Ethics of the Kingdom of God

As Christians we live with an inherent tension, it is a tension that is the result of our eschatology. What we believe about what happens when Christ returns shapes how we live now. We refer to this as the already and not yet kingdom of God. The starting point is actually at the end. We believe that when Christ returns he is establishing his kingdom here on earth. We read about this in Revelation, about the new heaven and new earth and the new Jerusalem. Christ will reign as king in the new creation and will be seated on the throne in the new Jerusalem. That certainly oversimplifies the width of Christian thinking on the subject but I think it will be sufficient for the topic this morning. The tension arises earlier in the story, that is, with the life of Jesus. Jesus often refers to the kingdom of God during his life. In Luke 17 it says, “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

We live in the tension that the kingdom of God is coming and the kingdom of God began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This tension then shapes the way that we live and puts us at odds with much of the world around us. We look forward to the kingdom of God that is going to be fully revealed in the return of Christ but we live as a part of the kingdom of God that was inaugurated in the life of Jesus. Therefore, we live according to the kingdom of God even when it is not yet fully realized. This puts us at odds with the world around us that does not resemble the kingdom of God, while we try to live according to its ethics.

There is a temptation when we realize this tension, to see ourselves as outside the world, and to view it as other. To disengage from our culture that does not resemble the kingdom of God. But this is a mistake. The kingdom of God is about the restoration of all creation. As we live as a part of the kingdom of God we are to take part in that mission as well.

  • Truth

In Ephesians 4, Paul provides us with a few concrete examples of the ethics of the kingdom of God. There are four in this passage that I want to focus on. First, Paul quotes Zachariah 8:16 and says, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” The kingdom of God is characterized by truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” People say that we live in a post-truth society. I’m not sure about that, primarily because I don’t understand what they are talking about. But it is fairly obvious that the definition of truth has become a little looser. If we are confronted by something we don’t like we can just scream “Fake news” at it and apparently its not true anymore. As people of the Kingdom of God we are to speak truth and we are to speak about the truth. We speak truth even when it is hard. We speak truth when it is unpopular, even if it puts us at odds with the dominant culture. We speak to truth to power as the prophets did, calling out injustice wherever it may be. And we speak about the truth, that is, the need for salvation in Christ, the Gospel. We are to be people that are known by that truth. That that truth is what we are characterized by. As Christians we are to be a part of the truth that Jesus is. Our identity is shaped by the truth that is found in Jesus.

  • Anger

Second, Paul quotes Psalm 4:4 and says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” This is perhaps the one that interests me the most because just a few verses later Pauls says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger.” So are we to put away anger or are we to be angry but not sinning? I think Paul elsewhere can help clarify. The beginning of each of his letters follows a standard form. There is a greeting, a thanksgiving section, and then the body of the letter. But then there is the letter to the Galatians. “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” The greeting section. Next comes the thanksgiving section. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different Gospel.” He goes on to say, “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Of course we can’t hear Paul’s tone in the written word, which is also why there are so many miscommunications via email and text, but I think it is safe to say that he is not saying that someone should be accursed with joy in his heart. He is angry about the false gospel that is being taught among the church that he founded, he is angry about blasphemy. So perhaps he has a more nuanced position about what it means to be angry. In 4:26 Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin” and I think the next half of the verse illuminates that point. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” I wonder if this is where we get the marriage advice about not going to bed angry, which is really unpractical. Perhaps, instead what he is saying is “Don’t let anger become a darkness inside you.”

There are good reasons to be angry. Melissa, Tucker and I went to a punk show this past week, and there were some angry people there. We heard songs about corporate and political corruption, police brutality, teen suicide, racism, and sexism. Those are good reasons to be angry. Then if we think in those terms from a christian perspective we think also of the co opting of the Gospel for political gain, the interpretation of scripture to justify injustice, to justify crimes. I wonder if the blasphemy that angered Paul just goes by a different name. We should be angry about these things as they are antithetical to the kingdom of God. But we are not people of anger, we are not people consumed by anger with darkness in our hearts. We are people of hope.

We do not live in anger fighting against those we consider enemies, instead we live in hope working as a part of the kingdom of God. That may seem like a subtle difference but if we live consumed by anger we will eventually begin to view people as other, as less than human, less than the image of God in them. If we live with hope for a better tomorrow we work towards the restoration of all people as a part of the kingdom of God.

At this point I feel compelled to address a world event that I had hoped I wouldn’t ever have to talk about again. Perhaps it was a vain hope given our current cultural climate. This evening the Klan and Neo-Nazis are going to be marching in the streets of our nation’s capital. First, as an american this horrifies me, that we have sunk so low as a nation that such brazen displays of racism and hate do not prompt a national outcry. We have become so desensitized that this is just another sunday, and in a week, even if someone dies at this rally at the hands of a Nazi, we will forget all about. We don’t want to have a serious conversation about racism because it has become so politically loaded and manipulated by those seeking to gain support for their own positions. As a Christian, this angers me because such blatant racism, sexism, and hate is antithetical to the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is characterized unity in diversity, while they, the people rallying today, seek white supremacy fueled by hate and fear. We are to stand in opposition to the Klan and Neo-Nazis because they stand in opposition to the kingdom of God. We do not stand against them with violence as our enemies, but we put ourselves between them and the weak, we call out their hatred wherever we see it and we call them to repentance in Christ for their evil and vile ideology.

