Over the past few months my personal bible-reading has been the gospel of Mark. Early on, I was so taken by the Common English Bible’s translation of Mark 1:15 that during my reading of the subsequent doings and teachings of Jesus, I would read each pericope aloud and then, like a liturgical refrain, insert Mark 1:15:
NOW IS THE TIME! HERE COMES GOD’S KINGDOM!
CHANGE YOUR HEARTS AND LIVES, AND TRUST THIS GOOD NEWS!
This refrain summarizes Jesus’ preaching and teaching – his gospel – and, as I suggested in the post of last month, it captures the anticipation that surrounded Jesus’ ministry. But what did he mean by it?
Did Jesus mean that in that moment and in him personally, God was fulfilling the Jewish hopes for the arrival of the Messiah? Did he mean that somehow, not then clear, yet imminently, God’s kingdom would arrive on earth? Or in another dimension? Before or after their individual deaths? Apart from him or only through him? Did he mean that it would come whether they were ready or not? Or did their changing and trusting usher it in, even in the slightest?
These are not all the possibilities of interpretation by a long shot! Indeed, it’s no wonder that so many schools of thought have arisen over the nature of God’s Kingdom. “Eschatology” is the theological term that refers to the study of the end things, the future of humanity and creation, and the Kingdom or Reign or Rule of God, and by my count there are at least nine approaches or types.
Realized eschatology conceives of the Kingdom as having already arrived in Jesus and his ministry. The Preterist view thinks of God’s rule as having occurred in the past too, but particularly that the events in the book of Revelation point to historical people and events that happened in the first and second century. A futurist would say that Jesus meant that the rule of God would take place in the future, and of course there are variations on this idea. Imminent eschatology thinks of the Kingdom as soon and in-breaking. A historist would emphasize its future nature, but the second coming on a specific date that one might determine through prophecies, and a millennialist (of which there are numerous kinds) anticipates a thousand years of Christ’s rule, either after or before his second coming. An inaugurated eschatology is a stance that combines the reign arriving now and not yet; Jesus ushered it in and it is growing, either through the efforts of the church or by mysterious means, but its fulfillment is still to be. Besides these types, there are those who hold to the Kingdom of God as a symbol of an ideal, experienced by us spiritually, but not necessarily a social instantiation on earth as it is in heaven.
I did not ask the participants in my dissertation project – the members of the case study congregations – to reveal their personal or congregational eschatology, and they did not explicitly name the “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” as that which was motivating or empowering their transformation as church. However, they described their church life before transformation efforts as having been negative, turned inward, dull, confused, lost, and even dead – God was not real to them – but since their prayerful efforts at change, church had become positive, turned outward, vibrant, and more clear; they felt “found,” and alive, and they gave God/Jesus Christ/the Holy Spirit the credit for the change.
In the here and now, I contend, they were experiencing the living, loving, and leading God. Because they had experienced the Divine at work and active in their midst, they had a present and a future to look forward to. In Markan eschatological terms, they had changed their hearts and minds, and were now trusting God’s lead (reign/kingdom). It was my conclusion that they were practicing the reign of God, allowing God to rule, or in other words, dancing to the lead of God in the present, while awaiting its completion in God’s good time.
What these congregations experienced is a transformation that is available to all of us – an eschatology that is faithful to the good news of Jesus and worthy of our yearning and participation. I think this down-to-earth, dancing eschatology is one that can especially nourish the church of today. To trust the leadership of God above all earthly leaders, to test the spirits through the Holy Spirit as we move together in the world, and to know that as individuals and as the church, we can avoid getting stuck in the status quo or in our own impatience is really good news, just as it was in Mark 1:15, plus a really good way to live what Jesus meant!