June 14, 2020
by Andrea Hollingsworth, PhD, guest preacher
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.
Good morning! It is a joy and honor to be worshipping with you today. “Thank you!” to everyone on staff, especially Pastor Sara, for offering me the opportunity to preach. And to all the members, regular attenders, and visitors listening online this morning: I so wish I could see your faces, hear your voices, and somehow be with you in this moment, as we pray and seek amidst such a wrenching time.
Since George Floyd’s murder several weeks ago, I’ve felt everything from intense grief and anger, to intense hope and gratitude. The outpouring of voices and bodies decrying something at once so unsurprising and yet unacceptable has been awe-inspiring. Seeing the burned buildings and destroyed property has been, for me, deeply heartbreaking and yet – what’s the word – perhaps a bit of a relief? It’s as if the chronically ill “body” of America manifested a sudden symptom that made clear exactly the severity and contours of the disease of racial injustice. The site of that symptomatic manifestation happened to be our city. There’s something both horrific and oddly hopeful about being clear on how sick we, as a people, actually are. I hope my words today will, even if indirectly, bring encouragement to all of us to keep courageously walking toward healing in the arena of race relations.
Let me “let you in” on my plan for the next twenty minutes. I’ve been told that the next sermon series on the horizon here at Colonial is on the Kingdom of God. So as a way of hearkening in that direction, for today’s scripture text, I chose one of my favorite passages on the Kingdom of God. It’s the one where Jesus utters those well-known words: “the Kingdom of God is within you.”
I’m going to use this simple saying of Jesus as an opportunity to talk about how I believe God’s presence is sometimes best discerned as possibility—the potential that’s there within us and around us for something better. And this despite the fact that, on the face of it, things look kind of bad, or even dire.
A Bit About Me.
But before I dive into all that, I want to acknowledge the fact that most of you don’t know me. Some of you might be wondering who I am. What I stand for. Why I get up in the morning. What some of my basic beliefs about God, people, and the world are. Of course, I can’t cover all of that right now. But as a way of starting to introduce myself to you, let me tell you, bullet-point style, some of the convictions that matter the most to me.
Those are some of the things that forty years of living (with a theology degree thrown in there) have taught me. Now that you know me a little bit better, let me return to this saying of Jesus that I want us to consider today: “The kingdom of God is within you” (some translations say “among you”). What did Jesus mean? And what encouragement or inspiration can these words offer you today?
Whenever we’re trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said something, it’s helpful to read the stuff that comes before and after whatever it is he said. And in Luke 17, right before Jesus says the Kingdom of God isn’t here or there, it’s within, there’s this fascinating story about ten lepers.
The lepers approach Jesus for healing (keeping their “social distance,” of course). But Jesus doesn’t heal them straight away. Rather, he tells them to do something strange. He tells them to go away. He tells them to walk, of all places, to the temple priests, and show themselves to them.
This was pretty radical for two reasons. First, lepers were considered ritually unclean because of their skin condition, and were therefore shunned from holy people and places, like the temple and its priests. Second, one of leprosy’s main symptoms is nerve damage and muscle weakness in the feet. Walking, for someone with this affliction, is a painful and dangerous affair (think cuts, bumps, trips, falls). When Jesus told the lepers to walk away from him, to go to the priests, he was saying, essentially: “I know you’re not healed, I know there’s a lot of pain, but go! Together, as a group, in solidarity, put one foot in front of the other, in a direction society and culture tells you not to go, and show yourselves, boldly, to the people who have called you “unclean.” Let them see you. I know it hurts. I know you risk further ostracization and injury and rejection. There are no guarantees of healing or justice. But go anyway.”
The passage then tells us that they did as Jesus said. And as they went, they were “made clean” — healed. In the midst of their courageous steps, one after another, a miracle occurred.
Do you think one of them, or more, stumbled and fell along the way? Do you think a comrade helped him up, and said, “Keep walking, man.” Keep marching. Keep going in this scandalous direction with me—toward the thing we’re barred from, toward the source of our ostracism. Our steps are healing us, and they’re helping to heal the world.
As they walked, the possibility of the Kingdom of God became real, was actualized in their midst.
