First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720
231-547-9122


Bearer(s) of the Kingdom

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 21st ~ 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Bearer(s) of the Kingdom

1 Cor. 7:29-31    Mark 1: 14-20

 

The one thing I have discovered over the years is that it doesn’t matter how long you have been a Christian or how long you have attended church or how many sermons you may have slept through (oops listened to!) You probably still have questions about this enterprise called the Christian faith.  I believe I can say this with some assuredness because I still have questions as well!

For me, theology and astrophysics have something in common: the more that is revealed, the more you learn, the deeper into your subject you delve, whether it is the spiritual realm or deep space, the more you know how much you don’t know!

The kingdom or realm of God.  Paul speaks of an “appointed time” when the present form of the world will pass away (1 Cor.), revealing at last the power and love of God.  For Jesus, the kingdom was at hand; for Paul the time left was short.  But the kingdom patently did not come. 

Or did it?

Did it to some extent arrive in Jesus himself, while we still await its fulfillment at some future time?  So, one of those questions for me is: how are we to understand this kingdom, realm of God today; and more significantly perhaps, how should this affect our personal conduct and the social structures in which we are participants?  

It has been suggested that if Paul had a website, 1 Corinthians 7-10 would have been under his FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) tab.  The emerging congregation in Corinth had questions: “What should they believe?”  And just as importantly “How should they live?”  So they wrote to one they thought might be able to guide them.  Their founder, Paul was in Ephesus when he received their letter and our reading is from one of at least two letters that were his reply to the Corinthian congregation and their questions. Unfortunately, we do not have the letter they wrote so we can only guess as to the actual questions asked of the apostle.  But we can extrapolate from the answers Paul provides.  Some of their questions might seem a bit odd to our 21st century sensibilities.  Like the matter of marital relations or the matter of what should I do if my spouse stops believing in God, should I divorce them?  And what about celibacy vs. marriage?  And of course, on the minds of at least the gentile men was the matter of circumcision!  Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians is a portion of Paul’s response to these and other questions.  

At first sight Paul’s answers seem strange (e.g. if you are mourning, keep smiling; if you are feeling full of joy, keep a straight face), yet taken as a whole these questions and the answers help us to respond to one of our bigger questions –what do we mean by the Kingdom of God and does it make any difference to the way we live?

There are those who would like to leave Paul in his first century culture and society.  They argue that Paul was only speaking to people who believed, like him, that the ‘time was short’ and that the end of the world was at hand.  Here we are nearly 20 centuries removed and to my knowledge we have not been pulled into a black hole so time has slowed down, (but then would we know it if we had?!) we must wonder what Paul would think about his claim that the “time is short.” 

Or is there something of Paul that can speak to our different situation? 

I think there just might be.  (Of course I do or I wouldn’t have brought you along to this point!)  Paul seems to say that we are to live in the world with its institutions and relationships, but there is a sense in which we have to keep an appropriate distance from them so that we can see with what some call a “kingdom eye” to recognize how much more these structures, institutions contain or how much better they could become.  We still let them service us and we continue to serve them, but our ‘critical distance’ this ‘balcony view’ – which breaks their hold on us– gives us freedom to allow Christ to change us and our relationships with the structures and institutions of society and even change these structures and institutions; which by the way, includes the church! 

In another letter Paul offered this counsel to the congregation located in the center of the power and social structures of his world:  Romans 12:2  The Message

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

We are to live ‘as if’ custom and convention of this world no longer press upon us, ‘as if’ we are at the threshold of a transformation to a new state of being where the ultimate source of our life is Christ not the world.  Another word for this: the kingdom of God

Recent theology and study of the Bible have given rise to a new interest in the kingdom of God.  But today we are less likely to think of it as something remote and at the end of time, irrelevant to us now, apart from personal implications like eternal life.  Nor do we think, like our Victorian forebears, that the kingdom is the gradual progress of life in this world towards a better version – which was merely a human construct of what “better” looks like.  Rather, everything we talk about and do as Christians has (or should have) a ‘kingdom dimension’.  This is possible because we believe that Jesus is the ‘Bearer of the Kingdom’, and He not only brought the initial movement of the kingdom into the world, but that it can still be felt in our midst in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. 

Our disordered world longs for reconciliation, wholeness but there is now hope, and outcrops of God’s reconciling reign can be seen in our own lives and the life of the world, if we would but look beyond the fake and negative news.  Because of this we are to live ‘as if’ the kingdom has come.  Because we have one foot in the world and one in the kingdom, Jesus’ disciples in any age are enabled, in the Spirit’s power, to begin to steer human life in that direction.  So, in a very real sense, we also are bearers of the kingdom.  As Jesus brought the seed of the reign of God into the world and will be there for its fulfillment, we in our day and in our lives, are bearing the ways of the kingdom.

This doesn’t mean we will see it fulfillment on our lives, we may, and we may not, but we are still to live in ‘as if.’

The prayer on the back page of your worship folders sums all this up nicely.  I invite you to turn to it and let’s read/pray it together responsively.

A meditation on working for the kingdom

This meditation has been attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero but was actually written by another American RC bishop for a memorial mass for priests. Five months later Romero was martyred (1980) and it may be that the link was made then. Although originally intended for ministers, and entitled Ministers not Messiahs, it could equally well apply to any ‘worker for the kingdom’. It might be used in conjunction with an appropriate hymn, or sequence of song and hymn. Or two halves of a congregation may read it in alternate stanzas.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime  only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise  that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,  which is another way of saying  that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.  No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.  We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,  knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,  and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,  and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete,  but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,  but that is the difference   between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, . . . not master builders,

 ministers, . . . not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

There is a wonderful story from the land of my MacAllister ancestors that is illustrative of how our relationship to the Kingdom of God has  ‘here and now’ and ‘not yet’ qualities. 

John MacLeod, Gaelic-speaking minister at Oban until 1974, told of preaching visits to Canada where he met many who viewed Scotland as their home. One introduced himself, saying, “You’re from Oban; I’m a Coll man myself!” (the Hebridean island you sail to from Oban). “And when did you leave Coll?” asked the minister. “Oh, I have never been to Coll,” he returned, “but my great-grandfather and his family came from Coll and I have always felt that I belonged there.” MacLeod reflected: We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20); we have never been there but Christ has come among us from there and we are of his family.  The King James Version translates Philippians 3:20 ‘our conversation is in heaven’,  With our feet planted in this world we keep our conversation and lifestyle in lthe kingdom of God.

 

Listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by double clicking on the “Download File” below, open and enjoy!

 

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