The Coming of the Kingdom

Given at the opening of 'The Journey' exhibition in St. Mary’s in the Lace Market, Nottingham, Dec 12, 1999

  Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me’.

These words taken from today’s Gospel are a coded message for his disciples to take back to John. They recall key passages in Isaiah and tell John that the One for whom he was herald was indeed Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven was very close. Israel’s exile was nearly over and Yahweh was returning to Zion to be among his people. Their sins having been forgiven his law would now be written in their hearts. And that, of course, was the Good News. It calls up visions of peace, prosperity and friendship between the people of God and a happy harmony in Creation with the wolf lying down with the lamb and children playing safely by the vipers nest. Now that is good news.

However two thousand brutal years later at the end of the most violent and cruel century in man’s history are we so confident that that Kingdom is so close?   Most Christians now think in terms of the Second Coming, Jesus coming in glory to wrap up of history and inaugurate a future in Heaven. This present vale of tears is merely an existence to be endured in expectation of a salvation in a life after death. But that is not what John understood when his disciples returned. Its not what the poor, oppressed and marginalised Jews were hearing. They were hearing the message that their ordeal was nearly over. God was returning to be with his people. Its pretty clear that Jesus’ own disciples were expecting God’s Kingdom to arrive at any moment. Even after Christ’s death and resurrection the disciples were far from clear as to what to expect as they were sent out to the world to proclaim that Good News. But they could say with Jesus; ‘The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear…’ for that really was happening as they told the Good News of the Coming of the Kingdom to the poor. I think we are still confused. If Jesus really has overcome the devil, the devil does not seem aware of that fact; and the happy vision of peace, prosperity and harmony in a God centred creation seems a dream of the most wild imaginings. Have we been suckered by the big lie. A big lie so like that  which has been proffered to an oppressed poor by so many despots in recent years? Rampant science would certainly make the claim that our faith is misguided, irrational and foolish. Just five weeks ago on BBC’s Newsnight a confident commercial scientist claimed that he and his team were on the threshold of creating life thus arrogating the powers we have claimed exclusively as God’s. I suspect a patent is in prospect! The claim that such scientists and those who put their faith in human reason make, is that it is they who will deliver the Kingdom so what need have we of God. By contrast, while contemporary Western post-modernist culture and certainly, so called mainstream, Art, has little patience with our pathetic bleatings of faith. These same forces foresee a future that is fragmenting, bleak and ultimately hopeless. A future in which all we can do is make the best fist of it we can with a fevered search for pleasure and excitement.  So if and when our neighbours, like John the Baptist, send to ask who we are, what, in all seriousness, are we to reply? I must recognise the importance of the question when it is asked by those who are poor, oppressed and marginalised in our society. When asked by Street Children, say, in countries nominally Christian the question is doubly urgent.

It is the question that lies at the heart of ‘The Journey’ and which I continue to explore in my current project, a cycle of paintings based on the gospel of St. Matthew. I think it is a question to which we each of us have to find our own answer if we are to have any credibility.    What is the Good News that we can honestly and unreservedly proffer to the poor?    I believe, whatever the future and the Second Coming may hold, it is in the here and now that we must, like Jesus, find the roots of our answers and that does not make for comfortable conversation or complacent discourse.

As it was for the prophets so is it for me. At the centre of the Good News is the personalisation of the Law, God’s law, which will be written into our human hearts. And at the centre of that is the God given confidence that He is there in our hearts alive, immediate and in-forming those hearts, our minds and our souls. Living from that inner reality and energised by His presence the world will inevitably change and the promises made so long ago will come about. It is there where the victory of light over darkness takes place. It is there where we fall into the Kingdom. But, quite rightly people will still ask; ‘But you’ve had two thousand years. Where are the fruit of that in-dwelling God? Look around you at the pain and the suffering…..’ I can only reply, ‘Yes I know, I know….’

One of the great privileges we enjoy as Carol and I travel round the country with ‘The Journey’ is meeting so many in whom shines the light of Christ’s countenance, good people who really do seem to have God’s law written in their hearts in their commitment to God’s poor. And though our meetings are brief; praying together, those meetings are often deep and moving. It is in those energising encounters with others, Christian or otherwise, we are reassured that the Kingdom is not a lie. Our hope is not in vain for we recognise in them the presence of the Kingdom as Christ did as ‘seeing the crowds he went up the hill’ to give his sermon of the mount to his disciples. He had seen them in the crowds that had thronged around him seeking healing, crying out for his love; the poor in spirit, the meek, those grieving for the loss of loved ones, those eager for justice and God centred harmony in the universe, the men and women filled with compassion and mercy for their neighbours, the child-like fresh faced ones who saw the good, the god in their fellows and in creation at large, those who work with such commitment to heal the wounds of division and hatred and above all those who suffer ridicule, abuse and injustice because of their earnest endeavour to do what is right. These are the people of the kingdom, in whom the Kingdom resides, the blessed ones sure in God’s love.  But like him we are learning that we need to be still, to look and to listen; quietly to see and experience that Kingdom. It is not necessarily in the clothes of Church or in the badges of Christian belief that we have found it. It is in people whose courage in adversity, commitment to others in need, open hearts and simplicity of spirit we have seen the face of Christ. It is a Kingdom that shuns the limelight, that is found in secret places.  It was no accident that Jesus, Son of God chose the obscurity of an outhouse for his birth, poor and historically invisible labourers for his human parents. The message is clear, the Kingdom was never meant to have a high profile, it was never meant to be obvious to the casual observer. It was never intended that it should make shining sense to a world fed on spectacle, glamour and greed.

But for all that it does spill over into our universe, into all creation. Those with eyes to see can see the blazing countenance of God all round them. We can fall into a passionate love affair with our fellow creatures, brother sun and sister moon, our siblings the stars, the mountains, rivers and great oceans. We can rejoice in the embrace trees and wild flowers. Sing in delight in all living things. There is a wholeness to this Kingdom which thrills yet which we can only envision, make our own, by letting it happen in us, by letting God write it into our hearts. It is a Kingdom we stumble into, that takes us by surprise and I thank God for it.

  Peter Clare,