Kingdom of Light
“You are the light of the world,” said Jesus. But what on earth did he mean?
There is a certain quality within the mission of Jesus that he seems to expect his followers to duplicate. In the approach of Christ to the world, the implications of the Trinity are always at play. Where he says of himself, “those who have seen me have seen the Father,” he says similarly of his disciples; we are to love one another “so that the world may believe” (John 14:9, 17:21). “As you sent me into the world,” Jesus tells the Father, “So I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Evidently, conceding to the truth of Christ’s identity is never a static decision, a confession that can be made only in private; it is one that immediately moves the conceder into new realms. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked of Peter. “Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my lambs” came the reply (cf. John 21:15-18).
Wherever claims are made of Christ, a community inherently follows. For the Christian, we are ushered into a kingdom with a vastly different order, with a vastly new authority. The private confession “Jesus is Lord” is simultaneously made into the communal confession—both in the sense that upon confessing we join in the proclamations of a great cloud of witnesses, but also in the sense that we are ushered into a missional community by design. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify” (John 15:26). In other words, the universal invitation to believe the gospel is simultaneously an invitation to enter into the missional community and confession of the Trinity.
In this community, even what Christ calls us to claim about ourselves is far more than most feel comfortable claiming as true or real—or even possible—about themselves: You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. I am the vine and you are the branches. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Yet it is specifically these claims that Christ makes on our very identities which compel us to become these people, to receive his words, and to make real the promises of the God we profess. Confessing Christ, we have entered a kingdom marked by nothing short of the reign of God among us. Confessing Christ, we continue to be moved further into this good news even as we become representations of the very kingdom we proclaim.
This identity, though it is Christ who offers to clothe us, is not always an easy one to wear. As light that shines and branches that extend from the vine of Christ, we are ourselves to be the signs of God’s reign on earth, working for peace and justice here and now, showing the world that the God of peace and justice is near and also coming. We are those who confess the reign of God is at hand and then work hands-on as a means of that confession. As one author notes, “By its very existence, then, the church brings what is hidden into view as a sign and into experience as a foretaste.”(1) This is how we are able to be the light of the world; we are millions of mirrors reflecting the God of light.
Such reflection means there will be times when we ourselves are the light in the darkness, the hands that must deliver the cup of cold water or invite inside the one who has been deemed an outsider. There will also be times when the reflection of God’s reign calls for something more: light that refuses to be hidden though it would be easier, hands that work in opposition to injustice, confessions that fall in opposition to the world, lives that challenge the very systems that foster oppression and counter the hope of God. The identity Christ offers, like the identity of the kingdom he came to announce, precludes us from living as lone confessors, independent and unaffected by the cries of the world around us. Our mission to the world is our hope in action.
In a lecture on the nature of the church, given just a few years before he would stand in formal opposition to the Nazi influence on the church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed: “No one can pray for the kingdom…who thinks up a kingdom for himself…who lives for his own worldview and knows a thousand programs and prescriptions by which he would like to cure the world…”(2) On the contrary, the kingdom Christians foster and for which we pray is one we profess with the whole of our lives because it is God who reigns within it. We are thus able to reflect the God of light amidst the troubling darkness of the world because the reign of God is real, because we could no sooner have invented this kingdom then we could have invented this God, and because we know of no other kingdom that is worth confessing. We are the light of the world because of this hope we are sure: The kingdom of God is near.
(1) George Hunsberger, “Called and Sent to represent the Reign of God,” in Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Thy Kingdom Come: The Prayer of the Church for the Kingdom of God on Earth,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer(New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 34.
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