Sermon for the Patronal Festival of St Saviours Church, Stamshaw - on the Feast of Christ the King. (21st November 2010)
(2 Samuel 5: 1-3, Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43).
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: "Something is wrong in the state of Denmark". Shakespeare invites us, as he so often does, to hold up a mirror to our own society...to ask ourselves whether there is anything rotten in the state that we live in too. Is there something wrong with the State of our World? Is there something wrong, for example, with a world which, in the last century, slaughtered 150 million people in wars...150 million…that’s more than have died in all the preceding centuries put together. Is there something wrong with a world in which 1 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips for something to eat.
Have you ever wondered how many people is a billion people? Let me give you some idea of the scale....Imagine, if you can, a line of 1billion people, standing 1 yard apart. If I were to get in my car, and drive along the line of people at 60 miles per hour for one hour, I would pass 105,600 people. Do you know how long I would have to drive at 60 miles per hour, all day, all night, without stopping, to pass by 1 billion people? 1 YEAR and 29 days.
Note to my internet readers...here's the calculation:
1,760 yards = 1 mile
At 60 miles per hour, after one hour I would pass 105,600 people standing one yard apart (1,760 times 60).Therefore 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) people, divided by 105,600 tells me how many hours it would take to drive past 1 billion people. The answer is 9,469 hours - which divided by 24 hours in the day, is 394 days (or 1 year and 29 days).
That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty. That's how many live in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies or other hand-outs just to survive from one day to the next.
Yes, Beloved, there is something wrong with the State we are in.
In a little while, as bread and wine are consecrated, we will remind ourselves that Christ claims dominion over all creation. We will remind ourselves what His Kingdom is like: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. How very different that Kingdom is from the one which was in place in the time of Jesus…
The Romans believed that they had a duty to conquer and then rule the known world. Not through ideas, not through love and generosity; but through violence. They brought many good innovations with them...as the 'Judaean Popular People's Front' had to acknowledge in the 'Life of Brian'. "What have the Romans done for us...apart from the roads and the schools and the hospitals and the sewerage systems?" But Roman rule was ultimately based on the idea of 'redemptive violence' - the idea that society, and life in general, can only be improved through conquest and coercion.
That had terrifying consequences for the people of Jesus' day – and there were two ways, primarily, that local people used to resist the Romans’ violent oppression. The first was the reaction of the Zealots. They were a small group of revolutionaries, who believed in defeating Rome by Rome's own methods of violence. They ran small scale attacks on Roman installations, and Roman people...trying to drive out the Romans through a campaign of fear. Today, we would call the Zealots 'terrorists'. People who use the fear of attack to change the mind or policy of a ruling power.
The other reaction to the Romans was the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. The Pharisees, in particular, established a system of fundamental religious law...and a belief that if only every Jewish person would follow all the Laws of God for just one day, then the Messiah (the St. Saviour!) would come to liberate them from their oppressors. There were other fundamentalist religious reactions too…like that of the Essenes, who escaped to the desert, in an attempt to flee the violence of Rome.
Terrorism and Religious Fundamentalism. They sound very familiar. Don't they? The ancient world was so much like our world. In fact, apart from the fact that we have electricity and fast transport systems, there is actually very little that has changed. The world is still ruled by powerful men. Poor people still starve every day. And ordinary people still lose their lives in pointless wars and conflicts. Power, imposed from above, is so endemic that we all know what is meant by that old joke: “What’s the difference between God and the President of the United States? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s the President of the United States.”
That one little joke opens up a whole wealth of meaning: because it assumes that we know exactly what Presidents are like…power-mad. But it’s a worrisome joke too, because it assumes that we all think of God like some kind of brutal power-monger as well. Our view of God is shaped by the society in which we live…we tend to think of God as a sort of bigger, stronger Prime Minister, or a sort of super-Headmaster….ready to punish or reward us at the end of term. We treat God like some distant Emperor who will be cross with us if we don’t behave, and who stands ready to punish us if we don’t believe the right things, or do the right actions.
St Luke was very conscious of the kind of political and religious world into which Jesus came. He frames his entire narrative in terms of Kingship, as we shall hear again through Advent and Christmas. Chapter 1: "In the days of King Herod of Judaea...' Chapter 2: "...at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree". Chapter 3: "In the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar's reign". Luke framed his story by reference to three rulers...but then, at the end, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, he places Jesus on his cross with the massively ironic legend "King of the Jews" over his head.
But Luke also contrasts the three great rulers with three simple people. In his first three chapters, the references to Herod, Augustus and Tiberius are contrasted with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon: all of whom proclaim a different kind of Kingdom. These are people who, as Rowan Williams says, are 'lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful'. In Jesus, God has 'turned upside down the assumptions of the world' (see Williams, 2000, 'Christ on Trial' p.51). Jesus presents us with a God who is nothing like the God of our power-corrupted imaginations.
It is perhaps during his trial that we get the clearest sense of what Jesus believed about power. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus steadfastly resists any attempt to be named as either God's Son, or the Messiah - let alone the King of Kings. He silences the demoniacs, the healed leper, and even Simon Peter when they identify him. But, there does come a point, a crucial point, where he permits himself to be revealed. During his trial, the High Priest invites the prisoner to incriminate himself: "Are you the Christ", he asks, "the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus answers with the plainest of plain words: "I am".
Why then? Why at that point?
Here I turn again to Rowan Williams for help. In his book 'Christ on Trial' Williams comments that "Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, 'I am'…"
(Williams, 2000, Christ on Trial, p.7).
Christ the King is nothing like the Kings we have known. He is much more after the pattern of the gentle Shepherd which David was challenged to pre-figure, in our first reading. According to St Paul's letter to the Colossians, Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, through which everything was made...including even “thrones, dominations, sovereignties and powers”...but his task is to reconcile all that he has made (not dominate it) bringing it together in him, through him and for him by making peace by his death on the cross.
Jesus death on the cross has many layers of meaning, of course. But one of them that we must not miss is that by his death, Jesus unmasks the Kingdoms of this world. He demonstrates that the notion of redemptive violence, practised by the Romans and the Priests, is nothing but a mask for unadulterated evil. By his death, Jesus shows Emperors and High Priests in their true light...bully-boys, whose ultimate achievement through violence is the death of a simple, loving man, and the nailing of God himself onto a cross. It's as though Jesus says, "this is what happens when you live with the lie of redemptive violence...you end up squeezing God out, onto the margins, onto a hill outside the City."
But Jesus redeems even such marginalisation. There, outside the City wall, pushed away by the State, he is still at work. He still works to redeem creation. To the thief beside him he turns and promises "Today you will be with me in Paradise". It's as though having failed to persuade the State to embrace a different way, Jesus switches tactics. If the State will not bow to the love and just mercy of God, then Jesus will start from a different point...he will carry out his redemption one thief at a time, one person at a time.
And that finally is where we come in to this story. There is not much that you and I can hope to achieve in changing the State we are in. We can't hope to halt the armies of the world, as they pound each other to dust. We can't hope to shift the priorities of a world economic system which can find £100 billion dollars to bail out the banks, but which can't help those billion people in a line outside our door. But like Jesus, with the thief on the Cross, it turns out that we can do something, after all. One person at a time. One life at a time. We can love our neighbour. We can sponsor a child - just talk to World Vision. We can give the gift of life to a family in the two-thirds world - just 'Send a Cow'. We can choose to live in love and reconciliation with our neighbours, whether they be local or global, next-door neighbours, or religious neighbours.
We can continue to live with the false myth that the State we are in can be improved through violence and coercion - what we might call the 'myth of redemptive violence', or we can wake up to the call of Christ the King, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether.