Friday, February 16, 2007

The kingdom of God

By Brian McLaren

(excerpted from the book Secret Message of Jesus)

This idea -- that the kingdom of God is about our daily lives, about our way of life -- may lie behind the tension people feel between the words religious and spiritual. Perhaps the word religious has come for some people to mean 'believing in God but not the kingdom of God.' And perhaps the word spiritual has become a way for others to mean "living in an interactive relationship with God and others as a daily way of
life." In this way, the influence of Jesus may be as strong outside of some religious institutions as inside -- and maybe even stronger. This may even help explain why church attendance has been plummeting across Europe and in many part of the United States. When Christianity sees itself more as a belief system or set of rituals for the select few and less as a way of daily life available to all, it loses the "magic" of the kingdom.

I've spent a lot of time in Europe during the last ten years or so. I love to visit the beautiful cathedrals in whatever city I visit. I often will sit quietly and feel the gentle grandeur of their past. Before long, though, I also feel the poignant pathos of their present, since many of them attract tens of hundreds of times more tourists than worshipers in an average week.

What went wrong in those cathedrals? And what is going wrong in much of the stagnant, tense, or hyped-up religiosity of churches in my own country? Those questions take us beyond the scope of this book, but you can guess one of my main hunches: the Christian religion continues to sing and preach and teach about Jesus, but in too many places (not all!) it has largely forgotten, misunderstood, or become distracted from Jesus' secret message. When we drifted from understanding and living out his essential secret message of the kingdom, we became like flavorless salt or a blown-out lightbulb -- so boring that people just walked away. We may have talked about going to heaven after we die, but not about God's will being done on earth before we die. We may have pressured people to be moral and good or correct and orthodox to avoid hell after death, but we didn't inspire them with the possibility of becoming beautiful and fruitful to heal the earth in this life. We may have instructed them about how to be a good Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist on Sunday, but we didn't train, challenge, and inspire them to live out the kingdom of God in their jobs, neighborhoods, families, schools, and societies between Sundays.

We may have tried to make people "nice" -- quiet citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economics -- but we didn't fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God. No, too often, Karl Marx was right: we used religion as a drug so we could tolerate th abysmal conditions of a world that is not the kingdom of God. Religion became our tranquilizer so we wouldn't be so upset about injustice. Our religiosity thus aided and abetted people in power who wanted nothing more than to conserve and preserve the unjust status quo that was so profitable and comfortable for them.

What would happen, I wonder as I sit in the light of the glorious stained-glass windows of a cathedral in Prague or Vienna or London or Florence, if we again tasted the good news of Jesus -- not as a tranquilizer but as vibrant, potent new wine that filled us with joy and hope that a better world is possible? What if, intoxicated by this new wine, we threw off our inhibitions and actually began acting as if the hidden but real kingdom of God was at hand?

I sit in those great cathedrals and grieve this terrible loss of identity and direction, this sad adventure in missing the point. It may sound strange to say, but I feel sorry for Jesus, sorry for the way we've dumbed down, domesticated, regimented, or even ruined what he started. But inevitably I also begin to imagine the secret message of Jesus being explored and explained and celebrated in those cathedrals once again, and I can imagine standing-room-only crowds filling those sacred space in the not-to-distant future. Back home, I can imagine kids and young adults not dropping out of churches (as they so often do when our churches are purveyors of bad or mediocre news), but instead bringing all their friends so they, to, can share in the secret message, the truly good news of the kingdom of God. I can imagine us abandoning the bad idea that some people are "clergy" (the special ones who perform) and others are "laity" (the passive ones who observe -- and often critique -- the performance of the clergy). Instead, I can imagine us seeing everyone as potential agents of the kingdom."

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