Saturday, 24 November 2012

Not of this world? How do we cope with loving this planet whilst following the one who says his kingdom is 'not of this world'?

John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Not of this world?
In some ways, for me this reading from John’s Gospel is really difficult to hear and causes a tension in my soul. There is for me here, if you like, something I would refer to as cognitive dissonance. This is when you have two ideas which fundamentally disagree with each other, yet you think they’re both true.

For example, I confess for a while that like many young Christians I went through a fundamentalist period when I believed in a literal seven day interpretation of the creation story in Genesis 1 with a date of just a few thousand years BC. I believed this because I was told the Bible was literally true and therefore if it said something was true, then it must be.

But then, as I grew in my understanding of science I began to read a different story in which there was overwhelming evidence for a creation that began 13.7 billion years ago, and is still continuing. So that set me up with a cognitive dissonance.

The Bible, I thought, was true, but science also, I thought, was true, but they disagreed with each other, and when you hold strong beliefs about two opposing views you discover how psychologically uncomfortable cognitive dissonance can be! One or other had to be reinterpreted. I chose to re-examine the creation story from a mythic perspective and found there far deeper truths and the dissonance vanished, it was resolved.

Yet now as I read this passage I find another dissonance. We took the youth group for a night hike through the countryside on Friday night and it was wonderful. We spent time in silence, learning to exercise our spiritual muscles, sensing the presence of God. You see I am in love with this world. I walk amongst the trees, run my hands through the wet grass, listen to the sound of reality singing and this is my home. I find the presence of God here.

But in this Gospel Jesus tells me his kingdom is not of this world. And this is difficult because the presence of God feels real here, but Jesus seems to be affirming something else. Or is he? This is a cognitive dissonance that needs to be resolved for Christians who love nature and also love God.

What does Jesus mean? What does he mean when he says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to abandon my love of the natural world because Jesus says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to look afresh at the sense of God’s presence that I’ve had over and over again and say, ‘Well if Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, then I must have been mistaken’? Were these experiences counterfeit?

No, I don’t think so. The first step to resolving this cognitive dissonance is to look at what Jesus says next; that will tell us what he really means. He says, ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’ It is that desire to fight on the part of the kingdoms of this world that puts the context on what he means.

You see I think we can resolve this dissonance because Jesus is talking in terms of power. In a few hours after saying these words he was going to lay down all the power of being the incarnate Son of God and submit to the powers of this world, and my intention is to say more about submission next week. What he’s therefore referring to is not the physicality of this world, but the attitudes of the rulers of this world.

What he’s talking about is that if he was going to be trying to establish a kingdom on earth as it is now, then his followers would be mounting a rescue attempt by force. The rebellion would already have started. Yet clearly they haven’t, and his intention was to let the powers of human government do with him as they chose. He would submit to them because he could only change things by doing so.

What Jesus is therefore primarily speaking about is a profoundly different attitude to life, one of service rather than ruling, in his kingdom. It’s all upside down where the first is the last. However, even though I believe that and hope that we can model that way of living here, it throws up another problem.

You see if Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, that implies that he is the ruler of an other world. How do we feel about that? For those of us living in the Green and following the Christ, how do we feel when he talks about another world? We rather like this one! Does God mean to discard it as unimportant? No, I don’t think so, but we do have to be realistic too. I think we have to take the long perspective on this world.

The hard thing for us to take on board is that this universe, of which our beloved country is but a small part, is already past its creative best. Scientists estimate that 95% of the stars that will ever exist have already been born. There is only about enough hydrogen left over for another 5%. The slow decline towards the cold, dark stillness has already begun.

In about a billion years our sun will have begun to heat up, scorching the earth. All that is green will be blackened. We can love it for now, and we should certainly treasure and cherish it because the Christian life is about service, not exploitation, and that applies in our attitude to all things, not just people, but this place has a limited lifespan. And whilst I feel sad about this, I most definitely do not feel hopeless, and the reason for that is my hope for the Otherworld, where Christ is already King.

So what is that place likely to be like? Here we’re into the world of educated guesses, so let me make some. I think we can assume that Christ’s resurrection forms a pattern, not just for humanity but for all of creation.

I therefore think of that place as like here, only more so, in the same way that Christ’s resurrection body was like his ordinary human body, only more so; more real, more able, and no longer subject to entropy. I’ve always struggled with the ideas of a heaven that’s full of clouds and where everyone plays the harp. Having one harpist in the family is plenty!

For many years I have loved C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’ in which heaven is more solid and more real than earth is. I know he’s drawing on Platonism there, but it seems to fit. Greener trees, a dew that’s even fresher and stars that shine brighter; everything that we love about this fertile ground, only more fertile. It seems to me that the best parts of the physical appearance of this world, those parts that are most welcoming to life, will be reawakened in the next.

But in case we get too sidetracked, it’s not just about physicality - it’s about attitude too. The character of those who wish to be a part of this new kingdom should echo Christ’s model of service rather than power. That’s the shape of the kingdom. Christ as monarch came to serve and so we should too. In fact I think that gives us a template for how we are to deal with the life on this planet. For too long we have exploited animal and plant life, yet if Christ came to serve, doesn’t that give us a template for an eco-sensitive spirituality?

And in exactly the same way, the character of the church should be the template for Christ’s kingdom to come. We should echo on earth what Christ’s kingdom to come will be like. The events in General Synod last week show how far short we’re still falling.

For Christians, Christ is King, and the kingdom of which he is monarch is not of this place but of the next. But the best of what is here forms the template for the age to come. I don’t believe resurrection is limited to humanity, but extends to all creation, so just as you, my sisters and brothers, are worthy of love, so is all life. And for me that resolves the cognitive dissonance.

So don’t be worried if you love the planet. Why should it not also be resurrected. If C. S. Lewis was correct then however transient this place is, we can learn a lot about service whilst we’re here and that will prepare us well for the next parts of our journey. In Christ’s kingdom the rulers serve, so let us learn to apply that here, serving not just each other but the other earthly residents with whom we participate in life.


  1. Have you read Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien? It has some marvellous imagery about how the artist perceives glimpses of heaven and how it looks when he gets there.

    Also, would you guys like to come for dinner and long rambling conversations down here in Chelt sometime? Would be lovely to have a chance to talk properly and when none of us is on duty.

    Maddy x