To What shall I Compare the Kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God is coming to the street subculture of Ipswich. How can I describe it? How can I document it? Just thinking about it brings Jesus’ refrain to mind, “to what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”, and his declaration to Nicodemus, “very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).
Nevertheless, here goes. I’ll try to explain what is happening in Ipswich.
Sowing Seeds, Leaven, Light, Salt, Priests, Apostles…
The Kingdom of God is not like a building where people go so that they can be taught how to please God. Jesus used a dazzling array of parables to describe the Kingdom of God and that was not one of them. I’ve collected a whole series of Biblical motifs here, and I’ll demonstrate a common thread that runs through all of them. See if you can pick it…
He told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
– Matthew 13:3-8 (parallels in Mark 4 and Luke 8)
Jesus then explains that the “seed” is “the word of the kingdom”, and the “soil” is the hearer’s ability to comprehend. In the following verses he talks about alternative teachings being put about as other “seeds”, which produce “weeds”. There can evidently be both “good” and “bad” seeds sewn.
Jesus used the allegory of leaven (yeast) both as a statement about how the Kingdom of God works in the same context as the “sowing” parable above, and also as a warning about the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders:
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
– Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
– Matthew 16:6
Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
– Matthew 16:12
The “yeast” idea is not necessarily “bad”, because it describes “the Kingdom of God”, just as it describes “the teaching of the Pharisees…”. Jesus is using that metaphor to describe how particular ideas work their way into the community. This idea has been refined and defined most recently in the modern world under the heading of “Memetics“.
There are parallels between this and the Parable of the Sower, in that both good and bad teachings are being circulated.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’
– Matthew 5:15-16
Notice the parallels to Isaiah’s prophetic words, written 800 years earlier about God’s people in the context of the future Messiah:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
– Isaiah 42:6-8
The connection to Jesus is well established because the preceding verses are quoted in connection with Jesus. Jesus was saying that his people were part of the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah. By letting their “light shine before others”, they are bringing “glory to your Father in heaven”.
By itself, Jesus’ words about salt in Matthew 5 are not conclusive, but tightly coupled with his comment about “light” (explored above), we are clearly supposed to take the “salt” metaphor as substantially parallel to the “light” one.
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.’
– Matthew 5:13
In addition, Mark reports the words slightly differently:
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
– Mark 9:49-50
The version in Mark is much more clearly focussed on being salted, rather than being salt. How can we reconcile these two ideas?
In fact they are compatible. Salt is used even to this day to preserve foods, and for cleaning and disinfecting. These remarkably useful properties of salt were known to the ancient people of Israel too:
make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy
– Exodus 30:35
You shall not omit from your grain-offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
– Leviticus 2:13
Now the people of the city said to Elisha, ‘The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.’ He said, ‘Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.’ So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.’
– 2 Kings 2:19-21
As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.
– Ezekiel 16:4
When you have finished purifying it, you shall offer a bull without blemish and a ram from the flock without blemish.You shall present them before the Lord, and the priests shall throw salt on them and offer them up as a burnt-offering to the Lord.
– Ezekiel 43:23-24
… and it was evidently a known metaphor for purification:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.
– Colossians 4:6
So then, not only are we to have this purifying “salt” in ourselves (Mark 9:50), which is “be at peace with one another”, but in addition we are to be the salt in the world around us (Matthew 5:13). In other words, the effect we have on others ought to be that of a purifying agent, disinfectant, or preservative. In other words, our presence should have the effect of reducing, resisting or reversing the normal decay that afflicts the world.
There was a priesthood established among the Israelites under the Sinai Covenant, consisting of the tribe of the Levites. They managed all the religious procedures, and were not involved in farming nor warfare. But even more profoundly, the nation of Israel was commissioned as a “priestly” nation (Exodus 19:6). This was not about being a nation full of priests, but rather a nation with a role among the world’s nations, as intercessor for them, and witness to them. The church is to perform this role today, as Peter points out:
you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
– 1 Peter 2:9
The word “apostle” in Greek literally means “one who is sent”. The apostles of Jesus were sent by him. Paul explicitly lists apostles in the list of gifts that Christ bestows on the church, however, so we should anticipate that he is still in the “sending” business, since he is in the business of all the other giftings. The apostle is the one who most particularly exemplifies the message of God to the church (2 Corinthians 5:20), and in service to the church, therefore also to the world (1 Corinthians 4:9).
