What did Jesus mean by ‘the Kingdom of God’, or what the early Quakers called the ‘Covenant of Peace’? Though he never succinctly defined it, his stories, miracles and the way he conducted his life reflected such a Kingdom. And it was something for which he was prepared to die.
The Covenant of Peace is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes (Mt. 5-7), and in the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6:17-49), all of which created a sharp distinction between the Covenant itself and the earthly, transient kingdoms and empires of his day, including the national Jewish desire for self-determination. Jesus was adamant that life would be much better for all people if God were truly ‘king’, that is to say, if they were to live in an intimate relationship with the God who loved them unconditionally. Over the centuries, however, various churches and religious groups have domesticated the Kingdom, rendering it impotent and thus devoid of its religious and political radicalism. Even today, many associate it with conservative or reactionary beliefs, and sometimes with monarchy, hierarchy, sexism, homophobia, or with militarism and the oppression and injustices that go hand in hand with that sort of power. Still others link it to theological notions they consider inappropriate—the end-times, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Rapture.
But the true Kingdom is none of these. It is God’s Realm of Love, the Covenant of Peace, and we are all members of it by virtue of being alive. Thus so, we can enrich ourselves and the world by entering deeper into this Realm and spreading it, something we can do by raising that of God within us, by spotting that of God in others and drawing it out of them, and by lovingly letting our lives speak. We spread the Realm, not build it. The early Friends believed that it couldn’t be constructed because it always existed and had the ability, with humanity’s help, to spread its love in the name of the One, in the name of Love, in the name of the caring and vulnerable God. Another word for Kingdom is indeed Love (with a capital ‘L’) or ‘the Light’ or ‘the Christ’. The only Second Coming Friends acknowledge is when we come into this Light from our darkness as Robert Barclay described so vividly: ‘For when I came in to the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.’ The Covenant is already complete, within and among us, waiting to be unveiled. This is a continual process.
Early Quaker Attitudes
The early Quakers had many names for the Kingdom. I’ve counted 39, including the ‘Garden of God’. They understood it as an everlasting, spiritual rule of God (Love) replete with ‘purity’. Anticipating Barclay, Francis Howgill wrote in 1658 that it comes to be felt working in the heart. And, as it is loved and obeyed, it leads and converts the heart to the Lord and draws towards itself out of unholiness, and from under the dark power. Howgill saw the Covenant as home to spiritual refugees who now knew the balm of God’s righteousness/justice and peace of conscience, together with the assurance of God’s love, comfort and consolation, and eternal dignity and hope. George Fox also underlined the Covenant’s ‘now-ness’: ‘Christ’, he said, ‘was come and is coming’. This was the eternal Christ within Jesus—in other words, the Kingdom, the Life, Day of the Lord or Day of Visitation. He and the Friends understood the Covenant as Jesus’ central focus and which informed the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes. The Sermon was the daily ethical guide of their movement. In fact, so germane was the Covenant to the Friends that nearly 90 percent of their tracts written between 1652 and 1663, about a thousand in all, joyously highlighted it. It is somewhat ironic that just as Fox railed against the wider Church for neglecting the Kingdom (it was “in apostasy since the apostles’ days” as a result), modern Friends are also generally unaware of how life-giving it can be. Many of the reasons for this I have already mentioned. And yet, we’re seriously missing out on a wonderful experience. Let me explain with a few very ordinary examples from my personal story.
Two Personal Stories
As I write, Anne and I are settling into our new home. Her gardening skills allow me to witness a daily miracle—a flourishing of flowers, fruits and vegetables. It is easy to see how the garden’s beauty and bounty is a prayer in itself. I am able to get inside this prayer by simply being in the garden. In doing so, I can wrap God’s mercy around me. I can see, smell, touch, hear and consume some of it. It is a living eucharist. I’m conscious of this sacramentality all the time. A constant prayer, therefore, it involves a conscious awareness of living ‘in the Life’, living inside God in our little Eden: this garden of God is also an expression of the Kingdom, the Covenant of Peace that is not confined to the human world alone. Indeed, this Covenant is universal and cosmological like the Christ of Fox. My second story is about an unknown person rather than a famous one—my grandmother, Mary Lambe. She was a devout Catholic, Irish woman who gave birth to 14 children, 13 boys and one girl—my mother, Kathleen. Mary made God real for me. She was peaceful, calm and never proselytized. She waited on God and listened intently to our adventures. And she was fun. In short, brimming with God’s love. Mary was an insight into the nature of the real God—not the authoritarian patriarch ‘up there’, but the caring, patient and gentle Presence that yearns for our love and gives love unconditionally. These two examples demonstrate how the Covenant is within and around me. Mary is within me still and the garden is around me. In Luke 17:21 of the King James Bible (which the early Friends mostly used) we read: ‘the Kingdom of God is within you.’ Other translations have ‘among you’. In the ancient Greek έυτός ύμώυ (among you), the preposition έν (pron: ‘en’) encompasses both meanings—‘in’ and ‘among’.