Get that? Jesus did not heal them on the spot. When all was still illness, pain, social ostracism, and desperation, they were told to go, to get moving, to put one foot in front of the other.
And then comes the passage I chose for us to consider today. Right after this story, we hear Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn’t something you can point out. It’s within (or among) you.
The implication here, I believe, is that the reality of God’s redemption is always inside of you and all around you–as a possibility. In concert with the Holy Spirit, we act in faith. We move our sickly limbs, usually in the face of some sort of risk or absurdity – and then, incredibly, things begin to happen. Things that bring about healing and renewal. Kingdom things.
One of the fascinating things about Jesus’ constant talk about the Kingdom of God is how utterly absurd it must have seemed to those around him.
God’s reign-God’s best for you, us, and the world- is here and now! It’s inside of you! It’s ahead of us! It’s about to appear! Jesus was always saying things like this. Such hope in these pronouncements, right?
But his hearers, the Jewish people, must have been so terribly perplexed.
You see, Jesus’ world was a world in which sick people (like lepers) were shunned. It was a world in which women were the property of men. It was a world in which the Jewish homeland was an occupied, colonized territory under Roman imperial control. It was a world in which many suffered crushing poverty, with accompanying illness, infant mortality, and short life expectancy. Add to these socio-economic difficulties just the normal aches and pains of life. People making mistakes, and hurting others, and needing forgiveness and mercy, but not finding it anywhere. People searching for answers to the most important questions of the human heart (“what is eternal life?”) but not finding them anywhere. People lost. People abandoned. People forgotten. People crushed by grief, abuse, physical ailments, mental illness, and relational alienation.
Where in God’s name was this holy reality, this Kingdom, to which Jesus was always pointing? Where was this redeemed world he was convinced was in and around each and every person he encountered?
When I was in the thick of my academic theological career, one of my specialties was medieval Christian spiritual writers, or “mystics.” Nicholas of Cusa—a fifteenth century Christian writer and church leader—was one of my favorites. As a mystic, Nicholas believed the human mind isn’t able to grasp God’s hugeness and mystery. So, in his efforts to talk about God, he built upon all the beautiful symbols we find in the Bible. But he also came up with a few symbols of his own.
One of his most fascinating ideas was the notion that God is “absolute possibility” (posse ipsum, in Latin). This means he believed God is the potency within all things to grow, change, transform, be redeemed. He saw the God of the Possible in everything from the growth of plants, to the cycles of the stars, to the movements for reform in the Catholic church, to the longings of the human heart for wisdom, justice, and love.
There is a movement, a dynamism, in this idea. It’s not that God “is” or “is not,” it’s that God happens. In fact, God is happening, right now, in concert with the desires and actions of creatures (most of all, us). God is a holiness that “unfolds” within us and around us, as we act. As we seek. As we mourn. As we speak. As we love.
One step in front of the other.
Raising our voices.
Even though it hurts.
Even though something better isn’t guaranteed.
Spirit-powered action is the Kingdom of God, the very presence and power of God, unfolding in our midst.
Today I’ve suggested to you that the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus spoke so much, isn’t something that’s given, obvious. It’s not just “there.” It is, rather, an ever-present possibility within us and around us. An invitation. We’re always being called to actualize this holy possibility, with the help of the Spirit of Life.
So. Where’s the possibility for you? What sacred healing, or forgiveness, or justice-bringing, lies within you and around you as something yet-to-be actualized? Something you feel like you’re being asked to walk out? The call may be personal or
political. (Or, as is often the case, both simultaneously.) Let me throw out some “possibilities,” as it were:
I could go on. My point is that the on-ramps for the manifestation of holy possibility in this historical moment are, actually, endless.
Not many of us have leprosy. However, all of us are being called to walk out our faith, to make actual God’s Kingdom, one step at a time. And this, in the midst of an incredibly painful and ambiguous world. Especially here. Especially now.
It has maybe never been more urgent for all of us to find the courage to live into the Kingdom that’s within us and around us. If we will just pay attention, the God of the Possible is there at every step, providing us with the strength and grace to live into a more just and beautiful reality.