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More Wrightian than McKnightian: Where Exactly is the Kingdom?

20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17 NRSV)

Lately, the Kingdom of God has been the subject of much discussion in Christian theological scholarship and local churches. Two biblical scholars in particular have been at the center of this discussion, with two very similar but slightly nuanced views. Those two are Tom Wright and Scot McKnight. As is evident from their names, either of their views is -ight, but which was one is right? (See what I did there?)

Space and time constraints permit only a brief and perhaps reductionistic survey of both scholars’ views. However, my ultimate aim is not merely to survey their views, but to present my own. I hope to show where I see the reign of God present and its relationship to the church.

Let’s start with McKnight. In books like Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight puts forth a proposal that we might call “ecclesio-centric.” He makes it clear that he does not find it biblical at all to speak of God’s “kingdom” activity outside the people of God. For him, God’s Kingdom is the church.

An ecclesio-centric model of the Kingdom has some appeal. It squares with a lot of Scripture. The people of Israel are often equated with God’s kingdom. And Paul often speaks very highly of the church, as the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plan (e.g. Eph. 1.23, 3.10, etc.).

However, Wright’s position also has biblical support. For Wright, Jesus is God’s-Kingdom-in-person. That is why Jesus preached the Gospel as “The Kingdom of God is near.” (e.g. Mt. 3.2; Mk. 1.15; Lk. 10.9, etc.) The church had not yet been established by Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. And yet, Jesus’s presence was the supreme sign of the Kingdom’s in-breaking. What’s more, the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world by his Spirit, revealing Christ and manifesting the Kingdom.

So, therein lies the primary point of departure. Both theologians believe that the Gospel is the announcement and enactment of the Kingdom of God. Both theologians believe that Jesus, the Spirit, and his church are central to that enactment. But there is a slight nuance in how they would view the relationship between the church and the Kingdom.

Perhaps it’s relevant to state that McKnight, though he has become Anglican of late, has for many years been one of the most prolific voices in the U.S. for what’s been called “Neo-Anabaptism.” Both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions centralize the church in the work of God. But it may be relevant that the Anglican tradition has been more comfortable with recognizing God’s work outside the church in common grace.

In a rare, constructive dialogue with a friend on Facebook, I suggested that maybe pnuematology would have an impact on this discussion.

If one views the work of the Spirit (e.g. illumination, drawing of people to Christ, manifesting shalom, etc.) as the same work that is theologically described as the “in-breaking of the Kingdom,” then the presence of the Kingdom would overlap with everywhere the Spirit can been seen to be at work.

Pentecostals and Charismatics have been talking this way for a hundred years, of course. Where the Spirit heals and delivers, the Kingdom is present. This is also backed-up by Scripture. Jesus correlated the miraculous power of the Spirit with the in-breaking of the Kingdom.

20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11 NRSV)

Where the Spirit is at work, Jesus claims, the Kingdom is breaking in.

Another factor that may influence one’s view on this subject is one’s conception of a kingdom. If one associates a kingdom with an institution, one is more likely to side with McKnight. But, it’s important to note that “reign” is a more accurate translation than “kingdom” for the New Testament concept.1

The “reign” of a king is much more than an institution or a group of people—it is also the ethos of that king, the values, and way of life embodied in the era of that king’s rule.

The ethos of God’s reign is pictured throughout the Bible as the presence of peace, justice, right relationships between people and God and each other, as well as harmony with God’s creation. The prophets often picture this as the end of war and violence, or as the end of predator and prey, or God’s presence as in the Temple, only everywhere (e.g. Is. 2.4, 11.6; Rev. 21-22). This vision of God’s reign is also encapsulated in the complex Hebrew word: shalom.

Wherever God’s Spirit is at work wooing, drawing people to Christ, reconciling people to one another, fostering restorative justice; manifesting God’s love in physical healing, emotional healing, providing for physical needs like hunger, thirst, safety, and freedom, God’s reign is breaking into this world.

The church has a critical role to play in this in-breaking. The church are those who gather in that shalom, give glory to God in Christ through worship, and bear witness. The church are those who embody the reign of God through our lives.

This is how the church serves as a ‘colony of heaven’ (Phil. 3.20). We manifest the in-breaking of God’s reign in our communal life. We also spread God’s reign in our proclamation and embodiment of that reign in the world. The church is to be a microcosm of what will one day characterize the whole world.

