If you have been here the past month of Sundays, and then some, you might have realized that we have strayed from the lectionary. That is because I decided to give me and you both a break from the lectionary cycle. Lately I have been preaching from scripture readings that either speak to current days’ events, or readings that have been particularly bothersome or compelling to me personally. So for instance, not too long ago, I preached on the scripture passage “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.” Remember that one? What a difficult text to fathom!
The one we just read together from Luke is another bothersome, but some might also say, compelling passage. It’s not in our three-year lectionary at all—for good reason, I think. What do you do with it? I mean, Jesus is warning the Pharisees and his disciples that good people, like Jesus’ followers, will be swooped up into heaven before the great tribulation. Yes, the end days are at hand. When that comes, sinners and non-believers will be left below to experience God’s fury—as in the days of Noah—as in the days of Lot—remember Sodom and Gommorah?
This text is so frightening if you take it literally, and so bizarre if you try not to, that I suspect that is why it is skipped over by our lectionary writers. But that doesn’t mean that it has been forgotten. Do you remember Tim LaHaye? He wrote a whole series of books based on this passage. The Left Behind series. I was refreshing my memory on his books this week. His series was referred to by one author as “Christian Sci-Fi.” I’m convinced though, that Tim LaHaye, a biblical literalist, really DID believe that the end was coming and soon. In 1995 he began writing what turned out to be sixteen books. He began his writing in1995-- that is, five years before the new millennium. Some people in the US, anyway, were already anticipating that the year 2000 would bring with it the return of Christ. Others were predicting cataclysmic events—wars and famines; world-wide computer crashes that would shut down our electric grids. I am embarrassed to say that I collected jugs of water and kept them in our basement—just in case. As the old Israeli proverb goes, “Trust in God, but remember to tie up your camel!”
Tim LaHaye ran with that idea; that the year 2000 was the end times. Fear sells. We all know that. His Christian sci-fi novels spawned four movies, and several video games.
I am not going to try to make sense of what Jesus says in this passage. I mean I understand the words, but did he really mean them? If not, what WAS his purpose? Was he trying to motivate the disciples into spreading the gospel and as soon as possible? I just don’t know.
For that reason, I am going to ask us to skip over that part of our scripture reading, like our lectionary writers have done. We’re in good company, right? But we are going to look at the first paragraph I read today—that our lectionary writers also skipped over. The compelling line for me is this: “The kingdom of God is among you.” That is what I read just a few minutes ago. But if you were reading along with me in your pew Bibles, you noted that there is a footnote at the bottom of the page. “Among you” can also be translated as “Within you.” Hmm. Why is that?
Glad you asked. The Greek word (and the Bible was translated into English from the ancient Greek), the Greek word is Entos. Entos has a double meaning. It can mean either among or within. So is it, “The Kingdom of God is among you?” Or is it, “The Kingdom of God is within you?” It’s anybody’s guess. Some English translations have it as among, and others have it as within.
Often when Bible scholars have trouble with a certain text, and we are all Bible scholars here, right?, we Bible scholars look at context. Who was Jesus talking to when he uttered those words? What had just transpired? Well, we know. Jesus is talking with those dastardly and totally despicable Pharisees. Who’s the cartoon character who say “dethpicable?” Daffy Duck? Those dastardly and dethpicable Pharisees. They have just asked Jesus, “When is the Kingdom of God coming?” Jesus says, The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.” And then he continues with the line, “The kingdom of God is within you or among you. Again, which is it?
Ok. There’s this. Would Jesus really tell THE PHARISEES that the Kingdom of God is within them? Doesn’t sound likely, right?
And if we take this scripture reading out of that First Century context, and apply it to ourselves, living in the 21st century—which is what we all do, right? If we apply this reading to us, it can come off as sounding downright dangerous. It’s a license for us to do anything we want. “Yes, I know what to do in this situation because the Kingdom of God is within me. It’s right up here (head), or maybe in here (heart).” Would Jesus really want us to believe that WE are the final authority? That all we have to do is look inside ourselves to discover what is right and what is wrong—without help from God, from Jesus, from the democratic laws we have created, from our faith communities? Not likely, right? For that reason, a lot of good scholars go with the other interpretation. Jesus says to those dastardly and totally “dethpicable” Pharisees; and also to us in the 21st century, “The kingdom of God is among you. I am ushering in the Kingdom of God. I am here!”
