What’s with the Kingdom of God?

Thy Kingdom Come

Blessed are You on the throne of the glory of Your Kingdom, seated upon the Cherubim; always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.

Quoted above are three references to the Kingdom of God in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy (there are a total of 48). The interesting thing about these three quotes is how they view the relationship of the Kingdom to time. The first statement, familiar from the Lord’s Prayer, seems to ask for something that is yet to happen: “Thy Kingdom Come.” The second, taken from the priest’s prayer of blessing just before the Trisagion sequence (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, etc.”), seems to refer to a present tense: God is seated on the throne of the glory of His Kingdom. The third, from the Anaphora prayer (the primary prayer in the consecration of the Bread and Wine), clearly references the Kingdom as something that has already been given. “Had endowed” (past tense) is paired, in a very jarring juxtaposition of tenses, with “the Kingdom which is to come” (future tense).

What’s with this strange treatment of time?

My childhood understanding of the Kingdom of God was that it was synonymous with heaven, or, at least, with the end of the world – the end of history – when God would wrap everything up and make everything right. It was very much “Thy Kingdom Come.” This future sense was the dominant thought that caused the German scholar, Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work, The Search for the Historical Jesus, to conclude that Jesus had, in fact, been mistaken, as had the early Church. He interpreted Jesus’ statements regarding the Kingdom, particularly those in His apocalyptic teaching, to be evidence that Jesus thought His Kingdom would come about very soon. Schweitzer’s observation was that such a thing didn’t happen. Jesus was wrong and so were His disciples.

A major rebuttal of Schweitzer’s work came from the Anglican scholar, C.H. Dodd, who argued for what he termed “realized eschatology.” Jesus was right about what He said, for, in Christ, the Kingdom of God did come and is already at work among us. Or, in Jesus own words, “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28, also Lk 11:20). And, in good Protestant fashion, the debate went on.

Dodd was correct to a large extent. The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is more than an event waiting to happen. We hear this in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

The Kingdom has already been prepared “from the foundation of the world.” The Kingdom already is, can be participated in now, and is yet to come. Is that confusing?

This is the strange world of eschatology (the study of “last things”). For some Christians, the word only refers to a series of events (vividly imagined) taking place at the end of the world. In the New Testament, and in the Fathers, the eschaton (end) is something far greater. Christ Himself is called both “Beginning” and “End” in the Book of Revelations. However, the “End” does not refer to a particular point in space and time (though at a particular point in space and time, its end and the “End” will coincide).

What is the Kingdom?

St. Maximus says it is the Holy Spirit. St. Paul affirms this: “The Kingdom of God does not consist of food or drink, but of righteousness, peace and joy and in the Holy Spirit” (Ro. 14:17). It is Christ’s great and Holy Pascha, existing from before all time and forever (Rev. 13:8 calls Jesus the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”). The Kingdom of God already is.

That which already is – is the very thing that is also coming into the world. It is not itself coming into existence, but when it enters the world it transforms the world towards the Kingdom. Every time Christ heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, cleanses a leper, raises the dead, casts out a demon, it is this “End,” this “Kingdom” that is being made manifest. Each such event dramatically illustrates Christ’s word, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

The Cup of the Eucharist is a participation in this End, in the Kingdom. We pray that our communion will be

for the vigilance of soul, for the remission of sins, for the communion of Your Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, for boldness towards You, but not for judgment or condemnation.

After communion the priest prays:

O Christ! Great and most holy Pascha! O Wisdom, Word, and Power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of You in the never-ending Day of Your Kingdom.

There is also a future aspect that we look towards. St. Paul describes it in this way:

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” … When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:24-28)

 

History and the Kingdom

If all of this is true, if the Kingdom of God is already complete and we are already able to participate in it and we await the day of its full manifestation, then what is the place of history and the events associated with our salvation that have occurred in space and time?

