Sunday, 22 November 2015

"Christ the King" is the festival - but what kind of king and what does it mean to be one of his subjects?

Revelation 1:4b-8

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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.’

What kind of King?
Today we celebrate the festival of Christ the King, but what type of King is he? I want to suggest that at least a part of the answer to that question lies in when it is being asked. In the time frame in which we are currently in I would have to say that he is the king of a hidden kingdom, which is what we find in the Gospel, whilst Revelation provides a different picture. Both, however, will help us to consider what kind of subjects we should be from what type of King he is.

Let's look first at the Gospel reading to get some idea of what I mean by that. The events in the reading take place in the last few hours before the crucifixion of Christ. He has been arrested, most of his disciples have run away and Simon Peter has denied he ever knew Jesus. Pilate is questioning Jesus closely to try and understand what is actually going on here and there is a sense of Pilate being ill-at-ease.  He knows that the Jewish leaders are using him to get what they want. He's a shrewd political operator; how else could he have risen to being in charge of Judah? And the writer, John, seems to be portraying Pilate as someone who is trying to find a way to let Jesus go. When Jesus hears Pilate ask him if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus smells a rat. No one in Pilate's position would think up a title like that.

'Is that title your idea?', asks Jesus. 'Of course not,' responds Pilate, 'It's your own people who have handed you over to me.' Jesus then explains to him that the kingdom of which he is a part is not based in this world, and the evidence for that is that, if it was, his disciples would be fighting to free him. I wonder if, in part, Jesus is saying those words to point out to Pilate that his disciples present Rome with no danger and that they need not be arrested.

Was Jesus preserving their safety and the future of the Gospel with those words? Certainly the disciples were scared after the crucifixion and locked themselves away, fearing the Romans would come for them in the way that they usually came for troublemakers after catching the ringleader. But Jesus has underlined that he isn't here to become a Judean king in the present world. He presents no threat to Rome. We can see this to be true if we look back through the Gospels. Do you remember that there are a number of occasions when his followers try to take him by force to be king? Do you recall the number of times Jesus walked off into the wilderness or up a mountain to escape them, his very own followers?  Or the occasion when he was so straight with them about what following him would cost them that most of his followers left him, leaving Simon to respond to Jesus questioning whether they would also leave with the words, 'Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.' Never once in his ministry did Jesus try to gain worldly power.

And we can trace it right back to his temptations at the hands of the devil when he is offered all the worldly power he wants, but he walks away from it. The kingdom of Jesus is a very different one from modern democracies and dictatorships because it is about stepping away from power and control. If Jesus had cultivated earthly power then his arrest would have sparked a revolution.  The very fact that it didn't testifies itself to the way in which he had conducted his ministry. Truly his kingdom was otherworldly, with different priorities and rooted in a different place. 

 This is something that so-called Christendom has got wrong throughout the ages as we have sought and taken political power for ourselves, and Jesus says, 'My kingdom is not of this world'. Even the action of seeking power for ourselves is wrong. Let me put it another way; 

When Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world, he doesn't just mean location, he also means values.  
This is one of the biggest issues for me today in the way that Christians conduct themselves. I have so many friends outside of the church who are there because of the way that they have been treated by Christians who need to be in control, who need to be in charge. But the kingdom that Christ rules is an otherworldy kingdom in which the first become the last, and the least important in this world become the most important in his kingdom.

Is that how we are living? Do we value the needs and opinions of others? Because if it not, then the plain truth is that, whatever we call ourselves, we are not a part of his kingdom. In fact I would go so far as to say that there may be others who attach different religious labels to themselves, yet by their behaviour towards the least in the world show themselves to be a part of his kingdom.

There are plenty of occasions in the Bible where the righteous ones are not those who were either Jewish or Christian. Think of Job, declared to be righteous and a follower of God, running away from evil. But he lived in Uz. He wasn't Jewish. If the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world and the values of Jesus are not of this world, then when we adopt this world's values, when we seek power and authority for ourselves or for the church we must ask the question, 'Are we actually of Christ's kingdom?'

