The Now and the Not Yet Nature of the Kingdom of God

  • This is a version of a talk given by Jon the freelance theologian at Glenwood Church on 3 March 2013. You can listen to the audio recording here.

    The Church is looking at a series of creative tensions within the Christian faith and Jon was asked to talk about the ‘Now and the Not Yet’.

    Now & Not YetThis is a way of referring to the situation we find ourselves in as Christians – we function in this world and yet we also have an awareness of another world that lies deeper than this one. One way of looking at this is to contrast what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God – that the Kingdom of God has come and that the Kingdom of God is near. It’s now and it’s not yet.

    I’ve been searching for a way to explain this idea of ‘duality’. I’m not a qualified scientist. I enjoy talking about scientific things, from a layman’s point of view. I follow New Scientist on Twitter. I’m curious about this world and I honestly feel that there is a lot that we take for granted. Like theology, when we start peeling back some of the simple things that we ‘know’, then it can get pretty deep, pretty fast. But I want to peel back some layers this morning to illustrate the point I’m trying to make.

    Let’s start with something simple.

    Look around. Look behind you. Look up at the ceiling.

    What did you see?

    The interesting thing is that most of what you saw was nothing. Atoms, which are the building blocks of our universe are mostly composed of empty space. They have a nucleus at the centre with protons and neutrons in and they have little particles called electrons whizzing around the centre and those electrons orbit in nothing.

    So, everything we see and feel and experience as solid or liquid or gas, is mainly composed of nothing.

    When we get down to the bits that make up atoms, reality gets very strange. You may have heard of quantum physics. A quantum is the smallest, indivisible unit of energy in the universe.

    (People with science degrees who will probably correct me on this, so I just want to add that I know that technically a quantum “is the minimum amount of any physical entity involved in an interaction”, but packets of energy is easier to understand.)

    One such quantum is the photon. A photon is the smallest unit of light.

    Light particles are strange because they can behave in different ways – a photon has the properties of both a particle and a wave. A photon can appear to be one or the other at any given time. It isn’t bound in one form and it is probably both, but we can only observe one at any given point. They have a dual nature.

    So atomic and sub-atomic particles are quirky little things.  For example, in 2010, physicists from the University of California at Santa Barbara built a tiny machine that could exist in two different places at the same time.

    The conclusion of the experiment was that very tiny objects can only absorb energy in small amounts. They can never be perfectly still. And, surprisingly, they can actually be in two places at the same time.

    Now, if you’re feeling lost, then let me repeat that: at the sub-atomic level, particles can exist in two places at the same time. And this is normal. We think it’s weird, but it’s a normal thing.

    This is what I mean about reality being strange. This is one of the reasons why I’m not a materialist. There are people who would say that we can only believe in the things we see and study and can ‘pin down’- that’s materialism as a philosophy. And that’s fine, except that matter – the key object of knowledge in materialism – is confusing and weird and we don’t really get it. And the closer we get to it, the clunkier our thinking gets.

    So, until we ‘get’ matter, I’m not sure how sensible it is to build a philosophy on it.

    But what we do know is that at its most fundamental level, the nature of the universe includes the potential for duality. When particles are energised they can exist in two places at once. And I think that’s a helpful way of understanding this tension that we find ourselves in as Christians – when we are born again or saved or whatever term you want to use, we are energised by the Holy Spirit, and from that point on we exist in two places at once, a bit like a quantum particle.

    At the same time we are one thing and another. We are human and yet we are spiritual. We have physical limitations that affect our ability to shape the universe and yet we can operate beyond those limitations.

    There is a tendency among critics of Christianity to dismiss miracles because they are contrary to inviolable laws of nature. But isn’t that the very definition of a miracle – that it is an event that defies the observed laws of nature?

    And who is to say that the laws of nature are the same everywhere in our universe, let alone beyond it. The laws that apply at our level of reality don’t apply at the sub-atomic level. If we are energised by the Holy Spirit and exist in two places at once, maybe the rules are different in each place. But which set of ‘rules’ would apply to us?