History and the Kingdom are intended to coincide. The focus of the Kingdom is precisely the union of the created world with God. There is a complete coinciding of creation and Kingdom in the death and resurrection of Christ. That which was, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), is also that which takes place in Jerusalem on that day. His death and resurrection are filled with such power that the creation was shaken, some of the ancients came out of their graves, the sky was darkened. These are signs that an utterly cosmic event was occurring.

But in that this historical event is also the primary eternal event, it has a presence that transcends that specific space and time. When we stand before the altar, we stand before Golgotha and the empty tomb. We do not merely remember them – they are there!

By the same token, the historical events that relate to our salvation, such as the Passover from Egypt, Joshua taking the Land of Canaan, Noah and the Flood, Abraham’s promise, and so forth, are themselves significant as historical events because they, too, participate in that same eternal act of redemption. There is only one redemption, and that is Christ. What we see in the Scriptures of the Old Testament are the hints or the “shadow” (in the words of St. Maximus and St. Ambrose) of that which is to come – that which was revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Our salvation is not a historical project. Rather, it is God’s eternal project of saving history (the created world) by uniting it to His own life through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. This is the reason (as I have written at other times) that we cannot “build the Kingdom.” You cannot build what is and always has been complete. The Kingdom is divine. Divine things only come in “complete.” If it is divine, it is whole and has its own fullness.

We could never say that the historical events that participate in this one act of eternal redemption are unimportant. They have the same role as the wood of the Cross and the nails that held Jesus there. They are, if you will, elements of the Cross scattered through history. By the same token, we also cannot say that they are a chain of cause-and-effect, an older historical event creating a later historical event, etc. The incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things, it is said in the Fathers. That which is seen is temporary, that which is unseen is eternal, according to St. Paul.

The nature of our salvation as it has been made known to us forces us to speak about space and time in a manner that breaks many of the accepted rules of our modern world. Our modern rules of cause and effect would say that something happening in the first century cannot possibly be the cause of everything that happened before it. But that is how we speak.

In the words of St. Maximus:

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains in itself the meaning of all the symbols and all the enigmas of Scripture, as well as the hidden meaning of all sensible and intelligible creation. But he who knows the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb knows also the essential principle of all things. Finally, he who penetrates yet further and finds himself initiated into the mystery of the Resurrection apprehends the end for which God created all things from the beginning.

The resurrection of Christ shatters the bonds of space and time and makes manifest that which is eternal. We eat and drink eternity in the Cup of Christ.

17 comments:

  1. Father Bless,
    We also must remember that Kronos, the time of the world, is a variable and not a constant and its passage is effected by the speed of the observer. it also can be warped and changed by cosmic events. God and the Kingdom are not part of created things and therefore, are outside time. Kairos, the time of God is entirely different. As we step into heavenly worship during the Liturgy I never fail to be almost startled to find myself chanting the Litany of Thanksgiving for it always seems as the Liturgy has just begun and yet it is done. Therefore I see this apparent tangling of tenses as testimony to how different Kairos is than Kronos. In the eyes of God the end is already. In our eyes it is not yet.

  2. I’m so grateful for these words of power and heart . They bring out of my own heart joy and praise to God. I’m ever grateful for your ministry.

  3. Father,

    On the level of meaning and this particular “meaning of history” question that you write about in this essay, how would you answer the question “Does God (and/or, the saint in the Eschaton) remember sin/evil?”

    It’s a trick question of course, in that it presses the mystery of the distance or gap, between the end and the “process” (i.e. history) of “getting there”. All this language fails of course (the end or Kingdom is not a geographic “there”). However, it is in my opinion a way of asking the *meaning* of history (which “contains” sin, evil, death) without getting trapped in the mechanical, cause and effect, modern understanding of history. It also presses the classical Christian answer of “evil has no *substance* – its a privation” because it does not sidestep the difficult “well, that may be so, but evil’s *historical* substance is quite obviously present – evil still has an obvious *power*”

  4. Christopher,
    I’m thinking out loud (musing, if you will) on your question. So, don’t hold me to it. But, evil is not something – it has no existence. It is always a distortion of the good. When we remember the Cross, we could remember the evil of an innocent man’s crucifixion and the evil of the taunts and torture, etc. And yet, we call it Good Friday and see it in the brilliance of its transcendent goodness. Perhaps it is the case that in the Eschaton, the good that is finally reveal will “reinterpret” (in a true and complete ontological manner) everything that has gone before. What was once a wound becomes a mark of glorification. A remembrance that is also a resurrection.

