While many Christians today understand Jesus' prayer as directed to a God who is both Mother and Father, and while many Christians prefer more inclusive language such as "reign of God" over the traditional "kingdom of God," for this article we have retained the usage chosen by the authors. - The Editors
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.... Unexpectedly, quite surprisingly, politics creeps into our Christian praying. Here we were in the Lord's Prayer, talking about God, heaven, and holiness, and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a political argument about a kingdom. We have not prayed, "Lord bless our nation," or, "Lord protect my family." We pray your kingdom come.
Here the Lord's Prayer lurches toward the specific and the mundane. (Be prepared to get even more specific and mundane, for shortly we move in this prayer from kingdom to Earth to bread.) In an age in which there is an outburst of enthusiasm for things spiritual, it may come as a shock to admit that Christianity is very materialistic. Our goal is not to fill you with enough spiritual hot air that you float a foot above the earth. Our goal is to teach you to pray in such a way that material matters such as politics and bread will be for you spiritual matters.
Jesus did not come urging us to think about him or to feel deeply about him. When he called disciples, he did not come seeking our disembodied individual spirits. Jesus came inviting us to join up with his kingdom. When we see him healing people, casting out demons, we are to know that "the kingdom of God has come upon you."
Seeing the kingdom at hand necessitates a response, a decision. We call this repentance. Will we be part of this kingdom or not? In saying "Your kingdom come," we are acknowledging that faith in Jesus is not simply an idea or an emotion. It is a concrete reality of which we are to become part or else be out of step with the way things are now that God has come into the world in Jesus. When the kingdom comes, we are "to repent" (i.e. change, let go of our citizenship in the old kingdoms) and "believe the good news" (i.e. join up, become part of the revolution).
Christianity is forever mixing religion and politics. To the credit of the rulers of this world, they at least had the good sense to look at Jesus and see that, in him, they were in big trouble. Matthew says that the moment King Herod heard about the birth of Jesus, he called together his political advisers and "was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3). Herod had been in office long enough to know a threat to his rule when he saw one.
Herod knew that, in this baby at Bethlehem, everything his kingdom was built upon was in mortal peril. So Herod responded in the way rulers usually respond: violence. Herod called out the army and they massacred all the Jewish boy babies (Matthew 2:13-18)-alas, only one of many violent attempts by governments to rid themselves of challenges to their power. In praying "Your kingdom come," we are in a power struggle that can become violent because the kingdoms of the world rarely give up power without a fight.
Early in his earthly ministry, even before he preached his first sermon, Jesus was confronted by Satan, who offered him complete political control-"all the kingdoms of the world"-if Jesus would only worship him. (Note: Satan is able to offer "all the kingdoms of this world" since they belong to Satan!)
Jesus refused to worship Satan even if the reward was complete power, as the kingdoms of the world define power. Rather than running the kingdoms of the world, Jesus went about establishing a new kingdom, a kingdom in this world yet not of it-what he called the kingdom of God.
As Martin Luther once said, whatever you would offer your son or daughter for, that is your god. Most of us would not think of offering up our children to be killed, yet few of us question having our children register for military service. We justify this sacrifice of our children on the basis of our support for American democracy and freedom, but it may be more a matter of worship and prayer.
The story of Jesus' temptation by Satan suggests that kingdom is a question about whom we worship. To be part of this kingdom is to acknowledge who is in charge, whose will ultimately counts in this world. There may be some faiths that detach the individual believer from concern about earthly matters, who strive to rise above outward, visible concerns such as swords and shields, wine and bread, politics and power. Christianity is not one of those religions. We want you, body and soul. Indeed, we believe that your body is your soul. So we've got opinions about the way you spend your money, invest your time, cast your ballot.
KINGDOMS HAVE BOUNDARIES. There are those who are citizens, and there are those who are not. Whereas the prayer addressed to "Our Father" implies a kind of inclusivity, when we pray "Your kingdom come" we are asserting an exclusivity as well. As
Christians, we are not opposed to boundaries. The gap between the world and the kingdom of God ought to be made clear. Those who first met Jesus had the good sense to know that they had encountered one they had not met before. Jesus repulsed more people than he attracted.
What Jesus said and made clear was that he was from somewhere other than our kingdoms. As C.S. Lewis once noted, Jesus spoke and acted in such a way that one either had to follow him or else decide that he was crazy. There was no middle ground in his kingdom. You either had to move toward it, risk letting go and being caught up in his project, or else - like the rich ruler - you had to move on, realizing that you wanted to retain citizenship in the kingdoms of the world.
While we are not opposed to boundaries, God's kingdom enables us to be opposed to the way the world sets up boundaries - on the basis of gender, class, race, economics, or accent. Nothing is more provincial and parochial than the modern nation which sets up national boundaries and then defends them with murderous intensity. The boundaries of God's kingdom obliterate all of the world's false means of demarcation between human beings. Here is a kingdom open to all, with no consideration given for the world's boundaries. Our boundary is baptism.
BAPTISM IS A CALL to become citizens of Israel, to become part of God's weird way of saving the world. That weirdness is signified, exemplified, specified in the act of baptism itself.
When you join Rotary they give you a handshake and a membership card. When you join the church, we throw you into water, bathe you, half drown you, clean you up, and tell you that you have been born again. We thus signify that being a Christian is not natural, not a by-product of being an American. To be Christian is to be adopted by a new nation, the kingdom of God. For the first time in our lives, those old labels and divisions which cause such grief - male/female, slave/free, rich/poor - are washed away, overcome, not by saying that such divisions don't mean anything, but rather by showing how they have been relativized, subordinated, washed by our new citizenship. Now the only division that makes much difference to us is church/world.
