“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV)
Something has brought me back to this verse in the last few hours. It comes to me in the form of a question: In what way is Jesus speaking to the United Methodist Church through these words?
The center of the verse, it seems to me, is the key to hearing it. How do we hear the meaning of the phrase, “the kingdom of God”? What does that mean? What is that referring to?
John Wesley published two sermons on this text, one of them on this very question. He defined “kingdom of God” in terms of Romans 14:17, which speaks of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The kingdom of God for Wesley is a pneumatological kingdom and reality. It is the space in which we live by the Holy Spirit rather than by the wisdom of the world.
Modern exegetes would point out, I suspect, that reading Romans to define the words “kingdom of God” does not make sense. But let us dwell with Wesley a bit in this text, letting scripture interpret scripture.
Romans 14:10-16 sets the context for hearing Romans 14:17 and its description of the kingdom of God. In the chapter, Paul is arguing against judging each other in the body of Christ over food rules. Paul is convinced that what we eat and drink does not condemn us. There is no unclean food unless we regard it as unclean. But — and this is the primary point — if our brother or sister judges something to be unclean or forbidden it is not our place to create dissension in the body by scolding them or correcting them. Indeed, he tells the church that it should abstain from eating or drinking if by doing so it causes a brother or sister to stumble. So, he teaches the Romans both to withhold judgement — for that is Christ’s job — and to abstain from practices that might scandalize the church, even if they are convinced such things are harmless.
All of which leads him up to the description of what the kingdom of God is all about — righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Given the communal context of the verses that come before verse 17, I conclude that Paul is talking about these manifestations of the Holy Spirit within and among community. They are personal and social.
So, we might read these two texts together, Mark 1:15 and Romans 14:17, something like this: In Jesus Christ the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are at hand. Turn away from other forms of life. Turn toward Jesus and his way. Stop judging each other over non-essentials. Stop provoking and scandalizing each other. Rejoice in the good news.