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A Spiritual Reflection for Advent

The Reverend Ben Brown

A few days ago, I was at a weekday service. It came to the great reading in Luke’s gospel where Jesus says this, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or, “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you’ (17:20-21).

This is a key mystical teaching by Jesus. It’s worth wondering why we never get to share this reading on a Sunday morning. Our lectionary seems to skate round it. But I want to talk here, for a moment, about translation. Because when I heard this reading a few days ago, the translation was different from the one I have given you here and it went like this, ‘the kingdom of God is among you.’ Now, in my view, if you are in Church and you hear the reading, and it is translated like that as ‘among you’ you are perfectly in your rights to hurl a Bible through a stained-glass window (in your mind if not in reality).

Let’s just pause and talk translation. In the King James translation, it is translated as ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’ In the New Revised Standard version, which in many ways I respect, the main text translates the saying as ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ and in the footnotes we see that the word ‘among’ is also translated as ‘or within’. So, I turn to The New Testament, a translation by David Bentley Hart, now in its second edition, published by Yale, and passionately recommended here as a great Christmas present. Hart translates the saying as ‘within you’ and he provides this terrific footnote, ‘It is occasionally argued that the phrase would be better translated “among you” … but this is surely wrong. Entos really does properly mean “within” or “inside of,” … He (Luke) uses entos only here, with a distinct and special import’ (p 148).

So, what am I getting at here? Here is the problem. If you turn up at Church, or take down a Bible, and come across this saying and hear it/read it as ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ you will come away with a distinct and social sense of the gospel, the kingdom as a communal experience, perhaps involving cakes and possibly drinks and a lot of tables and chairs and maybe a computer screen and so on… does that matter? I argue that it matters a lot. Nothing that I am writing here is against the kingdom as communal, of course, in a sense it is communal, but if our understanding of God is essentially communal and only communal something disastrous has happened. Jesus reminds us that God is not simply communal and public. God is secret and hidden. ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or, “There it is!”

Savour and ponder those words. Jesus is telling us that this kingdom is neither this nor that, you can’t capture it in a slogan, you can’t cut it, you can’t dominate another with it, it’s a subtle mystery but even these words are failing and are tired and don’t capture the nature of the mystery that Christ is sharing. ‘For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you’.

God is closer to you than you are to yourself. The Church has, to an appalling extent, lost its mystical heart and the above section on within vs. among in translation is an example of how easily and terribly the mysterious and the mystical is lost under the bustle toward an outer interpretation that will send us all into the long deep sleep of atheism.

When I was starting to become interested in the Christian faith I went to a priest and asked him how to pray. He said that he prayed corporately, he prayed with the rest of the Church on a Sunday morning. He said it with a kind of no nonsense, a spade is a spade, brutality and as he said it to me, I felt something die within me, because my sense was that here was a true counsel of despair. The priest was simply speaking what he knew, which was that the kingdom to him was the kingdom which was among us. But it sounded and felt like a very small, cold and rather dull kingdom and I wanted to hear about another kingdom, another dimension, which went further and deeper. I wanted that inner kingdom that Christ teaches. I think a lot of us want that kingdom of infinite depth.

Our Church needs to mine the real riches of its mystical tradition, which means teaching ways of prayer which don’t simply stay stuck with words and concepts, and it means learning that the kingdom does not come with things that can be observed, it is neither here nor there, it is neither this nor that. The kingdom of God is within you. And once we begin to know and sense that mystery we can build that outer kingdom, but it starts from, and lives, within.

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