Here’s a concrete example: the Conversion of Cornelius’s Household

In Acts chapter 10, we read of a man named Cornelius who is a Gentile Centurion. (That’s two strikes). But to his credit, he is described as a “god-fearer,” which likely means he is a Gentile convert to Judaism or just a Gentile who keeps the Law of Moses. (Note: Even if he has been in-grafted into Israel, he is not yet a member of ‘the Church of Jesus Christ’). And yet, this man’s generosity and devotion are recognized by God (cf. 10.4b). God is at work in this man’s life. How can God be at work in his life? By God’s Spirit, of course. God’s Spirit is the main character of Acts. The Spirit is the One through whom Jesus continues to be present to his disciples and to act in the world.

You know how the rest of the story goes: The angel who appears to Cornelius (who informs him that his devotion and generosity have been received by God) tells him to send for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is getting a lesson from God about Gentile-inclusion. So that, by the time, Gentile messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter is ready to go with them. Upon hearing the Gospel preached to them, Cornelius and his whole household received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was upon their reception of the Holy Spirit that Peter initiates them into the church by the sacrament of baptism.

Who would deny that the activity of the Spirit in Cornelius’s life was the reign of God breaking in? How did it happen? By the power of the Spirit. When does the church come into the equation? When Cornelius’s household hears the Gospel about Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit.

Let’s recap:

  1. God’s Spirit is at work everywhere in the world—even among those we would least expect (e.g. Gentile Centurions, etc.). God’s Spirit is drawing people to Christ, as evinced by the vision of the angel and the command to send for Peter.
  2. The preaching and embodiment of the Gospel by Peter is met by the reception of the Holy Spirit in those among whom God is at work. God’s reign is manifest in their midst.
  3. Then, those among whom God has been at work by God’s Spirit, manifesting God’s reign, are initiated into the church.

Therefore, the church is the culmination of the in-drawing work of the Spirit in the world, and the front lines of where God’s shalom-making reign is found.

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  1. basileia (transliteration of the Greek) means: royal power, kingship, dominion, rule—not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom; of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah; of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom.
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Guns Don’t Stop Killers, People Stop Killers: Love, Shared Stories, and the Power of the Holy Spirit

Depending on your access to social media, you may not have heard about this story, or you may think you’re hearing about it everywhere. Either way, this story is not getting enough attention, and it probably won’t. I’m convinced human beings want Good News, but we’ve been conditioned by our world to settle for and wallow in Bad News. This is the condition that helps media outlets determine what stories will get ratings, which in turn feeds the culture to which the media is trying to cater. What we end up with is a vicious cycle perpetuating a culture of death. We’re entertained, fixated, horrified, and mesmerized by violence!

After the Sandy Hook school shooting, NRA President Wayne LaPierre famously said,

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” [1]

This logic seems sound to millions of U.S. Americans (even Christians!) who have been conditioned by our culture of violence and death. Then along comes a story like Antoinette Tuff’s, and the presumption that only greater violence can prevent violence is utterly shattered. Tuff’s story beautifully illustrates at least three things:

  1. The power of faith to produce love for the ‘other’;
  2. The power of shared stories;
  3. The power of the Holy Spirit.

Combined, these powers overcome the powers of mental illness, violence, hatred, and death. Take note people—is what Christian discipleship looks like in real life!

What Could Have Been a Massacre, Wasn’t:

 

Tuesday, August 20th, a young white male, later identified as Michael Brandon Hill, entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, near Decatur, GA.

“He stormed into a front office brandishing an AK-47 and demanded a TV news crew film his ensuing shootout with police, in which he intended to die.” [2]

Hill barricaded himself in the front office before he fired shots at officers, who then returned fire. No one was injured. But the hours-long ordeal was nothing short of a nightmare for parents and frightening for hundreds of students, in their second week of a new school year.

The school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, found herself alone with Hill, who instructed her to call one of the news stations. She called Channel 2 Action News. Tuff told Channel 2,

“I just started praying for him. I just started talking to him and allowing him to know some of my stories and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK. And then let him know that he could just give himself up.”

Tuff said she spent almost an hour with the suspect throughout the ordeal and asked him to put the weapon down and surrender himself to police.

