The tale of the Fisher King, as told by screenwriter Richard LaGravanese and Scot McKnight:
It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.”
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?”
The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat.”
So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?”
And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
“Oh,” said the king, sorely disappointed. “Then this cannot be the grail I have sought all my life, because kingdom realities only apply to ecclesial actions. The only things that are connected to the kingdom are the things that are done in the context of the local church.”
I really enjoy Scot McKnight’s writing and find his blog, Jesus Creed, is often a source of wisdom and thoughtful inspiration. And even here, where I think he’s wrong, I think he’s wrong in an interesting and thought-provoking way. But still wrong.
McKnight has stirred up some lively discussion by wanting to make a distinction between social justice work done by Christians outside the context of the church and the work of God’s kingdom. Both, he insists, are good and necessary, but for McKnight, “kingdom work” can only be done by the church, within the church.
In a recent post titled “Kingdom Work, Social Justice,” McKnight writes:
I want the church to be a kingdom embodiment and I’m not criticizing social work at all; I’m pushing back against the left-wing mistaken notion that kingdom is what happens outside the church, that kingdom is something bigger (and therefore other) than church, etc. … The local church is called to be an embodiment of kingdom realities. But kingdom realities only applies those ecclesial actions.
Let me push back against this pushing back. I appreciate his concern for wanting Christian mission and identity to be more grounded in the community of the church, but shrinking down the kingdom so that it will fit through the church doors is the wrong way to go about that.
Part of the problem, I think, arises from a misreading of the thing he wants to criticize here — a misreading made clear in his phrase “bigger and therefore other.” McKnight seems to be picturing a Venn Diagram with two wholly separate spheres, one labeled “church” and one labeled “kingdom.” And if I’m reading him right, he wants to say, No, there should be only one sphere labeled both of those things.
But those of us, erm, “left-wingers” (?) who believe that the kingdom is bigger and more expansive than the church are picturing a diagram in which the sphere of the church is inside the sphere of the kingdom. Bigger, but not other.
The other problem is that McKnight’s distinction is anachronistic. He elaborates on his argument in an interview excerpted on the Slow Church blog:
Kingdom work and church work cannot be divorced, and when we divorce them, we ruin what church means in the New Testament, and we lose what kingdom means in the New Testament. I tell my students all the time, if you think you’re devoted to the kingdom but not to the local church, then you’re not devoted to the kingdom. The only things that are connected to the kingdom are the things that are done in the context of the local church.
That’s an anachronism. Jesus’ Gospel of the kingdom preceded the existence of the local church and preceded the idea of the local church. Jesus’ own ministry, was not “done in the context of the local church,” but I don’t think we’d want to say that Jesus was “not devoted to the kingdom.”
I mostly agree with McKnight that “there is no such thing as ‘kingdom’ outside those who follow Jesus,” but I think he stumbles when he equates “those who follow Jesus” with “the local church.” Unfortunately, those aren’t always the same thing.
And, also, fortunately those aren’t always the same thing.
I say I mostly agree with what McKnight says there because I think it’s right, only backwards. I would say rather that there can be no such thing as followers of Jesus outside the kingdom. While Jesus did not teach to, at, in or about “the local church,” he did make a clear distinction between those who followed him and those who were what we might think of as church members yet did not really follow him. That distinction can be found in many of his parables and, indeed, seems to have been the main point of many of them. If you’re looking for “kingdom work” in Jesus’ parables, it’s usually expressed by the character who is not the church member.
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats, for example, is not the parable of the church members and the outsiders. It is a story, rather, about what it means to follow Jesus. And in that story it means simply this: “I only knew that you were thirsty.”