Part of the spiritual landscape of American religion is the sizable role played by choice in a culture shaped in the free market – with freedom as a mythic symbol. It is not unusual to hear American politicians describing solutions to social problems as a matter of “trusting Americans as consumers.” It is as though we could “shop” our way out of life’s difficulties.
And thus it is that Calvinism, as a Protestant option, never quite captured the mind of the American religious “consumer.” Our culture has long been driven by its own sense of freedom and the inherent right of every individual to make his or her own choice. Thus Christian teachings which do not give heavy weight to the importance of free-will (such as classical Calvinism) have never come to the place of dominance in American life. For Americans, religion is about a choice.
This is not all wrong – human beings do have freedom and it plays an important role within the life of salvation – even in Orthodox understanding. However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.
This brings me to the title of this short piece: the Kingdom of God is not a choice we make. There are many ways to describe the Kingdom – a variety of metaphors employed in the New Testament – but in every case the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom – not our response to God.
I occasionally state in sermons that “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” In this sense, particularly, it is not a choice we make – it is a gift that is given from God. In Christ, particularly in the fullness of His death and resurrection – the Kingdom of God has come. Though we still pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are not devoid of its presence now. “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer for its fullness – but not for its inauguration.
The Kingdom of God is a reality already among us – though we frequently are oblivious to its presence. The heart of secularism is its assurance that the Kingdom of God is not here now, not yet, and perhaps only refers to something somewhere else or even nothing more than a utopian vision of the future. Of course, secularism and its infection of Christian thought is commonplace in modern culture. The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides in the religious contest of Christianity (or other religions or none of the above).
But the fullness of Christian truth and revelation is that the Kingdom of God has already broken forth among us, and the Christ who brought it forth promised that it would remain. Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.
The whole of the sacramental life has this character of the Kingdom. And the sacramental life extends far beyond the Seven Sacraments that are traditionally described. The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God, for He is the “giver of every good and perfect gift.”