A dying church and the dirt kingdom

The very early church was not powerful, it did not own properties. It did not have exclusive hierarchies. Indeed its whole understanding of hierarchies was upside down: leaders were to be servants and no one person was better than another. All are included by Christ says Paul: whether slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile (Gal 3:28). These first Jesus communities were trying to live in radically open and new ways.

In the wider society Christians were in the minority and were viewed as a strange (possibly cannibalistic) cult. This is the context in which Jesus words about the kingdom of God were being heard and discussed.

Jesus does not talk about the kingdom of God as a counter empire kingdom that will sweep in and overtake the existing power structures of Rome.

This kingdom Jesus talks about is strange. It is not like any other:  a kingdom that is about tiny seeds and growth in the good, dark earth.  A kingdom that is imaged as an unglamorous, unintimidating shrub, not a symbol of dominance, but a place for birds to shelter and make homes (Mark 4:26-32).

This kingdom Jesus talks about is of an entirely different substance. It is not seen but its impacts are. This is a kingdom, among us (not airlifted to the after life) where the poor are blessed and valuable, those who are lost find belonging and those who hunger are fed… a kingdom where the powerful use their power to serve the weak… a kingdom where all are welcome.

This is an earthy humble kingdom. This is the dirt kingdom.

Over the centuries the church and the state became intwined. As the church moved from the margins of society to the centre it assumed all kinds of powers. The strange dirt kingdom that Jesus talks about was increasingly replaced with an image of God’s kingdom that looked very much like the kingdoms of this world: dominating, excluding, powerful and wealthy.

These days it is often said that the church is dying.

What I suspect is that the forms of church that have to come to dominate over the centuries may be finally coming to an end.  I am ok with this.  Now the distorted images of the church and of God’s kingdom might finally die too.

In this new context the kingdom of God that Jesus teaches about and embodies and nourishes among us might be liberated from the glittery images of the kingdom that the church has fallen captive to over the centuries.

The forms of church that have been dominant may be dying, but this is not the end of the story. Death is never the end of the story for us Christians – our God is the God of death and resurrection – the one who births startling new life amidst suffering.

If we are open, if we are attentive, who knows what new life we are being called to be a part of?  As we put down all the gold, the power and the prestige and recognise our place again on the margins of society we may rediscover the dirt kingdom here and now, growing among us, the reign of God that turns everything upside down as it welcomes all.


Rev Dr Sally Douglas

An extract from the Reflection at worship on June 14 at RUC.