There are perhaps deeper issues I should pursue first, but I’d like to take a look at a couple of highly symbolic elements of the kingdom, and how they aren’t commonly practiced in church, although perhaps they should be.
First the element of sanctuary. We all know the word; until the more-hip “worship center” started taking hold in churches that didn’t want to sound too “churchy,” it was what we called the giant room in most church buildings, where the Sunday morning service was held, and the notion that it was a holy place where people should enter with reverence (and kids should be quiet) is a venerable, if not exactly Biblical, tradition.
But the concept of “sanctuary”–not as restricted space but as refuge–actually has a long and proud history within Judaeo-Christian tradition, and perhaps other faiths as well though I am not familiar with them. 1 Kings 1:50-53 is an example where a man who feared the wrath of the king took refuge in the sanctuary and held onto the horns of the altar for protection. Medieval churches took the concept quite seriously, and for the most part one who had taken sanctuary within a church compound (sometimes the building itself, sometimes the church property as a whole) was out of reach of the civil law as long as he remained there. Part of the scandal of St. Thomas More’s murder was that he was slain in the sanctuary at prayer. In modern times, some churches in the United States have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for illegal aliens, although I do not know how successful they’ve been with American civil authority.
But whether the civil law honors the concept or not, I think it might be helpful to think of the church facility in the terms of an embassy. Though embassies are obviously built on the soil of the host country, international law holds that the embassy is the sovereign territory, not of the host country, but of the country it represents. Recognizing that we are “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20), might it not be reasonable to consider our church facilities as embassies of the Kingdom of God? This concept could take a lot of unpacking, but the notions that the church provides protection even for the “sinner” who seeks it, is not so far from the gospel if you think about it. Contemplate: the malefactor who’s taken refuge in a holy Sanctuary (1) is unable to inflict damage on the wider society since he has effectively confined himself; and (2) while there, will inevitably be exposed to the love of God and of Kingdom ambassadors throughout his sojourn. . .what effect might that have?
But a corollary to this idea, and one about which I feel quite viscerally, is that the host country flag has no business being displayed in a sanctuary of the Kingdom of God. From all I’ve heard and seen, this seems to be a particularly American issue; I don’t recall seeing flags in the churches I’ve visited in most other countries, but in American Evangelical churches it’s almost de rigueur. And it’s wrong, I believe, primarily because Americans (especially, but not only, conservative Christian Americans) treat the flag rather like an idol. But if the church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, the place the American flag should fly–if at all–is not the platform of the sanctuary, but rather at the front door. Properly taught, this could imbue the door with meaning as the border between two sovereign kingdoms, and could be a helpful reminder to the believers of where their final loyalties must lie. We certainly need to rediscover that, when we go out “into the world,” we go as ambassadors, not as citizens.