Tuesday, March 21, 2006

the kingdom of God is within y'all

I was in class today (class title: Theologies of the Gospel Evangelists, translation: the theologies of those who wrote and edited Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas), and we're currently focusing on Luke.

My professor said something I had learned before but forgotten, whcih I thought was important and might help us as Quakers as we think about the "Inner Light." He reminded us that in Luke 17:21 when it says "the Kingdom of God is within you," the Greek for "you" is plural, which of course we can't tell in modern English. What does that say about our faith, I started wondering?

In our culture where we imagine ourselves to be so autonomous, where we think we can get by on our own, or if we're religious, I can get by just me and God, it's hard to imagine what it could mean that "the Kingdom of God is within y'all," as my professor put it. This is an idea that we really started losing in our culture's urbanization and industrialism: living in a city, there's no need to know anyone, and unless you think about it you don't always recognize how much you depend on other people. This cultural pattern had a spiritual effect, and so churches became more individualistic as well: faith became a personal choice, asking Jesus into my heart, or I can believe whatever I want to believe because it's my own business and doesn't affect anyone else. It's a private matter, relegated to the "private sphere" along with family and my real self, where no one else is allowed to interfere.

Quakers do this, too. Often we come to meeting, whether programmed or unprogrammed, sit there for an hour or so, say hello to the people around us and listen respectfully to what others say during worship but pretty much focus on ourselves and our own relationship with God, and then go home. We've nourished our Inner Light, we've done our duty, let's get on with life. (OK, so no one would put it that way and perhaps that's an exaggeration, but I think it shows the kind of attitude many Quakers show even if they would say they act differently.)

I confess I am guilty of this at times. Sometimes I just want to sit in meeting in silence and not have to listen to someone share about something that doesn't pertain to me, or if I'm at a programmed service I don't want to sing such-and-such a song because I don't like the melody, or the theology, or whatever it happens to be. But I sit there and do my duty like a good Friend, I smile at those around me and say hello, and then I go home.

But what then is the point of gathering together? Why have Quakers traditionally seen it as so important to be part of a community of faith? If the Inner Light is sufficient to guide me where I need to go, if the Kingdom of God is within me, what's the point of a community?

I'm not sure where the early Friends got the idea of the Inner Light, although probably it's a conglomerate of John 1 where Jesus is referred to as the Light shining in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it, which Light/Word/Life was present in the beginning with God and was God, and then several passages in John, Luke and Matthew where the Kingdom of God is referred to as being present in the believer. I don't think George Fox or any of the early Friends knew Greek so they may not have picked up on the plural "you," although they spoke King James English so it may have been more distinct to them what was singular and plural, I don't want to look it up right now.

But even though the early Friends talked about an Inner Light, they also stressed the importance of community. They knew the power of God resides in a gathering of people who are faithfully listening to God together and challenging themselves and one another to action. The knew the Kingdom of God is present in the gathered community, not only in the individual.

So I'm challenged by this idea to push away all my American enculturation in this area and to meditate on what it means that the Kingdom of God is present in "y'all." I suppose one could think of it as Luke saying the Kingdom is present in everyone, so you all as individuals have the Kingdom in you, but in that case he could have written you in the singular, so that you would know he was talking to you specifically and as an individual. But instead he wrote "y'all." To me this means the Kingdom of God is present in people acting out of faithful attentiveness to God's "good news" in their midst. I know the idea of "good news" has been hijacked by some who call themselves Christians to just mean "the good news that we get to go to heaven," but Jesus said in Luke 4:18-19 that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to release the oppressed, to make the blind see, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and he invited those around him to join him in these things.

This is the good news of the Kingdom of God that the early Friends preached and lived. It seems like our autonomy, our idea of the Kingdom of God being in ME, has often kept us of late from being able to live these things out effectively together.


Peggy Senger Parsons said...

I was recently in Florida and discovered that y'all has a plural.
It's All y'all

Lovin' Life Liz said...

Thanks for this post! Community...loved the WGYF community and not sure if I believe in cloning--but wish I could clone that enviroment :) I long someday to live in an inentional Quaker (or like minded) community!

QuakerK said...

I've had similar thoughts, Cherice, in some ways--I mean on the importance of community. We think of witness and testimony as being an individual thing, but I've found plenty of Biblical passages which suggest we need to make a holy community (just one this morning in my Bible reading--1 Peter 2:9-10)

It's funny. Having recently led part of a Quakerism 101 course, and done all those readings, I found that the idea that the Inner Light was not a personal possession was very prominently stated by a lot of writers. It was found by turning in, but that was only the individual manifestation of a universal Light. Does that fit your "y'all" idea? Of course, that doesn't mean that Quakers follow that ideal. Why not?

I've been thinking about fellowship recently, and how fellowship has often come to mean sharing coffee and cookies after meeting. Perhaps we do too much socializing and not enough "knowing each other in the Light," and without that kind of knowing we can't have the kind of community the Luke passage seems to suggest. Do we need more forums in which to know each other? The blogs are a way to do that, I suppose (one of the reasons I've recently become hooked)--are they doing something we don't find in meetings?

Some thoughts and reactions, for what they're worth...



Peter the Anderson said...

Dear Cherice,
The space between all the sub-atomic particles is governed by some complex mathematical relationships and sustained by power. Scientists are continually trying to work out the maths, but the power is the power sent forth by Jesus's word, described in Hebrews 1: "sustaining all things by His powerful word." All things are sustained by Jesus' powerful word. Now, when I talk, I know that nothing gets sustained or done because my word has no power except that which God lends it - if He ever does, but Jesus' word has power because He is the creator who came to earth. The fact is that all those scientists are basically staring God's power in the face when they peer into the subatomic realms. They just refuse to recognise it, yet want to know exactly how he does it. They're like the curious journalists who pry into the minds of famous leaders rather than paying attention to what the leaders actually achieve. They're power junkies.
The implications of this solidity (what is more solid than God's power) for our lives are as you say. We continue to pray, trust and believe that God sustains us and the world we live in.

Paul said...

What I hear in what you've written is that I'll come to know God most clearly in community, not alone.


cherice said...

OK, Peggy--so the Kingdom of God is within all y'all--but only all y'all together! =)

Liz--agreed about WGYF community. I wish it could have lasted longer! There were so many cool people there I wish I could've gotten to know better. But I guess we'll all bump into each other again...it's a small (Quaker) world after all.

QuakerK--I think the idea of a universal Light being within each of us gets at part of what I was saying, and I think that's probably what a lot of early Friends were saying: it's an inner exploration for the individual. But I think maybe the early Friends weren't right about everything (*gasp*), and maybe only when our Inner Lights come together do we see the Kingdom of God more clearly. This is not to say that the individual's inner journey isn't important--actually it's of utmost importance! But I think we're made so that if possible, we journey together as much as we can. I agree about "fellowship" being equated with cookies and coffee. Now, I'm a big fan of both cookies and coffee, but I think maybe we should work on going a little deeper...but that's just me... =) I'm enjoying the Quaker blogging community, too. It fills at least part of that need.

Peter--that's a great way of putting it: "those scientists are basically staring God's power in the face when they peer into the subatomic realms. They just refuse to recognise it." I agree that whatever power that holds everything together is the sustaining power of God. Thanks for your thoughts.

Paul--yes, community helps us understand God better, and it's through this community that God chooses to bring for the Kingdom.