Audio is available here: Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done
Last week we ventured into the contents of the prayer Jesus gave us, and did so cautiously. When dealing with God’s holiness, we should all be a little cautious, concerned that the One with whom we deal, like Aslan, C.S. Lewis’s Narnian Lion, is in no way tame, but in every way good. We talked about wrath and love, far from being opposites, but rather being themselves synonyms for the holiness in which we prayed God’s name would be held. And we reflected on what it meant to ask God both that this world come to be a place fit for his dwelling and that we also would be so transformed so as to be at home in this hallowed place.
We are moving on now to the second and third movements of the first petition, your kingdom come and your will be done. And right away, we notice that we remain within the constellation set out in the first petition. When we ask for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, while our attention is directed toward God’s acting, we are still speaking of this world, and of our selves, as the theatres in which that action will take place. May your kingdom come here among and in us. May your will be done here among and in us.
In other words, when we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the doing of God’s will, we insist that the hallowing of God’s name, far from being an otherworldly or even innerworldly happening, pertains to this world and to our whole selves, our souls and bodies both. When we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and the doing of his will, we anchor the call for the hallowing of God’s name in the public sphere, not in the narrow sense of our political life together (though it certainly includes that), but in the public world of what we do with our bodies whether inside or outside our homes.
And that, throughout history, has meant trouble Christians. Of the many examples possible, consider this one. Had the first Christians preached an otherworldly Gospel about souls going to heaven, souls being freed from the prison house of the body in the first centuries, they would have garnered no attention whatsoever from the powers that administered the mighty Roman Empire. Their more popular expressions of piety would have been regarded by that Empire with the same benevolent indifference as that given to the cults of Osiris and Mithras and many others. The more philosophically astute Christian writings would have been seen as a peculiar form of Platonism, bowdlerized by some Jews. Either way, the Christian cult—for that is what it was—would hardly have the garnered attention of many.
Why not? Because it would have been frightfully familiar. Its main themes repeated in sometimes more graphic, and sometimes more sophisticated ways in temples and agorae throughout the Empire; its would be happily tolerated as long as they did not lead to social disorder.
But the first Christians did not come into an Empire with yet another dying and rising god mythology. They did not come with a philosophy about the immortality of the soul. They did not come preaching a good world of spirit to which the initiated could escape from the contaminated world of matter. They came with the Gospel—that God had entered into human history as a human being and accordingly, that heaven was not remote and that matter was good. They came bringing the message that this God they worshipped as Jesus the son of Mary, announced the coming of the Kingdom of God as an earthly reality. They came preaching that this God was crucified by both Jewish and Gentile leadership for so challenging the principalities and powers of this world. And the real shocker? They preached that death was not the end of Jesus of Nazareth, but he was raised to life—in his body, a body that retained its wounds—and then taken into heaven, there to reign over his Kingdom and from which he would soon be publicly revealed. And at that time, even Caesar would bow the knee.
And until Caesar did bow the knee, the martyrs wagered their very lives on the fact that he was defeated anyway, and though he held the power of death, he could in no way harm them. They were already sharing in the resurrection life of this Jew named Jesus.
This message was revolutionary! This message, many magistrates and emperors understood, had to be stamped out. For no matter how “good” the Christian citizens of the Empire were, their loyalty could always be called into question. If they refused to offer incense to Caesar as the “price of admission” to public life in the Empire, then they could not be trusted to bear the Empire’s good in their hearts. And of course, the first Christians did not. For they had been claimed by a Lord and God other than Caesar, they saw themselves as citizens of another Empire. An Empire that had to do as much with their bodies as with their souls, an Empire that dictated how they would live in this world as much as how they would fare in the next. Were a Roman magistrate to have overheard a Christian praying the prayer Jesus gave us, he would have been shocked—and rightly so. For he would have heard one who prayed expressing hope for the end of the Empire—Your Kingdom Come (and replace the one that’s already here); Your will be done (and not the will of the one who sat on the imperial throne).
Both its dignified critics, like Celsus of the second century, and its undignified persecutors, like the Emperor Diocletian in the third were quick to dismiss it as unworthy of belief and practice. For them, this strange revolutionary blending of religion with public life was on the wrong side of history. Intellectually insufficient and politically powerless it was only a matter of time before it withered while the glories of Rome endured. Except that’s not what happened. Within two years of Diocletian’s death, a new Emperor bowed the knee to Christ.
