Back in the 1980s when I was in seminary in upstate New York, it had become fashionable to talk, not of the Kingdom of God, but of the Commonwealth of God. As a recent arrival, both to the country and to that particular concept, I was fascinated to hear familiar phrases in bible readings and liturgy where Commonwealth supplanted Kingdom. I had no trouble understanding why this would be; Kingdom is associated with heredity, class, privilege and self-interest where the identity of a nation, or a race was embodied by, even ceded to, a particular family which had the means to both maintain its supremacy by force, along with the illusion that its primacy was underwritten in the heavens. Yes, I could see it, Kingdom: bad concept, with dodgy associations, particularly in a republic, Kingdom out, Commonwealth in. It would take me years to figure out why this just didn’t sit right with me.
A commonwealth of God is indeed much closer to what the gospel writers envisaged. It is about the welfare of everyone, attested to in scripture from the creation of the world, where all of humanity, not simply the ruling elite, was made in the image of God. Again and again the overwhelming justice of God is described, not as retribution, but as a demand for proper distribution of the resources of the land. The first lesson the freed slaves learn during their exodus from Egypt is that there is enough manna from heaven for everyone to have sufficient for each day in the desert. It is written into the charter of the Promised Land, not only that that all have enough, but provision should be made for those who have no-one to provide for them, like widows and orphans.
The classical prayer of Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, describes the character of the household of God: everyone should have enough, bread sufficient for each day, echoing the freed slaves’ desert experience. The feeding miracles, and Paul’s tirade to the wealthy Corinthians who hog the best of the Lord’s Supper, so embeds the notion of common-wealth as a key Christian concept that it is amazing that it has never become a foundational Christian doctrine. The same lack of focus on common-wealth has compromised the definitive Christian ritual, which has long ceased to be about everyone having enough. The Eucharist has become petrified into a precious liturgy of prescribed words by authorised people, where God’s justice is now believed to be honoured by sanitised silver plate and spotless starched linen.
So, if commonwealth is so good, why do we revert to the word kingdom, and to the Kingship of Christ? It is a commonplace now to hear in Christmas sermons that the titles for Jesus: Son of God, Saviour, Prince of Peace are titles already well-known as titles for Caesar. The gospel writers, in using them for Jesus, are either having a joke or are committing treason against Rome itself. They are hi-jacking the existing language of power in order to re-define kingship, from being about punitive brute force to representing God’s distributive justice, a movement in which everyone will have enough.
And you can imagine Herod’s people getting news of the Galilean preacher and his Kingdom of God, and saying, “Kingdom, that’s our word, he’s talking about us” as indeed he was.
So we can embrace Kingdom and Kingship because the followers of Christ inherit a commission to take these titles of earthly power and subvert and transform them. In doing so, we enact God’s Kingdom: those happenings which derive not from earth but from heaven.