    Because Heaven’s rules would apply on Earth, and the impossible here would suddenly be possible.

    Hopefully you get what I’m saying: being in two places at once means that we aren’t limited by the things that normally limit us.

    Let’s get on to the Bible bit. We’ll all feel more comfortable with that.

    This is a phrase I’ve heard used frequently: “As Christians we are in the world, but not of it”

    In John chapter 15, verse 9, Jesus tells his disciples that: “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.”

    This shows the duality that marks our existence. We are living in a world where we do not belong any more.

    Paul writes to the Corinthians and tells them:

    “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” (2 Corinthians chapter 10, verse 3)

    We are in fact called to be Citizens of Heaven, even while we are citizens of wherever we happen to live. (“But our citizenship is in heaven.” Philippians chapter 3, verse 20)

    This duality is also seen in how Jesus talks about the Kingdom. There is a definite tension – almost a paradox – in the way Jesus refers to the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both here and it is coming. It is now and it is not yet.

    The NOW

    In Matthew chapter 12, verses 25-28, Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of being in league with the devil

    “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

    In Luke chapter 6, verse 20, Jesus implies that the Kingdom is a present reality that means people are blessed by being in it now: “Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’”

    He has some other blessings as well, they are promises – blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted. But the statement about the Kingdom of God is not a future tense – it is ‘The Kingdom of God is yours’, with implication being Now.

    In Luke chapter 17, verses 20-21, Jesus is very clear that the Kingdom is a reality now: “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 [or in your midst].’”

    The NOT YET

    Equally, there are verses that imply the Kingdom is near, but is not yet. Mark’s gospel gets quickly into the action. In Mark chapter 1, verses 14-15, it says: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

    In Matthew chapter 10, verse 7 Jesus sends out his disciples with this instruction: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

    In Matthew chapter 25, verse 34, Jesus tells a parable that implies the Kingdom is only something we enter after the judgement: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’”

    And, importantly, when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray it includes the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew chapter 6, verse 10)

    Now, that seems to be significant –why would we pray for the Kingdom to come if it had already come?

    Well, maybe it’s because we shouldn’t think of the Kingdom coming as a one off event. It’s not the case that the Kingdom comes and that’s it. If we return to the idea of duality, every time the Kingdom that is yet to come impacts on where we are now, then the Kingdom comes. When the rules that govern where we are in eternity become the rules here, then the Kingdom comes. When the Not Yet begins to influence the Now, then the Kingdom comes.

    It seems like a contradiction – Jesus says that the Kingdom is something we will attain, but he also says it is something we contain within us. But is that a contradiction, or is that just saying that to do one is to do the other – that to attain the Kingdom allows us to place one foot in eternity, meaning that we contain the Kingdom here and Now. This is the effect in being in two places at once, of what is Not Yet interacting with Now.

    But what does all this mean?

    If we are aware that we live both in the Now and the Not Yet, should that make a difference? Does it mean we face the challenges of everyday life and consider them differently? Do we live as if we are in the Kingdom?

    I feel that is the key message here. Do we really live as if we are in this world, and yet not of it? Do we live as if we have been called out of this world? Do we live with one foot in the now and one foot in the not yet?

    This is the meaning of becoming like Christ – we know that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, that he was born in this world and yet this world could not contain him – he was here on Earth and where he walked the things of Heaven happened, the deaf heard, the blind saw, the lame were healed and even the icy fingers of death could not hold onto people.

    Do we live like that? Are we heaven-bringers? Do we act as citizens and ambassadors for Heaven?

    The Now is so important that Jesus was willing to enter in and bring the ‘Not Yet’. When the Not Yet makes a difference in the Now that is a promise of a new way of doing things. The rules will not apply any more. Deafness and blindness and lameness and even death will be sorted.

    There is a new way of doing things – and that should make a difference to how we live.

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