In the Kingdom of God things are different.


“Your career is before you,” observes Screwtape as he proposes a toast at the Tempters’ Training College for young demons. “Hell expects and demands that it should be — as mine was — one of unbroken success.

Then he adds, somewhat menacingly: “If it is not, you know what awaits you.”

He could have been speaking at the annual dinner for Premiership managers.

To my own surprise I have some sympathy for the owners of Leicester FC in their abrupt decision to sack FIFA’s coach of the year, Claudio Ranieri. For Claudio knows that in football success is everything.

His team may have enjoyed stunning success last season but you are only as good as your current form.  Which in Leicester’s case is dismal.

Just think former Premiership champions, Blackburn Rovers – now in the relegation zone of the Championship League.   Or Leeds United.  Or Blackpool FC, now languishing in League 2.

For at its very heart football is a zero-sum game:  I can only win at your expense. None of this “every one a winner” stuff.  As supporters of Arsène Wenger know only too well, you don’t get points for playing pretty football.

And in many ways football is a metaphor for our society today. Results are everything. And that’s what’s killing us, as C S Lewis wryly observes in his Screwtape letters.  Hell does not countenance failure.

Things are different in the Kingdom of God and in a way we can scarcely imagine.

So the Hebrew prophets foresee a time when God’s rule embraces the whole of creation.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
(Isaiah 11:6)

The very fundamentals of this present creation no longer hold.  And there is no way our imagination can grasp this.

So the apostle Paul refers to Isaiah’s prophecy.

No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9 Message translation).

And the message of Jesus?  Start to live your life on the basis that this wonderful future is not only certain but in part has actually arrived. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’

His message has huge ramifications. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it..”  (Mark 8:35).

Of course, Jesus himself lived this.  And his life – despite early promise – turned out to be a complete failure.  “He was despised, and we held him of no account.”  (Isaiah 53:30)

As ever his resurrection, his conquest of evil, changes everything.  And it subverts our understanding of success.

When Winston Churchill said “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm,” he could have been talking about the ministry of the apostle Paul.

For we read in the Acts of the Apostles how Paul goes from town to town sharing the good news of Jesus.

Usually he is only there for a few days before being thrown out – and then moving on to the next town.   Often he is thrown into prison; sometimes flogged.

And his results were not impressive.  In fact, he failed in his original goal of winning over his fellow Jews. Reflecting on this he writes: “How great is my sorrow, how endless the pain in my heart  for my people, my own flesh and blood!.” (Romans 9:1).

Invariably he had to settle for Gentile converts, most of whom were women.  Few had any social status.

Paul should have been sacked.  At least this was the view of the so-called ‘super-apostles’ of 2 Corinthians.

However, as the apostle argued, disciples of Jesus march to the beat of a different tune.  For the radical message of his Gospel is what counts before God is not what we have done but simply who we are in Christ.

And who are we in Christ?

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  (1 John 3:1).

Now that’s worth raising a toast to!