So the Covenant is all around us and within us. We can choose whether to bring it into the open or not. Saying ‘yes’ to the Covenant is brave; it means confronting our ‘ocean of darkness’ often against our will, but then doing something to spread the Covenant on the outer level. This, too, takes courage or ‘cheer’ as the early Friends used to say. By confronting the destructive part of our ego, we can give expression to our ‘ocean of Light and Love’. I often think saying ‘yes’ in this way is the greatest prayer. Accepting the reality of the Covenant as έν (‘en’) is also a pentecostal act of faith. I use ‘pentecostal’ to mean divinely inspired (authentically), having an awareness of Love working within, experiencing a higher plain of spiritual consciousness, having trust in God. Isaac Penington illustrated the impact of his convincement into the Covenant by trusting how its Love was, the sweetness of life. It is the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation. It fulfils the Law, it fulfils the Gospel; it wraps up all in one, and brings forth all in the oneness. It excludes all evil out of the heart, it perfects all good in the heart. A touch of Love does this in measure, perfect Love does this in fullness. . . . And this my soul waits, cries after, even the full springing up of eternal love in my heart, and the swallowing of me wholly into it, and the bringing of my soul wholly forth in it, that the life of God in its own perfect sweetness may freely run for through this vessel.
The Quaker Pentecost
The early Friends’ experience of the 1650s was pentecostal in itself and yet, collectively, they appeared to have undergone a Pentecost-type ‘moment’—an ‘upper room moment’ so to speak—between October 1659 (when a rejuvenated Fox emerged from a serious illness) and January 1661 when they presented the famous Fox-Hubberthorne declaration to King Charles II (Richard Hubberthorne was one of its authors). However, its status as our Peace Testimony is an error of modern Quakerism because the real Testimony was the 1650s experience of which I speak—their rediscovery of the Covenant of Peace on the individual level and its manifestation among themselves and in the outer world as the Lamb’s War. And Fox-Hubberthorne was only one expression of the rediscovered Kingdom. It shared this distinction with many others but with two in particular—one under Edward Burrough’s name (December 1659) and the other under Margaret Fell’s (June 1660). Together, the three comprise a tapestry of their movement’s 1650s Kingdom witness of peace, justice and compassion in a world utterly hostile to such things. Because they came (during the ‘moment’] to a deeper knowledge of the Covenant as existing ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, something they gleaned from the Book of Daniel, the Friends now realized the Covenant went beyond time and space to speak to all ages and places. And so we return to the Kingdom-in-action as it was with Mary Lambe and the many f/Friends who work hard at bringing peace, justice and compassion to our hurting world. Such a wonderful witness will continue until humanity (with creation) is one in God in the fullness of time.
The Future, Unity and Hope
The Covenant, therefore, always addresses the future in hope. It is a hope of wholeness by being in union with God, something the early Quakers meant by salvation. Let me illustrate this with another story, this time from South Africa. At one point during the Apartheid era, the Friends there were embroiled in a number of divisive issues. When they gathered to discuss the problems, heated moments arose. One Friend, however, was led to maintain silence throughout the proceedings and to pray for the gathering. His prayerful witness eventually spread to cover the assembly, resulting in a deep silence out of which resolution and reconciliation emerged. It was as if the Friend absorbed the pain and suffering of the group into himself so as to ‘weary out all contention’, as James Nayler once said. Self-sacrificially, his act of atonement for the sin (i.e. separation) that divided them all created a loving unity. Through his prayer (and their own) they crucified their separation and resurrected the Kingdom within and among themselves so that they could, as Francis Howgill said, enjoy ‘being caught up as in [its] net’. That one simple, yet powerful witness for the Covenant enabled the gathering to move forward in hope. In doing so they spoke a mysterious, divine language together. One theological meaning of ‘mystery’ is ‘revelation’. They came to reveal the Presence among them, a revelation that was their common language. This language is that of Love (that of God in everyone), a language that cannot die. The Covenant, consequently, has the enticing ability to unite people and to bring wholeness. And it can unite Friends of all persuasions by acting as our common language and motivation. It is quintessentially the living embodiment of our corporate testimony to Divine peace. But for this to happen it needs to be practiced consciously. Can it be taught? I believe it can, and in many healthy, colourful and creative ways to all age groups because the Covenant is ever-captivating like a beautiful view, a wonderful piece of music, a flower-splashed garden, a life-changing conversation. The Covenant of Peace is indeed life-giving and always lifts us up with its tender hand.