“The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.” Time has contracted - a liberal Christian meditation on messianic time

The picture here shows a sixteenth-century Polish Socininan (Unitarian) medallion. On the obverse is the image of the Rabbi Jesus surrounded by the single word “man” (ishi) which, in Hebrew, is used as a balance to the idea of God so it has the additional connotation of ordinary, customary, or common. On the reverse the inscription can be translated to mean “The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.”

This medallion was worn by young Polish Brethren (known as Socinians after their leading theologian Faustus Socinus) who, in the late sixteenth century, began to frequent foreign universities, principally in Holland or Germany, to study under ministers or theologians sympathetic to their Unitarian theology which affirmed the unity of God and the humanity of Christ. Across Europe at that time to be a Socinian was still to risk execution and so the medal, in addition to being a statement of their faith, was also a way of identifying each other without making their heresy too obvious. Because the inscription was in Hebrew it would not be understood by most people and the wearer could either claim ignorance as to its meaning or, if it someone could read it, it could be given an orthodox spin. But to most people it would have been seen as a simple symbol of devotion to Jesus Christ, that is to say Jesus, the Messiah (cf. Albert Blanchard-Gaillard in Revue Regard, no. 2, Summer 1997, Institut d’études et de recherches sur l’histoire, les traditions, la nature et les sciences, pp. 30-34).


But I say this this, bothers: The time has been made short; so that, henceforth, even those who have wives might be like those having none, And those who weep like those not weeping, and those who rejoice like those not rejoicing, and those who buy like those possessing nothing, And those who make use of the cosmos like those who do not exploit it; for the frame of the cosmos is passing away (I Corinthians 7:29-31 trans. David Bentley Hart).

From The Church and the Kingdom by Giorgio Agamben  (pp. 8-13)

In the Judaic tradition there is a distinction between two times and two worlds: the olam hazzeh, the time stretching from the creation of the world to its end, and the olam habba, the time that begins after the end of time. Both terms are present, in their Greek translations, in Paul’s letters. Messianic time, however – the time in which the apostle lives and the only one which interests him – is neither that of the olam hazzeh nor that of the olam habba. It is, instead, the time between those two times, when time is divided by the messianic event (which is for Paul the Resurrection).
How can we best conceive of this time? If we represent time geometrically as a segment taken from a line – the time that remains between the Resurrection and the end of time – does not seem to present any difficulties. Everything changes, however, if we try to conceive this time more fully. It is perfectly clear that to live in ‘the time that remains’, to experience ‘the time of the end’, can only mean a radical transformation of our experience of time. What is a issue is neither the homogenous and infinite line of chronological time (easy to represent but empty of all experience) nor the precise and unimaginable instant where it ends. Nor, for that matter, can we conceive of it as that segment of chronological time extending from the Resurrection to the end of time. Instead, what is at issue is a time that pulses and moves within chronological time from within. [. . .] This time is not some other time located in an improbably present or future time. On the contrary, it is the only real time, the only time we will ever have. To experience this time implies an integral transformation of ourselves and our ways of living. 
This is what Paul affirms in an extraordinary passage, and which perhaps presents the most beautiful definition of messianic time (I Corinthians 7:29): “But this I say, my brothers, time has contracted [ho kairos synestalmenos esti – the Greek verb systellein indicates both the clewing up of a ship’s sails and an animal’s gathering of its strength before pouncing].”


One of the first things we notice whenever we are able to take a proper holiday is that we are leaving behind us a time of no-time, a time characterized by countless pressures to get things done, and are slowly moving into a time where those pressures are removed. Occasionally – on the best of holidays – we experience what feel like moments of perfect calm and rest and later we say that time seemed almost to have stood still. Naturally, this time of time never lasts for very long because something always intervenes which reminds us that, like it or not, we are moving chronologically towards the resumption of our daily life and its chronic lack of time. As Isaac Watt’s memorably put it we feel strongly that "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away." As the days pass and we approach ever more closely that dreadful, first day back at work, we feel our stomachs slowly tighten again and our levels of anxiety increase. Back at work, how quickly we begin again to dream of our next holiday when for us time might, once again, stand still, even if only for just a moment.

