Sunday, January 11, 2015

Phil Kniss: What in the world is the kingdom of God?

Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday
Matthew 6:9-13

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Today we think about and celebrate
    our particular tribe within the global church—
    Mennonites and Anabaptists.

Now, why focus just on Anabaptist-Mennonites on this Sunday?
    Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate the global Christian church?
    Why even have Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday?

Well, not because we believe we are God’s favorites,
    nor for any other theologically twisted reason.
We celebrate this Sunday only because we as Anabaptist-Mennonites
    have a common spiritual heritage,
    we can trace our history back to the same ancestors,
    we are family.
And it’s a good, healthy thing,
    to learn how to know and love other members of your family.

I think one of big benefits of gathering and celebrating, as family,
    like many of us do over the holidays,
    is that families are made up of many and sundry kinds of people.
    A family is a community, but a particular kind of community.

Sometimes when our families have a reunion,
    it’s hard to wrap our head around the idea
        that all these people came from the same source.
    They are as different as night and day.
        You have cousins and aunts and uncles,
            and even sisters and brothers,
            that if it weren’t for the fact you were family,
                you wouldn’t be in relationship with them.

    Or if you did find yourself put together with them
        for some happenstance reason,
            like working in the same office,
            or being neighbors,
            or being on the same sports team,
        you would have the convenience of
            not really engaging with them,
            being able to walk away whenever you wanted,
            or if things got too tense,
                even quitting the team, or changing jobs.

    It’s easy to avoid associating
        with people who are very different from us,
        unless you’re family.
    Yes, it’s possible to avoid family, but it’s harder,
        and when we do, it often comes with a lot of pain,
            so we choose to stay in relationship,
                and love each other across our differences,
                rather than face the pain of separation.

In our modern world we rarely organize into close, intimate groups
    unless we have a lot in common
        in those matters that are most important to us.
    The most successful civic clubs,
        business partnerships,
        professional associations, and the like,
            are those that begin with people
            who are basically on the same page,
            share the same values and view of the world.
    Makes sense . . .
        the less energy we spend sorting out differences,
        the more energy we have to focus on our common purpose.

This is also true in many local church congregations.
    Sure, there is plenty of diversity in a congregation,
        and I think ours is exceptionally diverse—
        but only to a certain extent.
    Despite our many, and significant, differences, we at Park View
        mostly share the same basic cultural vantage point, and are
        mostly within the same American middle economic class.
        And we’ve been shaped intellectually
            by a very similar educational system.
        And we share the same basic Christian faith commitments.
    That’s a lot of commonality.

    But when it comes to our global Anabaptist-Mennonite family,
        something happens like what happens at family reunions.

    We start to see how very different we are,
        but knowing we are related, we are family,
        we choose to walk toward those differences and engage them,
            rather than walk away.
        Engaging difference is a fundamentally important
            practice and skill we need to develop,
            to be a vibrant body of Christ in the world today.
        Because we all hear the Holy Spirit a little differently,
            depending where we are sitting,
            depending on our framework.
        So one of the primary tasks we have as a church community,
            and specifically as a church family,
            is to clarify our foundational identity—
                our common starting place—
                and then listen carefully to each other,
                    with open hearts and minds,
                    and discern the Spirit as we listen.

That’s why we do Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday.
    And I think that’s also why Mennonite World Conference,
        this year,
        has encouraged all of us Mennonites around the world,
        to focus on our foundational identity
            as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
        We Mennonites find ourselves
            in hundreds of different cultural contexts,
            with hundreds of different national and ethnic identities.
        But we share a common citizenship in the Kingdom of God,
            a citizenship that shapes our lives more profoundly
            than any national citizenship, or ethnic tribal identity.

        We are, together, members of God’s people,
            living under the rule of God in the world,
            in a reality that we call the “Kingdom of God.”
        What does that mean, and what does it look like?
        That is the question that Mennonite World Conference
            has put in front of all of us Mennonites on this day,
            from the U.S. and Canada,
                to Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia,
                to the Netherlands and England and Albania,
                to the Congo and Tanzania and Zimbabwe,
                to India, Japan, Vietnam, and Australia.
        What, in this world, is the Kingdom of God,
            and how do live in this kingdom?

Perhaps the simplest way to define the kingdom is,
    the kingdom is that place and that people where God’s reign
        is recognized, named, and submitted to.
    It is a real thing, now, in this world.
    And it points to something even greater yet to be realized.
        It is socially situated.
        That is, if God’s reign isn’t being worked out and embodied
            in the real lives of a real people,
            then God’s kingdom isn’t operational there.

