Yes. there is the Lutheran “Law and Gospel” approach,” Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws,” and Evangelism Explosion’s question, “How do you think you can get into heaven”? But now, hesitant to make evangelism calls, we recently have tried to make the church more attractive to others. If they come, they will hear the Gospel. Events are staged for the community and the evangelism committee has been replaced by a “marketing task force.”
But… much earlier, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news” Mark 1:15. What good news was Jesus announcing and why is it critical for evangelism today?
An Important Question
Church membership is declining in the LCMS and in other mainline denominations. The loss of a generation to organized churches is even affecting evangelical mega churches. Fear generated by emptying pews is leading to a new emphasis on evangelism, albeit with a desperate edge.
What is going on? Secularism is winning. From soccer stressed families, to college entrance exams, to the anxious chasing of happiness, God has receded into only one of the available options. With satanic gargoyles glaring from above, Luther despaired of finding a gracious God. With cell phones in hand, folks seem less worried about that. Maybe Luther’s discovery of the Gospel, sometimes transformed into cheap grace, has won the day. Sure, there still is the law about going to church, Bible reading, praying, sex, and envy, but forgiveness is almost always automatic.
Competing with secularism is a sari clad Hindu, the Hijab covered Muslim, a Buddhist temple in Milwaukee, and our Jewish neighbors. How can we communicate with those whose whole orientation, culture, and teachings are so different from ours? Under colonialism, Christian missions operated freely in foreign lands. Little did we expect that now other religions would see in secular America and Europe a fertile ground for growth. Now these religious folk are our neighbors.
What is the Kingdom of God?
It is great news! It was good news for the people who heard Jesus the first time and it is good news today. It wasn’t just the “reign of God” (Arias, 1984) nor was it just the path to heaven. It was and is the fulfillment and the realization of the promises of the prophets. They said there would be food for the hungry, well watered flowers in the desert, healing for the crippled, sight for the blind, and the deaf would hear. Prisoners and slaves would be released and everyone would have a job and home sitting under their own vine and fig tree. With swords beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, there would be peace, not war. Above all, scarlet sins would be white as snow.
For Jesus’ crowds the message was clear. Like Simeon, they had been hungry for this news. No, they were mistaken about to whom it would come and how it would come to pass, but they knew what it would be. Not so today. For most Christians, the kingdom is a fuzzy thing. Maybe it’s the way to heaven, or the growth of the church. Jesus is the king and we are part of that kingdom but… and for secular folks, the word kingdom, it just doesn’t compute.
Kingdom is a political concept. Daniel, adviser to emperors, knew this. The kingdom to come will be like a stone, not cut out by human hands, which shall break kingdoms and empires and fill the whole world. It will be a kingdom that shall never be destroyed and will stand forever. (Dan. 2: 44) God’s kingdom is far greater than Trump’s or Putin’s or Xi’s. Kingdom workers aid immigrants on Aegean shores and Mexican villages. They refuse to fight and kill just for oil. With love they forgive the enemies that ridicule and persecute them. They work on macular degeneration and stem cell research. Some call for socialism to aid the poor, and others seek a moral capitalism. Isms cannot contain the kingdom, and political parties are poor imitations.
Jesus announced the kingdom to people who knew its promises but who, like us, greeted the news with skepticism. Food for the hungry, healing the blind and the lame, peace in the world of conflict? Then Jesus acted. The hungry were fed, the blind healed, the lame leaped. From the cross there was forgiveness for enemy troops. But, is that enough? What about the millions of the other hungry, the wards of African clinics, the unemployed masses, the stupid wars?
How does the kingdom come? It won’t be an election or an army. A sower scatters seed; a fisherman casts a net. No, it does not look like much, no more than a mustard seed. You would never guess that that dry field would yield a treasure or that one pearl would be worth that price. Between the miracles of Jesus and the perfect fulfillment of the promises, we live in the kingdom becoming. There are weeds in the wheat, and bad fish with the good. But the seeds grow to harvest; now the mustard tree shelters birds, and the fish feed thousands (Matt. 13).
The Kingdom is at Hand
How could Jesus say something like that when later he would talk about wars and rumors of wars (Matt. 24:6) Where is God’s kingdom as authoritarian rulers replace compassion with walls? The promised kingdom is at hand precisely in the midst of threats and terror. In fact it comes even in the midst of destruction when one is taken and the other one left. (Matt. 24:41) Take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife, “The Kingdom Ours Remaineth.” It comes at the heels of the four horsemen. Who could have guessed a Christian cathedral would overlook the ruins of Nero’s Rome? Who can imagine a kingdom today without national boundaries?
In the midst of the current kingdom crisis Jesus says, repent. As a criteria for judgment Kingdom repentance is the important one. It has to do with the promises of the kingdom. Are the hungry fed, the thirsty given to drink, the sick cared for, the stranger welcomed, the naked clothed, the imprisoned visited. (Matt. 25:31-40) These needs are broadcast on every TV and printed in every paper. Refugees at the borders, prisoners of conscience, children searching for food in garbage dumps, deserts ruining farmland are here for all to see. The called for repentance is personal, financial, societal and political. Might it even be ecclesiastical? Nothing else will do.
