Thinking Anglicans

The Manifestation of Christ 

or Good news for non-believers


Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and tonight at evening prayer the Church begins the celebration of the Epiphany. The Christmas story in Matthew tells how the Magi, wise men, came from the east to visit the infant Jesus, and this has long been interpreted as showing the Christ-child to the wider world of non-Jews near the start of his human life, as well as a recognition by them of his birth. During the next few weeks of the Church’s year there is a continuing focus on the story of how Jesus first came to public attention and how he began to teach his message or good news.

Many of us, perhaps all of us, can look around at our lives, at our relationships, at the state of the world, and wish it were better — whether for ourselves or for others. We can all dream of living in a place where it is good to live. A place where everyone has security and shelter and enough to eat, where everyone has value and is treated fairly, where no one holds grudges against other individuals or groups. In short, a society that is not “broken” and that lives at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Jesus’s message is that this place can exist, and that we have it within ourselves to choose to live there, at least in part. Each one of us can make the choice to live in that place of reconciliation and trust, peace and social justice. If we choose to live our lives in that way then we will be citizens of that place.

In Jesus’s language this place is the “kingdom of God”, because it is the place where God’s will is done, and that will ultimately is “love”. Jesus’s good news is that this kingdom, this “living in love”, is already at hand, here and now — it has already begun. All that we have to do is open our eyes and see the simplicity of it.

Opting in is entirely voluntary, and even those who have opted in will get it wrong, perhaps more often than not. So it won’t be perfect, because it is a place inhabited by fallible human beings in a world where not everyone has opted in and where mistakes and natural disasters also happen. Living this way is vulnerable. Jesus’s followers have long said that the kingdom will come at the end of time — and this is a recognition of the fact that the whole world isn’t going to accept the message for a very long while, if ever. So though the kingdom in all its fullness is not yet here, that makes it all the more important to choose to live in it now, and to share the good news and to encourage others to join in. We can still live partly in the kingdom, glimpsing the possibilities of its fullness.

What then is the role of religion in this, and what is the role of the Church? These are good questions. They highlight the problem with institutional religion.

Jesus, in the gospel stories, doesn’t have a lot of time for organized religion, and those who considered themselves holy and religious. He criticised the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom we might see as typical of local religious leaders and the religious establishment, types that existed then and still exist today. Many in both groups understood Jesus’s concept of God’s rule, God’s kingdom, but (like many others down the ages, and still today) they were caught up in their own concepts of spirituality and nationality and their own priorities, and either failed to grasp what Jesus was saying, or failed to act on it.

Where does this leave the Church? As people used to ask, do you have to go to church to be a good Christian? Certainly the Church has a lot to answer for. Over many hundreds of years it has helped to suppress and control individuals and populations, and allowed itself to be used by states to achieve their aims, or indeed has corrupted states to achieve institutional goals. It has allowed itself to be limited to a “spiritual” life, teaching a personal piety and obedience, and the promise that things will get better, sometime. It has sacrificed individuals and groups to its own ends. And it’s easy for its members to get caught up in its institutional life, serving on its boards and commissions and councils, even carving out a career in church politics. It’s easy too to get caught up in its “religiosity”: in personal piety, personal devotion and personal belief as ends in themselves.

The Church, however, has also preserved the teaching of Jesus, and other great figures, and never lost sight of the centrality of his message, even when it has largely failed to understand or implement it. Individual Christians have led some of the great reform movements, such as the abolition of slavery, moves to racial equality and sexual equality, mass education and healthcare, humane working conditions, prison reform and so on.

The Church, for all its many and profound failings, is the group of people who follow Jesus, and stand in line with him: the community of his followers down the ages, even if a divided community.

The Church is also the primary place where those who commit to trying to live in the kingdom can interact with each other. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where social justice and compassion are preached and practised. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where the hungry are fed, both literally and figuratively, and the homeless and destitute cared for. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where people forgive each other for the wrongs they have done to each other, and are reconciled. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where Jesus’s good news is proclaimed and human beings welcomed to participate in it.

