Kingdom, sheep and bricks

Some while ago, I wrote what was originally a sermon and which became a blog post putting forward a mystical interpretation of the concept of the “Kingdom of God”.  That was, let’s face it, the way in which I had arrived at a conception of the Kingdom.

Now I still think that where Paul talked about being “in Christ” or being “filled with the Spirit”, Jesus talked about “entering the Kingdom”. Different ways of talking about it, but essentially the same thing. However, I don’t think that a mystical state which is thrust on some (me, for instance, at least the first time, or, perhaps, Paul) or is attained by a huge investment of contemplation and other practices (me on later occasions, or, say, Meister Eckhart) is remotely all that is contained in this very major concept of the gospels.

Some years ago, when on retreat in the Yorkshire Dales, I took the opportunity of walks in the very scenic countryside to process what I had been learning. I spent a good part of these walks in walking prayer, or walking contemplation, or walking mindfulness – but that isn’t the point here.

One day I was on such a walk, walking down a typical Dales back road flanked by dry-stone walls mingled with hedges and bits of fencing (but always looking like a considerable barrier) when I passed a number of sheep contentedly munching on the grass verge. There were other sheep in the field beyond, but I couldn’t see any way in which the roadside sheep could have scaled or penetrated the wall-hedge-fence combination. I walked on, and about half a mile on found a farmer rounding up some more sheep on the verge there. I greeted him and said that I’d passed some more sheep about half a mile back, enquiring if they were possibly his as well – apparently they were, and he thanked me.

I commented that I couldn’t see how they’d managed to get out of the field and onto the road, and he grinned. He said it all depended on what the sheep thought – he could, on occasion, string a single piece of twine across a field, and none of the sheep would cross it, because, he thought, they didn’t think they could. On the other hand, if they saw some toothsome looking grass on the other side of a wall and thought they could get to it, nothing would stop them. They became ovine Houdinis, and could escape from anything. He reckoned that he stood little chance of working out where they’d done it apart, perhaps, from finding a lot of wool stuck in the hedge, between stones or on barbed wire, and even then it often wasn’t obvious how they’d actually managed to scramble over or through. Sheep, he said, aren’t really built either for climbing or for wiggling through small holes, but they did it anyhow. If they thought they could do it, they could do it, just as if they thought they couldn’t do it, they wouldn’t even try.

I’m inclined to think that humans work in much the same way (and it seems that Jesus, who talked of his “sheep” regularly, may have agreed), and so are the host of self-help guides you can buy – the power of positive thinking is at the root of most of them. Granted, the farmer was exaggerating (it is certainly possible to build a sheep-proof dry stone wall), but then, so are the self-help guides. An exaggeration for effect does not, however, invalidate the basic principle (something which a number of atheist critics of biblical accounts could do well to remember).

It seems from the accounts in Acts and at least one external comment (“How these Christians love each other!”) that the early Christians were living as if the Kingdom was a reality among them, according to the principles which Jesus had set down. Certainly loving one another, from the accounts, but also contributing massively into the common pot available for sustaining all. That “all” was not always restricted to Christians, either; they also loved and supported their non-Christian neighbours. It was perhaps a relatively short-lived experiment; there’s some evidence in Paul taking subscriptions to support Christians in Jerusalem, for instance, that “sell all you have and follow me” can lead to a degree of financial chaos if enough people follow it at the same time. I don’t know, but perhaps Jesus was exaggerating for effect there? Certainly by the time Christianity became the religion of empire under Constantine (and in my opinion sold its birthright for a mess of political power in the process), this was no longer characteristic. However, it’s an idea which keeps cropping up, particularly in Anabaptist strains of Christianity, and there are many smallish pockets of Christians trying something like this experiment around today.

I anticipate criticism on the basis that this is an unrealistic, idealistic way to live; the fact that there is some evidence (from Paul’s subscription) that the Jerusalem Christians had got themselves into a parlous state, and that may well have been as a result of collectively giving away more than would enable them to sustain themselves. I also anticipate criticism on the basis that empires (or modern nation states) are necessary to produce a civil society, and I may be seen as too critical of empire.

Both these criticisms have some merit if you consider the position as an “all or nothing” one. For a few people, I grant, it can be “all or nothing”; most societies can sustain a number of people living without possessions and “taking no thought for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34), where it would be impractical for all to do so; similarly all societies have their dissidents (and a good thing it is that they do) but a society entirely composed of dissidents would fail. Unless, that is, everyone without exception were doing this, in which case there is at least a hope that it might be feasible – after all, that is Jesus’ vision.

It is not, however, an “all or nothing” situation. It is perfectly possible to live with “one foot in the kingdom of man, one foot in the kingdom of heaven” without following to the letter Jesus’ encouragement in Matt. 19:21. The history of the early church shows very many people who provided the use of their homes, money and sometimes leadership without completely abandoning their occupations or sources of income, and without them it is hard to see how the church would have spread.

Similarly, we can accept that the market economy, empires and kingdoms are for the time being necessary, even perhaps mandated by God according to Paul (Romans 13:1-7) so long as, with Walter Wink, we observe that they are fallen, among the powers and principalities which Paul also rails against (Eph. 6:12). Fallen and in need of redemption, so anything we do to bring them more into harmony with the vision of the Kingdom of God is a missional act.

These criticisms stem to a great extent from the fact that individually we can do very little to influence the market economy and the nation state. Few people have the power to do that, indeed few people who think they have the power to do that are actually right. However, while few people can make a great impact, everyone can make a little impact. We may not be called on to build the whole city of God unaided, but we can all lay a brick.

We can lay more bricks and position them better if we maintain a clear view of the objective, and the certainty that we can achieve it.

Even if it is only one brick at a time.