    God’s kingdom does not exist in the abstract.
        It is made concrete in the lives of a people.
    So, we the church, a kingdom people, have a responsibility
        to faithfully represent God, the Sovereign,
            to demonstrate what kingdom citizenship looks like,
            and to invite others to come under God’s reign.
        That is our primary identity as followers of King Jesus.
        That is our calling, regardless of what national kingdom
            we live in and are subject to.
    Citizenship in the Kingdom of God
        always takes precedence.
        And sometimes, we must admit,
            it is direct opposition to the earthly kingdoms
            who also ask for our loyalty.
        We must keep choosing where to place our ultimate loyalty.
            And that is a challenge in today’s world.

And this brings me to the first Gospel reading of this morning,
    those glorious words from Matthew 6,
    that we often call, “The Lord’s Prayer,”
        and which we often sing or say together.

In the remainder of my sermon,
    I intend to help us change our minds about the Lord’s Prayer,
        to put it in a higher place among our Christian practices.

Matthew puts this prayer in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
    The Gospel of Luke puts the prayer in a different context.
    It was an answer to a question the disciples asked Jesus,
    They said to Jesus, in Luke 11,
        “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

I grew up thinking the disciples meant,
    “Jesus, we don’t really know how to talk to God,
        how to give praise, or offer our petitions.
        Teach us how to do this.”
    But when I stop to think even a bit about the context here,
        the idea that the disciples had not already mastered
            the basic elements of prayer,
            is nonsense.
    They knew how to pray. They had been praying their whole lives.
        They were synagogue-attending Jews.

They knew the role of prayer, communally and individually.
    They knew that individual prayer kept them focused on
        who they were in relationship to God,
        and on God’s activity in their world.
    They knew that communal prayer was all about
        reinforcing their identity as a people of God,
        and communally bowing down to God in worship,
            and in expressions of obedience,
            and in yieldedness to God’s will.

So I think what’s going on in the disciples’ minds,
    is they realize their very understanding of who God is,
        and what God’s agenda is in the world,
        and what they, as God’s people, are expected to do, and to be,
        is being vastly broadened, and filled out, and changed,
            by what Jesus is teaching,
            and how he is living his life.
    There is something radically different
        about Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God,
        and their role in it,
            than what they were taught to think in synagogue.
    They are beginning to realize the old set of communal prayers
        they were taught from little up,
        are no longer adequate to sustain their life of faith
            in the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming.
        A new kind of kingdom needs a new kind of prayer.

    This then, is not an elementary lesson in prayer.
        Jesus isn’t teaching Prayer 101.
            This is an advanced course.
            This is Jesus saying,
                in the Kingdom of God,
                which is coming now,
                which God is beginning to establish, through you,
                this is the kind of prayer that will sustain you.
            This is the prayer for the Kingdom of God now,
                and the Kingdom of God coming.

That is what I think we American Protestants with evangelical leanings,
    don’t quite grasp about the Lord’s Prayer.
    We think of this prayer too individualistically,
        and too didactically.
    In other words,
        we think of it mainly as an elementary lesson in praying,
            that Jesus wanted his disciples to use
                as a kind of model or template,
                that they would use while in training,
                    until they got so good at it,
                they could pray their own spirit-led impromptu prayers,
                    and they wouldn’t need this one any more.

No, I’ve come to think differently about this prayer.
    I invite you to, as well.
    This is a specific prayer that we disciples need to pray . . . still.
        Often. Repeatedly.
    Because of the fact that this prayer captures
        the essence of the Kingdom in a few words,
        I need to let this prayer so fill my mind,
            and spirit, and even body,
            that it becomes part of my very breathing.
        This prayer locates me, locates us,
            in the community of the Kingdom of God.
        It is an essential discipline of the individual disciple.
        It is an essential discipline of the church.

I so much appreciate that we have made the Lord’s Prayer
    part of every Sunday worship at Park View.
    Many other Christian traditions also do this.
    They consider the Lord’s Prayer,
        or as some call it, the “Our Father,”
        to be an indispensable part of worship.
    That’s where I have come down.
    Not saying we can’t worship without it,
        but if God’s kingdom people gather to worship,
            and we haven’t heard the Kingdom Prayer,
            something seems incomplete.