This is, of course, to live within a very linear conception of time. One thing that we should notice about is that at no point on this line do we ever find *the* time in which we can be said to be leading the kind of rich and satisfying life which Jesus promised us was possible (John 10:10). Although it is fairly obvious why we don't like living in the time of no-time we should remind ourselves of why we wouldn't like always to be living in the time that seemed to stand still. It is because, even as it is wonderful to experience for a while, we all know deep in our hearts that to dwell that state permanently would be to live an aimless and apathetic life – in fact it would be to stop meaningfully living at all.

This linear conception of time, with it's two extremes of either never-ending pressure and rush or of no pressure at all and stasis seems to characterise our age.

The time of no-time encourages us into many apocalyptic ways of living. We are all acutely aware that we are constantly surrounded by end-time pressures. This is true, not only in our own work environments (little apocalypses), but also in our collective, regional, national and now global environments where daily we hear and talk about imminent collapse and crises, whether of the environment or of our financial, social, religious or political institutions (great apocalypses). Thoreau was surely right when he observed that most people in our culture today lead lives of quiet desperation.

Faced with these constant individual and collective end-time pressures it should come as no surprise that there has arisen in our culture a set of practices which are designed to, if not to remove this desperation, then at least to give us some respite from it now and then. So we self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol, by endlessly buying things to make us happy or by the purchasing of expensive holidays in the sun or some other form of entertainment – anything, as long as it takes our mind off the desperate state of affairs we feel we are in.

The net result of all this is that we are radically dis-empowered, lurching about from moments of extreme despair to moments of extreme rest. It is to be living a life of dysfunctional activity and dysfunctional inactivity.

Alas, much of the Church, Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, has fallen prey to living in chronological time and been drawn (sometimes unknowingly but often willingly) into this dysfunctional way of living.

On the one hand, it has often used apocalyptic fears to pressure and scare people into furious, thoughtless, panicked action on a whole series of issues or raft of issues. On the other hand, it has made use of our overwhelming desire to escape these frightening issues by claiming to offer us a product through which we can escape all this and find salvation or spiritual fulfilment and happiness right here and right now.

But is this present understanding of time and our consequent way of living be the one we should be practising ourselves or promoting to the world? No, of course not. It seems to me that for the sake of the health of the world and ourselves we need to recover an ancient Christian insight that was first articulated by St Paul.
Paul saw clearly that there was another kind of time in which humankind could live – messianic time, a contracted time, a time in which everything is gathered up and which gifts us a new way of living creatively and with genuine hope. As Agamben reminds us messianic time "is a time that pulses and moves within chronological time from within." This is the time within which Jesus’ and Paul’s life and teaching was located and must be understood. (Also, I think the time by which someone like Thoreau, who I have already mentioned, lived). They were teaching us about how to live differently within in *this* world rather than speaking of some other, transcendent, future world.

Paul’s claim, as summed up by Agamben, is quite simple: messianic time – as seen lived out firstly in the person of Jesus understood as the Messiah - is the only time humans can ever truly have and, consequently, it’s the only truly satisfying time in which to remain. Jesus memorably called it the kingdom of heaven.
This fact is vital to see but it is rather obscured by the history of this insight’s reception. For obvious historical reasons we are encouraged by our culture to think that Jesus and particularly Paul intended to bring into being a new religion – a religion which, of course, became known as Christianity. But this is, I’m certain, wrong. It was Alfred Loisy (1857–1940), a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian, who most famously observed: "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church" (Loisy, Alfred - L'Évangile et l'Église, Paris, Picard, 1902).

As one of our own ministers, Robert Travers Herford (1860-1950), noted in the closing address of the first annual meeting of The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in 1929:

"The Christian Church never was the same as the Kingdom of God, either in fact or intention; and the Christian Church has held the field, for good and for evil, since the days of the Apostles, with the result that the Kingdom of God has never had a real chance of being developed into what Jesus meant it to be, the supreme fact of the religious life, individual and collective." 

