The Commonwealth Building Church

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Today is Pentecost Sunday. As you may know, Pentecost represents the birthday of the church. We find that story in the book of Acts, chapter 2. The whole book of Acts, written by the author of the gospel of Luke, tells the story of the church’s earliest days. The first chapter of the book of Acts also describes Jesus’ last days on earth and his final words to his disciples. Verse 3 says this: “3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome preaching the kingdom of God. The last verse of the last chapter of Acts, Acts 28:31 says, “Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!”

That the Kingdom of God is a focus of the earliest church should be no surprise. The church is an extension of Christ, and Christ preached the Kingdom of God from beginning to end. Jesus was in essence a kingdom of God teacher, preacher, and builder. The church is called to be the same.

This morning I want to look closely at what the Kingdom of God is and means. Without understanding what the kingdom of God is, we really cannot understand what Christ was all about and what the church is meant to be all about.

The first thing I’d like to do to help us understand what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God I’d like to offer different language that helps us unveil the meaning of the original Biblical language. As you might know, the New Testament’s was written in the language of ancient Greek. Now Jesus did not speak Greek. It’s believed he spoke Aramaic. So, when the gospels have Jesus speaking, the gospel writers took the Aramaic Jesus spoke and translated it into Greek. We can’t be sure what Jesus actually said or if the Greek translation was accurate or not. The faith and hope is that the Greek translators of Jesus’ words got the gist of Jesus’ words and teaching correctly. Anyway, the Greek word that is usually translated as “kingdom” is the word basilea. We are not sure what the Aramaic word Jesus actually said which is translated into Greek as basilea. It is likely the Aramaic word “malkuw.” Either it be basilea or malkuw, these words usually translated into English as kingdom does not refer to a place or a territory per se. Basilea or malkuw refer to the way creation is collectively led and governed. What is the kingdom of God according to the original Greek? The kingdom of God refers to the way God governs creation.

There is a debate happening within churches about how political churches should get. This usually boils down to how political the pastor’s sermons and leadership should be. A common response is that churches and the pastor representing churches should avoid politics. Here is the dilemma though: Jesus himself talked politics. Everytime he preached about the kingdom of God he was talking about godly governance. When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are praying that godly governance becomes embodied here on earth. When we pray “on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying that the way of heaven be realized and actualized on earth.

Partisan politics, republican vs. democrat politics should be avoided. But the hope of actualizing God’s way of governing creation cannot be avoided by those who claim Christ’s name.

To put it simply, Christ had a vision for the way things ought to be. Christ had a vision how a people ought to live and function together. He referred to that way as the kingdom of God.

What does that way look like? An easy way to answer this is to consider a term used interchangeably with kingdom of God. Jesus, especially in the gospel of Matthew, refers to the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are one and the same thing.

What does the way of God’s governance look like? Well, what does heaven look like? Is there hunger and poverty in heaven? Is there greed in heaven? Is there violence and conflict in heaven? Is there racism and hatred in heaven? Is there division and inequity and undistributed resources in heaven? Are there borders in heaven?

However you answer these questions is the way these answers should be answered on earth. In the least, the ideals of no suffering, no lacking of what we need, no conflict and no division and inequity should influence how we live and function together. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We cannot ignore another element involved in the way of heaven. To enter heaven demands something to Jesus. It demands a mindset, or we might say, a heartset. In progressive and liberal Christian circles, there is the false notion that Jesus accepts everyone, that there is nothing expected or required of folks to enter God's kingdom. Christ did exclude folks. Christ excluded those who exclude, those who live a life defined by dismissing and denigrating others, those who live a life defined by selfishness, pride, and power-hungriness, those who live a life defined by the notion that its all about me, what I need, and what I can get. Jesus demands a heartset. Jesus demands a changed heart that sees and acknowledges the most vulnerable in our surroundings and on our borders and in the least intend the best for them.

Maybe one of Jesus' most powerful teachings comes in the Matthew 25 where Jesus lays down the marker when it comes to who is included and exclude in God's kingdom. What we do or don't do onto society's most vulnerable is the measure Christ gives. Why? Because the most vulnerable among us embody Christ and his humility.

I end with a word that best gets at that Greek word basileia. Theologian John Cobb offers the translation and explains it this way:

The Greek phrase that we translate as “kingdom of God” is basileia theou. A basileia is a politically defined region. It could be a kingdom, and indeed most of them were, but the term does not include that as part of its meaning. If you suppose in advance that God is like a king, then the basileia of God will certainly be a kingdom. But if God is like a father, then his region or land will not be a kingdom. We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate. Depending on the kind of father we are talking about, that might be governed in various ways. When we consider how Jesus talked about God, the answer is that it would be managed for the sake of all who lived there with special concern for the weak and needy. We have no word for this, but my proposal is “commonwealth.” Jesus’ message is that the “divine commonwealth is at hand.” Everyone should reverse directions and join in this new possibility. There is no reason to think of the God whose basileia this is, as a monarch![1]

As Paul in Acts 28 modeled for us, the church’s central task is to build God’s commonwealth, to boldly and unhinderedly proclaim and stake claim God’s guiding way. We the church are a bringing the way of heaven’s commonwealth to earth people. We are a commonwealth of God building people. May we build the God’s commonwealth in the ways we can. May we as part of the church universal follow Christs command to share the good news of God’s equalizing love and foster and forge in our communities and our society the same. May it begin with us.

[1] John Cobb, Jesus' Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed, 2

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