The Kingdom of God


I recently found a used copy of Thomas Sheehan's book The First Coming, which was published in 1986. Sheehan was a Loyola professor at the time he wrote the book; he now teaches at Stanford, and, from what I can tell, podcasts of some of his classes are available for free on the internet. Sheehan's book briefly introduces the reader to the issues and history of research into the historical Jesus, and then goes on to offer his interpretation of Jesus's life, message, and death, along with the subsequent development of Christianity among his followers after he died.

I particularly liked his interpretation of Jesus's doctrine of the Kingdom of God. Sheehan depicts the Kingdom of God as having everything to do with God's immanence. God is not just some remote, indifferent transcendent being, but rather is everywhere among us, according to Jesus:

This immediate presence of God as a loving Father is what Jesus meant by the "kingdom." The notion of the kingdom of God (or in Matthew's Gospel, the kingdom of "heaven") simply spells out Jesus' experience of the Father's loving presence that is captured in the word "Abba." As Jesus preached it, the kingdom of God had nothing to do with the fanciful geopolitics of the apocalyptists and messianists--a kingdom up above or up ahead--or with the juridical, hierarchical Church that the Roman Catholics used to find in the phrase. Nor did the term primarily connote territory, spiritual or otherwise. rather, it meant God's act of reigning, and this meant--here lay the revolutionary force of Jesus' message--that God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people. The reign of God meant the incarnation of God.

This entirely human orientation of the Father--the loving, incarnate presence of a heretofore distant Sovereign--marked the radical newness of Jesus' message of God's reign. The kingdom was not something separate from God, like a spiritual welfare state that a benign heavenly monarch might set up for his faithful subjects. Nor was it any form of religion. The kingdom of God was the Father himself given over to his people. It was a new order of things in which God threw in his lot irrevocably with human beings and chose relatedness to them as the only definition of himself. From now on, God was one with mankind...

The radicalness of Jesus' message consisted in its implied proclamation of the end of religion, taken as the bond between two separate and incommensurate entities called "God" and "man." That is, Jesus destroyed the notion of "God-in-himself" and put in its place the experience of "God-with-mankind." Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus' doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate. He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but here...

Jesus' message of the kingdom radically redefined the traditional notions of grace and salvation and made them mean nothing other than this event of God-with-man. Salvation was no longer to be understood as the forgiving of a debt or as the reward for being good. Nor was it a supernatural supplement added on to what human beings are, some kind of ontological elevation to a higher state. All such metaphysical doctrines are forms of religion, which Jesus brought to an end. His proclamation marked the death of religion and religion's God and heralded the beginning of the postreligious experience: the abdication of "God" in favor of his hidden presence among human beings. (p. 60-62)
Sheehan goes on to describe when the Kingdom of God would be found:
If we ask about the timing of this eschatological event, that is, when God's kingdom was supposed to arrive, we are faced with an apparent contradiction. According to what Jesus preached, the reign-of-God-with-man at one and the same time had already arrived in the present and yet was still to come in the future. This paradox of the simultaneous presence and futurity of God's kingdom brings us to the core of Jesus' message: the eschatalogical present-future....

The uniqueness of Jesus' message lay in his conviction that in some way the future kingdom had already dawned and that the celebration could begin. The Baptist before him had preached an impending final judgment, but Jesus went him twice better: not judgment, but a gift, in fact the gift of God himself; and not just the impending right here and now. God had already started to reign among men and women. (p. 65)
This explains, I think, why Jesus partied so much. He understood the Kingdom of God as cause for celebration. We had been given a gift, he was telling us--the gift of God among us--and for this he was forever grateful and filled with joy. His life, unlike that of his mentor John the Baptist, was thus full of celebration. He ate and drank with others, and he invited everyone to the party--including those famous prostitutes and tax collectors. No wonder people were drawn to him. His intimacy with God must have been awe-inspiring, and his joy must have been infectious.

The notion that the Kingdom of God is both a present and a future event has important consequences. The present nature of God's Kingdom means that it is available to us now. The future nature of God's Kingdom means that it cannot fulfill its promise, it cannot realize its full potential, until we really do allow the Kingdom into our lives, which means, among other things, building an inclusive world of compassion and justice.