For the Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo, the American evangelist, sociology professor and activist for global justice, the kingdom of God does not refer to an otherworldly afterlife for the righteous saved. It is instead a demanding work in progress in the here and now, as he explained in an often-fiery sermon at Grace Church in Scarborough on Oct. 29.
The Baptist pastor began his address, which ranged from scripture and theology to politics and quantum physics, by asking “What was Jesus’ mission in becoming man?” It was, he argued, not to rescue lost souls or to model what it means to be a self-actualizing human being. “It was to declare that the kingdom of God – the one named in the Lord’s Prayer – is at hand.”
Christ wants to transform people from within so that they can change the world into an equitable kingdom as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah, Mr. Campolo said. “Chapter 65 speaks of a time when there will be no infant mortality, when people will live out their lives in health and well-being.” It speaks of an age when houses are inhabited by those who build them, and instead of labouring for the benefit of others, workers will be justly rewarded. “That relates today to the kid in Thailand earning a dollar a day for long hours so North Americans can buy bargain sneakers at Walmart and Kmart.”
Peppering his sermon with hilarious anecdotes and Pentecostal-style shout-outs to the congregation, the former professor of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania explained how much the Church has done to concretely change the world into God’s kingdom. “Twenty-five years ago, 45,000 people a day died of starvation or malnutrition-related disease. That has diminished to 17,000 today,” he said. Furthermore, the number of those lacking access to clean drinking water has dropped from one in six 25 years ago to one in 12 today. “Who drilled most of the wells in developing countries? It’s been Christian people, and we don’t take enough credit for what we’re doing.”
In other gains, he said the global illiteracy rate has fallen over 25 years from 80 per cent to 20 per cent, and the Christian housing mission Habitat for Humanity has just announced the completion of its one millionth house. “Who did most of the literacy training around the world? Christians. And what government can claim to have built a million homes for the poor?” he asked. To keep those statistics moving in a positive direction, he urged attendees to support the world-changing work of Christian organizations.
But to achieve the kingdom of God in a flawed world, Mr. Campolo argued, people must change from within. “Sometimes mainline denominations forget that people need to be changed individually,” he said. “We get so busy dealing with the social problems of the world that we don’t get the fact that people have to open themselves and let Christ invade them and transform them from within.”
He said he begins every day with 10 or 15 minutes of quiet focusing on Jesus to rid his mind of superfluous agendas while he waits for Christ to reach out from the cross across 2,000 years to connect with him. The paradox that the risen and ascended Christ can still be on the cross in 2017 took his sermon in a fascinating direction, where Christian theology met Einsteinian relativity. Einstein’s theory holds that the faster you travel, the more time is compressed.
“If we could travel at the speed of light, at 186,000 miles per second, all time would be compressed into one instantaneous now,” Mr. Campolo said. That is the way God and Jesus experience time, he said – not, like us, as a series of unfolding events. “For them, time is an eternal now,” he said, pointing out that when the Jews ask Jesus who he is, Jesus replies, “Before Abraham was, I am,” using the present tense for something that happened eons ago. “That’s why he can be hanging on the cross and still be at my side in the morning. He is like a sponge absorbing all the dark and ugly and sinful things in my life.”
Mr. Campolo stressed that people are very much in need of spiritual cleansing. “Jesus wants to cleanse us. The Holy Spirit cannot flow into us unless we cleanse,” he said. He emphasized the sacramental nature of reaching out to the poor and needy, the “least” of the world, and in so doing embracing Jesus. “I feel the presence of Christ in them,” he said.
Mr. Campolo also urged people to challenge governments that support the exploitation of the resources of impoverished countries, citing the example of the tax-free exporting of Nigerian petroleum by oil companies with the blessing of the Nigerian government. “Taxes on those billions of dollars in oil could provide schools and medical centres and food for the people,” he said.
He also noted that government-subsidized wheat and rice exports from Canada and the United States have destroyed the livelihoods of grain farmers in Haiti. “People in developing countries are not poor because they’re lazy,” Mr. Campolo said. “They’re poor because we have created a system that is unjust. God calls for justice. We need not only charity but we need justice.”