  • Stealing

Third, Paul says that a part of the ethics of the kingdom of God is “Do not steal.” Easy, done. Don’t rob a bank, don’t take what isn’t yours. If you steal you need to give that up. But Paul doesn’t leave it at “don’t steal,” he takes it a step further and says, “rather let them [thieves] labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” We don’t just stop stealing, we then work honestly so that we can take what we earn and give to those who are in need. There seems to me to be a theme in the story of scripture that the people of God are not to just give up sin, but then to live in a way that attempts to undo sin in the world around them. We stop stealing and then give to the poor around us so that they can be lifted from the sins of injustice that have happened to them. We are to live for the restoration of others. Here Paul says that we are to give from our income to the poor. While I think this is practical it is also symbolic of the attitude we are to have towards others. We give of our money to those in need but we also give of our time to those who are in need. We give of our stuff to those who have need. We give of our food to the hungry. Our purpose is not to work to bolster our own position, but to be a restorative force in the world.

  • Kindness

Fourth, Paul says, we are to “be kind to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” This comes after a list of what we are not to do, putting away bitterness and wrath, not letting evil talk come out of our mouths. We are to be characterized as people of kindness. This is another one of those that seems really easy at first glance. We are kind to those who are here with us this morning. We are kind to those who are a part of our families and circle of friends. We are tender hearted to the small children running around after service. But kindness is easier to avoid when we don’t know the person, when we are not invested in their lives, when we will never see them again. It’s easy to yell at the driver slowing traffic down, it’s easy to get an attitude with the cashier who is just trying to do their job, it’s easy to be rude to those who are not benefiting us. When I worked in kitchens I was a bit of a perfectionist. I was that way because it was my reputation that was going out on the plate. The customer was judging me based on the plate that was put in front of them regardless of if I actually cooked it. So every plate had to look perfect, be cooked perfect, taste perfect. This did not make me the easiest person to work for. I was exacting and demanding, and in many cases I wasn’t as kind as I could have been. I let the pressure of the job prevent me from being kind. There are many things that prevent us from being kind, stress, viewing people as other, but the ethics of the kingdom include kindness and forgiveness. And so if we are to say that we are a part of the kingdom we need to practice those ethics. This, I think, will require some intentionality. It will require us to intentionally reflect on the ways that we can practice kindness and forgiveness.

So those are four of the ethics of the kingdom that Paul lays out in Ephesians 4, truthfulness, being angry at injustice but not consumed by anger, giving to those in need, and kindness.

At Arbor House we have often talked about the image of God. Humanity is the idols of God that he has placed in his temple, which is all of creation. Humanity is, ideally, the representation of God in the world. This is unfortunately not the case given that sin has permeated all of creation but those who claim salvation in Christ take up that mantel of being the image of God. We represent God in creation, in a sense we are his ambassadors to a broken creation. We hope that when people see us that they will see God. Paul here applies that same concept but it is nuanced by his experience in Christ. We are to be imitators of Christ, we are to love as he loved us. We are to forgive as he has forgiven us. We are to sacrifice as Christ sacrificed for us. In a sense Christ was the perfect image of God, and so we are to imitate his example. We are to be living examples of the kingdom by living according to the ethics of the kingdom.

When I think about how we have done imaging Christ in the world, I find that I usually think in terms for the protestant Church in the US. But even if we include our catholic brothers and sisters, I think we are caught between two extremes, we have done great things for the kingdom of God. The church has built hospitals, schools, and orphanages, we have cared for the poor and the hurting. We have helped people break the chains of addiction and abuse. But at the same time the church has done awful things and tainted the image of Christ that we bear. We have a tendency to choose power over morality, we have chosen to protect the oppressor over the oppressed. An easy target would be the sex abuse scandal in the catholic church, but the protestants are not free from similar sins. We think of the recent scandal involving Bill Hybels and how the leadership of that church chose to protect him and smear those who spoke out against him. They chose to stand against the weak and the hurting. But this sin is not theirs alone, we are all a part of the church, the church that has created a culture that allows this sin to grow, and so we need to repent and seek to faithfully represent the image of Jesus.

On a more personal level, I think if we reflect on the ethics of the kingdom of God that Paul has outlined here in Ephesians, we can all think of ways that we can more fully be the image of God in the world. The beauty of our relationship with Christ is that it is a process of continual growth. We know we are not perfect and we fail to live according to the kingdom of God on a regular basis, but we continue to strive toward that perfection. We learn and grow and allow Christ to continually mold us into his image. We just have to be willing to do that work. So we are going to take a few moments in silence as we reflect on the ways that Christ is trying to shape us into his image as we attempt to live according to the ethics of His kingdom.

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