“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We repeat it every Sunday. It is so commonplace for Christians that its profound meaning slips right past us. We ask for the Kingdom of Heaven to come, here, now, scarcely realizing what we have prayed for.
For the One who gave us the prayer it had enormous meaning. The Kingdom is at hand, He declared to His followers. He told them stories to describe it — a lost coin, a pearl of great price, a farmer scattering seed, a wedding feast, a mustard seed. He told them this Kingdom would be full of surprises, upside-down from the way they normally think — the first will be last, the greatest will be least, the poor will be favored over the rich, the servant will be greater than the master. It seemed like this Kingdom was all He talked about. And it was all so confusing to His close friends. His directions were extreme (like giving away your second coat and forgiving your offender seventy times seven) and His stories were often difficult to decipher.
For some reason He left without clarifying things for them, or us. He left us with the prayer and some parables, and the assurance that if we lived the way He told us to (loving one another) that the Spirit He was sending would lead us into all truth. So here we are, still trying to figure out the meaning of the Kingdom that He introduced.
I tried to follow that Spirit when I left my business career and moved into the inner-city to live among the poor. I came with a ready-made package of Good News, ready to offer it in word or deed or both to any needy soul who was receptive. That’s when I began to discover just how surprising the Kingdom really is. Among the destitute I observed faith to believe God for their daily bread — faith like I had never had to exercise. Among those who had only enough food to last them a day I saw a willingness to share with those who had even less. I had come to bring the light of the Gospel into the darkness of the ghetto only to find that the greater darkness was not in the ghetto but within me. A penetrating light exposed in me an anemic faith supported by ample physical securities, a self-centeredness neatly camouflaged behind a sacrificial servant image, a spiritual pride wrapped in graciousness. The Kingdom had found me!
I began to suspect then that the Kingdom was not something I was going to “bring about” or recruit people into but rather it was something more elusive, something that had to be discovered — again and again. Like when I was talking with Raymond — poor, broken, homeless, alcoholic Raymond — who showed up from time to time at our Wednesday noon lunches. He was helping me mop some tar over a leak in the church roof, hot, messy work that he had considerable experience in. Feeling grateful for the job and happy about the few dollars it would put into his pocket, he said in all seriousness: “Bob, I ain’t no Christian but I love my Jesus.” Now what do you do with that? Raymond was hardly a living example of the victorious Christian life, anyone who could smell would attest to that. Half the time he slept on a bench in the park, picked up odd jobs when he was sober enough, seldom shaved his matted salt-and-pepper beard. His life was ensnared in an unending spiral of bad choices - permanently ensnared, it would seem. What could he possibly know of Jesus?
As I listened to his ramblings, it became clearer. Who but Jesus could he talk to on those long, shivering nights alone in the park? Who stayed with him when others kept their distance and he had only the warmth of his bottle for comfort? Who helped him find the next meal, the next job? Who was there when he was rousted by the police, pushed into the back of a cruiser, booked into the city jail for vagrancy? No family to pay bail, no friends to turn to, alone in his pillar-to-post existence — except for Jesus. Now there was a true friend! “I ain’t no Christian...” he said it again, just couldn‛t live the life. But whatever would he do without the faithful companionship of his Jesus?
Raymond, wasted, foggy-minded old Raymond with one eye gouged out, teaching me about Jesus! Go figure. I never realized that Jesus hung around with Raymond’s kind, let alone answered their prayers. I always thought Jesus liked good witnesses, people a bit more like, well, me. Devout people, upright. Then again, I remembered what He said about the righteous guy giving a glowing testimony in the front of the temple and the poor sinner in the back who beat on his chest and begged for mercy. Hmm. Maybe Raymond had some insight there that had escaped me. The Kingdom seems so full of surprises. And elusive.
Raymond and a host of other unlikely messengers have largely dismantled my well defined conception of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not, as I had presumed, for the well-heeled but the bedraggled — it’s real hard for achievers to get in, Jesus said. The respectable ones end up not coming to the Kingdom wedding feast, but the social outcasts are welcomed in. Raymond at the wedding feast?! So where does that leave me? Taken a-back. Humbled. Not quite so confident of my buttoned-down, well-rehearsed answers. One thing is for certain. On Sunday mornings when I stand and pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” I no longer experience it as the confident rhetoric of the prosperous church triumphant but rather a plea that I might catch glimpses of this mysterious spiritual Kingdom and be transformed by it.