Blog 7 Great and Holy Pascha: The Restoration of the Kingdom
On great and Holy Pascha, we flash forward just a little from that Easter morning, and we read Acts 1, gazing upon the tableau of the disciples, talking with the risen Lord for 40 days, and listening to his final words. Luke rehearses for us the climactic conclusion of his gospel, and tells us that Jesus, after his resurrection, spoke to his disciple concerning not only the kingdom—which was the burden of his teaching prior to the passion—but also concerning the coming of the Spirit. The idea of the “kingdom” is not an easy one: N. T. Wright points out, discerningly, that Jesus spent all his earthly ministry in the flesh redefining that word for his followers. (It is also helpful to remember that “kingdom” is not a realm, first a foremost, but a rule: think “kingship”!) God’s kingdom is everlasting, and God has promised that he himself would be King over his people. At the same time, Judeans and pro-Jerusalem Galileans understood the “Kingdom” to refer to the lost heydays of David and Solomon, when the twelve tribes were united around Jerusalem: in their minds, they stored up the eternal covenant made with David. Indeed, they celebrated that promise in formal prayer, as they repeated the Psalm: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” (Ps 89:3-4). Despite the caveat in Scriptures that an earthly monarchy was not God’s first choice for Israel, a surface reading of the holy texts suggests that God’s kingship is bound up with the national kingship of David’s house.
What, then, did the disciples mean when they asked the Lord Jesus after his resurrection whether God would “at this time restore the kingdom to Israel”? I suspect that in their minds they were thinking of Jesus as a new David, flanked by themselves as his princes, much as James and John had asked Jesus for the right and left. After all, the resurrection had vindicated him as God’s chosen and anointed one. Jesus had brought the idea of the kingdom (or kingship, or rule) into connection with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And in the books of the prophets, talk about the Spirit and the Kingdom often involved the idea of a renewed Davidic kingdom. Consider, for example, Ezekiel 37, where the vision of the enlivened bones, renewed by the Spirit, corresponds to a revival of Israel, to that nation being brought back home (37:12), and to a time when “My servant David shall be king over you” (37:24). The most natural reading of the prophecy would be to expect a united, national, “everlasting” kingdom with physical “sanctuary in the midst of them” (37:26) and “David my servant [as] their prince forever” (37:25).
Jesus knows, it seems, what is in their minds, for he says that “only God knows the times and seasons” (Acts 1:7). It is as though he is intimating that what THEY are asking about, an independent Israel without the oppression of pagan rulers is in God’s economia: implicitly, he is saying “no.” It will not be as you expected. A resurrection has taken place, but not all yet is fulfilled. (And we know that Rome continued to “rule,” changed from a republic to an empire, for several centuries, wreaking havoc not only with that first generation of Christians, but more intensely in decades to come: on the surface, it certainly looks as though the first generations of Christians did not see the Kingdom restored to God’s people, whether understood as Israel or as renewed Israel, Jew or Gentile). Yet part of his answer involves an affirmative. For in being given new power in Jerusalem, much of what the prophets have foreseen will be fulfilled—this new little company may not see a national kingdom, but they will themselves be made a house, a temple of the LORD, to which the nations will flock.
They will begin their rule with Christ, then, and so the “kingdom” (the rule, the kingship) will be, at least in part, “restored” to them. The situation of the first apostles, living in the holy Land but oppressed by a conquering nation, and the situation of the early Christians, surrounded by pagans who were hostile to them, holds parallels to the plight of the three youths who were captives in a strange land. The famous Old Testament text in Daniel, which we have remembered frequently during the past few days helps us. There, in Babylon, we spy the luminous story of three young men who will not bow down to a foreign idol, and who know God’s ability to save them. And such courage we see in three words: They know God can save them but if not they will not be idolaters. They are saved in the midst of the flames of the furnace, where another walks with them, where angels give them comfort: flash back in your imaginations to God walking with that first couple in the garden. Here, the Lord walks with them in the flames. And they rule, as Adam and Eve originally were meant to rule, before the Fall.
Consider the song that the young men sing, a song that enjoins every part of creation, inanimate, animate, human and angelic, to “sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.” The young men address the heavens (with the angelic host), the waters (with the powers), the celestial bodies, the meteorological elements, the earth with its plant-life, the animals in all parts of the earth, and humanity in all its diversity, rehearsing, with some amplification, the six days of creation. In doing so, they play a priestly role, giving a voice to those creatures that are mute, and directing all sentient beings, even the angels, to worship. We need to hear the whole song to grasp the enormity of creation and the place that the truly worshipping people of God have in this world, calling every element to worship with us:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and to be praised and highly exalted for ever;
And blessed is thy glorious, holy name and to be highly praised and highly exalted for ever;
Blessed art thou in the temple of thy holy glory and to be extolled and highly glorified for ever.
Blessed art thou, who sittest upon cherubim and lookest upon the deeps,
and to be praised and highly exalted for ever.
33 Blessed art thou upon the throne of thy kingdom
and to be extolled and highly exalted for ever.
34 Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven and to be sung and glorified for ever.