Where does that leave the believer and the unbeliever? No mention has yet been made of belief in God, belief in heaven, belief in the infallibility of this or that, or the special nature of someone or something. The story of the arrival of the Magi shows that Jesus is for Jew and Gentile alike: in today’s language, Jesus and his message are for the believer and also for the non-believer. The gospels do not record that Jesus required belief in any dogma or religious doctrine — only trust in what he was teaching, trust to begin to do it. There is no test of belief to be a citizen of this kingdom. There is no religious creed, no statement of religious belief.

Rather, what is required is to start again: to be willing to recognize (without unnecessarily beating ourselves up about it) that we don’t always get things right; to be willing to both give and receive forgiveness; to act to bring about reconciliation and social justice to all our neighbours, where Jesus’s definition of “neighbour” is “someone who needs our help”; to join with those who are trying to do the same; and to share this good news with others. The kingdom of God is built one person at a time — it is here, it is now, it is indeed at hand; and one day it will exist in its fullness.

What about God? Everyone must come to their own conclusions on that, and about the literal existence of God, because God’s kingdom — the place where the rules are love and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and social justice for all — is a concept that exists whether you believe in God or not. Just as the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story indicates that this baby is significant to Jews and non-Jews, so too he, and the kingdom he announced, are significant to believers and non-believers.

God’s kingdom is for all. And it’s there, in part, right here and now. Just open the door, and let the kingdom in.

Simon Kershaw is a founder and editor of Thinking Anglicans.


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Philip AlmondMarkBrunsonPamPat O'NeillJames Byron Recent comment authors
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pluralist
Guest

No problem about thinking again, and giving and receiving, but every problem with boxing up the concepts and turning pointers towards thinking again and giving and receiving into a cult of an individual. Don’t criticise people with their own concepts, just because they don’t accept the wider messages freely adopted (and from other sources too)instead of having this cult of an individual. So good news for non-believers? Not really: the news was always available. It’s a sort of thanks but no thanks. But best of wishes with it if this is what you want.

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Great piece. This, for me, is the heart of Christianity: not debating the existence of a theistic god; but the radical social and interpersonal transformation of the Kingdom.

Philip Almond
Guest

Simon Kershaw: in your piece ‘The Manifestation of Christ or Good news for non-believers’ you have the following phrases: ‘….Jesus’s message is that this place can exist…’ ‘….In Jesus’s language this place is the “kingdom of God”,…’ ‘….Jesus’s good news….’ ‘….Jesus, in the gospel stories, doesn’t have a lot of time for organized religion,….’ ‘….understood Jesus’s concept of God’s rule…’ ‘….The Church, however, has also preserved the teaching of Jesus, and other great figures, and never lost sight of the centrality of his message….’ ‘….Jesus and his message….’ When you write ‘message’, ‘language’, ‘good news’, ‘gospel stories’, ‘concept’, ‘teaching’, what… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

“The Church is also the primary place where those who commit to trying to live in the kingdom can interact with each other. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where social justice and compassion are preached and practised. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where the hungry are fed, both literally and figuratively, and the homeless and destitute cared for. Here above all other places is (or should be) the place where people forgive each other for the wrongs they have done to each other, and are reconciled. Here above… Read more »

Pam
Guest
Pam

Simon’s article reminded me of the words of the centurion in the gospel of Mark: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” This is authentic language. Sometimes, believing feels like a burden, it involves responsibility and it involves trust. Belief and trust, in my opinion, are so interconnected it is not possible to have one without the other.

Kate
Guest
Kate

It seems odd to describe a Kingdom of God without God. For me, this Humanist description of the Kingdom of God is New Age, not Christian. I understand it as a description very well because I thought about Hell in the same way: I think many people who have severe depression have encountered Hell within themselves, just as you say the Kingdom of God is too. But I discovered that God was in that self-constrcuted Hell, loving and perceptive and all-powerful – yet still willing to talk to me. . It wasn’t Hell I had constructed and equally in my… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

A blessed twelfth night to all.

https://allpoetry.com/The-Journey-Of-The-Magi

Henry Dee
Guest
Henry Dee

Everything in this life passes away — only God remains, only He is worth struggling towards. We have a choice: to follow the way of this world, of the society that surrounds us, and thereby find ourselves outside of God; or to choose the way of life, to choose God Who calls us and for Whom our heart is searching.”
― Seraphim Rose