Then Jesus said, “Believe the good news.” The promises of the kingdom are coming to pass. The share of people undernourished in our world has gone from 28% in 1970 to 11% in 2015. An estimated 1.1 billion people in urban areas and 723 million people in rural areas gained access to improved drinking water from 1990-2008. Legal slavery has disappeared from 197 nations in 1800 to only three in 2017. Children dying before their fifth birthday have gone down from 44% in 1800 to 4% in 2016. HIV has declined 25% worldwide. Malaria control efforts have cut deaths by 20%. Moves against tuberculosis are saving millions of lives. Battle deaths have gone from 201 per 100,000 in 1942 to less than 1 in 2016 (Rosling, 2018). Best of all, the love of Christ is now being preached for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in nearly every nation of the world.
Why is the news so good? Did everyone suddenly become Christian? No, but Christ is working through his word in people and events, inventions, religions, politics, and wars and rumors of wars. Fewer people are hungry in South Asia because of the green revolution helped by a Lutheran, Norman Borlaug, six U.S. universities, and concerned rulers in India and Pakistan. There are far fewer poor because of the genius of the Chinese people lifting up their nation and economy. The word of God works in the common dreams of people, the motives for improvement, the telling of Christ, the sacrifices for the benefit of others.
Telling the Good News
A district evangelism committee was trying to do the Evangelism Explosion program when one of its members, an African American cab driver, said, “You know what I do?” When those stressed folks get into my cab, I ask them, “You got any hope?” Then I tell them why I have hope and it isn’t just about heaven, it is about what’s going on now and here. It is a bit like Jesus told John then sitting in prison, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. (Matthew 11:4-5)
Given all the world’s bad news, any such announcement of good news will be a real surprise. Of course there is bad news but God is working on it. Through his word in us he is helping feed the hungry, provide potable water, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Yes, and God’s word moves us to help beat swords into plowshares, and tanks into tractors.
Come pray with us the “Kingdom Prayer” whose first petition is really “Thy kingdom come.” (Metzler 1999) God’s will is the fulfillment of the kingdom promises. Daily bread is for the kids in the garbage heaps and forgiveness is also for terrorists. Protect us from the temptations to do nothing and deliver us from the evil one, who is in charge of everything against the kingdom. For Thine is the “kingdom” and the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.
Do You Have Any Hope?
Yes, we have hope because the kingdom of God, God’s wondrous peace, is at hand. Secularists dream of a peace beyond war and the latest shootings. Jews and Muslims greet others with holistic peace in “Shalom” and “Salaam.” Hindus and Buddhists embrace the power of peace in Ahimsa. How might we speak of the hope that is in us if the word “kingdom” no longer communicates? Might we say, “God’s peace is at hand?”
We have hope that hungry people will be fed, there will be enough drinkable water for all. The sick will be healed and people will have jobs and homes. Prisoners will be freed, people will forgive one another and the violence of terrorism and war will shrink. We praise the efforts of all people, religious and secular, who work to bring about all those blessings of peace, the Jewish hospitals, the Muslim ambulances, The UN peace keeping troops, Hindu non-violence, and Buddhist generosity.
Fuller realization of God’s peace will come when all of us repent of those sins which keep these blessings from happening, our fears, our tribal loyalties, our selfishness, and our hatreds. The special role of Christians to this joint project is the forgiveness of these sins because of Christ’s sacrifice for us. That forgiveness is certain because it does not depend upon our efforts but on the wondrous love of God revealed in Christ.
God’s peace will also come as we believe that this peace is coming. Away with blind skepticism. Despite all the bad news and threats of disasters, God is working through us, and to bring about his peace. In the midst of tragedies God brings his peace in acts of nobility, extraordinary love, remarkable endurance, and a rebirth of hope. Inspired by the Prince of Peace, we see that peace coming and work for it until we are called to experience it fully in the resurrection.
Come, let us pray together, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come…..”
Arias, Mortimer. Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. Arias proposes an Evangelism of the Kingdom especially relevant to the liberation struggles in Latin America. Since then the dominance of secularism and the interpenetration of religion and cultures pose new challenges to evangelism.
Metzler, Norman. ” The Lord’s Prayer: Second Thoughts about the First Petition” in Chilton and Evans (eds.) Authenticating the Words of Jesus. Leiden: Brill Academic Press INC. 1999.
Rosling, Hans. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better You Think. New York: Flatiron Books, 2018). Much of the statistical information in the book is derived from the 2015 U.N. reports of progress on the Millennium goals.
Stendahl, Krister. Paul among the Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976. Stendahl argues that Romans is really about how Jews and Gentiles can live together as fellow Christians because they are saved by grace and not by keeping the law.
*Robert Schmidt served as the Dean of Theological Studies at Concordia University, Portland. Earlier he taught at the Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria and was a participant in Colorado State University’s Pakistan Project, aiding the inauguration of the green revolution in Pakistan and India.