35 “Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
36 Bless the Lord, you heavens, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
37 Bless the Lord, you angels of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
38 Bless the Lord, all waters above the heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
39 Bless the Lord, all powers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
40 Bless the Lord, sun and moon, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
41 Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
42 Bless the Lord, all rain and dew, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
43 Bless the Lord, all winds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
44 Bless the Lord, fire and heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
45 Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
46 Bless the Lord, dews and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
47 Bless the Lord, nights and days, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
48 Bless the Lord, light and darkness, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
49 Bless the Lord, ice and cold, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
50 Bless the Lord, frosts and snows, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
51 Bless the Lord, lightnings and clouds, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
52 Let the earth bless the Lord; let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
53 Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
54 Bless the Lord, all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
55 Bless the Lord, you springs, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
56 Bless the Lord, seas and rivers, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
57 Bless the Lord, you whales and all creatures that move in the waters, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
58 Bless the Lord, all birds of the air, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
59 Bless the Lord, all beasts and cattle, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
60 Bless the Lord, you sons of men, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
61 Bless the Lord, O Israel, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
62 Bless the Lord, you priests of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
63 Bless the Lord, you servants of the Lord, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
64 Bless the Lord, spirits and souls of the righteous, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
65 Bless the Lord, you who are holy and humble in heart,
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
66 Bless the Lord, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever; for he has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace; from the midst of the fire he has delivered us.
67 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures for ever.
68 Bless him, all who worship the Lord, the God of gods, sing praise to him and give thanks to him, for his mercy endures for ever.”
The holy and humble of heart, while in exile, even in the bowels of a furnace, show forth the promised role of humankind, and especially of God’s people, to “rule” with him. For there was another kingdom, another kingship, another rule spoken about in the ancient texts. God had brought his people out of bondage in Egypt to serve him as a kingdom of priests. “You shall be to me [says the Lord] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). Israel was to do what Adam and Eve had been meant to do, taking custodial care of creation, and offering the elements of creation back in gratitude to the living God. But through not worshipping God, and not giving thanks to him (Romans 1), the first couple and all humanity lost that role, at least in part, and could not only rule wisely over the rest of creation, but also lost control over their own wills and hearts! Israel, too, would fall, not listening to the Law and the prophets, and eventually not, as a nation, recognizing the day of their visitation by God. Due to the fall, then, we see in humanity at large, and in the ancient people of Israel (who are a kind of object-lesson to us), the tragedy of rebellion against God, refusal to be thankful for reality as God has given it, division without and within. But there are glimmerings of hope, such as the courageous worship of the three.
Indeed, at the end of the ode the three young men, we see them taking stock of their own situation. They sing directly to themselves, whom God will deliver, a reminder that the human person, divided within by the fall, will again be whole. The mind and heart, tongue and hand, the whole psychosomatic person, will be renewed by the Holy Spirit, and, from within and not by compulsion “worship the Lord, the God of gods,” and with all creation “sing praise to him and give thanks to him.” Those in exile, whose voice is, quite remarkably, heard by the tyrant king, know that our God is the One whose character it is to deliver: “He has rescued us from Hades and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us from the midst of the burning fiery furnace.” The result of their faithful and courageous injunction to praise is that they are given ruling positions even in a pagan nation—and no doubt that is the beginning of the transformation of that place—and that the usurping human monarch even acknowledges the truth about God, the only King: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:3).
Like the three youths in the book of Daniel, and indeed like their own King, Jesus (born of the house of David) the rule of those early saints might be seen upon a cross, within a prison, upon a cross, or in the amphitheatre with deadly animals. But that does not mean that theirs was not a royal calling. Some of those who ruled in the astonishing pattern of the Son were of Jewish heritage: others were called from the Gentiles: together, Jew and Gentile, they had been baptized into the death of Christ, and knit together in the unity of the God who alone is One. The only Son made known to them (and to us!) the character of the Father, who brings glory out of suffering and calls into existence real life from very unlikely situations.
These early Christians knew what it was, like their Lord, and like St. Paul, to be both abased and exalted. They followed the pattern of the Scriptural story through from beginning to end, knowing that God has promised not only to restore, but to give us even more than we had in the beginning— like Job, who lost everything, but had it restored many times over after he saw the Lord and heard his voice. We have seen more than Job: we have seen the true light in the face of Jesus Christ. “Shine, Shine, O Jerusalem, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. See, darkness will cover the earth as thick darkness upon nations; but upon you will the Lord manifest himself, and his glory will appear upon you. And kings will walk in your light and nations in your splendor” (Isaiah 60) —and so will babes and infants, and those who are the meek among us. For he is the Light of the world who enlightens everyone.
Deliverance belongs to him alone, for only he has plumbed the depth of Hades! Like the three, like Job, like the prophet Jonah, we have been brought out of the pit by His descent and resurrection. Surely, this is grace upon grace. Even that rescue from the pit would have been enough. But he has also made us to be “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” This is the true life. This is the light of Pascha that is never overcome by night. This is the One whose great humility has given us the power to become the children of God, while we await his great and final coming, when we will at last see the consummation of all things, and the true meaning of the “returned” Kingdom.