The Israelites spent much of the Old Testament under the thumb of various empires and enemy power. They were enslaved in Egypt, fought enemies in Canaan, finally got a king and a capital, fought some other enemies, half of their nation was carried off to Assyria, half of their nation was carried off to Babylon, then Persia conquered Babylon...you get the drift. Even after they make it back to Jerusalem, they breathe a quick sigh of relief, and soon they are conquered by Greece and then Rome.
These people have had it
In steps Jesus. "The Kingdom of God is here," he says.
"Finally!" they are thinking. "Grab a torch and pitchforks!"
"No, boys," Jesus says. "That's not how this is going to go." Then I imagine him gesturing for the disciples to lean in a bit as he whispers, "The coming of the kingdom of God isn't something that comes with an army or any big signs. The kingdom of God...is in the midst of you."
"No, Jesus," they laugh and maybe roll their eyes. "Let's kick some Roman tail and be a kingdom again. That's how it's done."
"Let's try this again," Jesus says. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, let them strike your left cheek too. And in fact, after you take the hit, if they steal your shirt, ask if they could use your coat also."
"Soooooo….no pitchforks?" they ask.
Then I imagine the disciples following around Jesus but wondering quietly how they are going to establish a kingdom without force. Consider what the disciples must have thought when they heard Jesus teach, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
"Come on, Jesus." They probably said with frustration. "You're not going to get a kingdom with meek people. That's the exact OPPOSITE of what you need." At which point I imagine Jesus winking and nodding like they were on to something.
Then Jesus brings a little kid over to the disciples for an object lesson. "Look at this kid," Jesus says.
The disciples are wondering where he's going with this.
"Whoever will humble himself like a little kid, will be considered awesome in the kingdom."
"Um, OK, Jesus." They kind of scoff at this. "I'd like to see you build an army with a bunch of little kids. You think they're going to be very intimidating? You think they're going to carry heavy weapons?"
Jesus tries a different angle. "The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It's tiny...but eventually it grows into a big tree," he says with some big round hand gestures because they need all the help they can get in order to picture this.
"OK. OK. I see where this is going." They say. "So it's going to start off with us...but eventually we're going to rule...right, Jesus? We'll finally have some power? Some authority?"
"Well," Jesus says, "You know the powerful leaders of other empires lord their authority over their people."
Here the disciples are thinking about those oppressive Romans. Occupying their land. Sowing salt in their crops. Demanding exorbitant taxes. "Oh yeah," they say. "We know all about that."
"We're not going to be like them," Jesus says. "Instead, whoever wants to become great in this kingdom must be a servant, and whoever wants to be first among you...must be a slave."
"Woah, Jesus" they say, a little offended. They look at each other like, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
Jesus goes on, "I did not come to be served, but to serve, even to the point of giving my life."
"But...but Jesus," they stammer. "A kingdom of meek people...lowly...with nothing...no authority…like kids...like slaves?"
Here Jesus jumps in excited, "Oh, and prostitutes and tax collectors too. They’re entering the kingdom even before the religious leaders." At which point he probably added something really nebulous like, "He who has ears to hear it will hear it.”
"Jesus…” they say really confused. “We don’t want them."
"I want them."
"Well, this kingdom is never going to happen. You’re never going to get it off the ground. It's never going to grow into a large tree, a large kingdom."
"What? How? With our army of poor, meek, unarmed children?"
"You'll be the light. People don't see how dark it is until you turn on a bright light and they all get startled and have to squint, you know? You'll be the salt. A little bit of salt here and there makes all the difference. You'll be the yeast. It only takes a tiny bit, but that's what makes the bread grow. In fact, sometimes it grows so big and fast you have to cool it down before it overflows out of your pan."
"Guys." Jesus finally gets a bit more real. "Forget about the people in power for a minute. Can you imagine a kingdom of people who actually live like servants? Who Love the poor? Defend the weak? Dignify the lowly? Take care of the sick even if it costs you, like that Samaritan I told you about? A kingdom that is peaceful, forgiving, not violent, where the extent of your authority is the extent to which you serve others? If you can love even your enemies, what fighting would there be? If you want to look great, you have to let other people sit at the head of the table. You want to be admired by your peers? You’ve got to wash some filthy feet. If you adhere to this kingdom, can you imagine the walls that would be torn down between people? It would affect whole countries. Whole cultures. It would look like something… well… something worthy of being called the Kingdom of God."
Quiet, defeated, the disciples feel some shame for their arrogance, for what they were hoping to achieve, when they realize they were trying to be like the rest of the world. Deep down they know their kingdom wouldn't be much different. Finally, Peter swallows the lump in his throat and says what they’re all thinking. "Jesus, that kingdom sounds impossible."
Jesus sighs. "Yeah Peter. You're right. With people, it is impossible. With people, this world would continue like it has for all of human history. One empire after another...and all the bad stuff that comes with it."
Peter stares at his feet and kicks at the dirt. "I knew it." He tries to blink back tears as he thinks about his wife and his family’s future. "We'll always be under someone's thumb."
"But with God," Jesus says, "all things are possible."
The disciples look at each other, swallow hard, and take a deep breath. "OK. What do we do?"
“Go,” Jesus says. “Don't worry so much about laying up treasures for yourself here on earth. You can’t serve both God and money. Loving everyone is going to cost you some things, maybe a lot of things. But tell everyone. Every ethnicity, class, gender, everyone. There is nothing that divides humanity anymore. Invite everyone to this kingdom, this way of life, this new humanity.”
There is so much more to this story. But the important part for right now is that they actually do this.
Immediately, Christians start selling stuff and giving the money to the disciples so that they can distribute it to the poor. Immediately they are really concerned about widows, and they start a running list of widows they need to support. They start adopting orphans and encouraging others to adopt. They get the brilliant idea to start the world’s first orphanages. They take the story of the good Samaritan so seriously they are the first culture to start building hospitals in every city, where average people, poor people, could be taken care of. And they ran these hospitals with their own charity and volunteerism. That’s why most hospitals today still bear Christian names.
About 100 years after Jesus, the philosopher Aristides wrote of Christians, “They love one another. Whoever has distributes liberally to whoever has not. If they see a stranger they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother: for they call themselves brothers, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.”
All life was valued in this kingdom. No one was left out. Because to be first in this kingdom is to be last, to be great is to be a servant, and because you can’t serve both God and money.
And like yeast that is kneaded into a lump of dough and causes it to expand, the kingdom grew and grew and grew, until it reached us here in the 21st century. We stand on the shoulders of these brave saints, and we continue the kingdom to this day.