This week, the world’s population has reached 8 billion people, despite the increased deaths from Covid. Global temperatures continue to rise, and are fast reaching the tipping point when the ice-sheets of the poles will melt, and low lying land (like Havant!) is likely to be submerged by rising sea-levels. Human kind has not yet learned how to solve its differences except by violence and threat. A billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips and refugee camps 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.
That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty or in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies just to survive from one day to the next. It’s sobering, isn’t it…especially for us, whose daily challenges with the cost of living crisis means choosing to turn down our thermonstat, or buying one less macchiato-cappuccino a week.
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 we experience! How our hearts cry out, when we pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!
St Luke was very conscious of the kind of kingdom 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'. He ‘casts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek’, as Mary sings in the Magnificat. 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).
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 myth of redemptive violence – the idea that problems can be solved with weapons - is nothing but a mask for evil. Jesus shows emperors, religious fundamentalists and dictators 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 food to a family using the Beacon Foodbank. We can donate to the work of this parish in supporting charities like SSAFA, Mind, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
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 of ALL kings, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether. Amen