Rev. C B Samuel
The present pandemic has not only taken hold of our fears but also of our imaginations!! A welcome development is the increase in social media presence even by groups that earlier shunned it as destructive and counter-productive. Recently I read about new initiatives and alternate entrepreneurial drives that have unleashed creative opportunities. However, my reference to ‘imagination’ is specifically about the attempts to analyze and interpret current times in terms of the end of times – the Biblical apocalypse!!!! Beginning with questions on the nature of the virus as the end-time plague, the call to church to get its act together – to repent and pray – there have been many wild assumptions and predictions too. In contrast, however, what seems to be missing in this imagination over-drive is the reflection on ‘How then should we (the church) respond to the situation, beyond prayer and what should be our engagement? Yes, charitable actions (relief to those affected by the lockdown) and such initiatives have been widely propagated; but is that all?
This paper is to further reflect on Living in the Current times as the Kingdom people. Why kingdom people and at this time? A good question!!!! Simply put – it is the Christmas season!!! The time of the year where we usually celebrate with good food, times with family and friends, singing carols, exchanging gifts, visiting old peoples’ homes and distribution of food to the poor. Christmas 2020 may be hugely different. Perhaps it would make us ask the important question: What in the world are we celebrating? A baby in the manger? Or something more? Something altogether different?
I hope this paper will give us a chance to deinstitutionalize the celebration of the birth of Jesus, to strip it off the worldly glamour and restore its essence -to bring ‘joy to the world’ and ‘peace on earth’.
2.0 Original Christmas – the Celebration of Hope
The word ‘Christmas’, simply means ‘Christ-mass’, or the mass service to remember the birth of Jesus. Though the term itself was first used in 1038, the earliest record of the celebration of Jesus’ birth was in the fourth Century. It would not be wrong to assume that the earliest disciples of Jesus, did not particularly celebrate the birth of Jesus, as they did the Resurrection. On the other hand, it would not be wrong, either, to conclude that Jesus’ birth itself was accompanied by celebration. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, record that the wisemen were overjoyed, the shepherds were glorifying and praising God, songs of praise and gratitude were expressed by Mary and Simeon. What were they celebrating? The Messiah, the Kingdom-bringer was born!! After the long record of the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew begins with these words, ‘This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about’ (Matt 1:18). The wisemen came seeking, the ‘King of the Jews’ (Matt 2:2) and the shepherds were told by the angels that ‘Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Lk 2:11). Simeon saw in the child, God’s ‘salvation which you (God) had prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your (God’s) people Israel’(Lk 2:31-32). It was the celebration of the beginning of God’s fulfilment of His promise.
It was a long wait. Almost 400 years had gone by since of the last of the prophetic promises in the Old Testament:-
‘You have wearied the Lord with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.’ (Malachi (3:1)
And it is such prophetic utterances that spurred the hope over the years that excited and inspired the celebration. Yes, the celebration of Hope. And in the years to follow, much after the ascension of Jesus, the earliest church believed and lived that hope. ‘He (God) has given us new birth into a living hope’, wrote Peter (1 Peter 1:3) and Paul as he stood before Agrippa, said, ‘And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today’ (Acts 26:6).
3.0 Messianic Hope and the Kingdom of God
In the Old Testament this hope is expressed in several images described as ‘prophetic imagination’ by Walter Bruggermann. An important component of this hope is ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel). Not just the presence of God but His reign.
‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulder…..Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness’. (Isaiah 9:6)
A term that was coined during the Inter-testamental period that captured this hope of God reigning with his people was ‘kingdom of God’. And as Luke wrote ‘the people waited expectantly and were wondering if John might possibly be the Messiah’(Lk 3:15). Wondering if John might possible be the Messiah? Yes, the Kingdom was to be ushered in by the Messiah. Of course John did not fail to confess that he was not the Messiah (Jn 1:20) and that the one who comes after him will ‘baptize them with the Holy Spirit’. Here we have three interesting and interlinked aspects of hope – the Kingdom of God, the Messiah and the Holy Spirit.
Now, the concept of Messiah was not new. The word translated Messiah meant ‘anointed one’ and is used of people like Cyrus too. In fact there are many who rose up claiming to be ‘messiahs’ just prior to Jesus’ coming. Josephus mentions a dozen or more “messiah” figures beginning with Hezekiah/Ezekias c. 45 BCE. All of them claimed a role of liberating the people from their political bondage. People, of Jesus’ time, had lived in this world of false hope givers, or those who were part of the status quo preserving the traditions but were clearly seen as not having authority or a few others who in order to preserve their purity withdrew to the mountains. Isaiah captures the condition of people in these words,
“……consult mediums and spiritists….. consult the dead on behalf of the living…….distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.’ (Isaiah 8:19-22).
Utter hopelessness in the situation, but still some hoped that the Messiah will come and the Kingdom will be established and the Spirit of God will be poured out on them. It is in this context of gloom and despair, that the message of hope is pronounced as the light has come into darkness.
Not only was the Messiah born, not only had the Kingdom been inaugurated but in the giving of the Spirit the Messianic Community was born. The world had not changed. But something had begun; the making of all things new was now in process. Yes, hope has been announced and the new community had been birthed – the salt and light people. The Apostle Paul therefore writes that they live as those who have put on the new, and put off the old; as those worthy of their calling and as those who are children of light. The church is shaped by this understanding that they are the Messianic Community and the Kingdom people.
In the 250s Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, wanted to keep Christians true to their calling, in a situation where they were disheartened and loosing hope due to problems inside and outside the church. Persecution was on the rise and there was an epidemic that affected all of North Africa, taking the lives of innumerable people. ‘The world seemed out of control’ (‘The Patient Ferment of the Early Church’, Alan Kreider). In 256, Cyprian wrote thus to encourage his people: “Beloved brethren, [we] are philosophers not in words but in deeds, we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them’ (Kreider).
