I preached a few Sundays ago at Faith on the importance of practicing community. Just like all the other spiritual practices, practicing community, is difficult. Given the messiness (and glory!) of doing life together as broken people, the fears we carry with us, and our hurried lives there must be a more compelling motive other than “the preacher told me it was a good idea.” Essential to our faith, and ultimately our actions, is an understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God.
Now, whenever terms like “the kingdom of God” come up, it can feel like a fog descends over our minds. It sounds and feels so nebulas like something “out there” that we can never really get our arms around. It seems no on ever really explains exactly that looks like or what it means in our lives. I don’t know about you, but I am always trying to make sense of such things.
Most scholars seem to agree that more than any other theme, Jesus taught the present availability of the reign or kingdom of God. Over and over throughout the gospels we read of Jesus saying, ”The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; 10:7; Luke 10:9; Mark 1:5). He went on to describe what the reality of living in that kingdom might look like. How many time do we read Jesus speaking these words, “The kingdom of God is like…” He dared to say that we can live this full reality right now. Typically, kingdom teaching has focused strictly on a future tense as a destination or place: heaven. More than just talking about some place where we will go after we die, Jesus was also talking about abundant life made available right here, right now. We live in the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom. The problem, of course, is if we think God’s kingdom is entirely in the future, we miss it in the here and now and our participation in it. “If we focus our attention of when the kingdom comes, and not on what its characteristics are, we neglect the practices that prepare for it. The result is academic debate or fatalistic speculation rather than faithful participation.”
So Jesus was not only talking about a place or an afterlife or future return, but a way of seeing, thinking and living now (Matt. 3:2, 4:17). It is a present reality waiting to be lived into. Jesus’ coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, ushered in this new kingdom. Jesus did not come to establish a kingdom founded on violence, coercion and control. It was not the establishment of an army or a religion. Note what is recorded in Luke 17:20-21, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus said it as plainly as possible. The kingdom of God is the rule of love in the hearts of people. The purpose of Christ’s rule and reign in our hearts is all of our inner dimensions (mind, will, emotions, desires, affections, etc.) are transformed to be like Christ. It’s this reality that gives reason to Paul’s strenuous labors among the Gentiles, “…that Christ might be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). This theme of God’s dwelling, “Christ in us” is thematic in all of Paul’s writings “…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17). Jesus came as the God who is with us and in us to conform us to his likeness. With help of spiritual practices we align our hearts and actions to this kingdom reality simply by allowing them to keep us open, surrendered and responsive to the Spirit’s dynamic, on-going, creative, activity (work of grace) in our lives.
This idea of the reality of this kind of kingdom now carries significant weight as we consider how we live in the world. Why? Because most importantly, our transformation in Christ is not just for our own benefit. We are now sent into the world that we might become bearers of grace to the world. What this means is…our transformation in Christ is ultimately for the sake of the world. In other words, our faith must become an embodied faith that is lived out in acts of compassion, love, and service to others. This is why Jesus described his kingdom as being marked by justice, peace and righteousness and love.
As a sent people we now become participants with God in his greater redemptive story. This Story is woven all throughout all of human history. The Bible is the narrative record of God’s story of redemptive love, his extravagant measure to redeem the world, being played out. Dallas Willard calls, the “divine conspiracy” which is “to overcome the human kingdoms of this world with love, justice, and truth.” God’s kingdom come in our hearts, is they way we overcome the kingdoms of this world. It’s a revolution of love.
Okay, back to community. So this is why community, in light of the kingdom, makes sense. Being in community is the way by which the qualities of the kingdom become are formed in us. It’s in authentic community where we get to practice those virtues that they might become habituated in us. Where else can we practice patience and thus become patient? When we practice hospitality, we learn to open our lives to others. Living in community with other people carries its own set of disciplines if we are to live gracefully with one another. Laughing together, weeping, learning, teaching, celebrating, forgiving, accepting help and sacrificial living and in admitting and owning our human brokenness with one another we discover it is we who are healed and experience the restorative and redemptive presence of Jesus. It’s how community transforms us. Then and only then can we become bearers of grace to a world who does not share our faith and love them with same love that has transformed us.
 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 20.