Herford went on to note that:

". . . the Idea of the Kingdom of God is universal and all-inclusive in a way which was never possible, nor even contemplated or desired, under the Church Idea. The Kingdom of God, as the rule of God in the heart, the love and service of him, and the consequent love and service of all [people] as children of the one Father, that is not limited by any doctrinal definitions. No one but a Christian ever did, or ever could, work for the Church. But all can work for the Kingdom of God, not Christians only but all who consciously own God, whether Christian or Jew, Mohammedan or Brahmin, or any other of those to whom God has revealed himself ‘by diverse portions and in diverse manners’" (The Idea of the Kingdom of God, R. Travers Herford, 1929).

It seems to me necessary for us to begin once again to preach with confidence the kingdom of heaven and not the Church. To do this effectively we must try our hardest to recover what Paul and, as you have seen our own Socinian forebears, were so keen to proclaim to the world, namely, that the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace has come in the person of Jesus and that the kingdom of heaven, despite all our daily difficulties and pressures, is to be found within or amongst us, where and whenever, people love God and their neighbours as themselves.

Though to the modern, rational and sceptical mind all this talk about the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven and peace might sound horribly archaic and, to some, even unpleasantly and unreasonably religious, it is important to see that this is not really to be saying anything which involves us in unreasonable and/or unlikely beliefs but, instead, about a practical method of radical transformation in the way we *comport* ourselves towards and in the world.

We come to experience what it is to live in messianic time and, therefore, in the kingdom of heaven, by simply and purposefully loving God and neighbour again and again and again. Whenever and wherever this is DONE – in church or outside it, amongst Christians or anyone else - it is to have the rich and satisfying life (John 10:10) that chronologically ordered frenzied activity and desperate holidaying can never gift us. Jesus, with an almost disturbing simplicity simply said to us: "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:28). (Please note that he says here "do this”, he does not say "believe this.")

The simplicity of this message – which is a practical doing in this world and not a believing in three or more impossible things before breakfast - the outrageous simplicity of this message is perhaps why we ended up with the Church and not the kingdom. How could it be that simple?

But surely such voluntary, radical simplicity – a life lived with confident and joyous hope in the fruits of messianic rather than chronological time – is without doubt more needed by our world than ever before.

So, in the time that remains to us, I encourage you to DO this simple thing Jesus the Messiah encouraged again and again – for service under the law of love is precisely what transforms our perception of chronological time from within and which gifts us the kingdom of heaven on earth in which all work and rest can become meaningful and satisfying.


See also:

Has the Messiah Come? - A Christmas Day Sermon

The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace - First Sunday in Advent   


Yewtree said…
I am so used to the usual interpretation of Paul's words as expressing his belief that the Messiah was going to return imminently that it is hard for me to reinterpret them in the way that you suggest - but I like your reinterpretation very much.

I also really like what R Travers Herford said (but then he's one of my heroes as you know).

I certainly think that the kingdom of heaven was meant to be a state of mind, rather like enlightenment, which certainly bears out the idea that messianic time would be like that too. perhaps the "gathered-up" time of which Paul speaks is like the idea of "living in the now" (something that I am exceedingly bad at).

I think it is really hard to know what the authors of the New Testament meant any more - but then all the more reason to offer new interpretations, as the Jews have been doing with the Torah for hundreds of years.
Dana said…
I wish I could say more than "you are absolutely right, and I will try harder."

I can, of course, but it might not be right to the point.

A quote from John Taylor Gatto, "The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher":

We need to "regain[] a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found--in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent interdependence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built--then we would be so self-sufficient we would not even need the material "sufficiency" which our global "experts" are so insistent we be concerned about."

Poor Emma is taking economics--American-style--this year. And everything she says is a fact of economics seems mostly wrong. (To ignorant me, but I still feel right!) People make money (work all the time) to waste money (or waste time on a Las Vegas-type vacation), but what if we really used time as you describe? Then, as you say, "all work and rest can become meaningful and satisfying."