As you may have gathered we live on a new housing development, so the idea of building is something I ponder often. I was invited to speak at a couple of things over the last week, so wrote something with some slides to accompany it. One of the groups was for a work-based fellowship in a local high-tech engineering company, so that is why it has a certain emphasis.
We live on the building site that is Charlton Hayes, and so there is a strong sense of a new community coming together. Admittedly, it is disjointed and dysfunctional at present - little blobs of housing without any interconnecting roads or any focal point, but it is already home to the residents of some 200 dwellings, with another 2300 yet to be built. We came here longing to be part of seeing the Kingdom of God built in this place and so our part in that is something which rattles round my brain with great regularity.
I did a degree in engineering and got my fist job in the autumn of 1984. At the end of my first week a 40' trailer was towed out of the yard, loaded full of gleaming stainless steel pipework destined for the Marathon Brae B oil platform (this photo is Brae A, I think, but you get the picture) and I remember a tremendous thrill from seeing the fruits of, admittedly other peoples, labours. Whether in the long run North Sea oil was a good or bad thing ecologically, there is something fundamentally human about wanting to make or build things after all we are made in the image of the Creator God and whether it is building oil rigs or baking cakes we all need to create so is it unrealistic to want to be building the Kingdom of God?
...but I think the Second Severn Crossing bridge is no less beautiful. Every time we drive over I try to take a photo, and the hill top from Almondsbury is too far away to capture the geometric elegance.
Living on what used to be Filton airfield allows us to see Concorde 216 parked on the runway often - another Bristol creation.
And this is a Bristol car I photographed in Clifton a year or so ago. I think it is a 1973 411, but it is not quite like the one on the Bristol web site, perhaps somebody knows better than I (nobody actually did, sadly).
But the Kingdom is tricker. Jesus tells us to seek the Kingdom of God first, and then he will provide us with all these other things, but we don't get a plan, scheme, or bill of materials. Instead we get parables. Now I get annoyed when people think that parables are children's stories, ideal for a Family Service, and not much else. These were stories Jesus told to theologically sophisticated people who knew whole chunks of their Old Testament by heart, but they are complex because they are often open-ended. I think it is only the parable of the sower for which Jesus provides an explanation and that is done privately to his disciples only.
I think these simple parables were meant to be based on things which would be constant reminders, mustard seeds and corn growing, but which would get under peoples skin as they tried to discern quite what Jesus meant.
Clearly a Kingdom is a place where a King reigns, but we must remember that for those hearing Jesus speak they had no land of their own - the Romans were in town, and even so at his Ascension the disciples asked if Jesus would give the Kingdom back to Israel; would the geographical boundaries be restored, a process which would have demanded a military campaign against the Romans. Jesus tells them about times and occasions being set by his Father.
If the disciples confused God's Kingdom with land then is it any wonder that our Victorian forebears seemed to have done so even more. The Empire had been won by a disciplined army and an organised civil service and somehow, in hymns like
Lord, her watch thy Church is keeping, when shall Earth thy rule obey?
the Church took this as a pattern for the spiritual conquest of the world as well. You are allowed to disagree with me on that point, but there is little in the Parables of the Kingdom which would justify hymn lines such as
and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest
A cynic once said that Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God but all he left us was the Church. The Kingdom seems to be ephemeral and the sort of thing one catches glimpses of, whereas we have made very rigid Churches. Ultimately the Kingdom will become the fixed eternal thing - God will rule everywhere when the new heaven descends to the new earth and the Church will disappear because it will quite simply have served its purpose. Of course, I mean Church here by the institution, not the people but I would wager that most of us involved in any style of Church actually invest heavily in that style. No, we need to think different, to quote a famous advertising campaign.
Some of the parables paint quite a challenging picture of the Kingdom; the moment in which a young man runs back to his father and seeks undeserved forgiveness or a despised foreigner stops to lend a hand to a man who had been robbed and beaten. These are for more transitory than we think of for Church. Perhaps we need to be looking for the Kingdom as minute events which break into the present as a sign of what is to come, rather than the initiation of something permanent.
I did some physics at University, but would not pretend for one millisecond to understand what is going on with the Large Hadron Collider or how the Higgs-Boson fits into the overall scheme of things, but here we have a particle which seems to exist for an unimaginably small period of time and yet adds substance to the whole of creation. I like that as an analogy for the Kingdom even if I don't really understand the science bit.
I don't have a downer on the Church - far from it, it can be the catalyst for awesome stuff. A catalyst is something which is needed in order to help create something else, bit which itself disappears in the process. One of the funniest training courses I ever went on was about the production of polyethylene and polypropylene. A catalyst is spread over a large steel disc at the base of a vertical cylinder. The disc has lots of small holes through which is blown propylene or ethylene gas, and the catalyst is swept up by the gas (I imagine it would look like one of those snowman glass balls you see at your Grandma's house). The American leading the day said that this was like one of those hot air popcorn machines everybody has at home. Cue a sea of blank Brit faces. "You don't have them, I guess".
But if we think of the Day of Pentecost then Holy Spirit came down on the disciples and people were converted (I would say that is the Kingdom). Church was something that came into being in order to teach, nurture and disciple these new converts that too is Kingdom, but Church is the vehicle, not the destination.
So we need to think different about Church - because ultimately it is about the Kingdom
and we need to think different about what isn't Church - because ultimately it is about the Kingdom
To go back to my initial question, can we actually build the Kingdom of God?
What we have tried to do in the past, I think, is to build a structure or hierarchy with programmes and agendas.This is only natural - most of us need a sense of order to survive and we are meant to be a community, so a degree of organisation is vital, but I think in doing so we have taken our eyes off the Kingdom. Again, going back to the parables where do we see the Kingdom? Most often it is in our attitudes, our faith, our relationships...
Therefore, each of us needs to ask ourselves this, given the contexts and situations I inhabit Monday to Friday, and Saturday, and even Sunday, where am I seeking first the Kingdom of God?