At Prestbury Methodist Church, we are following Trevor Hudson’s book Signposts to Spirituality, in our preaching. What follows is based on chapter three, ‘Receiving the kingdom’, which I was privileged lead last week.
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 19; Mark 1:14-22
Let’s remind ourselves what is meant by spirituality, because a host of what might loosely be termed new-age writing tends to give spirituality a bad reputation, especially for your standard off-the-shelf Methodist.
What it’s not
The spirituality that Trevor speaks about is not an other-worldly experience. It is not an escape from the realities of washing dishes, getting kids to school, writing exams or struggling through another work week. It is not an escape from the wounds of suffering and oppression. New Testament spirituality is a deliberate process of shaping what we believe and think and do so that our everyday lives, the very routines and painful experiences we face, begin to reflect more and more clearly the person of Jesus Christ.
In other words, spirituality is simply growing as a Christian — becoming more like Jesus in everything we do, even our thoughts and our attitudes.
Trevor starts in chapter one with ‘Drawing a picture of God’. Because how we understand God, our picture of God, shapes the way we live our lives.
And in chapter two we learned about ‘Developing a Christian memory’. We were encouraged to recognise and remember God’s interaction with his creation, his interventions in our lives and, most especially, his intervention in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The third signpost for us is ‘Receiving the kingdom’.
The proclamation of Jesus, the focus of his ministry, was as we read in Mark 1:14, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ The kingdom of God is available; the kingdom of God is here.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have a choice (and the budget) to live anywhere in the world. Where would you go? Where would you definitely not go? (We had a discussion in the pews and a chance to feed back.)
Our choice of where to go and where not to go is based on our understanding of a particular country — its way of life, its people and perhaps its educational, health and legal systems. Of course we may be wrong. We might choose or reject a country on the basis of a biased view of that country.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
In the same way, our understanding of God’s kingdom is going to be shaped by our understanding of God, our picture of God. That’s why it is so important (as Trevor keeps reminding us) to spend time with the Jesus of the gospels, because Jesus didn’t simply describe the kingdom, he lived it out and he demonstrated God’s kingdom at work.
And (as Trevor says) Jesus describes God ‘as an infinitely caring father who runs down the road to welcome home a wayward child with a hug. Then he showers on the boy some significant gifts, plans a welcome-home party and accepts him back into the family home. This is the nature of the King to whom this kingdom belongs.’ It’s a picture we need to take very seriously.
Not far away
But the kingdom of God isn’t a far-away place — some Care Bear land of rainbows and butterflies. Jesus didn’t leave the kingdom of God in order to come down to earth. He lived constantly in the kingdom of God; he brought the kingdom of God into every situation he encountered.
When Jesus healed the sick, there was the kingdom of God. When he ate with sinners and outcasts, when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, when he forgave a sinner or touched a leper, there was the kingdom of God. When he faced his fears in the garden of Gethsemane, and as he hung on the cross to die, there was the kingdom of God; even there, the loving will of the Father reigned.
Anywhere but here?
Sometimes in our anguish, our struggles and our desperate situations, we dream of the kingdom of God as ‘anywhere but here’. God is going to come and rescue us from our hell on earth and transport us into his kingdom of peace and quiet, of goodness and gentleness, of freedom and joy.
But that’s not the kingdom of God that Jesus lives out in the gospels. There we find Jesus sending those he heals back into their communities. And he says to the forgiven, go and sin no more — go and live your new life, your kingdom life, in your own community, within your family.
The kingdom life is not an escape; it’s the discovery of a new way to live our lives. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to demonstrate.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS HERE
And Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand; it’s available, it’s here; it’s for you and for me to enjoy, to live and to offer to others. How do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?
Outward situation & history
Well, we don’t start the kingdom life because our outward situation has changed. We don’t win the lotto or win a makeover. We don’t even get to wipe the slate clean and start again as if none of the bad stuff had ever happened. Even our history remains in place. We are who we have become. The bad things and the good that have shaped our lives are still there. They never go away.
I wake up every day and I remember how far away my children and grandchildren are. And whenever I think of them, countless times a day, I think of my failures that led to them being so far away. Those failures and my memory of them will never disappear. They are part of who I am, who I have become, and how I live my life. And those failures remain part of their lives, too, whatever they make of them. They don’t go away.
