by the Rev. Dr. John Lewis
Most of us are familiar with the ways Jesus proclaimed the presence and nearness of the Kingdom of God in his own deeds of power such as healings, feedings, and exorcisms (see, for instance, Luke 11:20). We’re also generally aware that Jesus sent out his disciples to continue his ministry (see Luke 17:21; Matthew 10:7-8).
We are probably less aware, however, that in the decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul also spread the good news of the nearness and presence of the Kingdom of God. He, too, understood that the Kingdom of God momentarily breaks into our world through various acts of service grounded in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Paul tells his congregations that they have an important role to play in making the Kingdom of God known in the world. He uses language that bears the imprint of his own unique theological perspective: “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you walk worthily of God, the one calling you into his own Kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). For Paul, God is the one who, from generation to generation, “calls” people into the Kingdom. Believers experience God’s “calling” in the course of “walking worthily of God,” which means walking in the footsteps of Jesus. As believers continue to carry out Christ’s ministry in the world, their faithful service opens the door for moments of the Kingdom to be revealed.
Paul draws on the business concept of partnership to explain how this works in a short but complex statement: “Faithful is God, by whom you were called into the partnership of his son Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:9). There are two distinct aspects of this divine-human partnership.
First, God calls each of us to partner with Jesus Christ by walking in his footsteps and carrying out his ministry in all the distinct contexts of our own everyday lives. We partner with Christ by using our imaginations to think with the mind of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5), determining how we can best embody Jesus in any given situation; how we can incarnate his ministry in settings as diverse as our homes, workplaces, and churches.
Second, as we “walk worthily of God,” partnering with Christ to carry out his ministry in our daily lives, God faithfully works through us to bring healing and reconciliation to a broken and divided world. It is this very power of God at work through Christ’s ministry, embodied by us, that brings peace, joy, and fruitfulness to the world, rather than chaos, destruction, and death. Paul calls these experiences of enriched life the “Kingdom of God.”
Two examples from his letters illustrate the point. Addressing congregants in his church in Corinth, Paul says “the Kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). They are speaking arrogantly to one another, rather than “walking worthily of God.” Paul plans to go to Corinth to “find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power” (1 Corinthians 4:19). In other words, Paul will point out to them the obvious, chaotic results of this destructive power being unleashed in the community through their arrogant talk. Such behavior also blocks their experience of the peace and joy that characterizes the Kingdom of God.
Similarly, in Romans, Paul writes to Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus in the churches of Rome. They are arguing with each other about whether everyone must eat Jewish kosher food when they gather for the Lord’s Supper. The Jewish community members are passing judgment on the Gentiles for not eating kosher food. From this point of view, the Gentiles are breaking the Jewish Law, so judgment seems appropriate. Conversely, the Gentile church members are looking down on Jewish members who insist on eating only kosher food. “Don’t you know that Christ has delivered us into freedom from the Jewish Law?” they must be asking the others. As a result of this bickering, relationships in the community are damaged or broken. Paul’s assessment? They “are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:15). “For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
We partner faithfully with Jesus Christ when we “walk worthily of God” in our own daily lives. As we do, God works powerfully through our embodiment of Christ to bring healing and life to others with all sorts of colors and beauty, relieving all despair and hopelessness. In all of these various moments, the Kingdom of God breaks into our world. We are truly partners with Christ in the Kingdom of God. What a “calling.”
About the author: The Rev. Dr. John G. Lewis is Co-Director of The Work+Shop in San Antonio, Texas. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.