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Early Learning

A year after I first asked my Young Life leader about the kingdom, I spent a half a year at LʼAbri Fellowship in Switzerland. I was in the Farel House Studies Program with about ten other young students. (Farel House was an independent study tutorial program; Francis Schaeffer was my tutor.) We were all between nineteen and twenty-five years of age; I was the youngest at the time, straight out of high school. During that period, forty-five years ago, I hunkered down and learned basic reformed systematic theology and Francis Schaefferʼs unique brand of evangelism and “pre-evangelism,” which I began to put to some effect as soon as I left the place, both on holiday in England and again at the Great Russell Street YMCA in London and in Luton, in Bedfordshire during the weeks after I left school for good. At no time in that period did the subject of “kingdom” come up, probably because “kingdom” is not, as I remember it, a big doctrinal category in reformed systematic theology and because “the kingdom” is generally assumed to be synonymous with “the church.”

It was not until several years later that the question of what is the kingdom began to surface. I was married and attending Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when I began attending lectures and discussions at nearby Westminster Seminary; a group there called the Kuyper Club. This cadre seemed to be tearing the entire edifice of systematic theology down and rebuilding along other lines. It was there that I first encountered a distinction between the kingdom of God and the church.

I am not sure that I can articulate what that distinction was, nor do I necessarily think the work done in that fascinating group was, at that time, altogether sound. I had neither the tools then nor have I the recall now to be able to evaluate. What I do know is that my brief association with those energetic seminarians opened my eyes to a much larger frame of reference than I had known before. My discussions, both formal and informal, with persons associated with the Kuyper Club helped me to tear down and rebuild my view of the world and life. In the main – and this is not an uncommon experience – based on all I learned at that time when I was in my mid-twenties I still believe today.

Church and Kingdom: What is Church?

Christians have never really settled on a good answer to the question, “What is the church?” That fact alone makes a discussion of “kingdom” and “church” dicey at best. What I had learned at LʼAbri at least gave lip service to a distinction between the church as institution and the church as community. This was somewhat better than the Catholic dogma,[1] which established that the true Church of Jesus Christ exists as the Pope, the bishops and the priests, rightly performing the sacraments of Christ. In this official Catholic definition the laity are not even a constituent part of The Church but must come to The Church for holiness through the priestly exercise of sacramental grace. Far, far from such a strangely dualistic view, I have traveled.

A Useful Distinction

Along the way, my understanding of the kingdom has taken shape around and within my understanding of “the church.” Today I make a distinction between the kingdom-now and the kingdom-come. If the church on the earth, to put it most simply, is the people of God on the earth at any given moment in time, then kingdom-now is what those people do, build, create, form, norm and perform in any given day in any given task. Although the kingdom-now may look very little like what the kingdom-come will some day be, what we do along the way in the kingdom-now is build limited, temporary way-stations, houses of healing, cities of refuge and signposts toward the kingdom-come. We do this whether we know it or not and whether others recognize our work as “kingdom work.” (That so many Christians today do not view their daily work and living as a contribution to the kingdom may account for some of the thinness of that work, but I am ahead of myself.) Not only do Christians build the kingdom every day; others do as well. In many cases, I believe, where there is a cry for kingdom-justice/righteousness to break out, but there is no one present to confess “the king has come!” then as Jesus once warned would happen, “the very stones cry out.”[2]

Cathedrals, but not of Stone

One way to discuss this issue is to imagine the building of a great cathedral. We know there were multiple generations of European stone-cutters, craftsmen and other townsfolk and farmers, who built the cathedrals, one generation picking up where another left off. In most cases, there were adequate workers with an abundance of skills. But what if in one small city there was no one with the skill to craft a certain sort of stained glass or to form a certain kind of abutment? It was probably the policy of the authorities that only Christians could build, but you cannot tell me that Moors in Spain and Jews in France never contributed their sweat or coin to the erection of a great cathedral!?

And so it is with the kingdom-now and the kingdom-come. Sometimes the great insight, the keen discovery, is made by someone who has no interest in building the kingdom of God. Yet every creature belongs to God. Every human breathes, thinks and grins by the grace of God. Quite often, I think, Nebuchadnezzar is Godʼs servant again, knowingly or not. And so bit by bit, we all live and in living, we all knowingly or not, willingly or not, build the kingdom-now toward the kingdom-come.

A Question, Asked Many Times

I have been asked frequently over the years, “Trace, do you really believe we sinners, saved by grace, have any chance of building the kingdom of God here on the earth?”

If you follow the logic of cathedral-building and use the kingdom-now and kingdom-come distinction, then an answer follows well enough. Many times over the centuries during which the cathedrals were being erected, the dreams and schemes of the architects failed to meet up with the hard realities of available technology, method and gravity. Sometimes entire walls, the work of decades of labor came crashing down. If you carry out the analogy, then, the kingdom-now cathedrals which we build, sometimes crash. Our visions run up against the Word of God which holds all creation in its place and our constructions prove thin, unstable or even crooked. Or, to use St. Paul’s apt analogy, our work proves to be “hay, wood and stubble.”[3] That, I would say is why we can never claim we are building the kingdom-come because, as strange as it may seem, we cannot often tell the difference between “hay, wood and stubble” and “gold, silver and precious jewels.”

What does this mean in practical terms? Sometimes it means no more than, Robbie Burnsʼ “The best laid schemes oʼ Mice anʼ Men, Gang aft agley.”[4] Things go wrong. In our fallen condition, we do not understand creation as we were meant to do nor as well as we will know some day. On other occasions, our plans fail because of sin. In our redeemed state, we are not yet all we will become. We fear both success and failure; we doubt our efforts and those of others; we distrust those who are not like us; we are discouraged by roadblocks; we fail to have vision; we get caught up in visions which are themselves on their way to perdition.

My Answer

“No,” I answer, “I do not believe we cracked-pot humans shall ever build and certainly we will never finish building the kingdom-come. And yet, it is our very purpose, our “Raison dʼêtre,” our holy marching orders after we are rescued from perdition: ʻbuild the kingdom-now, as best you can together, for through you, dim bulbs, God “may nullify the things that are.ʼ and then the kingdom will come.”[5]

Sins Are Not the Problem

Which is why our sinfulness is not an issue for the King! Christ Jesus knows our infirmities and our limits. Only the sin of not believing God can use us is a true obstacle. And even that sin leads us to conviction, repentance and renewal. And everything about forgiveness leads at once to commissioning for ministry because the purpose of Jesusʼ bloody and sacrificial death is freedom to live abundant life in community with other Christians, in daily, apostolic ministry for the sake of the world. Kingdom-now is within our grasp and God will use our Spirit-driven efforts to bring down to earth the kingdom-come in God’s own good time! Now, this is good news, indeed!

Comments?

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Endnotes

1 Back to Post Council of Trent, 1545-1563

2 Back to Post Luke 19:40.  Notice how when a witness to the presence of the king, coming in power, must be made, God will use anything or any one to make that witness.

3 Back to Post I Corinthians 3:12.  This entire passage is about the building of the kingdom in creation on the basis of Christ’s salvation work. The issue is not whether we will work to build the kingdom but with power and faith or reluctantly or even in denial.

4 Back to Post Burns, Robert, To a Mouse, a poem. “Gang aft agley,” I was taught by my father, means “go often astray.”

5 Back to Post I Corinthians 1:28.  In this passage, the apostle reminds this community of who they are and of what they are called to be and do. He notes that given their lack of worldly wisdom and auctoritas (Latin word for honor, authority, prestige and power, all rolled into one) they certainly need to learn how to agree and work together.

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