At the start of Lent, a season that calls us to the very heart of the Christian story, it makes sense that we begin with the cornerstone of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: the gospel. While many have articulated versions of the gospel that include ideas about substitutionary atonement and the depravity of humanity, in this week’s reading from Mark we are given an opportunity to hear the gospel as Jesus preached it, and it’s much simpler than most of us have ever learned. The gospel that Jesus actually preached is the proclamation that the kingdom of God is being manifest in the world and to participate in it, we must “repent” and “believe” in that good news.
While they disagree as to the degree, most Biblical scholars say that when Jesus speaks of the kingdom, He’s not simply talking about some divine reality that He expects to emerge from the heaven’s at some point in the future but, rather, He wants His disciples to imagine what the world might look like if God were on the throne instead of Caesar; in other words, imagine the kingdom of God here and now. So, the invitation was to begin working to make that vision a manifest reality in the world, as the way that this was accomplished was through “repenting” and “believing.”
The essence is this – God’s full presence is here – in this instant, right where we are. It’s in our midst. It is not something off in another place, or in a later time (as in, after our death) – it is here and now, ‘at hand’. The fullness of Divine Life, and our abiding union with God, is 100% available right now. But somehow, we don’t experience life this way.
In response to this gap between the reality of God’s 100% availability and our inability to perceive this presence, Jesus’ central teaching also contains a call to ‘repentance’. The Greek word metanoia is typically translated as ‘repent’ in the Gospels. It has two parts. First the word meta- which comes from the same root that we now use in the word metabolism (a study across all the processes in the body) or metaphysics (physics beyond ordinary physics). We often take the word to mean a change or turn from a damaging action or belief and toward a better way. The word meta– does mean ‘change’, but it also means ‘expansion’. Often when we hear the word ‘repent’ we just think about feeling sorrow and trying to do things differently with our will. But the word actually means a deepening or expansion, an opening up to something that’s at a greater level of reality. That’s the meta-.
The second part of the word is –noia, which is derived from the Greek word nous. Nous can be translated as awareness or mind or consciousness. Nous is the part of ourselves that sees things spiritually. The well-known praise hymn gets at this idea with the words, “Open the eyes of the heart.”
This word that Jesus uses, metanoia, that is often translated as ‘repent’ has this more nuanced meaning of “transform or expand the eyes of your heart.” At the heart of the gospel is the call to change the way we see the world, to expand beyond our rigid boundaries and beliefs and begin to see things in a new way. Open up! There’s this other reality – the realm of God that is always here in every moment. But we don’t normally see it. We don’t attend to it with our ordinary awareness or consciousness.
But, before we go any further, we should be clear as to what we mean by the kingdom of God. To start, I want to say a few words about what that kingdom is not.
The kingdom of God is not being born again. Now, don’t get me wrong. Jesus certainly talks about forgiveness and the need to be born again, and these things are vital – a large focus of the season of Lent. But the new birth is the entryway into God’s kingdom. Jesus talks about God’s kingdom far more than He talks about what we call “salvation.” In the four Gospels Jesus uses the words “salvation” or “saved” 23 times. Yet Jesus mentions God’s kingdom nearly 120 times! This does not mean that being born-again is unimportant, no! In John chapter 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that we cannot not enter the kingdom of God unless we are born again. So the new birth in Christ is our entryway into God’s kingdom. But, open up, it is not the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is not heaven. Second of all we should not confuse the kingdom of God with heaven. God’s kingdom includes heaven, of course, but God’s kingdom is so much larger. Remember: the kingdom of God is anywhere that God’s will is being done God’s way. It’s where the king has dominion. That’s how we get the word, “kingdom:” it’s a combination of the two words, king and dominion. So it’s true that God rules in Heaven, but He also rules in the hearts of His people. This is an important distinction, because if we think “the kingdom of God” means only “Heaven,” we will think – as I mentioned earlier – that everything Jesus said how about the gospel of the kingdom is for some future time after we die. But Jesus said that God’s kingdom is breaking into the here and now, or at least beginning to, so the kingdom is more than Heaven.
The kingdom of God is not the Church. Finally, the kingdom of God is not the same thing as the church. It’s true that the Bible describes the Church as “the bride of Christ.” And the Church has a very special place in God’s heart. But sadly there are many churches were God’s will is not done God’s way. That’s okay: churches are filled with imperfect people and the Church is where imperfect people worship God together. But God’s kingdom is so much bigger than the Church, so the kingdom is more than the Church.
The Kingdom of God is: Perhaps the best way to understand the kingdom of God is the passage given to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:17 it says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Righteousness – right relationship with God. The good news is that this is not on us. Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Remember you cannot even begin to see the kingdom of god unless you are born again.
Peace – a settlement in your soul to know that God has everything in control. His kingdom brings the peace and order of Heaven into our everyday lives. Who doesn’t want peace? But the way to peace, real peace, is new birth in Jesus Christ. It’s the starting point. The reason why the good news is better than you first thought it was is that the new birth opens the possibility of living in God’s kingdom here and now, as well as after we die and go to heaven.
Joy in the Holy Spirit – 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 “For our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” When you have a right relationship with God and you feel the peace in your heart then it is not hard to experience the joy of the Holy Spirit.
So, Jesus’ call is to transformation, which is not the same thing as the command to try harder. It’s not the instruction to take one set of thoughts and ideas and replace them with a new set of thoughts and ideas. It’s actually about moving into a level of perception that is different from our ordinary mind, so that we can be open to the reality of the presence of God that is already here at every moment. We can cross-reference this teaching with other teachings of Jesus. When someone asks Him about the kingdom of God in Luke 17:20-21, and Jesus says, “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 in your midst.”
The way that Jesus invites us to respond to the news that there is a better, more righteous way to live and be in the world is to expand our thinking and to believe in the possibility of the more just and generous world that He demonstrates in His life and ministry. It all begins with a willingness to change our perspective, to see things differently, which is a sacrifice that requires great humility; it means putting others ahead of ourselves. True repentance means humbling ourselves to embrace a posture of empathy, a posture of listening, a posture of exploration, and a willingness to change the way we think, act, and live based on what we learn.
God’s kingdom is not owned by any one culture, or any one denomination. God’s kingdom exists wherever Jesus, the King, has dominion in the hearts and minds and lives of His followers. It means that the kingdom of God can sneak in anywhere and can operate in any environment. And that’s good news!
As we begin Lent, it is essential that all of us begin with a posture of repentance – the sacrificial posture of understanding that our perspective is finite and that God is so much bigger than our singular worldview or belief.