Clarence Jordan once reportedly quipped in his typical salty fashion that many Christian preachers will preach the hind legs off of Jesus but rarely pay attention to what Jesus himself preached. Jordan was a Baptist farmer and Bible scholar who helped found the interracial community Koinonia Partners in Americus, Ga., in the 1940s.
Jesus was constantly telling stories about the kingdom of God, and his central sermon was “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
According to Jordan, this common translation is much too churchy to convey the power and urgency of Jesus’ message. Jordan translated it like this: “Change your whole way of thinking, because God’s new order is confronting you right now.”
Many Christian groups have projected Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom into some distant future or otherworldly heaven. Others have embraced kingdom language and filled it with various programs for social and economic improvement but stripped it of explicit connection to Jesus. And still others have simply equated the church and the kingdom.
For several generations of Mennonites, The Upside-Down Kingdom by Donald B. Kraybill was a popular point of access to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. This book, first published in 1978 and revised most recently in 2011, has helped readers understand Jesus’ parables and his radical vision for a community that lives under the reign of God. Kingdom living takes concrete shape in the here and now, even as followers anticipate a fuller kingdom in the future.
The past decade brought a new wave of scholarly and popular attention to Jesus’ kingdom teaching. In their 2003 book, Kingdom Ethics, Fuller Seminary professor Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee explored the characteristics of the kingdom. Stassen, who died last year, had a profound impact on countless students who now serve as pastors, church planters, professors and peacemakers.
The missional church movement, too, has carefully examined Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom. The Missional Church, edited by Darrell L. Guder, includes a chapter, “Missional Vocation: Called and Sent to Represent the Reign of God,” exploring the role of the church in relationship to God’s in-breaking kingdom of shalom. This movement has shaped renewal efforts in mainstream Protestant and evangelical networks.
Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright drew attention to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom and God’s mission of reconciliation in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, written in 2008. His writing is having significant impact on evangelicals and post-evangelicals, including numerous popular authors and pastors with a wide reach from Frank Viola to Rob Bell.
This week we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. This Baptist preacher, advocate for justice and nonviolent martyr staked his life on Jesus’ kingdom vision. King pursued it in the pulpit and the street, in the prayer cell and the jail cell. “The beloved community” was the term he used to capture people’s imagination for the possibility of living in right relationship.
I give thanks for new attention to Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as an already-but-not-fully-yet reality of justice, peace and joy, which we are invited to see and enter. I pray Mennonites will continue to be inspired by King, Jordan and a rich cloud of witnesses, joining hands with brothers and sisters who seek first the kingdom.
Andre Gingerich Stoner is director of interchurch relations and holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA.