Heaven Come Down: LA, New City, and the Kingdom of God
This past weekend, Osheta and I visited New City Church of Los Angeles. It was our first visit to LA (although I had been once before very briefly with a mentor on our way to Hollister, CA). Since we’ve been back, I haven’t had a ton of free time to reflect because I’ve been playing catch-up at work, but I have had some thoughts. So, before I have to turn around and head back to CA for the conference of the American Academy of Religion next week, I wanted to share some of my reflections here on this blog (which features more of my personal adventures than my theology blog).
My LA Soundtrack
In my experience, travel and music have always gone hand-in-hand. All of the major changes of state I’ve experienced, as well as major family vacations, have each had a distinct soundtrack. The first time I ever visited New Orleans to share Jesus with folks during Mardi Gras in 2000, the soundtrack was 100 Portraits’ Enter the Worship Circle. When I later moved to New Orleans at 19 for Bible college, the soundtrack to that move was the New Orleans artist Jason Morant’s album Make Me New. Four years ago, our family’s epic 3-week, road trip vacation around the country was set to the Despicable Me movie soundtrack. For me, each of those memories has a sound. And this past weekend’s trip to LA was no exception.
Two songs in particular characterize this trip, and each one has a story of its own to tell. But together, and in the context of the purpose of the trip—along with some theological subjects I’ve been mulling over—they form a theme that God has been using to shape my Jesus-discipleship as of late: Inaugurated Eschatology. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, someone posted Ella’s single “Ghost” to Facebook several days ago. Since then, it has been playing nearly nonstop in my earbuds to and from work on the subway. Ella is new to me, and I haven’t heard any of her other work. But this song in particular has gripped me. It’s a song about the haunting of a past relationship that didn’t work out. It’s about how she is seeking freedom from the memory of it and the scars she’s sustained from it. The lyrics are replete with religious terminology. There’s prayer at the river for pain to be washed away, there’s demons, the devil, and even “giving up the ghost” (although, it’s used to mean the cessation of her haunting memories rather than the relinquishing of her spirit). Even still, this song has been the backdrop to many of my thoughts lately.
The second song that now colors the memory of this trip to LA is Spirit Break Out by Kim Walker-Smith of Jesus Culture. This is another artist I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve lost touch with Contemporary Christian Music since moving to Boston so I hadn’t heard this song before. But, when the band at New City began leading this song, I can describe it is as being “caught up”. I absolutely love the verse that begins with “King Jesus”. Far too few worship songs in Contemporary Christian Music celebrate this way of viewing Jesus. But the theme of God’s Kingdom with Jesus as its King has been a very prominent one for me for several years now. That’s why this anthem blew me away.
The lyrics to Spirit Break Out reflect some of the best theological thinking today:
All of Heaven roars Your name
Let this place erupt with praise
Can you hear it,
The sound of Heaven touching Earth
The sound of Heaven touching Earth
This verse calls to mind Jesus’s “Our Father” prayer (Matthew 6.9-13) with an emphasis on “heaven touching earth.” The beauty of this is that it captures the heart of Jesus’s words when he teaches his disciples to pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (v.9-10)
The chorus is simple yet profound:
Spirit break out,
Break our walls down,
Spirit break out,
Heaven come down
This “in-breaking” of the Spirit is Gospel/Kingdom language. The Age to Come invades the Present Age in the Person of Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. The triune God has revealed Godself to humanity uniquely and definitively in history. The dwelling of God (heaven) is now with humanity (earth). This unity is New Creation! (John 1.14; II Cor. 5.17; Rev. 21.3)
The second verse turns the attention to “King Jesus” and proclaims his name the one “we’re lifting high”, his “glory” shaking up the earth and skies. To “see your kingdom here” is “revival”.
You’re the name we’re lifting high
Shaking up the earth and skies
We wanna see Your kingdom here
We wanna see Your kingdom here
As I sang this song, surrounded by a beautiful sea of faces from every tribe and nation, I felt “caught up” (that’s the best way I know how to describe it). I felt connected to everyone and to God simultaneously. God’s shalom invaded my heart and I wanted to stay in that moment forever.
I think that’s what the song is actually all about. When our lives individually and collectively are surrendered to God’s will, we can glimpse or taste heaven—the eschatological future—in the present. It’s like time-travel, only without that pesky paradoxical dilemma of meeting yourself there and tearing a hole in the space-time continuum. In worship, our contemplation of the Lord’s glory transforms us. (II Cor. 3.17-18) We’re becoming the persons and the people God intends us to be.
A New Polis
This is what the name “New City” is all about, actually. City is just the English word for polis in Greek, and polis was more than a symbol for a geographical space. It was the social order of a people group. It was the culture, the economics, the religion, the politics.
When Jesus bursts onto the scene in the Gospels, he comes proclaiming the breaking-in of a new polis—a new way of ordering society. Only this polis is a heavenly one! It’s God’s politics, not human politics. And in God’s politics, the blessed ones aren’t the rich and “powerful” but the meek, the poor, the peacemakers. In God’s politics, the ones who are citizens are those who have been stigmatized and marginalized by the “powers that be” but who nevertheless hunger and thirst after righteousness. They were the “sinners” who came to Jesus for healing, forgiveness, a new life.
New City Church of Los Angeles embodies this vision in a beautiful way. As a community, it gathers to worship Jesus in a theatre it rents downtown near Skid Row. The congregation includes loft-dwelling professionals as well as unhoused unemployed persons. It includes people from a multiplicity of ethnicities. It includes every age group from senior saints to infants. If ever I’ve seen a group united by nothing but Jesus, it was at New City LA.
At each and every worship gathering, New City invites anyone and everyone to the Lord’s Table. There is no qualification made. If you want to meet the Lord in the bread of his broken body and the cup of his shed blood, you are invited. The young black female leader who invited us to sup with the King read the Apostle Paul’s words from his letter to the church at Corinth from The Message:
Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important. I received my instructions from the Master himself and passed them on to you. The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
This is my body, broken for you.
Do this to remember me.
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you.
Each time you drink this cup, remember me.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
I Cor. 11.23-26, The Message
Together, we all partook of the bread and cup in turn. As one body, we ate and drank together. In that act, we proclaimed the Lord’s death, the Lord’s love, and our unity in our shared identity. A new social order is established, a new city.
A “kingdom” is just another way of saying “polis”. It’s the “rule” or “reign” of a King. It’s the administration of his vision. It’s the reach of his power and the power of his reach. God’s kingdom is heaven come down. God’s kingdom is God dwelling in the midst of God’s people.
God’s kingdom is also God’s future crashing into our present. God has a dream that will one day be a reality. But that reality is becoming real today, in the world that is God’s. The Age to Come, when swords will be beaten into plows, can be seen in the Present Age through women and men who “train for war no more.” The Age to Come, when every tribe and nation will worship the Lamb Who Was Slain, can be seen in Present Age in a theatre in downtown LA every Sunday morning. The Age to Come, when every tear will be wiped away from every eye, can be seen in the Present Age every time New City Church of LA throws a birthday party for unhoused children and their families.
Jesus is the prototype of the new humanity God is creating right now in the midst of the world. And Jesus is the King of God’s Kingdom, the Lamb Who Was Slain is worshiped in the throne room of heaven. And citizens of the heavenly city who live here on earth worship him now also. We are “seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2.6)
May the Kingdom of the Father in Heaven Invade Your Here and Now.
May King Jesus Rule and Reign In and Through Your Life.
May the Spirit of God Fill You Full of God’s Love and Peace.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.