Those who were at last week's River service might hopefully remember the verse we tried to memorise together, John 13:35, where Jesus says, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Love and power are utterly mutually exclusive. If you love someone you cannot have power over them. If you try and have power over them then you do not love them. This is not the same as proper authority, obedience and allegiance. I have no difficulties with my oath of allegiance to the Bishop, for example, but he is a servant, same as I am, same as you are, and we all serve Christ who is himself the servant king. His kingdom is not of this world, either in values or in place.

So if he's not a king in this world, where is he king? And what is the future of his kingdom?

The book of Revelation presents a different picture; the 'when' is including a look to the future. The imagery begins with the Trinity. First there is the God who is, who was and who is to come, which is a description of the one we call 'Father'. The next reference is this curious one to the seven spirits of God. Remember that Revelation is written in the style of Jewish apocalyptic.  That means that large portions of it are intended symbolically. The seven spirits probably refers to the Holy Spirit with seven being the perfect number attributed to God. Listen and count to how Isaiah describes the Holy Spirit in chapter 11:2: 'The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.' Seven attributes.

And then there is Christ as the firstborn from the dead. He is also described as the ruler of the kings of the earth, but note there is no indicator of their obedience to him; and that on his account the tribes of the earth will wail. But notice how John describes us as the kingdom. Once again it is a kingdom not of this world.  But John does foretell a future day where heaven and earth are to be united. I don't want to go too far down that route because that is more of an Advent theme for the coming weeks. But it's worth asking the question, why does his return, depicted here, cause so much horror on the earth?

I suggest that it is because he is described as the one to whom all authority is given and the one whose example all rulers, at whatever level, should follow.  His return to earth is something of horror because rulers tend to seek power for themselves whereas the model of Christ is to serve, to give power away. Those who want to have power rather than to give service, whether they profess themselves Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Atheist or whatever, are not going to appreciate the end of the kingdoms of earth.  You see the Christian faith holds that the kingdom of heaven will one day take over the rule of earth; that the ways of justice and righteousness will be established here by Christ. The Old Testament name for this is The Day of the Lord, but it is not necessarily something to be looked forward to. The Old Testament prophets who speak of it do so in terms of judgement.

We can perhaps think of it as the values of the kingdom of Christ, values that we have just thought about, being imposed from above with authority. You may recall Christ's saying, 'The meek shall inherit the earth.' No religious affiliation is implied there. It is, instead, about the values of the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of Christ being established in the present.

And of course, if those values are imposed, then we should perhaps expect judgement on those who have lived according to their own gain and their own power, which brings the story back full circle to put ourselves as the subjects of what is being said. Christ's is a hidden kingdom. It is not of this world, yet we profess to be of that kingdom but we do live in this world.

So I want us to consider what we value and how we behave. I once heard a preacher declare, 'The way you treat the person you like the least is the way you love God the most.' How do we treat those we dislike or are uneasy with? How do we cope with our own internal ambitions? How do we go about garnering power in order to use it for our own ends?

Those who profess to be Christians place themselves under the authority of Christ the King, but his kingdom is a very different one from an earthly one. His kingdom is upside down, where the most powerful and the most authoritative will lay down their lives for the sake of others and where the last in line become the first. Those are the rules of his kingdom, and if we want to think of ourselves as his subject then we need to be prepared to live by those rules because that is what it means to be a Christian.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Remembrance Sunday - Whose side is God on anyway?

[Please note: Due to the presence of someone important to me in a politically sensitive part of the world, the text of what follows is subtly different from the sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday.  I am happy to send the original to anyone who asks for a hard copy.  I hope readers will understand].

Joshua 5:13-15
Joshua’s Vision
Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?’ He replied, ‘Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped, and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my lord?’ The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so.

What does God really care about? Is it not the well-being of children? In Matthew 18 Jesus says these words, ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.'

What else does God really care about? Is it not about justice and righteousness? Proverbs 6 includes these words, 'There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.

But then we can start to get a little more controversial.  What makes God angry enough to wage war? Now we're asking the really serious question, because as we remember and honour those who gave their lives to keep the freedom of this country, and set free those countries being oppressed by a foreign force, we sometimes take comfort that in doing so we, we were carrying out the will of God; that God was on our side because we were fighting the oppressor.

