The centuries roll on, but human nature doesn’t change.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that 40 days after Jesus had been resurrected, as he was about to ascend into heaven, his disciples asked him a question.
“Lord,” they said, “is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Those followers were Jews, and according to the New Testament’s authors and countless Christian commentators since, Jews were expecting a human messiah who would overthrow the Roman occupation government, establish himself as king and make Israel a mighty nation.
The messiah would create a kingdom of God here on earth. (Side note: People from other religious and historical traditions might take issue with this interpretation. That’s fine. As I like to tell my congregation regarding the Bible, all of it is disputed by somebody, and some of it is disputed by everybody. But, for the sake of my larger argument, please bear with me.)
In Luke’s account, having become convinced Jesus is the messiah, his followers expect him to reform the political structures and set everything aright. He’ll throw the bums out. Put the good guys in. Make the government of Israel as shiny as heaven itself.
Yet Jesus disappoints them.
There’s no political panacea on its way. Instead of receiving temporal power, he says, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.”
My favorite New Testament commentator on this story is a bit dated. William Barclay was a prolific mid-20th century Scottish minister whose books remain popular, although some of his views were and are controversial. I love his works because he seems to have known practically everything, not just about the Bible but about theatre, archeology, history, mythology, poetry, dead languages—all of which he brings to bear on his scriptural interpretations.
Anyway, in his description of the above conversation between Jesus and his disciples, he argues that the kingdom of God was the center of Jesus’ entire good news.
“But he meant one thing by the kingdom and those who listened to him meant another,” Barclay says in his 1953 commentary on Acts.
When Jesus referred to the kingdom of God, he didn’t view it as related to any particular human king, ethnic group or nation. “By the kingdom Jesus meant a society upon earth where God’s will would be as perfectly done as it is in heaven,” Barclay writes. “Because of that it would be a kingdom founded on love and not on power. To attain to that men needed the Holy Spirit.”
And now we come to my point. Two thousand years later, we still find ourselves in an age when too many religious people—in America, it’s mainly Christians—think God’s going to swoop down throwing thunderbolts, install some political savior, throw the bad guys out, put the godly guys in and save us all through a radical transformation of our government.
We’ll get a legislative majority and impeach Trump. Or we’ll get a majority and protect Trump. We’ll build a wall. Or we’ll stop the wall. We’ll line the U.S. Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices. Or we’ll pack the courts with judges who’ll defend abortion. We’ll end same-sex marriage. Or we’ll recognize the marriage rights of all adults.
We seem to wait endlessly for a new messiah, or multiple messiahs, to rescue us: presidents, members of Congress, judges.
Except they won’t rescue us. They couldn’t if they tried.
I’m all for being politically active. I vote in every election and root for my candidates as loudly as anybody. I know that some leaders and some laws are vastly superior to their alternatives.
Still, I suspect that if Jesus were here again in the flesh, his message to us would be what it was to those first-century disciples. He’d say, “Bless your wayward little hearts. You’ve entirely missed the point again. I told you, you can’t legislate the kingdom of God. My kingdom is not of this world.”
As Barclay writes, Jesus’ kingdom wasn’t ever based on political power. It was—and is—based on love. Generous, merciful, unconditional love toward everyone.
Toward Republicans and Democrats. Toward liberals and conservatives. Toward men and women. Toward straight people and gay people and transsexuals. Toward citizens and immigrants. Toward blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. Toward racists and snowflakes. Toward the dumb and the dumber.
God loves them all and thus so must we. If you want God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done here as in heaven, start by getting your own heart changed. Give up your rights and offenses and unforgiveness. You’ll find yourself living in the new Jerusalem.
You’ll find yourself and, by extension, those around you, transformed. You’ll become a true witness for the Lord.
Chances are you won’t be able to do this under your own power, though. It’s infinitely easier to practice name-calling, finger-pointing and one-upmanship. That’s why, as Jesus predicted, you’ll need divine intervention.
Not in the legislature so much as in your own gnarled, fearful, spiteful soul.