top of page

Six Great Ends of the Church: 6. The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

Lessons: Acts 1:6-9; Ephesians 4:1-6

I had a conversation last week with someone whose adult child is in jail. Having a child in jail is not something any parent aspires to; there’s a lot of heartache involved. “But Joanne,” said this parent, “you should see the friends we’ve made in the visitors’ waiting room. We all know each other; we greet each other like family. We hug each other; we all know what the rest of us are going through.”

The visitor’s waiting room at the jail isn’t the way any of us would choose to make our dearest friends. But it occurred to me that everyone’s life is a little bit like the lives of those folks. Everyone has heartaches and heartbreaks; everyone has fears and losses. Everyone of us, when we’re honest, knows a little or maybe a lot about what the rest of us are going through, not because they’ve told us, necessarily, but because we’re going through that … crap … too. Whether it’s a kid in trouble or a scary diagnosis, an addiction or a job loss, a divorce or any of the other million and one losses and traumas that we face in life, we’ve all been through something. And then it occurred to me, that being the case, the visitors’ waiting room is a pretty good image for the church when it is faithfully fulfilling our 6th Great End of the Church: the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

We talk a lot about the kingdom of God here at First Presbyterian Church. The Kingdom of Heaven is the same thing; it’s just that the Gospel of Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God.” In either case, it’s Jesus’ primary metaphor for what God wants for God’s world. Jesus’ audience knew about kingdoms. They had a history of one bad kingdom after another, from the pharaoh in Egypt through their own corrupt monarchs and, during Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire. These human kingdoms were alike in three ways. First, they were oppressive. Ordinary folks had no voice or power. Second, they were structured so that over half of the annual production of wealth ended up in the hands of the wealthiest one to five percent of the population. This beginning to sound a little more contemporary; right? And third, these ancient kingdoms were religiously legitimated. The king claimed that he ruled by divine right, and that the social order, however grossly unjust, reflected God’s will.

When the people heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of God, it would have been one of those, “Oh my gosh! You mean it could be like that?” moments. Jesus reminded them of all the Scriptures explaining that God is passionate about justice; God desires peace and freedom; God created the world of abundance. Jesus showed them a radically different approach to power and authority. He didn’t use power or authority to impress or coerce. He expressed his power in acts of service: restoring health, raising people to life, breaking down social taboos, providing for people’s needs – in other words, demonstrating the love, justice and goodness of God. This is the model of radically different power he passes on to the disciples, and through them, to the church.[1]

Demonstrating the love, justice and goodness of God is, in a nutshell, what it looks like to join in the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world. “Exhibition” is different from the “proclamation” of the first Great End and the “promotion” of the fifth Great End. “Exhibition” implies showing, making visible, “witnessing.” In the Acts passage, before Jesus says farewell to the disciples for the last time, he says, “you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”[2] We inherit this charge to be Christ’s witnesses. His message was that the reign of God is already present and active; it is here, available for those who see that everything is holy, everything and everyone is precious to God and belongs to God. We, Christ’s church, are called to make that message visible in us, and in our church. That is how we “live a life worthy of our calling,” as the Ephesians passage puts it.

There are many ways a church can demonstrate the kingdom of God to the world. Last week someone told me they’d been going to a meditation group at another local church. The folks there asked where this person had been worshiping, and when the answer was First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, they replied, “Oh, that’s where all those activists are.” We brought ten overtures to Presbytery for our Presbyterian General Assembly in the last ten years, having to do with justice in Israel/Palestine, divestment from fossil fuels, and equal inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters; that’s more than all the other churches in the presbytery combined. We showcased both our commitment to the planet and our commitment to anti-racism at the February Presbytery meeting we hosted. These are all ways to exhibit or demonstrate the kingdom.

But we begin right here in church, among us and between us. If the church does not demonstrate the kingdom of God within the church itself, then who on earth will take it seriously? If the church does not demonstrate that God is a generous, loving and accepting God, who could believe it? And that’s where the church feels like that visitors’ waiting room at the jail. We exhibit the kingdom of heaven when we welcome and accept others as fellow travelers on this journey, whether or not we have anything in common beyond being perfectly imperfect human beings, going through a lot of crap; when we embrace them whether or not we agree with each other about politics or religious doctrine or any of the other distinctions that human beings use to define “us” and “them.” We exhibit the kingdom when we treat each other as God’s beloved children. We exhibit the kingdom when we recognize, as someone said Thursday morning at centering prayer, that “After all, we’re all in this together.”