I was brought up to believe that Christians would always be a minority and that we had to defend ourselves from the ‘world’ and from those who would try to destroy our faith and steal our values and beliefs. Our church was like a castle with the drawbridge up. If only we can hang on till Jesus comes and judges our enemies, then will be saved, but everyone else will be for ever punished in Hell.
We tried our best to drag others in but every Sunday the gospel was preached largely to the already converted. “Come and join us,” was the message: “Sign on the dotted line, believe what we believe, stop smoking, drinking and dancing and we will accept you as one of us”.
Out there were the others, the sinners, the ‘them’: the atheists, the followers of false religions, the idol-worshippers, the agnostics and the indifferent. Sadly, even people who claimed to be Christians were not a part of ‘us’, but thought of as ‘them’. Roman Catholics and Anglicans were judged as universally ‘nominal’ Christians and anybody who did not share our particular theology about baptism, miracles or ‘end-times’ were treated with suspicion.
Things were not all bad! We enjoyed singing praises to God. We enjoyed what we called ‘fellowship’: the benefit of being a part of a like-minded group of people. Christine and I found fulfilment being part of a choir, a joy reborn now after nearly 50 years. Although we had to give up any idea of smoking or drinking, we did live healthier life-styles as a result.
Jesus and Religion
Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. When he was on earth, Jesus criticised the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and spiritual blindness. The religion of the time was based on revelation about God in the Old Testament but had become a religion based on rules and not about the justice demanded by the Old Testament prophets. It had become a mere religion, and was powerless to change individuals or society for the better.
What does Jesus Christ think about the religion that bears his name? He seeks people who follow his teachings not people who stick to a set of rules. I am sure that he finds some true followers or disciples in the churches, and he increasingly finds people who want to follow him outside of organised religion.
Religion and War
The world is full of differing religions. The Christian religion is the largest and currently the fastest growing. Christianity along with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many others divide our world and our societies into a plethora of ‘us and them’ groupings. Militant atheism and Communism, belief systems or religions in their own right, add to the mix. Who will deliver mankind from this toxic mix of belief systems, which divide our communities into so many opposing groups?
Religion is blamed for many wars. Perhaps the best known are the crusades, fought to regain Jerusalem for ‘Christianity’, and the militant expansionism of Islam into Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe and Spain. Civil war in Northern Ireland, Sudan and Sri Lanka, all pitted differing religions against each other. Riots in Nigeria and many other countries are a result of minority, or majority ‘us’ groups struggling against the influence of the ‘them’ group.
Religion and Culture
Religion and Culture are not necessarily the same, but certainly religious beliefs affect culture.
- A belief system that regards women as second-class human beings creates a culture in which women are deprived of freedom, education and human rights.
- Believing that a person’s status in life depends upon a previous life means that there is little compassion shown in the culture for people of low-caste because they somehow deserve their present predicament.
- An exaggerated prosperity theology so often results in a culture where the ‘deserving’ poor are at best neglected and at worst despised.
- An eschatology (end-times theology) which expects an escape from a world about to be destroyed creates a culture where there is no respect for the environment and a culture with no interest in seeking justice or putting right unfair systems.
- Any religion that divides people into ‘us and them’ produces pride, exclusivism, unrest and a fragmented culture.
The Kingdom of God
I may have come over as anti-religion, but I believe passionately that the man Jesus Christ was God and that he came to usher in a new Kingdom and not a new religion. I make no apology for this statement because it the only hope for this sad old world of ours. People are sick of religion but still seek a relationship with their creator.
If there is such a thing as absolute truth, and that reality is about a God who made us in his image, who loves us and sent Jesus to reveal his true self, then that reality can be the only thing that really matters. The way we treat that God, his creation and our fellow human beings must be subject to that single reality. Hence the command:
Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.
Love him with all your strength, and with all your mind.
Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
(Luke 10:27 NIV)
So the Kingdom of God, (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is about God ruling in the affairs of men. But God does not set himself up to be a dictator. He gave us free wills, the ability to choose to love him and treat him as ruler, or to chose to ignore of reject his claims. Quite amazing isn’t it! Imagine a leader of a country giving a free choice to everyone whether or not to obey the laws of the land.
The concept of the Kingdom of God is found dozens of times in the Gospels and is worth further study. No one explanation is good enough. It is near, it is among you, it comes to you, it can be entered and it belongs to you. It is good news. You can be important in that Kingdom or the least. It involves healing and freedom. It is like a farmer sowing seed, like a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure, or a fishing net. Even tax collectors and prostitutes can be a part of it.
As we seek the Kingdom of God in our lives, he promises us life to the full. Life as it was meant to be. Not an insurance policy for a future, but life that lasts forever STARTING NOW. Some will face persecution and even death for the sake of his Kingdom. Some will be misunderstood by their families or friends. We may be stoned like Stephen or beaten like Paul, and yet still say with him:
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8 NIV)
The Kingdom of God is for all
We may be overly concerned about a personal salvation, but God sees a much bigger picture. The Kingdom of God is available to all, and I am sure that in his future, and in our future, is a world complete in acceptance of his Lordship and his rule by free choice.
The Kingdom of God is progressive. He could take the world and make us all his subjects. But remember the free choice we have. He does not want unwilling subjects, forced to obey but rebellious in thought.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 NIV)
Jesus ushered in a new Kingdom. It was immediately available to everyone but yet was limited by geography to a small country and limited by the influence of one person. After his resurrection his followers were empowered to extend the new Kingdom of God as the Holy Spirit was poured out ON ALL FLESH.
Over the centuries, the Kingdom of God has continued to grow, sometimes helped by the church, sometimes in spite of the church. In spite of a church divided into fragments, a church with muddled theology, and a church with a vested interest in maintaining an ‘us and them’ thinking, there have always been those who have taken the teachings of Jesus seriously and sought to mold their lives on his command to love others as they love themselves.
I look forward to a day when God’s Kingdom is complete in the earth. It probably won’t be in my lifetime and maybe won’t be for a thousand years. A day when every knee would bow before the King. I am not talking about people being forced to bow the knee in reluctant submission, but in love for a God who brings justice and peace to the earth.
God’s Kingdom is for everyone. We dare not have an ‘us and them’ mentality. We will see an expansion in his Kingdom as we demonstrate by our lives, the principles of his Kingdom. As we allow love, compassion and justice to define our relationships with people we meet. As we stand up against indifference, hypocrisy, violence and injustice.
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14 NIV)