The Common Thread
Did you pick the common thread? It might be easier to consider the first four elements together (Sowing Seeds, Leaven, Light, Salt), which concern method, and then consider the last two (Priests, Apostles), which concern responsibilities.
The common thread is that Christianity is an outwards facing faith. It is not something which can be contained in a building and expect to remain healthy. To be authentically expressed, the faith is played-out amongst, in front of, and on behalf of the rest of humanity.
On the Street in Ipswich
What has all this got to do with Ipswich?
For over a year, I and my friends have been sowing seeds in the community, and seeing those “seeds” act like leaven in the community. It is now beginning to spread by itself between members of the community, and the “dough” is starting visibly to rise!
We have been building a little community right in the centre of the street culture, which shines the light of God’s purposes. Everyone knows precisely who we are, and they all have good things to say about us. We have harmed nobody, insulted nobody, and made nobody uncomfortable, but we have blessed many, healed some, aided some, and encouraged all who have come in contact with us.
This little community performs the role of salt, in that those who connect into it become “cleaned” by the experience of being part of that community. It is like bathing in a mild antiseptic. People notice the differences in themselves as they hang around us. In addition, the simple presence of our group on one side of the mall caused the dissipation of another group on the other side. They were dealing drugs and their conversation was fairly coarse, but once we established a presence, greeted them and interacted with them, they melted away as a group (only on Tuesdays, our meeting day), but many of the personalities from that group now frequent ours instead, including one of the more central ones – one who had been dealing drugs there.
It is, in itself, a “priestly” community. It is known to be “Christian”, and therefore represents, in some practical ways, the presence of the church in the street community. People come for prayer and encouragement, and sometimes to ask questions about religion. We don’t ask anyone to “join” anything, because there is no organisation to join. If they wish to “use” us as a kind of intercessor, that is perfectly alright by me/us. Almost always, however, they end up hanging out with us anyway, which makes them part of our community. Our little community has no clearly defined boundaries (see “leaven” above).
My role in all this is that of apostle. I know that I have been sent to do this, and people don’t seem to have any trouble at all in accepting that. My role is that I simultaneously form and nurture the community in Jesus’ name, and also exemplify that community to onlookers by being the pre-eminent leader in loving, serving, praying, teaching, etc., but I am not the community itself.
What to Watch For
Only people who were prepared to read this far can be given the real key to this little blog post. I didn’t put this right up the top because I wanted to keep it for those who really want to know. You made it. Congratulations!
The Kingdom of God is breaking-in to the street culture of Ipswich. Changes are happening! Those who are mixing with the street culture will now inevitably encounter the Christian hope as they move around town. Increasingly, individuals in that scene are getting up the courage openly to associate with us and to declare themselves “the Lord’s”, which immediately implies a radical change of priorities and behaviours. Jesus’ teachings about that often come up in conversation:
‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
– Matthew 10:32-39
So this just is the beginning.
Next, these guys will start actively taking the message to their peers. That’s when things will get very interesting. There are people who are starting to become so emboldened, who have been exposed to a wide range of Christian teachings. Some of what they say is fairly dodgy in my view, but rather than shut down anyone preaching things that are not quite right, my role in the next phase is to locate these preachers and mentor them so that I can “explain the Way of God to them more accurately” (As did Priscilla and Aquila for Apollos – Acts 18:24-26).
The previous phase has been reasonably simple for me to manage. The next, impossible. The Lord will be managing it, and my part will be merely to keep sowing, lighting, salting, etc., and nurturing the community of the People of God. It’s like a lumberjack, hurtling downstream among a million logs, just trying to help them not to jam up.
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