Despite being persecuted, living in a world of pain and uncertainty, the earliest church lived the gospel and demonstrated that while they wait for the kingdom they live as the kingdom people. Hope became translated through the community of faith to shine as light in a dark world.
4.0 The Kingdom is……
Now the question before us is how do we live as the Kingdom people? In my personal study of the images of the Kingdom in the Prophets, I have noted fifteen key characteristics of the Kingdom. I would like to highlight a few and its application in our current situation. The kingdom is essentially three significant and important components – values, people and Spirit
The prophetic imageries are the visualization of the values of the Kingdom. One such cardinal virtue is Truth. Prophet Zechariah says, that when God reigns, the city will be called the city of Truth (8: 3). This focus on truth resonates with Jesus’ teaching that our ‘Yes’ should be ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ should be no; anything more than that is from the evil one. Paul too wrote that we ‘must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor (Eph 4:25). This strong emphasis on truth speaking and truth living is radically opposite to casual attitude to truth in contemporary world. In the current age where fake news and relative truth thrive, as Kingdom people we should align ourselves with people and institutions committed to truthfulness.
Another powerful imagery of the reign of God, in Zechariah’s prophesy is ‘men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age’ (8:4). A similar focus on health is found in Isaiah ‘“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed’” (65:20). Let me emphasise two characteristics that find mention here – health and inclusion. It is no surprise therefore that healing was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. As people of the Kingdom we should be concerned and involved, therefore, in providing and advocating for access to good health for all. Unfortunately many are deprived of it due to increased corporatisation of the health institutions. On the focus on inclusion, Zechariah says, that they will be ‘sitting in the streets of Jerusalem’. In a society that slowly tends to hide its aged and the disabled, the Kingdom stands out in its inclusion of everyone and celebrating their presence and contribution. Another concern of the kingdom that is particularly relevant for our times is the guarantee of economic justice. Covid has widened the gap and exposed the cruel world of disparity in which we live. Prophets had much to say against the world that exploits the poor by creating systems of inequality.
Safety on our streets, the end of violence, the restoration of childhood, the flourishing of creation are some of the other key values of the kingdom that we see powerfully presented in the Prophetic literature, which need our attention as we respond to the current times. As kingdom people we are to align ourselves with those who are working to ensure these values are protected or implemented in our nations.
I would fail in my presentation if I do not emphasise the importance of one more value: Reconciliation. In an age of divisive politics and leadership that thrives by creating enmity, the image in Isaiah stands out – that of lion and lamb eating together!!! As people of the kingdom we are to demonstrate that we are a community that is reconciled both to God and to one another. In the era of ‘love jihad’, the Indian church is unfortunately bound to its class, caste, ethnic and racial divisions.
Where God reigns, His values are of primary importance. One day the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of God, until then we who are the people of the Kingdom demonstrate, verbalise, stand for and facilitate these values to be incorporated both inside the church and outside in society. Remember, we do not speak great things but we live them.
The kingdom is also portrayed as located among specific communities. ‘The lame walk, the blind see, the poor have heard the gospel’; the lame, the blind, the poor are the vulnerable among whom the Messiah lives and works. He came for them (‘I came for the sick and not for the healthy). The church lives outside the four walls. The church is missional in its visibility in society. The global drive of lockdown has pushed the church to where it should be – in the world. No longer can we interpret the church as the Sunday gathering. Some claim this move, as though it is their new initiative; definitely not! We have recovered what originally was the church – in the world but not of the world; not a building but a community in our neighbourhoods. This definitely challenges our perception of mission too; for we prefer doing ‘mission’ in needy communities outside and far from our neighbourhood. It would do good to remember that mission begins in Jerusalem and spreads beyond.
5.0 The Kingdom, the Spirit and the church
We cannot also talk about the Messiah without talking about the Kingdom; neither can we talk about the Messiah and the Kingdom without talking about the Spirit!! The Spirit is the Spirit of Mission. Jesus said, ‘When he (Spirit) comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment’ (Jn 16:8). Yes, the work of the Spirit is to cause a realisation in the world of its violation of the values of God. The Spirit works in the Church in building a new community; the Spirit uses the church to speak to the world of the values of God. Isaiah, the book from which Bible Scholars say most of the references to the Messiah are found in the gospels, has many remarkable selections of the Spirit’s work in and through the Messiah.
‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips, he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist’ (11:1-5).
It is clear, that the Spirit primarily engages in the world to direct the world towards a conviction of God’s concerns and values. This is such a contrast to what we see today where the Spirit is seen as providing entertainment for the kingdom people. And the church has to be the Kingdom community that by its life becomes the ‘living epistles’ of God.
How then should we live in the current times as the Messianic Community as we wait with hope for the day when the Kingdom will be established in all its fullness? We live as the Community of the Spirit, aligning ourselves in obedience to the work of the Spirit in the world. We demonstrate the values of the kingdom, increase our visibility in the communities, especially among the marginalised, articulate and advocate for the concerns of the king, even to those in power; and even if it costs us our lives. We celebrate the hope that has come in, the hope that will be one day fulfilled.
CB Samuel, is a Bible teacher, pastor, theologian, mentor, former CEO of a major Indian relief and development organization (EFICOR), missiologist, evangelical leader and passionate advocate for the poor. He has also served as Honorary Coordinator of TRACI. While CB has developed a global ministry, he and his wife Selina remain strongly engaged in integral mission in India. They have a particular passion for building and strengthening younger leaders in their spiritual formation and their mission engagement.