However. We have talked about Tim LaHaye. Now I want us to talk about another author—this one is actually a good one. His name is Leo Tolstoy. Ever heard of him? He has written some incredibly dense books, incredibly long books, like Anna Karenina, and War and Peace. Tolstoy was born in 1828. That’s just to give you a time frame.
He was already a globally acclaimed author when he experienced a Christian conversion. From that moment forward, he really dug down into scripture to discover its rich nuggets—nuggets that are foundational to our faith. One of them, at least for Tolstoy was this: “Dao not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek.” And another nugget for Tolstoy was this: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Tolstoy believed that Jesus absolutely meant within you—not among you. He was so taken by this saying in fact, that Tolstoy wrote a book, titled, The Kingdom of God is Within You. That book was published when Tolstoy was 66 years old. It is the culmination of years and years of thinking, contemplating, and then finally doing a deep dive into scripture.
The book, The Kingdom of God is Within You is dense and yes, it is longish—although not as long as War and Peace! I am distilling it into a few lines here. You can thank me after the service! Tolstoy basically says that “Jesus did not believe in using violence EVER. So, Christ’s followers must reject violence, even violence sanctioned by the state and/or by the church.” And here you should know that in Russia at that time, the Tsar was head of both the state and the Orthodox Russian Church. But Tolstoy also wrote that we are to take literally what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God within us. God has planted within each of us all we need to live good and moral lives. To live a Kingdom existence. Again, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” “Hmmmm.. Now here you may be thinking: “That part about rejecting violence. Was Tolstoy then a pacifist?” Yes he was. After accepting Christ into his life, Tolstoy became a pacifist.
Hmmmm again. You may be thinking: “The part about the Kingdom of God being within us? Was Tolstoy, then, an anarchist?” Yes, again. After his conversion, Tolstoy became an anarchist. His ideas about pacifism and anarchy are front in center in his book.
The Tsar knew what could happen in his country if Tolstoy’s ideas caught on, so he banned The Kingdom of God is Within You. But, he couldn’t ban the book everywhere. Translations of Tolstoy’s book circulated and some say that book, like the Bible itself, changed the world. How so?
Well, Mohandas Gandhi was living and working in South Africa. He was an attorney—not-so-well- known back then. He was working with Blacks there to end cruel oppression related to British colonialism. Gandhi read The Kingdom of God is Within You. It was the best book Gandhi had ever read, Think flashing lights—a volcanic explosion—going off in his head! He just had to write to the world-renowned, author, Tolstoy. That takes nerve, don’t you think? But he did. How do you address a letter ot the great Tolstoy? Dear Tolstoy? Dear Leo? Anyway,Tolstoy took Gandhi seriously. Thus began a rewarding correspondence between the two.
Gandhi came to believe, like Tolstoy believed, that there IS an authority, that is built into us. We might call it the blueprint for the Kingdom of God. How liberating! God is truly above all earthly powers, including kings and Tsars. Tolstoy and Gandhi did not see eye to eye on everything, though. Tolstoy believed that the only way to live as Christ’s follower was to withdraw from the evil world and its earthly authorities, In his later years he became something of a recluse. Gandhi, on the other hand, believed it was morally necessary to stay IN the world and work to make it better. Gandhi believed it was possible to employ non-violent means to challenge authority when that authority was in the wrong.
So, we have talked a lot about how “the Kingdom of God is either within or among you, and how it is understood by Russian, Leo Tolstoy, and one Indian, Gandhi. Now, let us turn to the US and Martin Luther King, Jr. He, too, was inspired by Tolstoy. He read Tolstoy’s books and quoted him in his sermons. But Martin Luther King was most influenced by Gandhi’s understanding of what Tolstoy had written. He wrote, “Gandhi is the greatest Christian of the modern world,” and also, “Christ showed us the way and Gandhi showed us it could work.”
“The Kingdom of God is among you.” Or “The Kingdom of God is within you. Which is it? One version, actually Tim LaHaye’s version, leaves the coming of the Kingdom of God squarely in God’s able, and almighty hands. One day, not in the year 2000, but one day, there will be a great tribulation, when the world’s non-believers will be wiped off the face of the earth. Then Christ will return with his loyal followers, and once again, the Kingdom of God, who is Christ, will live and reign on earth.
The other version of this text, The Kingdom of God is within you,” leaves the work of bringing in the Kingdom of God to us—although for sure, working in concert with God and Christ. We know how to do that work already. According to Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. God has put within us his blueprint for the Kingdom of God.