The Upside-Down-Kingdom

I’ve struggled with “king” and “kingdom” language for a long time and assume others of us do as well. Perhaps it’s because I’m an American and our country was founded in a war of independence against the tyranny of King George III of England. Democratic opposition to the tyranny of kings is part of our national political DNA.

I was a boy when Queen Elizabeth visited our country and the news media followed her entourage, breathlessly reporting everything she did. My crusty uncle Abe was not impressed. He informed me and my brothers that the queen goes to the bathroom like everyone else. His language was a tad more colorful, but I won’t repeat it verbatim.

The problem goes beyond kings and kingdoms belonging to the dustbin of history. Ancient kings and queens, who claimed to rule by divine fiat, were abusive as they accumulated power and possessions to themselves. There was lots of palace intrigue and infighting in the game of thrones. It’s not only that we today have a problem with kings and kingdoms. It was always a problem.

Yet the Gospels use “king” and “kingdom” language in reference to Jesus and his mission. In what way is Jesus king and how do we understand his announcement of the kingdom of God? If it were only a problem of updating ancient language, we might substitute the words “king” and “kingdom” for more contemporary language. Substituting “President Jesus” for “King Jesus” certainly doesn’t work.

People have been more creative in finding more contemporary language for the “kingdom of God.” A simple fix is to substitute the “reign of God.” It makes the language a bit more palatable, but it doesn’t resolve the problem.  I like and sometimes use Martin Luther King’s phrase “the beloved community” in place of “the kingdom of God.”

Another substitute that I use a lot is “God’s new world coming,” emphasizing that we see signs of it in our midst but that there’s still much more to come. Another substitution that some pastors make is the made-up word “kin-dom” in place of “kingdom.” It emphasizes that relationships among God’s people are not hierarchical—we are all kin to each other.

All such substitutions lose something in translation. To confess that Jesus is king has the added meaning of giving our allegiance to him above all other authorities. Matthew’s story of the magi following a star to give gifts to the Christ child (2: 1-12) fit for a king contains a subversive element of rejecting the claims of earthly kings and political authorities who demand our allegiance. It also opens the scope of God’s activity beyond the limits of our own nation or religious community.

“By confessing Jesus as King, Matthew reminds us what God’s divine rule looks like—and it scarcely resembles militarized police, intimidated press, or nuclear threats.”[1]  The kingdom Jesus proclaimed is an upside-down-kingdom. It’s a fellowship that lives love, grows justice, serves the least, and welcomes everyone.

[1] Greg Carey, The Christian Century newsletter@christiancentury.org via mail229.sea81.mcsv.net

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