The Kingdom of God is a spiritual Kingdom. If you want to see the spiritual Kingdom of God, then “the new way of seeing” you need is spiritual.
John 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
There is a well-known Japanese Zen Master from the 17th century named Bankei. His story is very interesting. When he was a teenager, he began searching for truth because he had a feeling his culture had lost track of something called “bright virtue”. He became a student of many different Buddhist masters throughout Japan and never found what he was looking for. He would meditate and pray without eating, without taking care of himself.
One day, he was so malnourished that he came down with tuberculosis. And just as he thought he was going to die, he hacked up a ball of blood and had an epiphany. “Suddenly, just at that moment,” he says, “I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the unborn.”
Well, what is the Unborn? He said it was the source of all being and the natural state of man. I’d be willing to wager it was something like what we call “the imago Dei,” the image of God in man. Bankei went around preaching, and his teaching stunned everyone around him: he didn’t ask anyone to follow him or to study anything in order to become enlightened. He told them that if they had faith in the unborn, then they’d realize they’re already enlightened by nature. This was a big departure from the rest of the Zen masters in Japan who said, if you want to be enlightened, you have a lot of work to do: you have to meditate, study scriptures, and all sorts of things.
Some of these other Zen masters challenged him. One said, “I don’t respect you. How can you possibly make me obey you?” So Bankei challenges this man to come to the front of the crowd to debate him, and so this man makes his way toward Bankei. “There,” says Bankei, “you just obeyed me.”
Another Zen master challenges Bankei to work a miracle. This man writes a sacred word in the air and the word is magically written on a piece of paper in the distance. He says, “Beat that!” Bankei turns to him, and to the crowd, and says, “My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”
You see what kind of man this is. He’s clever, yes. But more than a wise-alec, he’s wise in his own way. Because where others see the mundane, he sees a miracle. The stories about Bankei say that just listening to him talk made people enlightened, because he showed them a new way of looking at things. It’s all about a new way of looking at things.
Now I got to thinking about Bankei because when I was in RI last weekend, someone asked me about my faith and ministry. This person wasn’t churched, and considered herself spiritual, but not religious. She studied books about Buddhism and things like that. I have background in Buddhism, so I was helping her understand the teachings of Jesus through what she knew of Buddhist ideas. And I told her, Bankei’s “unborn” is a bit like what we call “the image of God” — it’s our very nature that we all hope to return to. But we have to change our way of thinking and and develop a new way of seeing, and repent, in order for it to be restored – and that comes by grace, through faith in Christ.
She said, well that’s a very novel way to have Christianity explained to her in Buddhist terms. Then she asked me, how would I summarize what I preach in church? I said, “I preach the Kingdom of God,” and she asked what that is exactly. “Well — it’s a bit like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Nutopia’. Ever heard of that?”
At a press conference on April 2, 1972, they said: “We announce the birth of a conceptual country, NUTOPIA. Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of NUTOPIA. NUTOPIA has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people. NUTOPIA has no laws other than cosmic. All people of NUTOPIA are ambassadors of the country.”
I told this nice lady, the Kingdom of God is a lot like that! At the heart of it, the Kingdom of God is not something that comes so much as it’s revealed. In the same way that Bankei taught that enlightenment was about a new way of seeing things, it’s the same with the Kingdom of God. And once you have this new way of seeing things, you can take part in the new world it reveals. Just like citizenship in Nutopia can be obtained by a declaration of your awareness of Nutopia, citizenship in the Kingdom of God comes with a declaration of your awareness of the Kingdom! Jesus talked about this in John 3:
“Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time to be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh is born of flesh, but spirit is born of the Spirit. Do not be amazed that I said, ‘You must be born again.’
He’s talking about being born of water and spirit – how does that have anything to do with “making a declaration of awareness”? Well, being born of water – that’s baptism. That’s our declaration of awareness. Awareness of what? What the Spirit reveals. See what Jesus says a few verses later about what the Spirit reveals: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Baptism is our declaration of awareness, our belief, that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son – and everyone who believes in Him does not perish, but has eternal life. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about.
And what I told this person in RI was that – no matter what, whether she believes it or not, the Kingdom of God is here. Just because it’s might not yet be real for her doesn’t mean it’s not real. It might seem hidden – but not because the Kingdom of God is some secret society that is intentionally kept hidden from the public by its members – that’s not why it seems to be hidden. The Kingdom of God only seems to be hidden when we don’t know how to see it.
