(A Series on the Kingdom of God: Part 1)
“Keep your eye on the ball!” is a typical comment heard in any sporting activity that uses a ball in its game. For me, it’s the phrase I use constantly as I try to teach my 3 year-old and 6 year old grandchildren how to play golf. There are so many distractions, even at a golf driving range, let alone an actual golf course. Over the years I have played with lots of golfers (mostly “hackers” like myself) and have seen the many distractions that keep them (and me) from becoming better golfers.
My suspicion is that the church and Christians in particular, has a similar problem. We often fail to keep our eyes singularly focused on the message of Jesus, and we become distracted with the many sights, sounds and interests that keep us from becoming better Christians.
So what is the “ball” that Jesus gives to us that should be centre of our vision? The gospel writers are unanimous that the core message of Jesus has to do with what is called the “Kingdom of God” (or also known as “Kingdom of Heaven.) Luke, in his gospel, cites Jesus as saying “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God . . . . for that is why I was sent.” (Lk. 4:43). Likewise, Matthew characterises Jesus’ teaching by saying: “From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme–that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives.” (Matt. 4:23, The Message).
Biblical scholarship is generally in agreement that the Kingdom was Jesus’ main focus, and that His teachings (and actions) were primarily calling people to join this Kingdom that was being introduced into the world through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of God’s Son. It was a call to become Kingdom people and to be access points, whereby others could see and experience the values of this kingdom and be drawn to it by the expressions of grace, compassion, kindness, justice and mercy.
Like golfers trying to keep their eye on the ball, the church gets distracted. For some golfers it’s the beauty of the golf course; they are out for the walk more than the game. Some Christians seem to enjoy their Christian surrounds more than they seek to be kingdom people focused on living a kingdom lifestyle. Other golfers focus so much on the hole into which they want their ball to go that they fail to watch the ball as they swing. Likewise, Christians can be so focused on their heavenly goal that they fail to live out the kingdom values in the present.
Some golfers are so worried about the hazards such as water, trees and sand, that they overcompensate and hit the ball in entirely wrong directions, just to avoid these hazards. Some churches are so concerned about being tainted by the world that they fail to take note of Jesus spending time with “sinners” and the unacceptable so that these people might have access to the kingdom too. Then, there are the golfers who spend more time getting the right equipment than they do actually practicing the right swing (or keeping their eye on the ball). The assumption is that if you have the best equipment (or church programme) you will automatically produce a better golf game (kingdom result). No doubt these things are very beneficial, but in the end they do not make one a good golfer or a good citizen of the kingdom.
Of course there are also those golfers who are so competitive that their desire to win actually works against their ability to relax and hit the ball smoothly and efficiently. The pressure mounts and they play poorly (this is especially true of amateur golfers known as “duffers’”). Some Christians and churches play so competitively against other Christians that they fail to realize that such competitiveness inhibits their effectiveness as access points of the Kingdom. They take their eye off the Kingdom and focus on their own local success.
Churches of Christ in Queensland are keen to create and foster “kingdom access points.” These are opportunities in local contexts that allow people who are not a part of the Kingdom of God to see what the Kingdom should and does look like. In order to build such effective access points, Christians must “keep their eye on the ball” and that ball is the very centre of Jesus’ teachings, called the Kingdom of God. Without such a focus, we will consistently find ourselves heading in the wrong direction which makes it longer to get there, dealing with obstacles (like trees on a golf course) that restrict our effectiveness, or stuck in a rut (a sand bunker out of which we don’t seem to be able to hit the ball). It is the Kingdom of God that must be and must remain the focus of our lives, because that is why Jesus came to this earth in the first place.