But I want to suggest to that the reality is much more subtle, and that whenever we talk about war in the same context as we talk about God we have to be supremely careful not to colour our understandings of the nature of God. You see, contrary to what many extremists think, God does not take sides.

That is not to diminish the sacrifices given to defeat the despicable evil of Nazism or, in our own time the sacrifices that may well be needed in conflicts to come, nor the need for the defeat of an oppressive enemy by warfare when no other means will work.  Those who have allowed themselves to become unutterably evil may have put themselves beyond any kind of diplomatic solution. However, it is a very small and dangerous step to go from seeing the evils of the other side to declaring that our side must therefore be on the side of right, to then declaring that God must be on our side because ours is a righteous cause. Once we do that we walk a dangerous tightrope where we risk become blinded to our own failings and a whole raft of evil can follow because we think we can justify it in God's name.

God does indeed go to war sometimes in the Bible. When things have become persistently unjust, when children are being killed, and when a system has collapsed into evil and oppression, God will go to war. But when we go to war, can we, should we, ever claim that God is on our side? And if we can't claim that, should we actually fight?

Now the reality of World War 2 was not actually one of us declaring God was on our side and Nazi Germany also claiming God to be on their side. If anything the ideology of the Nazi leadership leaned heavily towards the occult, and was moving towards destroying the church with over 6,000 clergy being either imprisoned or executed during the war.  But amongst the Allies there was often a firm belief that God was on our side. I want to suggest that the truth is much more subtle than that, and indeed that, if we don't see the role that God really plays in conflict, we run the risk of all kinds of evil.

To show you what I mean we need to look at our first reading, from Joshua 5. Let me give you a little context to the narrative. The story comes at a turning point in the history of Israel. For forty years the people have been living in the desert to give sufficient time for a disobedient generation, the ones who left the slavery of Egypt, to die off.  They had got in the way of God's plans and God could not accomplish his ends with them in place. In his mercy he simply delayed his plans to let them die off naturally rather than take more drastic action. So what were God's plans? To drive the Canaanites out of their land and give it to Israel. Why? Because of the great evils that the Canaanites were committing, which included, amongst other things, child sacrifices. The mistreatment of the innocent will always bring God's wrath.

In the place of Moses, now dead with his generation, God appointed Joshua as the new leader of Israel, and God told him that now the time had come to go in and take the promised land by force from the people who lived there. Notice that God was using Israel as his instrument of judgement to take the land away from the Canaanites.

In the reading, the people have just crossed the river Jordan and are preparing to wage war against the ancient city of Jericho. And so, in the lead up to the battle, Joshua goes to spy on the city of Jericho, to get some idea of what they are facing and to plan his attack. But as he approaches the city he walks straight into a man standing before him with a sword in his hand; pretty scary if you're trying to do some secret reconnaissance. The question Joshua asks him, perhaps with one alarmed hand on his own blade, is essentially, 'Are you with us or against us?' The answer that is given is supremely important. The man answers, 'Neither'.

Now who is that man? There are two possible answers. He refers to himself as the commander of the armies of God so he's a spiritual commander, not a human one. I think he is probably the Archangel Michael who is, elsewhere in the Bible, referred to as the one in charge of heaven's army. However it can also be argued that this is a pre-incarnation encounter with Christ. That puts a whole new take on 'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild' doesn't it.  Either way, this is someone highly important from heaven, and my whole argument about whose side God is on depends on that one word answer. 'Are you on our side or the enemy's?' 'Neither'. Let's be absolutely clear about this. God has previously told Joshua that he must wage war against the evil people of the land. But even despite that, God is not on his side...

The lesson that Joshua has to learn here, which is the lesson that we have to learn, is that no one can ever claim God to be on their side, and great evils in war have ensued when people have done so because we become immune in our own minds to the way we wage war, such as the complete destruction of cities, of course including their children.

The question has to be completely reframed, and this is the question that we must ask in terms of any conflict, small, large or international:  It is not, 'Is God on our side?' The question that must be asked is 'Are we on God's side?' The difference is vitally important. If we think God is on our side then we can justify all kinds of evil in God's name, but if we recognise that God is active in the world, working both to defeat evil and to bring forgiveness, then we have to ask, 'In this course of action, are we on God's side?'