To say "Your kingdom come" is to be willing to become part of the rather weird gathering of strange people, often people the world regards as outsiders, who are now on the inside with Jesus. One of the most persistent criticisms of Jesus was the charge that he hung out with disreputable people.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Matthew 9:10-12).
Every time the church gathers, prays the Lord's Prayer, and eats and drinks the Lord's Supper with Jesus, we show that Jesus continues to be known by the company he keeps at the table. God's kingdom is a bunch of tax collectors, sinners, and sick people eating and drinking with Jesus.
Little about the kingdom of God is self-evident, so don't think that you know all about the kingdom of God just because you are reasonably intelligent. We have people who have been in the church for 50 years who still confess to being shocked by the appearance of God's kingdom when it happens, still get miffed by the people who show up insisting that Jesus has invited them to dinner, are even yet surprised that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Perhaps the elusiveness of the kingdom is why most of Jesus' teaching was teaching about the kingdom. Imagine a sermon that begins, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth" (Matthew 5:3-5).
Blessed are those who are unemployed, blessed are those suffering terminal illness, blessed are those who are going through marital distress....
The congregation does a double take. Blessed? Fortunate? Lucky? What kind of world is this? In America if you are unemployed, people treat you as if you have some sort of disease. They don't want to catch what you have. If your marriage is a failure, you are a failure. That doesn't sound very blessed.
The preacher says, "Wait. I should have been more clear. I wasn't talking about your kingdoms, the kingdoms built upon success and achievement and earnest striving. I am talking about the kingdom of God." In this topsy-turvy place, our values are stood on their head. Little in this kingdom comes naturally. It comes because God is in charge and because we are invited to be part of God's rule.
WHAT IS THAT KINGDOM like? It appears mostly to be known through hints, analogies, parables, and images rather than by definitions and explanations. In the New Testament, the kingdom is usually discussed in stories, parables. Jesus said the kingdom is like a little seed that silently grows, eventually yielding great harvest (Mark 4:26-29). The kingdom of God involves a great deal of wasted seed; for many times the seed that is sown fails to take root (Mark 4:1-9).
Many times, the kingdom of God appears to the world as something small and insignificant, as small as a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32), as troublesome a weed as the mustard plant, breaking out all over. The kingdom of God is like a rich man who placed his property in his servants' charge and then left town (Mark 13:34-36). In speaking about the kingdom of God mostly in parables, Jesus thereby showed us that the kingdom of God is sometimes difficult for us to see, tough for him to explain. The kingdom is here, not yet here, surprising, unexpected, threatening, playful, real.
Note that we pray "Your kingdom come." The kingdom isn't here, not yet in its fullness. God's kingdom is coming. It is here incipiently, in glimpses, but not in its fullness. This future, now-and-not-yet quality of the Christian faith is known by the word eschatology ("talk about last things"). The Christian faith is not satisfied with things as they are, now, today. The Christian faith is not preoccupied with an archeological exhumation of some distant past by which it attempts to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless present.
The Christian faith is eschatological, always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us. We are created for no better purpose than the praise of God. This is our true destiny. Yet any fool can see that the world is not like that, at least not yet. So Christians, in the Lord's Prayer, are busy leaning forward toward that day when all creation shall be fulfilled in one mighty prayer of praise.
Yet we are not merely standing around gazing up into heaven awaiting that future day (see Acts 1:11). In praying the Lord's Prayer, we are already participating in that end time. Politics has become prayer. When we pray this prayer, we are thereby signifying our citizenship in this new kingdom offered to all through baptism. We are pledging our allegiance to a new sovereign, relinquishing our allegiance to the kingdoms of this world. As the church gathers to pray this prayer, we are already forming a visible new community, formed on the basis of God's rule rather than on the basis of the way the world holds people together.
The kingdom of God which is coming - here, not here, present, not fully present - is a banquet, a great party thrown for outsiders who, before Jesus, had no place in the promises of God to Israel. By an amazing act of divine generosity, Jesus has made possible a party to which even gentiles like us have been invited. The kingdom of God is a party to which all of the good people refused the invitation so the host went out and invited all of the bad people to come. The kingdom of God is a party with a bunch of people with whom we wouldn't be caught dead spending a Saturday night had not we also been invited.
This is one of the reasons why being in the church can be a real pain, considering the sort of reprobates Jesus has invited to the party, the party which is called kingdom of God.
We are able to live hopefully in a fallen-yet-being-redeemed world because of the One who has taught us to pray "this way." We have been given the grace as Christians to know that we live between the times, having seen the fullness of God in Jesus Christ, yet also knowing that all the world is not yet fulfilled as God's world. That tension - stretched as we are between what is ours now in Christ and that which is yet promised - is our role as God's people.
We, you and I, are living, breathing evidence that God has not abandoned the world. We are able continually and fervently to pray that God's kingdom come because we know that God's will has been done. We are able to be honest about all the ways in which this world is not the kingdom of God in its fullness and to hope for more because we know that God's will has yet to be done, God's kingdom has yet to come. We are able to live without despair in the world's present situation because, even in us, God has claimed a bit of enemy territory, has wrestled something from the forces of evil and death. That reclaimed, renovated territory is us.
STANLEY M. HAUERWAS and WILLIAM H. WILLIMON are professors at Duke University. Willimon is dean of the chapel at Duke. They are the authors of a new book on the Lord's Prayer and Christian discipleship, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord's Prayer and the Christian Life (Abingdon Press), from which this article is excerpted.