I have been asked to talk to you about two themes: the kingdom of God, and the importance of education. My first instinct was to talk about how you should put your education at the service of the kingdom, and that is certainly true. But it occurs to me that if we first try to think about what the kingdom of God actually is, the connection we discover between the two themes will throw light on the true dignity and importance of what you are doing as both teachers and students.
What then is the kingdom of God? When we think of a kingdom we think first of a king and then perhaps imagine a certain territory ruled by that king. We may also think of a certain way of organizing that territory or of the laws governing the relationships between the people living there. In other words, we think of the kingdom of God as a place or as a particular political system. Certainly many of the people who first heard Jesus speak would have thought like this.
But it would be wrong to try to reduce the kingdom of God in this way. Even if the place or political system we have in mind were particularly just and peaceful, still the kingdom of God means more than that. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus offer an absolutely clear definition of the kingdom. Usually Jesus tells parables about the kingdom and of course parables can have multiple meanings.
The kingdom of God is bigger and wider and deeper than any human definition can ever fully capture.
Why does the Lord do this? Perhaps because the kingdom of God is bigger and wider and deeper than any human definition can ever fully capture. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the phrase meaning the kingdom of God is: basileia tou theou. The word basileia is derived from the word basileus meaning “the king.” A very literal rendering of the word basileia would be “that which belongs to, or pertains to the king.” That might denote, as the dictionary says, “a political or territorial unit ruled by a king or queen.” But we can also think of this thing that belongs to the king less in terms of a place and more in terms of the power and authority which the king possesses.
In one of my academic books, I wrote that the kingdom of God is the “self-communication of God as salvation and life.” God himself is present as the kingdom of God: where God rules and we are obedient to God and we accept the fellowship of Jesus, there is the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is God’s power and authority – giving life to us, which of course entails God being present to us. Perhaps, as Bruderhof pastor J. Heinrich Arnold puts it in his book Discipleship, we should say: “Jesus is the kingdom of God in his person. When he forgave sins – that was the kingdom of God. When he gathered his friends in unity – that was the kingdom of God. When he drove out demons and impure spirits – that was the kingdom of God. Every deed of his mission among men was the kingdom of God.”
I like both these definitions because they leave open the possibility of saying more. The kingdom of God is Jesus, or God’s self-communication – his presence – among us. Yet because God is infinite, anything we say to try to define the kingdom, even if it is true and meaningful will be inadequate, since we cannot set a limit on God.
The kingdom of God is both a gift and something we must strive after.
The New Testament teaches us that in talking of the kingdom of God, we must not lock ourselves in but must open ourselves to a greater reality. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells us: “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Yet in the Gospel of John at his trial, Jesus tells Pilate: “My kingdom is not of the world.” The kingdom of God, then, is present in the world and must therefore exercise transformative influence on our civil structures and institutions – yet at the same time, it is not of this world, and cannot therefore be exhaustively captured by these structures.
The kingdom of God is both a gift and something we must strive after. In Luke’s Gospel, the Lord exhorts us to seek the kingdom of God above all else. So he wishes us to engage our efforts and talents, but then he adds, “and he [God] will give you everything you need.” In seeking and striving, we will receive as gifts those things which we need for our personal or social life.
This paradox of the unearned gift, which is something to be achieved by the receiver, seems to me to be a perfect image of Christian education. God himself is our educator. Accordingly, Christian education is not a transaction. Teachers do not receive a salary in return for the cold imparting of a certain amount of information or for transmitting a certain set of skills. Rather, education is the entrusting of a gift from one generation to the next. The older generation’s accumulated culture, learning, and skills are given as an unearned gift to the younger. But this gift also carries a responsibility: the younger generation must make the gift a reality in their own lives. This, then, is the hallmark of Christian education: it is the giving of a gift that will be made into reality by the one who receives it.
Is this not precisely what the Lord does with the kingdom? “Seek the kingdom of God above all and he will give you everything you need.” Can we not say then that the task of educating is in many respects an image of the Lord’s kingdom? And can we not go further and say that this task of educating, of receiving an education, is actually a way of participating in the kingdom?
We are not just students, teachers, janitors, secretaries, catering or support staff – we are agents of the Lord’s kingdom.
Seen in this light, Christian education is not just a tiresome task, although it may at times have its difficulties. How grateful we should be for this wonderful opportunity! Does it not make us think again of our own dignity? We are not just students, teachers, janitors, secretaries, catering or support staff – we are agents of the Lord’s kingdom.
Of course, once we recognize our own dignity, then equally we must also recognize the dignity of souls around us. Shouldn’t that have a transformative effect on how we treat our classmates, teachers, and colleagues, since they are our brothers and sisters? If we realize what we are working for, then surely we will realize that only our best efforts are worthy of such a project. Must we not then renew our efforts?
While doing so, however, we must always remember whose is the kingdom that we’re working for. Often we try to rely entirely on our own efforts, and forget God. We can trust in him because he is never outdone in generosity.
Writing about education, Johann Christoph Arnold has remarked: “Children need time to breathe in and breathe out. They need time to play.” This is true also of the children of the kingdom of God. We need time to play. And we take time to pray. It is therefore good and fitting that you take time and moments of prayer, both communally and individually, to offer your day and work to the Lord. You may be sure that if you do this, he will find ways of blessing you – even if it does not always take the form you expect. Saint Paul tells us in the Letter to the Romans, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
It seems fitting to conclude with some final words from J. Heinrich Arnold’s Discipleship:
What a mighty thing it is to live for God’s kingdom! Do not shrink back. Live for it, look for it and you will find it is so powerful it will completely overwhelm you. It will solve every problem on earth. Everything will become new and each person will love the other in Christ. All separation brought about by death will be overcome and love will rule.
This article is based on a talk given on September 24, 2015 at the Mount Academy in Esopus, New York.