We might well point out here, with bishop N.T. Wright that the Church has been on the wrong side of history at many points throughout the last tw millennia. And it is still here. We are still here. And with our brothers and sisters in the ancient faith, we continue to pray, your kingdom come; your will be done. And, I hope, we continue to mean what they meant: your kingdom come and finally replace the false kingdoms of this world; your will be done ahead of those who will to rule our lives. And not only do we pray it. We ought also to live it! We continue to live out this revolutionary Gospel that this world, no matter how fallen, is good. That this world is even now being redeemed and renewed by God’s Holy Spirit, that, indeed with the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, the redeeming work is done and we await now only its final appearing.
Some of you may well be thinking, well if this is true, shouldn’t we be seeing signs of God’s Kingdom coming? Some signs of God’s will being done? Yes! And in fact we do see signs—if we know where to look. If you want a catalogue of signs on a global scale, let me recommend two books, both by noted American historian, Philip Jenkins. Entitled The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, the books document the explosive growth of Christian churches in the southern hemisphere over the last century. Is this growth an uncomplicated proof of the coming Kingdom? Of course not. Is it a sign? Well, there it is. What do you see?
When a family comes to this parish seeking baptism, that is a sign. What do you see? When a cup of coffee—the modern equivalent of St. Matthew’s cup of cold water—is given in Jesus’ name to one of our guests, is that a sign? What do you see? Where do you look when you look for signs of God’s kingdom breaking in to history? Do you have eyes to see what I like to call “kingdom-moments” in the most mundane events?
Let’s make the question a bit more complicated, shall we? Should we be seeing more signs of the coming of the kingdom? Toublesome little word is “more.” Again, the answer is undoubtedly, yes. When we look with kingdom-eyes on the world around us, not only do we see signs of the kingdom, but we also see shocking signs of its absence, when faith is spurned, when justice is denied, when people suffer. Anywhere sin, death, and the devil seem to have the upper hand, there we see signs that the kingdom is not yet.
That is the tension in which followers of Jesus have always lived and in which they continue to live. We do, on the far side of the resurrection and ascension, live in a world in which the reality of the kingdom is already, a world in which God’s will is being done. And at the same time, we do, on the far side of the resurrection and ascension, live in a world in which the reality of the kingdom is obscured if not absent, a world in which God’s will is passively resisted if not aggressively opposed.
What do we do in this tension? This already but not yet? We pray, your kingdom come, your will be done. When we see signs of the kingdom, when we see God’s will being done, we pray with gratitude, your kingdom come, your will be done. When we see the kingdom’s absence and encounter God’s will denied, we pray with holy impatience, your kingdom come, your will be done.
But Christian faith, some of you might be thinking, is an active faith! And you may even be thinking of names of people who spoke and acted in powerful ways that were taken and used by God in the establishment of the kingdom. William Wilberforce and the battle against slavery in Britain and Europe and America. Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers movement. Why stop to pray when we should be getting on with the building of the kingdom? Why, that perspective is enshrined in one of Anglicanism’s greatest hymns! Listen to the words of William Blake: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green & pleasant Land.” The thrust of the hymn is that the kingdom begun by Christ has now been passed to us to carry on.
That way, my friends, lies the heresy of Pelagianism, the idea that we can be holy enough on our own and active enough on our own to bring in the kingdom on our own. That way lies every broken dream of every utopia that has failed to come. And that way is not the Christian way. For the Christian way is not to build the kingdom, but to point to it. To receive it as God’s gift. To pray for its coming. To pray for God’s will to be done and then, so to live and act that that prayer might come true.
Christian faith is indeed an active faith and in our activists like Wilberforce and Day, among numberless others, and in their work in our world we see a sign of the kingdom’s coming. We see God’s will being done. But that is just the point. The battle against slavery was not William Wilberforce’s any more than it was John Wesley’s, whose preaching so inspired the young Parliamentarian. The battle for just treatment of workers, which continues around the world, was not Dorothy Day’s any more than it was and is the movement’s which she helped to found. The battle was God’s for the kingdom is God’s and not ours. The kingdom will come on God’s schedule, not ours. God’s will, will be done, not ours.
And that, my friends, is the Gospel. That is the Christian hope. For it means that the coming of the kingdom, the full doing of God’s will, is not our goal to accomplish. Were it our goal, it would never, ever arrive. Our hope lies with God, who promised the kingdom’s coming, who promised his will would be done. Our hope lies in God’s son, our Lord, who invited us to pray in agreement with that promise and who teaches us to work for that promise confident because when the kingdom comes, all our work will be crowned as God’s own gifts. Your kingdom come, your will be done.