Author Christopher Brown explores faith in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and what might be a “renewed kingdom normal” for these times.
People of faith are stirring. It is not that they have suddenly awakened from a nightmare filled with the horrors of a global pandemic. For many have remained fully conscious during this troubled time, seeking creative responses for daily living, worship, and service. The focus of such responses is generally two-fold. How do we best endure the crisis, and what is the new life that might emerge during and beyond it? With much prayer, scripture reflection, intentional conversations and soul searching occurring around such questions, I would like to attend to the emerging shape of new life. With speculation as to a “new normal,” I wonder about a “renewed kingdom normal”.
Our faith, and dual kingdom citizenship of heaven and earth, is fashioned around the incarnation, self-emptying, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This offers the foundational blueprint for our kingdom-oriented engagement in and beyond this time of crisis. We have an incarnational commitment to stand with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, amid anxious, troubled, and grieving people. There is a self-emptying, a dying, a letting go of much we believed to have sustained us, including our illusions of being in control. The pandemic has unmasked much which is not life-giving. There is the newness of resurrection life which takes its unique shape in Jesus as it is outworked afresh in this new and strange time. Through the Holy Spirit we have Jesus’ indwelling presence. In Jesus, we have a much-needed advocate at the throne of grace.
In the way of the Beatitudes
With the Holy Spirit as our guide, and Jesus the full embodiment of our kingdom citizenship, Jesus’ teachings offer rich texture and shape for our “renewed kingdom normal.” His Beatitudes do this beautifully. With blessing, belonging and promise, they begin right where we are. Confronted by our fear and powerlessness in the face of the giant footprint of COVID-19, we hear the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).
With our human capacities tested, and the pandemic potentially holding up a mirror to who we truly are, it is our poverty of spirit not our strength or competence, which is in the sights of Jesus’ first Beatitude. We also hear his invitation and welcome: “Come to me, all who are weary and over-burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Our deficits reveal our profound need of God. Jesus redeems us, opens wide the doorway to kingdom citizenship, and invites our participation in his life and purposes to incarnate his new kingdom life in our troubled world.
Solidarity in mourning
This solidarity, both human and divine, extends into mourning and lament in Jesus’ second Beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). The Spirit guides us into this cruciform movement of suffering and letting go as Jesus takes up our pain and infirmities and bears our griefs and our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). Today there is much to mourn. Jesus’ engagement in our mourning ensures it does not spiral downwards, but becomes the site of embrace, comfort, and restoration to our souls (Matthew 11:30; Psalm 23:3). Such solidarity, nurturing love, comfort, and healing opens us to the possibilities of new life. Knowing this frees us to participate alongside of Jesus in the anguish of his people.
Jesus’ third Beatitude is about new life; resurrection life! “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5). The movement is from life to death to greater life. The Holy Spirit forms us, from the inside-out, in Jesus’ way of humility and meekness, for which in this discussion I use the short-hand terms of “kingdom-heartedness”. If our human fragility, over self-reliance, and false securities have been laid bare by the pandemic, we are ready to embrace Jesus’ self-emptying way of love and come in meekness and reverence before God and before others. The Holy Spirit aligns our hearts with the gentle and humble heart of Jesus, teaching us to put the centre of ourselves outside to become unlimited space for God and for others. Kingdom-heartedness, as we embody and reflect the heart of Jesus, becomes an essential mark of our renewed kingdom life.
As the Holy Spirit animates our kingdom-heartedness, Jesus’ fourth Beatitude ignites a renewed passion for kingdom life. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus’ hunger and thirst is for goodness, for godliness, for righteousness, for justice, for union with God and for the spread of God’s Shalom in these troubled times. His passion finds resonance in our spirit and brings new life and fulfilment to our soul. We are turned one-eighty-degrees to be filled by the Holy Spirit with renewed faith and love for God. Despite knowing how costly it was for Jesus, we reorient our priorities and place first God’s kingdom and the needs of his troubled people.