It’s just like Bankei. He taught that everyone was already enlightened, they just didn’t know how to see it. He taught that every day life was a miracle, but they needed a new way of seeing to see it.
Similarly, the Kingdom of God is a spiritual Kingdom. Jesus was clear about that. If you want to see the spiritual Kingdom of God, then “the new way of seeing” you need is spiritual. That only comes from the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The Spirit came at Pentecost, thousands of years ago. And when the Spirit came, watch what the Apostles did: they preached the Kingdom of God by raising awareness that Jesus Christ was risen, and that he is Lord and Christ! Peter quoted the prophet Joel, saying “In the last days, God says, I will pour out My Spirit on all people” — and he said these words were fulfilled. The Spirit was being poured out on all the people, “guiding them into all the truth” — and the truth is, Christ is Risen, and he is King, and this is his Kingdom.
On the day of Pentecost, the Kingdom didn’t come – the Kingdom was being revealed. God was already King, Jesus was already Lord. They just didn’t know it yet! But when spirit was poured out on all those folks, that’s when they received a new way of seeing that showed them the Kingdom.
How do you see the world? Do you see the same old, same old? I challenge you to let the “Spirit guide you into all the truth” — and give you a new way of seeing.
You might ask, how do I do that? That’s what Nicodemus also wanted to know. How is one born of the Spirit? How does one gain this new way of seeing from the Spirit? That’s why Jesus gave his enigmatic answer, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus is saying, don’t worry so much about the how of it all. The Spirit has a mind of its own – just trust it. You might not know “where it’s coming from,” or “where it’s all going,” what it’s leading to – but you know it when you hear it. The “still, small voice.”
The history of Christianity is full of stories about men and women like Bankei. Buddhism is a works-based religion – so his message of “the unborn” was very novel and unusual in his Japanese Buddhist culture. But Christianity is a religion of grace. Actually, some would say it’s not even a religion – ironically, Christianity itself might be the very definition of “spiritual, but not religious” — just look at people like George Fox and Mary Dyer.
George Fox said, “The Lord showed me, so that I did see clearly, that he did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people’s hearts… his people were his temple, and he dwelt in them.” George Fox and his followers were notorious for challenging priests and pastoral authority, saying instead that God wanted direct relationships with his people. No mediator except for Jesus Christ.
Mary Dyer also believed this. She challenged the Puritans who ruled over the Massachusetts Bay colony, believing in freedom of conscience and a spiritual life that is unregulated by religious authority. When those religious authorities put her to death in Boston Common, her last words showed how much more important the Spirit was to her than anything else in the world.
She said, “This is to me the hour of greatest joy I ever had in this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no heart can understand the sweet incomes and the refreshings of the spirit of the Lord, which I now feel.”
In the past, we also talked about local legend Jonathan Mayhew, my wife’s ancestor, whose preaching inspired the Founding Fathers to act in the name of their own freedom of conscience not just against religious authorities, but even the civil authority of England. What is it about Christianity that inspires such “naughty behavior”? It’s the Spirit!
The Spirit gives us a new way of seeing that is life-changing in the greatest of ways. It makes you see yourself and your relationships to people and the world in a whole new way – because with this new way of seeing, you see a new you, new relationships, a new world. God says, “Behold! I’m making all things new!” And that’s what the Spirit is doing: showing you all the things God is making new by giving you a new way of seeing. And in this newness, there is a profound freedom that comes from knowing God’s liberating love.
The Spirit has inspired people in this way since the beginning! Let’s look at the days when the Spirit was first poured out on all people.
Going back to the story of Pentecost, we need to take note of something very important: when Peter announces the Kingdom of God, he quotes Joel. The first words of this prophecy are, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out My Spirit on all people.” In the last days!
Many tend to think of the “last days” as something yet to come. We watch the Middle East closely, especially Israel, and we wonder – are the last days upon us? But the Apostle doesn’t quote Joel on “the last days” and say, “This will come true in two thousand years” — his message was that Joel’s words were coming true right then and there!
The apostles are very clear – they were living in the “last days”. The question is, the last days of what? The last days of the old covenant.
You see, Jesus the Messiah had already come, he’d cut the new covenant in his blood – he was offering the new way to anyone who wanted it – but the old covenant was still standing. The Temple, the Priesthood, the Law. But its days were numbered – it was the last days of the old way.
