Wednesday, July 6, 2016
When and Where is the Kingdom?
With a tip of the cap and a wry smile to the SCLM for acknowledging in a press release yesterday what happened to the lectionary options at the 2015 General Convention, I'm using the daily Eucharistic lectionary from Lesser Feasts and Fasts for the texts in today's midweek healing Eucharist at St. John's. The gospel lesson appointed is Matthew 10:1-7, which recalls the calling and sending of the twelve disciples. The list of the names of the disciples usually gets our attention. Can you name all twelve? But it's the message he gave them that I want to focus on today.
Almost as soon as he called them, Jesus sent the twelve out, saying, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'" At least that's the way that the NRSV conveys it. The ESV portrays the kingdom with a different linguistic construction: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." But which one is it? Has the kingdom come near, or is the kingdom at hand?
The problem is that Greek has verb tenses that English struggles to convey. In English, we care primarily about when the action happened--past, present, or future. But in Greek the concern for time is only half of the issue (and arguably the less important part). Greek verbs also convey a sense of the kind of action that the verb represents. Is it punctiliar--happening in a confined moment of time? Is it continuous--happening in an ongoing way? Or is it completed yet effective--accomplished but still bearing results? That means that three different tenses of verbs can all reflect action in the past but with different implications for the present (e.g. aorist, imperfect, and perfect). Confused yet? Let's turn to the issue of the kingdom and see if it comes together.
In the case of Matthew 10:7, the Greek word in question is Ἤγγικεν, which is the active indicative third-person singular perfect form of the verb ἐγγίζω, which means "to make near." We get active indicative third-person singular ("He runs" or "She jumps") but the perfect tense throws us for a loop. The perfect tense is a verb with action that happened in the past but an effect or benefit or result that continues into the present. It's hard to convey both of those things at once, and the NRSV vs. ESV portrayals show that beautifully. The NRSV's "has come near" emphasizes more completely that the action occurred in the past (i.e., it's already happened) and the ESV's "is at hand" focuses on the present result (i.e., it's present right now). We really need both. To get the Greek sense of what Jesus is telling the disciples to proclaim about the kingdom, we would need to say, "The kingdom of heaven has come near and is at hand!" But admittedly that's a little cumbersome.
But why does this matter? Why do we care? Other than to indulge his linguistic fetish, why would a preacher subject a congregation to this grammar lesson? Because when and where the kingdom is matters. Notice that Jesus did not tell his disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven would be coming soon. Nor did he tell them to say that it came and went. Nor did he tell them to say that the kingdom had already come and gone. Jesus told the disciples to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near and is at hand. And, as Christians, that means that we aren't living in the past or the future but right here, right now, in the present.
As disciples of Jesus, we often speak of waiting for Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom, and, in a sense, that is correct. We are still looking for the coming of Christ. But I want to suggest to you that we aren't waiting for the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we are waiting for a future event--like the Cubs winning the World Series or Alabama winning its seventeenth national championship. Instead, I believe that we are waiting for the coming of the kingdom in the same way we wait for something that has already happened but is still being experienced today--like waiting for the Constitutionally enshrined truth that "all men are created equal" or the egalitarian proclamation from Galatians that in Christ "there is neither Jew or Greek...slave or free...male and female." Those things have already happened. Even the words themselves portray the fact that, on both fronts, our equality is a given. They are true even if we can't see them as fully as we might. And so we look and wait and watch, but, as we do so, we live more and more as though we know them to have already been accomplished--not as if they are yet to be achieved.
You are a disciple of Jesus. You have been given good news. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Don't undermine the power of the gospel by pretending that it isn't here yet. And don't shatter the good news of Jesus by believing that it has come and gone. It has come, and it is here. That should radically change the way you live. Live each day as if God is in charge. Insist that everything you do--with your time, with your voice, with you money, with your life--portrays that reality. We cannot accept anything that eclipses the fullness of God's kingdom. In imperceptible yet enormous ways, language shapes our identity. We have fallen asleep because our language cannot convey the urgent now of the kingdom. We must awaken and keep watch because the kingdom has come and is now.