I have been wrestling with a question this week. It is an old question that is also very modern. It is a question, in its various forms, that we ask and ponder. The question is about how the world is and why? It relates to why things happen the way they do – especially the sad, painful and tragic experiences of life. It asks why these things happen when we proclaim a God of love – and more so, often the claim of God being ‘all-powerful,’ whatever is meant by that. If God is loving, kind and all-powerful, why is there suffering? Why Covid-19? Why poverty and earthquakes and tsunamis and bushfires and floods…? Why do people suffer?
The particular form of the question I read and have been pondering comes from the ancient writings of ‘Luke’ in his second volume, called ‘Acts of the Apostles’. As Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples, they ask him: ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ By this, they are asking Jesus if this is the time when he will restore everything to the way he proclaims it is meant to be. Is this the time that God will intervene and fulfil the proclamation of Jesus, that God’s Reign is here? Is this the time when the prophetic words of Jesus will come to fulfilment? In his first sermon in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks of release of captives, good news for the poor, liberation of oppressed and recovery of sight for the blind. Through his ministry he speaks of the hungry being fed and the poor having enough, the oppressed peoples of the earth receiving distributive justice… The disciples, therefore, want to know if this is finally the time when all of this will happen. Is this the time when all will be made new or restored; when God will act?
The question is pitched as coming from the time of Jesus but also reflects the community of Luke’s time in the late 1st century. This community of Jesus’ followers lived under the growing intensity of oppression under consecutive Roman Emperors and their local authorities. They lived in growing tension with local authorities of their own nation and culture as Christianity and Judaism moved further apart. They were a religious minority in a world where the few lived in affluence and power and the many were disempowered and impoverished. There were tensions and struggles that people experienced in their ordinary life that made them yearn for renewal and for God’s Reign to be inaugurated in the world. Why wasn’t it happening? Why hadn’t it happened? When and how would God’s Reign be realised within their hurting world?
Surely, and especially in the light of Covid-19, we ask similar questions, some from a religious perspective and others from an agnostic/atheist space, questioning the suffering in the world. Why is all this happening and what does it mean? Is there something, someone, behind it? Where is God in all of this?
Jesus proclaimed that God’s Reign is at hand, very near, and stands over and against the powers and empires of the world in which we live. His life, words and actions, proclaimed this Reign and people experienced the liberating love of God. His ministry was inclusive, bringing people into a community of belonging. There were outcasts and marginalised people, both rich and poor, sick, disabled, people of ‘questionable morals’ and they found themselves embraced in a love that was overwhelming in its inclusive beauty and healing as they found space within a community of grace. This love was the power of God released into the world and ultimately revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. Through crucifixion and death, Jesus was raised into new life in a new way. This Divine love overcame death and the powers and principalities of the world and these followers experienced this eternal, Risen Christ in their midst. Jesus revealed the face of God and the Risen Christ revealed and released this power of God in the world.
Jesus’ response to his disciples, and therefore proclaimed through Luke’s community 5-6 decades later, was that the times and ways of God are mysterious and known to God. BUT, he said that they were to wait a little while and the Spirit of God would come upon them and they would become witnesses to this Reign of God in the world! They would take the liberating, reconciling message of love and grace to the whole world!
In a very real way, this is Jesus’ answer – God’s Reign is here and all around! We are witnesses to this reality in our world. We experience God’s Reign of love bursting into our lives. We can experience it in many ways and places – the very real beauty and wonder of our world and of life together. We encounter the richness of life in story and art, music and movies, meals together and sharing the deep moments of life, joyful and sad. The Reign of God is that which is about love and beauty, wonder and joy, hope and resilience, justice and peace for all people. It is present wherever love is present, and people are welcomed and included into a community of belonging. It calls us out of ourselves and the individualism that predominates across our world and seeks the common good of all people and the creation. It is opposed to the violence, domination, oppression and injustice that destroys hope and denies life to so many people. It calls us onto another path beyond accumulation and dependence upon wealth and material possessions that claim our attention and being and separate us from others. It is revealed in the self-sacrifice and selfless lives that move us and inspire us and the wisdom of those ‘saints’ who call us into something deeper and more profound than the ordinary story that dominates the life of our world – ‘me and mine’, ‘power and wealth’, tribalism that excludes and marginalises, and discrimination and judgement.
When this apocalyptic good news bursts into our lives or gently takes hold of our being in a moment of profound wonder, love or suffering, we begin to see differently; we glimpse the world beyond the world, that Jesus called the Reign of God. Sometimes it flashes past, an idea through our mind or an image that grabs us but isn’t fully formed. Sometimes we are brought to our knees in deep yearning or hope, wonder or joy. We may not know where to go with this, what to do with the experience and we may fear where it will take us or what it might mean. Jesus’ invitation to his disciples, and through them to Luke’s community of disciples and down the generations to us, is to quietly let go, to pray in expectation and await God’s action in our lives – the Spirit of Life. As we experience, more deeply, the mystery of God’s Reign and awaken to its truth, justice and life, we become witnesses living into this life. Our witness is a life lived in the way of Christ, the way of peace, hope, inclusive love and justice. It becomes the reality of our words and actions and attitudes towards others and the world and it embraces every sphere of our being, political, religious, work, family, leisure. This is how the world is changed, when God can work in and through you and I to witness to the way of Love and justice.