  5. Christopher,
    Have you ever read this article?…
    https://www.academia.edu/3561108/Chalice_of_Eternity_An_Orthodox_Theology_of_Time_St_Vladimirs_Theological_Quarterly_57.1_2013_pp.5-35
    The opening lines quote the words of Fr Schememann and his reference to “evil time” (from his book The Journals of…).
    Throughout this piece, you may find another angle to contemplate things evil and what of them. That is, what Christ has done in His Redemption.
    It is also, I think, a compliment to what Father has to say here in this post.

  6. “….he good that is finally reveal(ed) will “reinterpret” ….A remembrance that is also a resurrection.”

    Thanks Father – I always appreciate the *literate* way you put things (I almost said “style” but that does not cover it)!

    Just musing as well, in my opinion (not that I am alone – weirdos or the world unite! 😉 ) there is something deeply unsatisfying in the “evil is not something – it has no existence”, particularly in how it is an answer that comes from the Greek mind and its concern/emphasis on the essence/substance of God and creation and the need to avoid a Manichean metaphysic. The Fathers of course thought in this way (it was their time and place) and I do not mean to suggest it is “wrong”, just incomplete in a sense – especially to (my) heart. I prefer the language of Scripture, where the devil walks to and fro and bones can not praise God unless/until they are made alive again. This language captures a **continuity** between history, God, and the end of all things. Perhaps this is to somewhat go down the road of the “Jerusalem vs. Athens” trope but it helps (at least it does for me) to retain the *grittiness* of the Scriptural language when it comes to this subject – the Greek thinking comes across (to me) as too smooth, and leaves as many questions as it answers.

  7. Thanks Paula for the link. I have that essay bookmarked and have “skimmed” it in the past, but I need to give it a proper effort!!

  8. “What we see in the Scriptures of the Old Testament are the hints or the “shadow” (in the words of St. Maximus and St. Ambrose) of that which is to come…”
    Yes Father…and in that “shadow” there is Existence, “… revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.” As you say “It is there!” Now that in Christ the Kingdom has come, we can say ‘It is here’! It no longer exists in “shadow”. And we can know it in our worship, we know it in our faith, we know it in our devotion, we know it in our prayers. We know it, as you remind us in the previous post, in our ‘world as sacrament’. More…as we press forward in longing to see who we are in Christ, it is there (!) where we know God.
    These truths are so rich … and there is so much that has been given and yet to see!
    Thank you Father Stephen. Such topics you write on…they never fail to lead to God’s praise!

    Christopher….my pleasure! It is a lengthy article. The author, at the end, said that it took him 15 years to publish it! A lot of time and effort, and the good help of others, I think, shows itself well in the piece. Anyway, re-enjoy!

  9. I had not considered that the most evil act in the history of mankind had as its result the salvation of mankind.

    This is something I have to sip at for a while.

  10. “Does God (and/or, the saint in the Eschaton) remember sin/evil?”

    Perhaps it is the case that in the Eschaton, the good that is finally reveal will “reinterpret” (in a true and complete ontological manner) everything that has gone before. What was once a wound becomes a mark of glorification. A remembrance that is also a resurrection.

    More musings: if the remembrance of God is, in fact, the nature of our life and salvation (as the thief on the cross stated), then perhaps God “remembering sin” becomes its reinterpretation (transformation) as Father says. Just my thoughts.

  11. Reflecting on that thought, Byron, there comes to mind the story of the Flood and the promise of the rainbow, as seen with the Paschal events in mind. As is the lovely icon at the head of this presentation, the scene appearing as it does in a sequence leading to the destruction of cities, yet pointing to an harmonious intersection between the divine and humble human guest-offering. Past, present, and to come. How beautifully rendered with no shadows!