Susannah Clark
Guest

The thing is, God isn’t left out even if some people don’t specifically attribute things to God. The dogma is not what makes someone enter the ‘Kingdom’. What opens the door is the desire of the heart – for love, for justice, for kindness, for forgiveness, for mercy, for wholeness, for loveliness, for beauty – and for community and the tenderness and pain of shared lives. And the desire of the heart, if it is there, is there because God is there. So often in life, God is there, right at the heart of our lives, within us, just waiting… Read more »

jnwall
Guest
jnwall

Advice on liturgical dates, please, in response to your comment that “Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas, and tonight at evening prayer the Church begins the celebration of the Epiphany.” So I gather you are counting the evening of a day on our secular calendar as the beginning of the next day on the liturgical calendar. Assuming that evening prayer is on or about 6 pm, my question is, “When is 12th Night?” Is 12th Night the literal night of January 5th, or the night of January 4th, starting with evening prayer on the 4th? One thing… Read more »

Paul
Guest
Paul

Very insightful comments, the Kingdom of God without God is not actually a concept people believe in. What is described here is the worst excess of Protestantism, profound individualism dressed with (with no doubt the best of intentions) vague humanism. Working in a secular environment I have often observed and wondered if truly embracing a radical liberal take on Christianity would really move people, and can’t say I’ve seen much more response than a bored indifference. The Kingdom of God and its agenda, which is often forcibly described on these pages, must have transformation based on more than individualism otherwise… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Humanism’s rooted in both Christianity and the wider teachings of antiquity. Kingdom teaching, particularly its exacting command to love our neighbors as ourselves, is anything but vague.

For those who’re inspired by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Logos incarnate, I’m glad; but you don’t have to buy into a fusion of neoplatonism and Second Temple Judaism to seek to pattern life after his example.

Kate
Guest
Kate

Why is it that “love your neighbour” is so poorly reported? The full exhortation is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Loving your neighbour is important but it is entirely secondary to loving the Lord our God.

Susannah Clark
Guest

James, there are many paths that people walk. If they open their hearts and lives to love, then whether they are muslim, christian, atheist or agnostic, they are opening their lives to a deeper level of existence, and expressing some of the best of who they are. Jesus’s pattern of life is indeed inspirational and in my view revolutionary. The call to love, as you rightly say, is anything but vague: it is costly and exacting, but can also be lovely, expressing original beauty within a person – whether we call that ‘goodness’ or call it God. I believe in… Read more »

Susannah Clark
Guest

James, In my preceding post I tried to convey the way I see our existence, and of course there are diverse views and beliefs that people hold, and I’d concede there are many paths we can walk, and yet love is an action and an expression of heart that people of so many faiths (and none) can open up to, can champion, can grow through. Love is right because love is right. And it enlarges who a person is. It expands their parameters beyond just themselves. To me, love has its origins in an eternal reality, and rather in the… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Many will view the clauses as inseparable, Kate, but I don’t. Loving your neighbor as yourself has always struck me as more demanding than loving an abstraction.

Michael Skliros
Guest
Michael Skliros

Philip (Almond), I’m not qualified to answer your questions in any depth but know enough to assure you that the points you made are perfectly reasonable. I’m sorry that no one has acknowledged your post.

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

What a start to 2017, Susannah!

I also view Jesus’ life and its aftermath, the Christ-event, as the highest ideal — selfless, boundless love — entering into this world, and being lived out in the pattern of his ministry. That, to me, is the incarnation. I separate this from the mythic cloak in the Gospels; and, indeed, Jesus’ own belief in an imminent end of history. We can work towards the Kingdom regardless.

You say it as well as it can be said.

Philip Almond
Guest

Michael Skliros Thanks for your post. As you probably realise my post is a challenge to the ‘liberal christianity’ which most posts to Thinking Anglicans set out. Those posts (e.g. the one by Simon Kershaw) tend to pick and choose among what the New Testament asserts Jesus said and did. My challenge is: on what grounds do “liberals” say or imply that Jesus said and did some of those things but not others. I have to candidly say that I think they are imposing a view of God and Christ and Man and salvation on the Bible rather than facing… Read more »

Philip Almond
Guest

Who are the Christians? What does each Christian believe? What are the truths of Christianity? These 3 questions are closely linked but distinct. On the assumption (amply supported by the New Testament) that God’s action on a person is necessary to make that person into a Christian, then whether a person is a Christian or not (question 1) is an objective fact, known to God. Such a Christian who possesses the necessary and developed faculties will have beliefs and experiences. These, in each individual case, give the answers to question 2. The answers to question 3 are the essential objective… Read more »

Ian Paul
Guest

I would agree with Simon on many of the characteristics of the kingdom and its impact on society. But the idea that the kingdom of God is simply about human society, and not about the recognition of the kingship of God seems to me to be seriously mistaken, and an odd way to read the New Testament.