Mercy upon mercy
If Jesus offers himself through his Beatitudes in a spirit of blessing, and opens wide his kingdom, today, the deep cry of our souls which echoes through these doorways is for God’s mercy. “Blessed are the merciful,” says Jesus in his fifth Beatitude “for they will receive mercy,” (Matthew 5:7). The only sure place for our trembling feet is beneath God’s vast mercy, unconditional forgiveness, and abundant compassion. As God’s grace is showered upon us, we are redeemed, covered, sustained, enrich, and set free. Receiving such tender mercies, we are invited and enabled by the Holy Spirit to channel them to others in the manner of the One who is mercy upon mercy upon mercy. Freely received, we freely give. It is within the spaciousness of such mercy that our kingdom-heartedness is shaped, releasing within us the ministering power and tender-heartedness of the Holy Spirit. Mercy stands over and above judgement, always adding its seasoning. Our renewed kingdom life, as is Jesus’ life, infused with the active expression of God’s love and abundant mercy.
Jesus’ sixth Beatitude speaks to the status of our hearts. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matt 5:8). Kingdom-heartedness involves a singleness of heart for God and for God alone. It is into our cluttered hearts, our distracted minds, and the lack of transparency between our inner and outer lives, that we invite the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. We can ask for the eyes of our hearts and minds to be enlightened with the purity and transparency of Jesus’ heart, and for the unimpeded communion he experienced with his Father God. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit and indwelt by the loving and discerning heart of Jesus, we begin to see ourselves and our troubled world through his heart and his eyes. As we grow in kingdom-heartedness, he reveals that only that which is turned to love will be preserved.
The seventh Beatitude reminds us that being at peace and becoming his peacemakers is high on Jesus’ agenda for our kingdom citizenship as children of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9). Jesus also says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27).
In our perturbed world, with much anxiety, conflict division, and fearful hearts, the spaciousness of these words of Jesus can find their deep resonance within us. His peacemaking goes much further than the resolution of conflict. The foundation of kingdom-centred peace, as an expression of ultimate peacemaking, comes as Jesus reconciles us with God and enables us to live in union with God. This way is closer to the Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” in which life is complete and lacking in nothing. Ultimately, this is embodied in Jesus revealing how God is our peace, the source of our peacemaking, and of our completeness. Embodying Jesus’ way of peace certainly reflects what it means to be children of God and dual citizens of heaven and earth. It also holds true for our faith congregations as communities of peace.
For the sake of the kingdom
The eighth Beatitude takes us into contested territory. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10). It is reassuring to know that God’s blessing still resounds here, especially when our commitment to the kingdom provokes opposition and persecution. Christian faith is no longer finding accepted or even neutral ground in our Western democracies. It is the wounded and suffering Christ we are invited to accompany in this troubled world, bearing such opposition for the sake of his glorious kingdom life (Galatians 6:17). United with Jesus in his suffering and death becomes the path along which we participate in the newness of resurrection life. Crossing over into contested territory, we acknowledge opposition, resistance, and persecution as inevitable responses to our new kingdom life.
Participating with Jesus
What is it like to lay the foundational blueprint of our faith and Jesus’ expression of kingdom life alongside the landscape of a world in the grip of a pandemic? Do you see the outline of a renewed kingdom citizenship which reveals how we might walk alongside Jesus through and beyond this time of crisis? If we can hold to the cruciform and resurrectional movement which have already been laid out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and embody and participate in his Beatitudinal life, many of the details of how we might live, worship and serve in a “new kingdom normal,” will become manifest. They will begin with blessings, offer personal and intimate solidarity with the life and purposes of Jesus, and invite our active participation. The doorway of the kingdom of heaven is wide open.
Christopher Brown is a spiritual director and is part of a writing group, Holy Scribblers. which, prior to COVID-19, met in the Trinity College Queensland Library. His two books are Reflected Love: Companioning in the Way of Jesus (2012) and Guiding Gideon: Awakening to Life and Faith (2015). He is co-editor with Irene Alexander of a forthcoming collection To Whom Shall We Go: Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis. He attends a Baptist church.