I. The Power of Faith to Produce Love for the ‘Other’

There is no greater ‘other’ than the one threatening you with physical, deadly violence. That is who Antoinette Tuff encountered—a young man prepared to die and willing to kill anyone who stood in his way. But instead of only thinking about her own life, and instead of considering his life valueless, she considered him a “hurting soul.” Tuff had an extraordinary amount of empathy for a person who was different from her in race, age, gender—and pointing a gun at her! This empathy was not produced by U.S. American culture. This empathy was not produced by the media. This empathy was produced by her faith. To Anderson Cooper, she says:

“He’s a hurting soul. And so, if there’s any kind of way I can help him and allow him to get on the right path. We all go through something. And I believe that God gives us all a purpose in life. He has a purpose and destiny for that young man.” [3]

Her empathy for this complete stranger, who could have been her murderer, is beyond understanding. She said in an interview,

“I just explained to him that I loved him. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know much about him, but I did love him.”

Love for one’s enemies is what Jesus says marks the children of God because it is characteristic of their Father. God loves those who don’t deserve it; he unconditionally and indiscriminately distributes his love to all people.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

– Jesus, Matthew 5.43-48

II. The Power of Shared Stories

Tuff’s extraordinary empathy didn’t just allow her to see this potential mass murderer as a human being—a “hurting soul”—it also allowed her to see some of her own story in his. As he told her that he had nothing to live for, and wanted to die, she could relate with him. She shared with him that she too had undergone suffering and had felt that she had nothing to live for.

The reporter for ABC’s World News Now said,

“Tuff began sharing her own story with that young man telling him how she’d lost her husband of 33 years, and that she felt that no one loved her at one point. And that’s when he began to open up and reveal that he had not taken his medication.”

CNN reports that the recording of Tuff’s 911 call relays that she told the young man:

“I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK.”

Every person has a story. We are not merely a record of our worst decisions. Our lives have purpose, as Tuff shared. Her own story is one with tragedy and hope. And her willingness to share her own story gave hope to a young man who believed he had nothing to live for, and was willing to kill others because he didn’t feel loved.

There is power in connecting with one another’s stories. We want someone to hear us. And we want to hear others. We long for connection; we want to know we’re not alone.

One of my favorite stories from the Gospels, is the story of a woman who experienced the extravagant grace of God and wanted to give an extravagant gift back, so she anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume. Jesus says about her:

“Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
– Mark 14.9

Like the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume, when we’ve experienced unimaginable grace, our stories are caught up in his story. Then, we can’t help but tell our story to others who need to hear it. This is what Tuff did. She saw a young man who had a story full of tragedy. She heard him, and then she shared her story of grace and hope with him because she knew his story didn’t have to end there. He too could experience grace and hope.

III. The Power of the Holy Spirit

Antoinette Tuff’s first instinct when she looked into the gunman’s face was to pray for him. She told an interviewer, “I just realized at that time, it was bigger than me. He was really a hurting young man. So I just started praying for him.” Who does that? A woman filled with the Holy Spirit. That is the response of a women who has entrusted herself to God.

Tuff is quick to give the credit for her choices to God. Some despise this practice as self-deprecating false humility. But there is another way to look at it. Does Tuff deserve credit for the choices she made? Definitely! But she also knows that she was moved to make those decisions by the power of the God in whom she has placed her trust. Therefore, her choices are a result of cooperation with God’s Spirit.

God desires covenant partners with whom he can act in the world. God is relational. By God’s very nature, God is self-giving self-communicating love. So it makes sense that God’s actions in the world would reflect God’s nature.

At the end of her interview picked up by ABC, Tuff said that what happened was a witness to the world that God is at work. She said that it was for unbelievers to believe in God:

“…that they’re able to see a God in action.”

Amen!!

Antoinette Tuff’s heart was prepared for the challenge she met when a gunman entered her school. She had given her heart and mind over to be used by God in any moment. She had also had her heart conditioned by the grace she’d received from God. She knows what it is to suffer tremendous loss, feel unloved, and feel that she has nothing to live for. Because she has been wounded, she can now serve as a wounded healer. Tuff is an example to us all. A woman who was courageous in the face of grave danger, trusting in the Holy Spirit.

How are we preparing ourselves to be used by God in a crisis?

Have we allowed our hearts to be filled with God’s grace, so that we can empathize with the ‘other’—even the one who would wish to harm us?

How will we allow Antoinette Tuff’s story of courage and trust in God’s Spirit to change our vision of how violence is dealt with by Christians?

 

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  1. http://youtu.be/aASfk-ii0BM
  2. Daily Mail “Atlanta school hero reveals she told shooter she loved him as his brother” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2398664/Michael-Brandon-Hill-Atlanta-Georgia-school-shooter-stopped-secretary-Antoinette-Tuff.html
  3. CNN “Georgia school shooting: Antoinette Tuff hailed as hero” http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/22/us/georgia-school-shooting-hero/?hpt=us_c1