Were the allies an instrument of God in bringing down an evil and oppressive regime hell-bent on world domination? Yes. Was God on our side? No. But I hope we can say that we were on God's side, but I hesitate to say that was always the case. When we think of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki; the unspeakable suffering wrought on families, on non-combatants, we have to ask, could that ever be in the will of God? If we had questioned, 'Are we on God's side?', would we have done what we did?

Can you see how this reframes all sorts of conflicts throughout the world? 

God is not on our side. God is not on anyone's side. The question must always be, are we on God's side? Do we have any idea what he wants to accomplish in a situation? Do we even have the humility to ask?

So on this day, as we remember with gratitude the honour and valour of those who gave their lives to ensure the freedom of this nation, and as we look ahead sadly and with regret to conflicts of the future, may we always ask the question, in all things, 'Are we on God's side?' and never 'Is God on our side?'

There will be more to come on this subject in the December issue of the Parish magazine because I want to suggest that when we move from international to personal, we might wish to introduction a different understanding, but you'll have to wait until December for that one.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

All Saints Day

Two readings for this one but feel free to skip over (they're only short though).


Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Matthew 5:1-12
The Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Do you have someone in your family history that everyone always talks about in glowing terms? My my paternal grandfather, was an incredibly gentle kind of character. It took a lot for him to show any kind of negativity about anything and I can only once remember him saying anything remotely critical. At his funeral he was described as one of God's gentlemen.  So, as you might imagine, his memory is revered in our family. I imagine that many of us, especially as we get older, have someone in our memories to whom we look up or wish to emulate. That is the starting point for what I'm writing about here which is going to be two-fold; understanding the role of saints as ancestors and wondering about our role as the ancestors of tomorrow.

Right across the world, in almost every region, there is some form of tradition of what is usually referred to as 'Ancestor Worship', but is actually usually more to do with honouring the dead. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a great surprise, then, to find in our own tradition that there is something similar, today's festival of All Saints Day, but perhaps with a subtle twist.  In a number of religions down through history and in the present day the idea behind this kind of honouring was to safeguard the future of our ancestors in the afterlife. It was also to preserve that sense of belonging to a family lineage. However, in Christianity the sense is more of recognising, not so much our ancestors of blood and bone, but our spiritual ancestors.

So whilst my grandfather's memory is important to me, and I hope to develop traits like his, in the context of the church we look further afield than those whose genetics we have inherited. We look to the ones who came before us in the faith and now dwell in God's presence in heaven as they, like we, await the remaking of all things as spoken about in the first reading we had from Isaiah.  There is no need for us to pray for them and for their continued well-being because they are dwelling in safety, and in fact in some, more catholic traditions, the saints are asked to pray for us. But who, actually, are these 'saints'? You see we all recollect names like St. Paul, St. Peter and St, Mary Magdalene, to which in this country we might add St. Nectan, St Columba and any number of other obscure Celtic Saints, but who decides that someone is a saint?

You might be thinking that it's the job of the Pope and a dedicated team at the Vatican, and that you have to do something really special even to be considered for elevation to sainthood, but actually the reality is much simpler. When St. Paul uses the word, 'Saints', which he does a lot, he simply means, 'Christians'. That means that when I stand in the pulpit or behind the altar I am standing in the company of the saints who are alive.  You see, sainthood isn't about anything that you do or achieve. It isn't about being more godly than most people. It isn't about being a better Christian than someone else. It is simply about receiving the gift of God's love and salvation. The initiative in sainthood comes from God to us, not vice versa. We are saints because of the grace of God, not because of any holiness in us. Being a saint doesn't depend on you living up to everyone else's expectations, thank God (and I mean that!)

Since sainthood is a gift from God, it then has a knock-on effect which is that once you are counted as one of the company of the saints, you are always one of the saints. Death doesn't remove you from that company, it simply means that you move from being in the saints who are alive on earth to being amongst those who are alive in God's presence.  So when we honour the company, or the communion of saints we are simply remembering those who have trod the path that we tread before we did, and in many cases they are the ones who helped create the path on which we now walk, or who encouraged us to take this Way.

