender roles, to diversity, to those who tried to lead the people astray.
James got mad when people did not serve others.
Peter focused a lot on laziness and still being active in light of the second coming of Jesus that had been foretold.
John focused a lot on seeking unity in the midst of those who kept trying to create divisions within the communities.
With the advent of the Church comes the start of a pursuit that is still being realized today: how to advance the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven. With each passing day comes a new element, a new layer of what it looks like to be a follower of Christ in a world that has always been against his teachings. How to respond to cultural movements and social mores, how we are influenced by our society, and how can we determine our role today in the midst of all that is presented to us.
But the Kingdom of God is not defined by any one culture; rather, it is a conglomeration of many elements of many cultures, influenced most, hopefully, by the message of love and compassion taught and lived out by Jesus Christ with each passing day.
The direction my lessons for my class ended up turning towards the most in these past few weeks (including the weeks I ended up having to work instead of going to church), is the conclusion that the greatest key to advancing the kingdom of God–i.e., the ultimate template for Christian belief and practice–is rooted in what Jesus labeled as being the two greatest commandments. These two commandments are instructions for us to love God, and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).
Rarely was Jesus ever so explicit as he was with that designation. Even after someone acknowledged these commandments and went on to ask, understandably, who exactly qualified as a “neighbor,” Jesus went on to tell a story rather than just give a simple, straightforward response (Luke 10:25-37, I promise you that you know this story). This, as well as my own study of the Bible and other Christian texts, leads me to believe that love is the hinge upon which every single element of life should be supported. Regardless of our context, our culture, and whoever may support us or tear us down, love is our tool for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. Love is the light that seeps through the cracks of Babel’s infrastructure. Love is the counter–the twist–to this hyper-Shakespearean tragedy that humanity has written.
If you are Christian, you most likely believe that Jesus is coming back again, and that it is our job to prepare for that arrival in whatever way possible. Christian conservatives tend to see this as a call for evangelism and ‘right belief’–or orthodoxy. Christian liberals tend to see this as a call for action, justice, and service–or orthopraxy (literally, ‘right practice’). But love for God and love for others seems, to me, to be the two main requisites of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
When we read the two best-known biblical passages for what Christian love should look like (1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:7-21), these seem to support my theory further. Likewise, love for God and love for others seem go hand-in-hand. Love separates us from the legalism found in extreme orthodoxy, and the self-dependence found in extreme orthopraxy. Instead, love for God is right belief; and love for our neighbors is right practice.
Now, what we ended up discussing in class after looking at these verses were, of course, things like:
“Okay, but what exactly is love, beyond what we hear in songs and see in movies [e.g., the beautifully-arranged and performed but ridiculously delusional Elephant Love Medley in Moulin Rouge]?”
“What does it mean to love ____________?”
“Does love for God occur before love for our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we learn to love God more through the way we love our neighbors, or vice versa? Can we love our neighbors without loving God, or vice versa?”
None of these questions are particularly new, and neither is my so-called “theory.” But to think that this concept is any less relevant or groundbreaking today than it was 2,000 years ago is to also think that the earth is flat, or that waterfalls aren’t super majestic and awesome.
The pursuit for love in our world today is no harder now than it was for the first century Church, nor is it really any easier. It’s hard to say, honestly.
But I maintain the idea that at the heart of the Christian lifestyle remains the same today, 2,000 years ago, and 2,000 years from now. Our goal is, has always been, and will always be, to advance the Kingdom of God in our world by loving the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is a very simple and absolute idea, but beyond this point lies layers upon layers of questions, implications, dead ends, contexts, and, most of all: God. Eden. The New Jerusalem. Peace. Joy. Grace. Truth. Justice. Authenticity. Vulnerability. Perfection.
Andy Williams sang, “Love is a many-splendored thing [referring to romantic love, but still].” That doesn’t mean that love is an easy pursuit. But when we do choose to love above all else, surely that is when we can see how incredible the world can really be when it strives to function as God had always intended.
My friends, may we choose to love and learn what it means to love. May we not avoid vulnerability, and may we strive to look past ourselves. May we tread the hard path of love so that we can prepare the way of the Lord.
Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for my final post in this series, coming… soon.