It has become for me, a key part of my daily practice.
    Rarely a day passes that I haven’t said this prayer aloud at least once.
        Often twice, sometimes more than twice.
    In my own morning quiet time, I say it aloud softly.
    In our morning prayers here at the church office,
        we say it together, in unison.
    And if it’s a Wednesday
        when we’re having a TaizĂ© service in the evening,
        that makes it three times.

I’m not saying this to brag.
    I don’t think it’s much of anything to brag about.
    I’m not suggesting I can draw a straight line
        between saying this prayer,
        and any particular spiritual victory or achievement in my life.
    I’m simply saying that I have come to see it as necessary.
        As indispensable to my Christian life.
        I need to be reminded, often,
            where I am located, in relationship to God our Sovereign,
            and the people who name God as Sovereign,
                and live under God’s rule,
                in a world that largely rejects God’s sovereignty.

Repeating this Kingdom Prayer, often,
    is what I need,
    and what I think we all need,
        to locate ourselves in an anti-Kingdom world.

It’s not a magic formula to make God do certain things,
    or to influence God to do what we want to have done.
    It is a prayer of locating ourselves in the place where we belong.
    It is a prayer to orient us to where we are, and who we are,
        in relation to God
        and to God’s reign on the earth and in the heavens.

I have even come to pray this prayer
    with more than my voice, and my mind.
    In order to let it get embedded even deeper in my being,
        I have begun praying it with my body.

I demonstrated this in a sermon back in August,
    and a number of people asked me to repeat it.

First thing, is to notice the Kingdom Prayer
    can be divided into six parts,
    each highlighting a characteristic of our Sovereign God—
        God’s holiness,
        God’s rule and authority,
        God’s provision,
        God’s forgiveness,
        God’s guidance,
        God’s protection.

So I came up with six physical gestures,
    to help me pray with my body, as well as my mind and spirit.

So sitting or standing, anywhere, anytime, I can pray . . .
    praising God’s holiness—
        “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name...”
    and pray for God’s rule on the earth—
        “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
            on earth as it is in heaven...”
    and for God’s provision—
        “Give us this day our daily bread...”
    and for God’s forgiveness, a gesture of repentance—
        “And forgive us our sins,
            as we forgive those who sin against us...”
    and for God’s guidance to resist all that goes against the kingdom—
        “And lead us not into temptation...”
    and for God’s protection from all evil,
        “but deliver us from evil,” a gesture of freedom.

That’s the main part of the prayer,
    but I add the traditional ending,
    continuing with a sweeping gesture to indicate,
        “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Quick review of the gestures . . .
    Our Father in heaven, holy be your name.
    Your kingdom come on earth
    Give us daily bread.
    Forgive us, as we forgive.
    Lead us not into temptation.
    Deliver us from evil.
        Forever, Amen.

Let’s pray the whole prayer together, if you will,
    with voice, heart, mind, and body . . .
        Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
        Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
        Give us this day our daily bread,
        And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
        And lead us not into temptation,
        But deliver us from evil,
        For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

This is not so much a prayer to be dissected and exegeted.
    I could do that, but find it mostly unnecessary.
    It is rather, a prayer to be practiced,
        while open to the Spirit,
            seeing what God might be saying to you,
            what insight God might give you,
            what change God might work in you.

May God’s kingdom come among us here,
    in our context as Mennonites in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
May God’s kingdom come among our sisters and brothers
    throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Let us now, in a time of prayer, meditation, and song,
    bring these petitions for the global church.

requests from Mennonite World Conference

  • To walk more closely in support of persecuted and suffering members
  • To grow in fellowship even across the sensitive and controversial theological issues where there are differences among our members
  • To reflect Jesus and the Kingdom of God to the world around us.

requests from MWC members around the world

  • with our African sisters and brothers, we pray for unity among church groups and leaders
  • with our Asian sisters and brothers, we pray for the ability of Christians and Muslims to co-exist in peace
  • with our European sisters and brothers, we pray for the effects of secularism on society and the church
  • with our Latin American sisters and brothers, we pray for the production of good Anabaptist teaching material for new churches

requests from North America, regional focus for 2015

  • For the MWC Assembly in Pennsylvania in July 2015, and particularly for the availability of visas for foreign guests
  • For the growing influences of secularism in our churches
  • For the tensions between wealth and the Christian faith
  • For the discussions in the churches and conferences regarding sexuality
  • For the assimilation of new cultures in our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches
  • For faithfulness in financial stewardship in an age of materialism

—Phil Kniss, January 11, 2015

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