The Circumference of the Kingdom

1 Corinthians 10.10

Now I appeal to you, brother and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

We were in the middle of nowhere North Carolina and I was receiving a tour of the town from a local clergy person. He pointed out the local watering hole, the 7-11, and the mortician’s brick and mortar funeral parlor.

From my vantage point in the front passenger seat of the aging preacher’s beat up truck it looked like every building was slowly falling apart and no one was bothered to do anything about it. Until we got to the end of the tour and there was a huge, recently leveled, field and construction equipment was strewn about in every direction.

“What’s this going to be?” I asked.

The preacher said, “The new baptist church.”

“What happened to the old baptist church?”

“It’s still here, we passed it a few blocks back. The church got into a big knock-down-drag-out fight about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So half the church left to start their own.”

“Do they have a name for the new church?”

“Yeah, they’re calling themselves Harmony Baptist.”

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of Jesus, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind with the same purpose.”

In other words, “For the love of everything holy, please stop being so stupid and start getting along with each other!”

It’s notable that, since the very beginning of the church, we’ve been in conflict. The book of Acts is filled with one vignette after another of the church being churchy with their disagreements. All of Paul’s letters, in some way, shape, or form, beg the recipients to start acting like the body of Christ into which they were baptized.

And the church comes by it honest.

For, to start, the church is filled with people like us: a bunch of no good dirty rotten scoundrels (even if we don’t want to admit it). But, more importantly, conflict is actually what makes the church the church!

Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was filled with dissonance. The Pharisees and religious elites were quick with their accusations of blasphemy, the powers and principalities thought the only way to stop Jesus was the cross, and even the disciples were forever rebuking the Lord for his various proclamations and actions. 

If there’s one thing we can count on in the church, it’s conflict. 

No church has even found a way to follow the crucified God free of fiction.

And yet, friction is, often, what leads to transformation!

Case in point: the early church struggled with the rapid rise of Gentiles in their midst and had to figure out how expansive God’s kingdom really was. And, at the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church formally stated that no matter what scripture said, Christ’s salvation went beyond the bounds of Judaism. Therefore, matters of religious law such as circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were no longer required for those who followed Jesus.

Today, Jesus still refuses to leave us to our own devices and thoughts and even dreams about who the church is for. Jesus delights in sending people into our lives that we would never have picked on our own. And then, because he has a sense of humor, Jesus will see fit to make sure we read some of his words in church on Sunday like, “Love your enemies.”

We know that Jesus is at the center of what we call the kingdom of God, but we cannot know the circumference of the kingdom. In other words, we can’t decide who Jesus is for.

Or, as Barth put it, “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”

Or, as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!”

God’s grace is ever expanding and never-ending. Remember: Jesus commands us to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Good News. And, as such, we can expect arguments, differences, and even divisions to sprout up again and again. Perhaps that’s why God keeps inviting us back to the table, pardoning us for our mistakes and shortcomings, and offering the body and the blood that makes all of this possible in the first place.

It’s not easy being the church, but nothing important ever is. 

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