“Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Christians across the continents and across the ages have continually prayed these words Jesus taught his disciples. They are central to the life and mission of the Church. But there are two important implications of this prayer.
First, these words are an invocation. They are a plea to God to complete the work he has promised. They are a plea for the discordant reality of earth to become the shalom-filled reality of heaven. These words anticipate the consummation of the new creation and they acknowledge that it is through God’s will that this will come about.
Second, these words are also a declaration. When we say them, we attest that we are in unity with this vision. We commit ourselves to seeing God’s will done in the here and now, even as we anticipate the consummation of the new creation. It is a commitment to align ourselves with the mission of God in the world.
In my previous installment I wrote:
The story of the New Testament is of the life, death, resurrection and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is an authoritative witness to how Jesus’ first century disciples sought to faithful to Christ in their context. What the New Testament is not is an instruction manual for how to work for the arrival of the new creation.
Clearly, the New Testament stresses that God’s transforming work is done through communities of Christians. These communities are organically linked to other communities of Christians and together the make up the body of Christ in the world. However, some claim that there is clear teaching about the nature of leadership and structure in the church. I would simply point out that it is this “clear teaching” that has generated everything from Baptists to Roman Catholics. :-)
When it comes to cultural engagement, the New Testament church seemed okay with tolerating the institution of slavery, opposing Emperor worship, and keeping optional the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols. In other words, while certain ultimate and penultimate ethical standards were unchanging, some things that might have been less than the perfect shalom God wills were tolerated while other things were not. Strategic issues related to the advancement of the Kingdom of God figure prominently in the instruction of the New Testament letters.
Scripture gives us a vision of the coming Kingdom of shalom. It gives instruction about many of the ultimate and penultimate ethical issues. It gives authoritative witness to how the first century Church sought to apply Jesus’ teaching in the nitty-gritty of life. But what it doesn’t do is give a once-and-for-all-time manual on how to be the Church in every cultural context.
It is important to interject here that neither does the New Testament give a once-and-for-all-time posture that the Church should take toward the culture. The Church of the New Testament lived during a time of totalitarian oppression. Would Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament leaders have counseled differently if they were speaking into our context of considerable personal freedom with the ability of the public to peacefully influence societal structures? Those today calling for a “Christ vs. Empire” posture certainly seem to think they would have. I’m skeptical to the point of believing that this is akin to the error of treating every biblical instruction as culturally transcendent. It is the error of making a contextual political posture transcendent.
This is not to minimize the challenge that the Church has to be a prophetic voice and to avoid “going native” (unwittingly becoming captive) to the culture. But the other potentially dangerous error is for the church not to offer constructive leadership and winsome influence to move the culture in the direction of shalom. By church here, I’m not so much referring to ecclesial institutions as I am “the Church” in the sense of its constitute members interfacing with the world in daily living.
So we are praying for the Kingdom of God to come. We are seeking the shalom-filled world that God has intended from the start. We are committing ourselves to its fulfillment, all the time knowing that it will not be fully realized until the consummation of the new creation. We know that central to this vision of God’s Kingdom is the repentance and transformation of individual human beings made possible by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. But we know that “at-one-ment” is not just the reconciliation and restoration of individuals with God. It is also the commissioning of eikons who are sent into the world to be God’s stewards of creation and to reflect God’s image in the world. Embracing atonement is synonymous with being immersed in God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration of humanity to God, of people to each other, of humanity to creation (including the human contributions like art, government and commerce), and of ourselves to ourselves.
Therefore, we are left with a considerable challenge. What we have been given is a general vision of a shalom-filled world. We’ve been given an authoritative narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. We’ve been given witnesses to Jesus’ instructions. We’ve been given witness to the application of Jesus' teaching in first century Roman Empire. And most importantly we’ve been given the promise that the Spirit would always be with us. What we’ve not been given is a constitution for government or an economics textbook to explain how we should arrange our economic affairs. How are we to proceed to in seeking shalom in these vital areas?
Ancient religions were cyclically oriented in terms of time. Religious practice was an exercise in conforming to the endless cycles of existence. Christianity broke the mold. With Christianity we encounter a linear progression of time and life moving toward some culminating end. As Rodney Stark points out in The Victory of Reason, while Judaism and Islam look backward to compliance with the writings of their central figures (Moses and Mohammad) Jesus wrote nothing down. Rather we have witnesses to his life and teaching. There is no Torah law or Koran to implement. Instead, Christianity has as its occupying focus compliance with a coming kingdom. It is about bringing that future Kingdom into the present so others may see it and be drawn to it. The way God has revealed himself in Christ and chosen to reveal himself to us in scripture compels us to use reason and become active co-creative participants with God in his unfolding Kingdom.
Therefore, with the scripture and its vision of the new creation, with the Holy Spirit infilling us, and with the historic witness of the church preceding us, we’re called to examine our context and discern how we can best contribute to the greatest shalom. We must reason and learn our way to greater shalom. As the Church seeks greater shalom it gives witness to the Kingdom of God (and it will not always be welcomed.) In our day, that would certainly include the highly systematized reasoning methods of science where theories are tested in real world experiments but it would include other branches of learning like history and philosophy as well. All this is part of our prayer for God’s will to be done.
As I noted at the beginning of this series I intend to place my focus mostly on the material/physical aspects of shalom. Not because they are the most important but because I believe they are among the most misunderstood. I’ve already mentioned my earlier series on World Social Indicators showing the astounding improvement in the human condition over the past two or three centuries. What I want to do now is explore what lessons we might learn from the past about improving, expanding, and sustaining this move toward prosperity.