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The Patience of the Kingdom

One of the values that animate us at Until Zion is something we call “the patience of the kingdom.” It is the conviction that the way that the kingdom of God moves forward is through small, hidden acts of ordinary faithfulness done with persistence and patience. It is the unhurried way of the kingdom of God.

When Jesus taught about the kingdom in his parables, the quality of patience was a primary feature he sought to highlight. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that quietly and unexpectedly grows into the largest tree in the garden (Matthew 13:31-32). It is like yeast that a woman kneads into dough, and patiently waits for the fermentation (Matthew 13:33). It is like a sower generously scattering seed onto different soils, and then waiting for the good soil to yield its harvest in its own time (Matthew 13:1-23). Or it is like a field mixed with both wheat and weeds where impatient workers are told by the master not to uproot the weeds prematurely but to wait for the time of harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). In all of these parables, the listener is exhorted to have patience because the kingdom of God advances in unexpected ways that can be overlooked and underestimated by those who do not have eyes to see.

We see the patience of the kingdom in the incarnation itself. In order to save the entire cosmos, the King of this kingdom became small, ordinary, vulnerable. Rather than rending the heavens and melting the mountains like wax, Christ stepped into the world quietly and most of the world didn’t even notice. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness. I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them… (Henri Nouwen, "Search Amid the Small" in Gracias: A Latin American Journal.)

The patience of the kingdom subverts our craving for the big, the powerful, the spectacular. It redirects our attention to the small, the weak, the hidden. It is, after all, utterly astounding that the first thirty years of Christ’s Incarnation were spent in almost complete obscurity. For the first 90% of his life, he seemed to be doing nothing. The people of Nazareth who helped raise Jesus for three decades didn't have a clue that he was God in the flesh. He took thirty unhurried years just to grow into adulthood. The incarnation is the embodiment of the patience of the kingdom.

This quality of patience also captured the imagination of the early church. Alan Kreider in his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church writes:

Patience was not a virtue dear to most Greco-Roman people … But it was centrally important to the early Christians. They talked about patience and wrote about it; it was the first virtue about which they wrote a treatise … [they] called patience the “highest virtue,” “the greatest of all virtues,” the virtue that was “peculiarly Christian.” The Christians believed that God is patient and that Jesus visibly embodied patience. And they concluded that they, trusting in God, should be patient – not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve their ends. (Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 1-2)

The early church not only developed a theology of patience, they formed communities of patience and fostered the character of patience even under conditions of extreme persecution. And as they were being formed into the patience of the kingdom, the Spirit of God was brewing a quiet ferment of incredible growth that “operated reticently, by what theologian Origen called God’s ‘invisible power.’ It was not susceptible to human control, and its pace could not be sped up. But in the ferment there was a bubbling energy – a bottom-up inner life – that had immense potential” (Kreider, 3). For Kreider, the growth of the early church is best described not so much as “the triumph of Christianity” or “the victory of Christianity” but simply as the patient ferment of the early church. It was the quiet, hidden, unhurried growth of the mustard seed.

Why is this so important to the work we do on the margins? Doing ministry in under-resourced communities can lend itself to two different temptations. The first is the temptation of triumphalism. This is the delusion that leads us to believe we can build the kingdom of God with our own hands. It is the conceit that believes if we bring the right resources, leadership, and theology, we will be able to control and speed up the work of the kingdom through our own effort and remake this neighborhood into the city of God. It is far too often the case that this kind of messiah complex results in far more harm than good.

The other temptation is the temptation to disengage. We can be so daunted by the complexity and intractability of issues surrounding poverty and injustice that we are tempted to reduce the work of gospel ministry to saving immaterial souls out of what seems like an irredeemably fallen world. We can be tempted to relinquish to Satan the very material world that God so loved that he gave his only Son to redeem.

The patience of the kingdom, however, helps us avoid both temptations. The patience of the kingdom tells us that Christ’s kingdom is present here and now and is renewing this material world in the present. It reminds us that we are invited to join him in the work of renewal. It fights against the temptation of disengagement. But the patience of the kingdom means that we expect the work to seem intractable. It means that we expect whatever gains we might experience will be uneven, hard-won, and provisional. It tells us our job is not to win, or to accomplish our goals, or to quantify measurable outcomes. Our work is to patiently bear witness to the reality of Christ’s universal reign that is renewing this material world in the here and now. It fights against the temptation of triumphalism.

There is a saying found in the Talmud that captures the patience of the kingdom beautifully. It says: ​​"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." May we continue the work, patiently.


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