Within just 40 years, the old way was gone. There was no more Temple. There was no more priesthood. Paul said, “When the priesthood is changed, the law must also be changed” — that means the Old Law was no more too. It was replaced by the royal priesthood of Jesus after the order of Melchizedek, and the royal priesthood of all the believers. And what do you call a community of royal priests of God except – the Kingdom of God?
Just as Jesus promised, his generation had not passed away until the words of the prophets were all fulfilled – the days had finally come when a New Covenant was made with the people of God, not like the Old one – but a new and better one, where He writes the laws in the mind and writes it in the heart, just like Jeremiah foretold.
By AD 70, the old way was gone – it had passed away completely. There was now only the new way. The Kingdom of God had been taken from those of the old way, and given to those of the new way – “a people who bears the fruits of it” (Mt. 21:43). And of course, what he means by the fruit, is the fruit of the spirit – that’s the fruit by which you know the tree — and the tree is the Kingdom of God.
Where the fruits are, there the Kingdom is — if you have ears to hear, and eyes to see.
This last part is a very important part of the story that is often forgotten. “You mean to tell me the Kingdom came and nobody noticed it?” Absolutely. It’s not hard to see why. People often forget that God’s Kingdom is spiritual. You might think, “I’m still waiting around for God’s Kingdom to come.” You might be watching current events in the Middle East, looking for the Kingdom to come with “observable signs” — you might be listening to people who are saying, “Look, here it is!” or, “Look, there it is!” — and you might forget that Jesus said all those years ago that the Kingdom doesn’t come with observable signs, can’t be pinpointed in a specific location and doesn’t have a specific appearance – but the Kingdom of God is “within you”, the Kingdom of God is “in your midst”.
If you miss this, you miss the good news – and it’s really old news, at that!
The Apostles on Pentecost were clear – the “Kingdom is in your midst!”. Well, that was old news – Jesus had already said that! But it wasn’t until the Spirit came and guided them into the truth – and gave them a new way of seeing – so that they could declare their awareness that The Kingdom is here! Jesus is Lord! And in those “last days” of the old ways, the Spirit was poured out just like Joel promised, so that all the people received a new way of seeing — and they turned toward the new way.
That’s what it was called, too – The Way. Being a follower of the Way sometimes got them into trouble – because the new way is a life of the spirit, whereas the old way was a life of rules and works. All of the priests and rulers who were in charge of the old way, they lost control over the people who became followers of the new way. The people of the new way had a new way of seeing, and they didn’t need the priests and rulers to show them how to live anymore – they had Spirit guiding them into all truth, and they were able to see it for themselves.
Even though the Jewish version of the old way passed away in the 1st century, the old way still exists everywhere today in many forms. The old way is the way of the world – rules and works. Even with the best intentions. For example, what do people say today about how to fight racism? “We need to do more work.” That’s the old way at work.
But Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was a new way man – he preached about a new way of seeing. He had a dream – a vision. He preached about a new way of seeing. As a follower of the Way, he preached a new and living way opened to us by the blood of Jesus – a new and living way of reconciliation based on love and forgiveness.
MLK offered more than just a hope for racial equality in America – he shared a vision of the Kingdom of God itself. That’s why he was so effective. He was sharing God’s blueprint for our lives. And he was able to do this because the Spirit guided him into all truth – and he was shown the same truth that St. Peter was shown when he said, “God does not show favoritism, but welcomes those from every nation who fear Him and do what is right. He has sent this message to the people of Israel, proclaiming the gospel of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”
There is no future for humanity in the old way — only in the new way.
This new and living way that Jesus gives us isn’t work – it’s grace. We don’t have to work toward it – we simply need to see it with a new way of seeing. This is true of peace, of forgiveness, it’s true of all good things. Love, success, friendship, marriage – a new way of seeing can enrich and renew our lives, and this new way of seeing comes from the Spirit. The Spirit will guide you into all truth — “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5).
Doesn’t that sound easy? It’s as easy as Bankei saying, “everything is resolved perfectly in the unborn.” It’s as easy as joining Nutopia. But where these lack a firm foundation, in Christ you have an unshakeable rock of a foundation. In Christ, who lived and died and rose again for us, we can truly say, “All things work together for the good of those that love God.” Everything is resolved perfectly in Him. In Christ, God reconciles all things to Himself – heavenly and earthly. Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus!
His love is here for you, in all its glory, if you have eyes to see it with a new way of seeing.
And once you see it, you can never unsee it.