Fuller comment can be found here: http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/can-we-have-the-kingdom-of-god-without-god/

Ian Paul
Guest

Thanks Simon. Everyday ‘common sense’ reflection on the language of citizenship answers your last question ‘It is essential’. You cannot be a citizen of the Uk without recognising the monarch and her Parliament, and the rule of law that they enact. John, as often elsewhere, makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in the synoptics. ‘This is the work of God: to believe in the One He has sent’ (John 6.29). This is not about believe theological propositions (see A Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine for the better idea of ‘disposition’); it is about confessing Jesus is Lord as a central… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

“You cannot be a citizen of the UK without recognising the monarch and her Parliament, and the rule of law that they enact.” Unless England starts enforcing her gorier Medieval treason laws, you can certainly be a British citizen while advocating a republic and an end to the Westminster parliament in its current form: just as you can be a U.S. citizen while believing that the Constitution should be junked and William and Kate appointed dictators for life (a position that’d be heartily endorsed by the tabloids). Recognition of the status quo doesn’t bind you to conserve it. Likewise, it’s… Read more »

Ian Paul
Guest

James, you can disagree with the current set up, but if you don’t submit to it you will end up in jail.

we don’t disagree on method; we disagree on whether Jesus ‘like us, was often wrong’. That’s pretty fundamental!

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Of course we’d end up in jail, ’cause the state’s ruthless about protecting its monopoly on force. The Kingdom, at its best, rejects such legalism, and lets change flow from personal transformation brought about by the love of God, not coercion. And yes, we do disagree about Jesus’ capacity for human error, but that’s a separate issue from the fact that we must both reconcile teaching forged in the crucible of 1st century cosmology with later discoveries. However much we want to, since we’ve benefited from the fruits of 2,000 years of learning, we can’t think as the authors of… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

” Loving your neighbour is important but it is entirely secondary to loving the Lord our God. “

IMO, it is impossible to truly love God unless you love your neighbor–who, like you, is made in God’s image. This, of course, does not mean you must necessarily LIKE your neighbor; the two are not identical. To love your neighbor means to accept him as fully human, as subject to all the same credits and faults as you. To like him means to find the way in which all those human qualities are expressed in him to be appealing.

Pam
Guest
Pam

Pat O’Neill has expressed the truth about ‘loving our neighbour’, even while not necessarily liking our neighbour, a much more difficult concept. Unfortunately, we are all prone to judging our neighbour and none of us can deny that power imbalances exist, both in church and state. There is no power imbalance in our relationship with God. We are totally dependent and totally loved. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t judgment.

MarkBrunson
Guest
MarkBrunson

I would respond to Mr. Almond’s statements and challenges to simply say, we do deal with the “hard things” in the Gospel. We have to use the Spirit given to us and the experiences that our lives have given us in the Spirit to try to find our way in the thorny path of Scripture, which, remember, was written by humans no less fallible and no more open to the Holy Spirit’s guiding than we. Now, it is unlikely that you will accept that, and I will not accept the worldview in which we are so divorced from our Creator… Read more »

Philip Almond
Guest

MarkBrunson Thanks for engaging. Examples of the ‘hard things’ (in the whole Bible) I mentioned (sorry – I should have given examples in my post)are: Matthew 7:21-23 Matthew 13:39-43 Matthew 25:10-12 Matthew 25:41-46 Luke 13:1-5 Romans 1:16-5:21 Revelation 20:11-15 etc Does your ‘dealing’ with these statements include a conviction that Jesus did say these things and that they are true and that the final judgment stated in Revelation will happen. Would you like to give examples of ‘that we must accept that things that are clearly harmful to us are really good’? I agree that our worldviews are irreconcilable but… Read more »