We’re the people God’s been waiting for. If this sentiment seems heretical to you, I understand. Like me, you’ve been raised in Christendom, a breed of institutional religion initiated by the Roman emperor Constantine that replaces the liberating Way of Jesus with a way that encourages its own accumulation of unequal wealth, military might, and political power. Christendom is a control-oriented corruption of authentic Christianity. It teaches a distant and judgmental God lording it over a miserable human race, holding out the hope of an otherworldly heaven as a carrot. Under this model, humans aren’t supposed to do much but worship and obey, avoiding sin as best they can. One of the greatest tragedies of Christendom over the centuries is that it has domesticated our God-given human potential.
No matter what you’ve been taught, know this: God has always desired for us to be conspirators in God’s dream, collaborators in redemption. What is this God project? Heaven on earth.
From the beginning, God has dreamed of an ideal society, something that Jesus called “the kingdom of God”: human community embodying covenanted right relationship with each other and all creation. So why hasn’t God’s dream been fulfilled yet? The wild truth is that God needs us, and we humans have yet to do our part.
In our sacred stories, God originally walked and talked daily with humanity along the riverbanks and among the trees. Moses also regularly encountered God face to face. During the exodus, Yahweh was so often present for personal consultations that Moses had a conference room set up in the desert, something he called “the tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go there (Exodus 33:7). This was no distant interaction: “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11). God showed up to discuss strategy and imagine next steps, like a coach working with a team. Israel was to be God’s pilot project, a priesthood of all believers, a light to the nations, an example of how societies should live. The Israelite people would have no king; they would be content with enough and not covet too much; they would not mimic the social and economic class systems of the empires around them; and they would live in covenanted right relationship with God, with one another and with the earth. This would be no kingdom of humanity, but a kingdom of God. In order for the Israelites to fulfill such high expectations, Yahweh breathed on their leaders, giving them spiritual resiliency for the long haul.
Jesus’ High Expectation for Humanity
Do you recall Jesus’ first public words upon return from the desert? “Change your life!” He exhorts in the first chapter of Mark; “The kingdom of God is at hand!” (1:15) From the first moment of his public ministry, Jesus promises that God’s dream of covenanted right relationship is available at our fingertips; what we need to do is get on board and live it out day by day. This expectation is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:16). As John Dominic Crossan emphasizes, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God is about the transformation of this world into holiness, not the evacuation of this world into heaven.
Sometimes we forget: God’s dream of heaven on earth is a partnership requiring our full engagement. It’s at hand, but it’s not being done for us; we need to grab on. In this light, look again at an incident when Jesus could not do his healing, transformative work: Jesus could not heal in his hometown because the people did not believe it was possible (Mark 6:5). But right before that, in the preceding chapter, a woman reaches out in trust and finds true healing (Mark 5:25-34). The uncomfortable but exciting message: unless humans do their part, the kingdom of God cannot be realized.
I’m guessing some of the early disciples were as taken aback as we are about Jesus’ expectations. Can’t God just rescue us and fix everything? Jesus corrects this notion by sharing some expectations that remain mind-blowing even two thousand years later: In John, he says that his disciples have the capacity to do even greater things than he has done (14:12). I’m sure that shocked more than a few of his followers, and a few more probably fell out of their seats when he added, “I no longer call you servants . . . I have called you friends” (15:15-17). Jesus makes it clear the divine project of heaven on earth needs friends, allies, partners. To empower his disciples as collaborators in this God-project, he breathes on them, giving them pneuma, Spirit, filling them with his own liberating power and an electrifying mandate to forgive sins and release economic debt and free people from oppression.
Talk about high potential! Jesus expects nothing less than social transformation out of his cell groups. Filling them with spiritual power, he expects his highly imperfect followers to be capable of incredible things, to go viral with the community-based kingdom of God, sharing the vision and practice of covenanted right relationship that will spread like leaven in the loaf.
The Early Church Passed It On
The early church faithfully carried Jesus’ message: divinely revolutionized humans are to be conspirators with God’s dream of heaven on earth. Saint Irenaeus, a second-century father of the church, taught that human existence is a process of “soul-making.” He asserted that humanity was created immature, and that humans needed both free will and a difficult world in order to develop into the divine likeness. If this concept sounds different or dangerous, it might just show how influenced by Christendom we are, as it was a central tenet of the early church before Constantine. We can trust Irenaeus as a mainstream source: his most well-known work was entitled Against Heresies, and he was a key player in defining “correct belief” as early Christianity evolved.
Reclaiming our potential reclaims our role in the partnership God has always desired with us. God needs us to realize his dream. Saint Augustine, during the fifth century in Rome, expressed this divine-human interdependent partnership in a memorable maxim: “Without God we cannot; without us He will not.” It’s a strange and wonderful realization: God chooses to conspire with us and in us. Thomas Merton, the most well-known Catholic monk of the past century, echoes this same sentiment in a way that makes me think it might actually be true:
God seeks Himself in us, and the aridity and sorrow of our heart is the sorrow of God who is not known to us, who cannot yet find Himself in us because we do not dare to believe or trust the incredible truth that He could live in us, and live there out of choice, out of preference. But indeed we exist solely for this. . . . But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves.
If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.
We are the people God’s been waiting for. Why is this so hard for modern Christians to believe and embrace? Because God’s amazing expectations, and our divine potential, have been hijacked by Empire-based Christendom and subverted by the framing stories of dominant culture. It’s time for our re-education.