God and Kingdom – Wally Stratford

I read Len Baglow’s comments [Theology and Advocacy] with interest. Two words stood up for me – namely God and Kingdom. Gods in a variety of shapes have dominated the life of humankind as far back as is possible to trace.

Concepts of God now take me back to two Old Testament stories, one about the beginnings of life, and the other the beginnings of a revamped covenant and a relationship re-established.

The beginnings of life for humankind occurred when God stooped down and breathed into the man’s nostrils. All stories require imagination and reading this story I am led to claim that with the breath we find the spirit. Of each other, they are together the one continual activity that begets and maintains constancy in the business of living. (Gen. 2:7)

The Moses story reintroduces the spirit, but in this story, presence is revealed and then affirmed in the words I AM. An element of the verb to be, it reveals an active attendance of the invisible spirit. This is further sealed in the events that lead the Israelites to freedom and stands by them as they enter their desert journey. (Exodus 3)

I think that, with the advent of Christianity, presence became absence with God relocated to a   heavenly place. Creeds, and words of worship and prayer seem to reinforce this notion.

The Old Testament has little to say of the kingdom of God. Oblique references only can be gleaned. Certainly, God is supreme, sacred, the name of God can never be spoken. It appears to me that the essence of the Old Testament is in God’s sacred presence, ample evidence for this is to be found in the Psalms and among the prophets.

In the New Testament, Kingdom of God appears many times but perhaps Jesus’ comment as reported in Luke’s gospel (Lk 17:20/21): “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look here it is’ or ‘there it is! For in fact the kingdom of God is among you” is most relevant for understanding. It suggests that the thing being searched for is already present within. The claim of ‘kingdom’ always contains a claim of a monarch reigning, so perhaps it all makes more sense if we connect with the alternative reading which presents Jesus words as “The reign of God is within you”. These words recall the sense of presence powerfully present at the beginning of life, and reiterated in the conversation with Moses as I AM.

The kingdom of God may therefore more sensibly, and with greater meaning, be rendered something like – the presence of God as YHWH-spirit is always with you, riding the wind and contained in the breath that keeps one alive.

It may not be as straightforward, but makes more sense, than “Our Father in heaven – thy will be done on earth as in heaven …”

The first four hundred years of the church were tumultuous, with a host of claims and counterclaims about the shape of the faith. Among these, tradition became most important as a safeguard against heresy. Irenaeus claims that “the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back literally to the apostles. Secondly, an additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit.” (Kelly p.37).

Allied to tradition as a demonstration of the truths of the church, an “absolute authority was accorded to scripture as a doctrinal norm … as interpreted by the church, it was the source of Christian teaching.” (Kelly p.42). The scriptures were those of the Jews – our Old Testament.

In those years the church suffered persecution, Christians endured martyrdom with an entrenched belief that their soul was safe. Gnosticism became a force to be reckoned with, eventually becoming muted by the many forcefully argued refutations.

The church, after argument and discussion, conferences of bishops, and theological musings, committed to an after-life, and to a Son of God destined to be a king. It was all cemented into place with the conversion of the emperor Constantine, and his declaration of the truth of the Nicene Creed.

Hailed as a Christian Emperor, Constantine’s “death was received with universal manifestations of grief, and his reign was regarded as continuing after his death: his funeral, conducted after the arrival of his second surviving son Constantius, was a magnificent spectacle,” (Stevenson 396).

“By the middle of the fifth century the Roman church had established, de jure as well as de facto, a position of primacy in the West, and the papal claims to supremacy over all bishops of Christendom had been formulated in precise terms.” (Kelly 417).

Is this, I wonder, the real beginning of the Kingdom of God.

Kelly. J.N.D. (ed) Early Christian Doctrines. London: Adam & Charles Black 1960.

Stevenson, J. A (ed) A New Eusebius. London: S.P.C.K. 1960

Rev Walter Stratford, 2021

oOo

1 thought on “God and Kingdom – Wally Stratford

  1. Len Baglow

    Dear Rev Stratford,
    Thank you for taking the time to make a detailed response to my article “Theology and Advocacy”. I enjoyed thinking about your approach.

    We do I think differ on several important points. However, hopefully this discussion will help us both deepen our understandings.

    Firstly, I would question your claim that “The Old Testament has little to say of the kingdom of God.” I agree with John Bright (1953, 7), the Old Testament scholar who wrote nearly 70 years ago, “For the concept of the Kingdom of God involves, in a real sense, the total message of the Bible. Not only does it loom large in the teaching of Jesus; it is to be found, in one form or another, through the length and breadth of the Bible.” A few pages later he comments cogently, “But ideas are ever larger than the words that carry them” (Bright, 1953,11) I think this is particularly true of the words, “The Kingdom of God’.

    Secondly, I am not sure that the most relevant text for understanding the Kingdom of God is Lk 17:20/21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look here it is’ or ‘there it is! For in fact the kingdom of God is among you”. While Lk 17:20/21 is an important text, there are around 120 other texts dealing with the Kingdom of God. My position is that we must grapple with all of them. Impossible? Yes, but no less important to do. As one grapples with all the texts, one comes to realise more and more, how Jesus’ teaching subverts, challenges, undermines any Kingdoms/Reigns/Estates/Empires that are based on injustice.

    Related to this second point is that overemphasizing Luke 17:20/21 can lead to an over spiritualising of the Kingdom of God, as something within our hearts alone or on another plane (spiritual experience) and not something that has existence in the things we do. I think this is highlighted in your comments on Exodus where the actions of Moses are sidelined.

    Thirdly I found it difficult to understand what you meant by “I think that, with the advent of Christianity, presence became absence with God relocated to a heavenly place.” Perhaps it makes some sense to me if you mean by Christianity, the form of Christendom that followed from Constantine and which was forming earlier. However, if you mean that with the coming of Jesus and his message “presence became absence with God” that would make no sense. An important assumption of my article is that Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom/Reign/Estate/Empire of God makes possible an even closer relationship with what we might call God in the midst of our present world.

    Finally, I would answer your question, “Was the real beginning of the Kingdom of God, the start of Christendom in the fifth century?” with a resounding No. The growth of Christendom was for the most part a retreat from Jesus’ radical teachings on and exhortations about the Kingdom of God.

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