  12. Fr. Freeman,

    “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28, also Lk 11:20).

    I think part of the problem with thinking clearly about Kingdom language is that (and I’m borrowing from Romanides again) the word should be translated reign/rule and not kingdom.

    God’s reign and sovereignty are often not visible as in the case of Elijah (2 Kings 6:17), we are blind to it. When we see it and are aware and conscious of it it “comes”. But the connection with God’s rule and casting out demons is crucial. The nations of the world before the proclamation of the Gospel – which is the announcement of a new “reign”, regime, ruler – were under the power and dominion of the gods. After the resurrection the Gospel goes forth proclaiming a new ruler as Satan had been overthrown – and this is why Acts can say that ” The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

    Repentance, laying down arms, surrender and embrace of the new ruler – or better – the realization that the “new ruler” was always the real ruler – the opening of the eyes – is what the Gospel demands otherwise you side with the old regime. This again is the basis for exorcism of the baptized. Voluntary submission to exorcism, to baptism and chrismation is akin to toppling statues of Lenin and Stalin. I could go on with analogies…

    This is why Paul says in effect that we should no longer serve sin because that “ruler” was defeated when we died in baptism. That dictator was deafeated why try and get him back into power, why try and vote him in again.

    The language of … Kindgom come immeadiately needs all this qualification you’ve provided helpfully, but rule/reign needs much less. The rule of God is here, has always been here, but we’ve been under the power of an impostor – death, sin, Satan – the impostor has been called out and defeated – and we can pray for God’s rule to come in a progressive way, in realizing that it is already here, and by entering it through the Church. One day the “barrier”, the boundary, of the earth and the heavenly will be erased and yet in one sense in the Church it doesn’t exist – if weren’t blind to it – like I am most of the time.

    God bless you,
    Matthew

  13. Thank you for this wonderful illumination Fr. Stephen!
    For me, this whole “concept” always comes into sharp focus at the anaphora of every Divine Liturgy: “Remembering this saving commandment and all THOSE THINGS WHICH HAVE COME TO PASS FOR US: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of God the Father, THE SECOND AND GLORIOUS COMING.”
    What great joy these words bring, even though the accounting begins with the “evil” at the cross! Maranatha!

  14. The strange treatment of time is also apparent in the juxtaposition of the Liturgical readings on Sundays – first the reading from the letter of Saint Paul to… and then the Gospel reading. I was particularly struck this Sunday with the final verses of Saint Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, followed by Christ’s prayer to his Father at the last supper.
    I remember mostly from Hebrews all the mighty works and sacrifices which await fulfillment , Paul’s questions underlining the concept – but there at the end of the letter comes the present day reversal of status, as Saint Paul brings the point home that we (they) find the Cross outside the traditional place of the Holy of holies – outside the camp, as he puts it. It is out here, where we presently are.
    And then the Gospel – who are “the chosen”? They are those the Father has given to the Son, that little group; that mighty, precious, small group.
    It’s so very powerful, as Daria indicates above.

  15. The more I reflect on the non-linear time revealed to us in Scripture and Sacrament the more I begin to realize how on point is the name of this blog.

    Does not the Kingdom become “at hand” for us through giving thanks, joyful repentance even for sorrowful things, rejoicing in prayer and the mercy of forgiveness while giving alms with a merciful heart.

    As to time, I once again point to its fundamental irrelevance using Shakespeare. Hamlet preparing to go into his dual with Laertes says, thinking of his own eschatology: “If it be now, ’tis not to come, if it is not to come it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all”.

    Or in Biblical terms: watch and pray.

  16. Michael
    It is astounding that the continuously readily available spiritual watchfulness is practically all that is needed (!) to have “the Kingdom become “at hand” for us through giving thanks, joyful repentance even for sorrowful things, rejoicing in prayer etc…”

  17. Dino, sounds easy doesn’t it? But I long ago stopped confusing ease with simple.

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