For early Quakers, heaven wasn’t a far-off kingdom floating in the clouds. It wasn’t a distant time and place, standing in stark contrast to present-day, historical reality. When Quakers said that Christ is here to teach us himself, this was just a new way of saying, repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near to you.
The genius of the Quaker movement was that they understood that all of these holy words that Christians like to throw around aren’t what is truly essential. The institutional church of their day was saying all the right words but failing to connect with the heart of the gospel. They were mouthing the words of Scripture to justify all sorts of human agendas – but their hearts were still far from God. Their lives did not bear the marks of Christ’s transformation, self-giving love, and humility.
For the early Quaker movement, the Day of the Lord, is today. Jesus’ triumphant return is not a theoretical possibility to be hoped for in the future; it’s a present reality that can either be embraced or resisted. The early Quakers experienced Jesus as literally alive, present, and teaching them directly. Standing in the power of this relationship, they were given courage to go out and radically impact the world around them.
Today, most Quakers – and many Christians of all denominations, in fact – would intellectually agree with the statement that Jesus Christ is present, able to teach us directly through his indwelling presence in our hearts. Yet, for the most part, we don’t really live as if this indwelling power has the ability to fundamentally transform us in the present tense.
In a lot of Christian circles – including Quaker ones – I often hear the phrase, now but not yet. This is the idea that, although the kingdom is present, and we can experience a foretaste of it in our lives, we’ll have to wait until some unspecified future time – probably after we’re dead – to participate in the full transformation that we are called to in Christ.
This popular meantime theology makes a whole lot of sense. After all, how many holy people do you personally know? Our world is fundamentally fallen and broken, and this life will always be characterized by a personal and collective struggle with sin and death. The gospel gives us hope for a future, but in the present all we can do is seek to lead slightly less alienated lives, to mitigate the effects of sin.
Meantime theology is a thoughtful, rational, sensible theory that jives with what we observe in the world around us. And it runs totally counter to the radical, apocalyptic, fire-breathing witness of the early church and the later Quaker movement.
A meantime ideology might make us feel better about our failure to address the brokenness of our own lives and the systematic injustice and oppression that we see in our culture. We don’t have to feel personally responsible for the way things are going; there’s nothing we can really do about it. Christ will return and take care of this mess eventually. But for now, our role is to keep telling the story of Jesus and try not to sin too much.
The tragedy of this world view is that it misses Christ’s return in the present tense. The Day of the Lord is happening right now! There is no time but this present time. The kingdom of God has come near to us, and each one of us has a choice whether we want to participate in this new reality.
When we banish the kingdom of God to an unspecified future time, we flee from the living beauty and power of Christ. We choose to dwell in the darkness just a little longer, because we can’t quite imagine what it would be like to live as children of the day.
The word of the kingdom is good news. The gospel is not a promise that we can escape the fires of hell by accepting certain doctrines and minding our Ps and Qs while we wait for Jesus to come back. The gospel is an invitation to walk into the flames willingly, to experience the cleansing fire of the light of Christ, and to accompany others in this process of transformation.
The kingdom is an organic reality, alive and in our midst whenever we turn to follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit is present with us, not merely to comfort us in our sin, but to show us where our darkness lies so that we may be liberated from it once and for all. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.
Is this the kind of gospel that you’ve been waiting for? Do you want to experience the life and power of the early church for yourself? Do you want to know the transformation that Jesus brings, not just as a religious theory for the by-and-by, but as a lived reality in the present time? This is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do not fear, only believe.