A Kingdom “Not of this World”

The Gospels announce the Kingdom of God such that all worldly kingdoms, empires, and nations are brought down. This effects a total change of perspective, a world-inversion. Its primary concern is to make our relation to God primary above all things—over all earthly dominion, status, legacy, worth and power. This is the central Gospel motif, “What does it matter to gain the world if you lose your soul?” The question provokes a remembrance of what was lost in the Fall–personal intimacy with the Ultimate–and points toward its recovery.

To save one’s soul is to have one’s “portion” BE (with) God—to live and move and have one’s being in God alone. That is to “have eternal life”: to know oneself existing in such permanent communication with the Eternal that one conceives of no self-existence apart from the Eternal: we are created, upheld, and preserved entirely in God’s Love. To know this is to know oneself a child of God, a citizen in God’s Kingdom first of all.

Early Christians thus saw in Jesus a superabundant fulfillment of the “messiah” role, foiling expectations of a reunified and triumphant Israel but raising these expectations to a new level. It was nothing short of restoration of paradisaical justice with God: to walk with God as “children of the light.” (Emmanuel Levinas rejects this spiritualization of the messianic idea and insists it should have political weight. Jacob Taubes contests this: for him any attempt to bring redemption about directly on the historical stage is a recipe for catastrophe, and thus he sees its “inwardization” as crucial.)

As far as the world goes (as we think we know it in our ignorant state), Jesus radicalizes the insight of Ecclesiastes (“all is vanity”), yet also adds something quite unexpected: a cancellation of the curse. The curse to toil on the earth from Genesis is removed, as Jesus says “don’t worry what happens here, it is all in God’s hands, he is overseeing all with love” (Lk 12:22-24). Likewise, whereas wisdom once meant to bring prosperity, worldly stature, social repute, and so on (itself an echo of the curse), with Jesus putting your treasure where “moth and dust doth corrupt” is antithetical to wisdom. Now, you only “have” what you give: you are a libation poured out for the salvation of the world. This aneconomic gesture removes reward from the realm of the visible world and transfers it to the invisible reward with the Father in heaven. (In the Gift of Death, Derrida sees this as the genius of Christianity, since it renders gift-giving utterly exorbitant: “Do not let your right hand know what your left is doing.”)

Henceforth, what the Father sees in secret is all that matters. That relation is so primary, so preeminent, that we can no longer even evaluate things by looking at the surface. Acting in accordance with the Father’s will is the sole criterion. As this truth is absorbed and we come into accord with it–as we come to approximate the perfect obedience of Christ–something like a prelapsarian confident nakedness before God is restored (Gen 2:25). A shameless and blameless sanctity becomes possible in the Lord, because “everything exposed by the light becomes visible–and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (Eph 5:13).

Paul invokes this world-inversion as well, the teaching that all creation was consigned to “futility” yet in expectation of the revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8:19-22). The futility of this world is counterbalanced by the recognition that all goodness has eternal import, even if we never see the result. This hope is not a vain wish but a knowledge of faith: that our true life is “hidden in God,” who sees what we only glimpse and knows what our minds could never grasp. And yet God lets us share in the knowledge of this mystery. We see the sufferings of this world as nothing compared to the glory of what is to come in the future aeon—which begins in us, for we are its first-fruits. Christ’s resurrection opens the door and is the pledge of ultimate fulfillment—such that life in this world IS crucifixion, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, poverty and renunciation of power are the signs of blessedness and nobility, eternal life comes by “dying daily,” and so on.

What the Lord tells Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness,” summarizes the world-inversion at stake on the Cross. Also related here is how barrenness becomes fecund virginity in Mary: bearing spiritual bodies of light into the world, obedient to God’s Word, is what counts. It takes an attitude of faith in the heavenly dominion which walks by faith and lives with the “peace that surpasses knowledge,” “on earth as it is in heaven,” in prayer for God’s Kingdom to come and save all.

Jesus is thus able to say, “Yes, I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my followers would be fighting to defend me. As it is, all power is from the Father. You can do nothing against him, and what you are about to do to me will prove that. For you may kill the body; but our being in God you cannot kill.” The world is inverted, it is “over”: its dominion is no longer primary, its demands have no priority. As Agamben points out, the Church has often forgotten its eschatological vocation as a vessel of preparation and hastening the end of the world–not a literal, spectacularly apocalyptic end but an end to its priority, an end to the illusion that the world has any independent existence apart from God.

For there is no kingdom except the Kingdom of God! That is the Truth to which faith bears witness: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand…” Come, let us share in the feast of the Lamb!

by Timothy Lavenz
November 3, 2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s