24 November 2013

King Jesus?

A Sermon for The Reign of Christ Year C

We've come to the end of another church year -- the Reign of Christ is like New Year's Eve in the ecclesiastical calendar. Except that we don't have the funny hats or coloured streamers -- probably a good thing. But next Sunday a new church year begins again with Advent. In fact because this is year C, the third in the three-year cycle of readings, we start not just a new year but a new cycle of readings.

So it's time for a review. And that's just what the Reign of Christ does -- it offers us a review of the key point of Jesus' message: the Kingdom of God has come close to us. This kingdom is revealed to us by Jesus and entrusted to Jesus by his Father and ours. This Sunday's readings offer us three different perspectives on this kingdom, and on the kind of reign that Jesus has. So what kind of a king was and is Jesus? And what kind of kingdom is it that has been entrusted to him?

These are not academic questions -- they have a very important application for us and our lives. We are called to be part of that kingdom and help to grow it on earth -- so what we are also asking is, what kind of people are we called to be in order to live in and encourage the growth of God's kingdom?

In our Jeremiah passage, God speaks through God's prophet to denounce the powerful who have been entrusted with the responsibility of being shepherds to God's people and have failed them instead. They have scattered the flock, driven the sheep away and ignored them. So God is going to replace the shepherds God's self, gather the flock and tend it, and raise up good shepherds that will do their job as they should. What has this to do with Jesus' kingdom and his kingship? The promise given at the end of this passage, of the righteous Branch to be raised up for David, looks beyond the geopolitics of Jeremiah's day, mired in the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. It looks to David's true heir, to the Messiah. He will truly fulfil the mission to be a shepherd.

And so we see the first characteristics of the Kingdom of God beginning to emerge. It is a kingdom whose ruler acts as a shepherd to his people, gathering them, tending them, and giving them his attention, not ignoring them. That would take a special kind of king! And it takes a special kind of people -- we must learn how to be a flock to Jesus as shepherd. That's hard -- we've invested sheep with a lot of negative ideas, so emphasising the positive side, the love and trust we show to the shepherd. is a challenge. But that love and trust is foundational to our role in the Kingdom: unless we live in a loving and confident relationship with Jesus and the Father, we cannot grow the Kingdom and bring others into the flock.

The aspects of God's Kingdom shown in our gospel reading are also challenging but they build on what we've learned from Jeremiah. Luke's gospel takes us deeper into the heart of Jesus' kingdom and the paradoxical nature of our king's reign with the story of the two criminals also crucified at the same time as Jesus. The first criminal, who shows how tough he is by taunting a fellow sufferer, is familiar from a thousand gangster movies, the cornered man who goes down with a snarl on his lips and a curse on his tongue. The second criminal is a bit different -- what bitter reflections on lost opportunities, on the long road that had brought him to a slow death at the hands of the Roman invaders, must underlie his acknowledgement that he and his fellow-criminal deserve punishment for what they had done! What stirrings of long-lost hope, warring with that bitterness, prompted his plea, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom'! Throughout his gospel, Luke delights to show us Jesus radically inverting people's notions about God's kingdom by stretching its boundaries so wide that it could accommodate tax collectors and prostitutes, winos and sinners. Here Jesus opens his arms in welcome on the cross to take in a condemned man, surely the ultimately marginalised member of his society.

Luke shows us a king who has gone beyond being a shepherd. Jesus' great inspiration, in human terms, was to wed that idea of the Messiah, the righteous Branch of David's line, reigning as king and executing justice, to Isaiah's idea of the suffering Servant of God. Here on his cross Jesus is shepherding his flock into the Kingdom of God but he is also suffering for his obedient love for God and for us. In that suffering he can reach out to all those others who suffer, whether justly or unjustly, and bring us the hope and security of the Kingdom.

How do we grow this Kingdom? We do it in two ways. First we can join with Jesus in faithful love and obedience to the Father, despite the consequences, extending our arms also to welcome our brothers and sisters. And second we can live redeemed lives, full of the trust and love that come from the knowledge that we have been accepted into the Kingdom with all our faults and frailties. By living in relationship with God we can extend that relationship to others; anchored in the Kingdom ourselves, we will be able to bring it to others.

Our epistle reading takes us in a different direction. Our other two readings are basically telling a story. Jeremiah is telling a story about God as a shepherd-king and God's Messiah as the heir to the shepherd-king David; Luke is telling one about Jesus as a forgiving and welcoming king. But Paul here is being more abstract and presenting the Kingdom not by telling a story but by trying to describe God's Son, to whom it has been entrusted. That Kingdom is the place where we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. By that inheritance, the Apostle reassures us, we have been rescued from the power of darkness and have redemption.

But then he tells us more about Jesus, God's Son, into whose Kingdom the rescued have been transferred. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. Everything was created through him and for him, and holds together in him. This goes far beyond any comparison with an earthly king! In fact, the Apostle tells us that all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus. What a wonderful image: fullness must surely be among the best ways that we can describe God. God God's self is completely full, lacking nothing needed to make God complete or whole. It is no wonder that it is in the very brokenness that we experience in our lives and relationships that we also experience a call to the fullness of God. Our brokenness impels us into relationship with God.

But from these considerations of the whole cosmos and Jesus' role in it as Messiah and Son, Paul returns to matters much closer to home and reminds us of the cross: through Jesus the Son, "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in heaven or on earth, by making peace through the blood of his cross". What then can we say about the Kingdom and Jesus to whom it is entrusted? Can we use Paul's ideas to inform our thinking about the Kingdom? In the passage from Colossians we see that Jesus presides over a Kingdom of peace, in which those who have been drawn out of darkness into light dwell in the reconciling love of the Father. This then is the Kingdom into which Jesus in our Gospel reading welcomed the repentant thief on the cross, a kingdom of light and of love. And Paul implies that it was only through the cross, that is, only through the Servant's obedient suffering, that this reconciliation could take place.

In one sense we have moved very far from where we started, with a shepherd and his flock, and in another we have simply opened up our understanding of Jeremiah's Kingdom to reveal the depth that was always there through God's love. But what kind of people are we called to be to live in this more fully-understood Kingdom of light and love? As we have seen in our other two readings, so here we see that the key lies in our relationship with God. Only as we grow more and more into our inheritance, living in the reconciling love to which Jesus has called us, can we in turn contribute to the growth of that Kingdom by bringing reconciliation and love to others in our lives and in the world.

The Kingdom to which we are called by Jesus is not something far off, to which we come only when we die. No, as Jesus himself preached on earth, the Kingdom is near, it is coming close to each one of us here and now. We must allow ourselves to be drawn into the Kingdom with love and trust for the shepherd, and then reach out in our turn as he did to share this Kingdom with others. That is how we most truly celebrate the Reign of Christ.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Amen.