But by God’s grace they become part of kingdom architecture — or, to use another metaphor, compost in which healing and growth takes place.
So, if the scenery doesn’t change, if our history doesn’t change, if we are still stuck in our difficult (and for some, desperate) situations, how do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?
Jesus said, simply, ‘Repent and believe the good news.’
To repent is literally to turn around. For the prodigal son, it meant turning away from the life he had chosen and physically returning to the home he had left. But for Zacchaeus it meant simply putting himself in a place where he could be found (in his case, up a sycamore tree). For the alcoholic it is a recognition that I cannot do it on my own.
Just the beginning
We live in a messed up world full of pain and suffering, of hurt and grief, of hatefulness, greed and destruction. Repentance accepts that that is not going to change suddenly, but that what can change is how we live in the world; how we respond to its challenges; the choices we make before we speak or act. Repentance is a choice. We choose to be different. Repentance is the first step, the choice to allow God in. Repentance says, ‘That’s the journey I want to be on.’
Repentance is not the end of the journey, just the beginning. None of us is here because we have perfected the art of sinlessness or achieved perfect peace. We are, all of us, still on the journey, however long we have been Christ followers.
And it’s not a once-off thing. Repentance is something we do whenever we discover within us a destructive, hurtful way of life; something we are clinging to that keeps us from living fully in the Kingdom; responses that hurt others and rob them of peace.
‘Repent,’ Jesus says. ‘Repent and believe the good news.’
To believe is not some vague new-age proclamation that one reads on posters and Facebook pages: ‘Just believe and all will be well.’ What you are supposed to believe is never explained. Just believe.
Something particular about Jesus
No! For this spiritual journey, to believe means to believe something particular about Jesus. It means that we believe what the disciples came to believe and what they tell us in the gospels about Jesus. We believe that Jesus died for us and that he rose again. We believe that he is Saviour, Lord, God with us; that he is the way, the truth and the life.
To believe also means, as Trevor puts it, ‘to trust oneself to the crucified and risen Christ.’ It means letting go; daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live.
That might sound pretty scary if you’ve never done it before. It is very difficult to let go, to hand your life over to an ‘unknown God’, to a Jesus you have only just met. But it is equally difficult for those of us who have known Jesus, and have been on this journey, for a long time.
A comfortable relationship with our Jesus
We have settled in to a comfortable relationship with our Jesus over many years. Perhaps he isn’t quite the Jesus of the gospels. Perhaps our Jesus isn’t quite so clear about right and wrong; perhaps our Jesus is okay with just looking after parts of our lives. And he doesn’t interfere with those things we would rather not talk about; things we cling on to, or things we are so ashamed of we simply cannot face them and dare not bring them into the open.
No, daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live is not easy for any of us. But let me say again our repentance and belief, our turning around and our commitment to the Jesus of the gospels, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey with Jesus as he helps us face the darkness of the world and the darkness within us — the demons we have allowed to control us. For some it will be a painful struggle to disentangle and transfer our allegiance fully to Jesus. But it is a journey towards the light, and a journey alongside One who loves us more than life itself.
The first step is to repent and to believe: to make that decision to turn away and to begin the journey with Jesus.
I want to invite you to share in an exercise Trevor Hudson describes. He speaks about our closed fists representing our holding on to our lives and our lifestyles; our unwillingness to let go of sin and let go of control. And he invites us to open our hands in repentance and belief.
So I invite you, if you would like to do so to clench your fists, and become aware of those areas or aspects of your life, those relationships or actions or beliefs, you have been holding onto, unwilling or unable to relinquish control; unwilling or unable to let God in.
As you become aware, so open one hand in repentance, a conscious decision to turn away from those things, to surrender them to God’s control and plans.
Then open the other hand in an expression of belief. It may be a confident and bold belief; it may be a hesitant, uncertain belief. But it is belief in the risen Christ who died for these very things, to bring freedom and peace and the power to begin a new life.
By these simple actions, we begin a new journey. For some, it’s the first step into the kingdom of God; but for many we have opened an area of our lives to the kingdom that has been closed for too long.
But remember, my friends, it’s only the beginning; it is an appeal to the Father who has been waiting, longing for us. He has been ready and waiting with the fatted calf and the party clothes. And he says to you and to me tonight, ‘Welcome home!’
Followed by a prayer: Receiving the kingdom: a prayer