All Saints day is, therefore, a day in which we can remember how, when we gather together in worship, it is not just those who are seen who are present, but also the whole company of heaven. At its best, worship on earth becomes plugged in to worship in heaven. That doesn't mean we can or should talk with the deceased, but it does mean that we sharing in the same act at the same time.

I had a curious experience of this once a couple of years ago at Evensong, which is a small service, rarely more than a dozen people. Near the beginning of that service we hold a few moments of silence to remind ourselves of the presence of God with us and within us. On that occasion it was almost as if, for just a second or two, I felt aware of the presence of heaven worshipping God alongside us.  It's quite difficult to explain what I mean as it was an awareness rather than actually hearing anything, but it was as if our few small voices were joined in song with a whole company of other voices, of the saints who had left this life, maybe joined with the voices of the angels, lifted in worship.  I can't tell you more than that as it was so fleeting, like the sense of having just heard something that was on the edge of hearing, but the memory has stayed with me ever since as a reminder that all worship, in whatever style, however grand or humble, should be connected to the worship of heaven.

The communion of saints is, therefore, the collection of all Christians, across the ages, in the presence of God. When we worship together, so our voices are joined to those who are our ancestors of spirit as well as those who are ancestors of blood and bone. When we honour their memory, so we consider what it was about them that we would like to emulate. In what ways were they shining examples, and how should we respond to their examples?

Earlier I mentioned my grandfather, but I could also talk about other Christians I have known, now in the presence of God, whose lives were inspiring in one way, shape or form, and whose ways I would like to honour. If you like these are our ancestral heroes of the faith.  So I believe in the communion of saints, but I also believe that a reality as radical as this should be allowed to challenge us. If we are all saints, and we are, and if we remember the ones who have gone before us and honour the way they shone light for us to see the Way for ourselves, then we need to remember something that a friend of mine, Nimue Brown, gave an excellent talk about a couple of years back.  She declared a very simple truth, that we, those who are alive in this present moment, will become the ancestors of those not yet born. And here I don't just mean ancestors of blood and bone, but also, and perhaps especially, ancestors of spirit.

Sometimes, when I look at the board of names of clergy in our church lobby dating back over 750 years it makes me feel very small, and I realise my responsibility of trying to build on what they accomplished. But one day some future vicar, not yet born, will see my name on there, and I wonder what they will think. I'm not seeking compliments here, just thinking about responsibility. It forces me to ask the question, 'What will I have left for them to build on?'  So what about you? Sometimes we look at the state of the world around us and we feel really quite helpless to do anything. But we're not helpless, we're just allowing ourselves to be mentally defeated by scale.  The truth, though is that few of us can change the world, and few of us are called to, but every one of us can change our little corner of it. Those words that Jesus spoke that we call the beatitudes; if we live like that then people, communities and lives will be changed around us. We can make a difference in Christ's name.

In what ways can you make your family life, or community life, or work or school life better for others? How would you like to be remembered? You, today, are an ancestor of tomorrow.
The choices and decisions you make in this present life will have repercussions into future generations. People often tell me about old characters in the parish, what they were like, how they lived, and the effect they had on the people who lived in the community.

For example, some of those who live in our parish remember Mabs Onions. Mabs was already elderly when I arrived and had to walk around the village with the aid of a push along shopping trolley. But my first ever memory of Mabs was the day after we moved in to the vicarage, nine and a half years ago.

Before you're licensed as a vicar you are not supposed to be seen out and about, so we were keeping our heads down. But that didn't stop Mabs. When the door bell rang I opened our front door to see this smiling elderly lady who held a bag out to me. She said simply, 'Hello. I know you're not supposed to see anyone yet but I just wanted to say hello. I'm Mabs and this is a cake for you and your wife.'  With that she waved and set off back to her home. But I have never forgotten that generous and yet so simple act of hospitality. And it changed me, just a little inside, because it made me wonder whether I could ever be that hospitable. We're not related, but in that moment Mabs became one of my spiritual ancestors, someone whose memory I honour because I want to be a little like her.

So, as ancestors of tomorrow, what do you want to be remembered for?