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.