Becoming a Kingdom People
A Sermon for The Reign of Christ (Proper 29(34)C
Copyright (C) 2004 by Abigail Ann Young
Today is the New Year's Eve of the liturgical year -- the very last day, or at least the very last Sunday, of the year. Today our readings and our proper prayers sum up the story and the teachings to which we have devoted the last year, from Advent through Christmas, from Lent through Holy Week and Easter, from the ordinary time after Epiphany through the workaday world of the Sundays after Pentecost. So what is it all about? What is the point of Christ's life and death and resurrection and God's long engagement with humanity through and in the people of Israel? It is to establish a completely new thing: God's sovereignty over our world and our lives, expressed and mediated through the reign of Christ.
On this Sunday, we are invited by our readings and proper prayers to affirm that the kingdom is among us in some real sense and to enter into a new understanding of it and its demands. Lest we make the mistake of Pilate and Herod (and even of some of the apostles), to think that the kingdom is an earthly one whose king is a secular authority with armies at his disposal, Luke and Paul both remind us that the path to Christ's kingdom lies not through the death and destruction of his enemies but through his own death and destruction in the crucifixion.
Christ's kingdom is the place where we have our redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and Christ is the agent by whom the Father brings about not conquest but reconciliation. It's an unusual vision, to say the least, especially for the time and place in which Paul was writing. In our world where, by and large, kings and queens are constitutional monarchs retaining only vestiges, largely ceremonial, of real day to day authority, it is hard to hear the radicalism of Paul's vision in his own world. Kings in Paul's day, whether they were called 'king' or still, like the rulers of Rome, gave lip-service to the shibboleths of a once-vibrant republic and civic constitution, ruled absolutely, with few constraints other than their own wills. The exercise of their power tended toward war, repression, and extortion, as they sought to expand their borders, reduce threats (real or perceived) to their power, and hoard wealth. In contrast Paul shows us a reign characterised by a different kind of strength, by patience and by joy, a kingdom which has turned its back on darkness and sin to embrace light and forgiveness. The difference is summed up by the person of Jesus himself: in him, Paul says, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
This is a unique way to gain a universal kingdom, by making peace, by shedding one's own blood rather than the blood of others. God's preference, it would seem, is to make love, not war! And Paul's vision of the kingdom of God's beloved son owes more to Jeremiah's vision, heard in our Old Testament lesson, of the divine shepherd making good the failures of those originally entrusted with the care of God's sheep by gathering home the scattered flocks and raising up new and better shepherds, than it does to the sorry and sad history of the kingdoms and empires that Paul had witnessed in his own lifetime.
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 what missteps and lost opportunities on the long road that had brought him to a slow death at the hands of the Roman invaders, must underlie his reproach to the other criminal and his acknowledgement that he and his companion both deserve punishment for what they had done! And what stirrings of 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 on the cross to take in a condemned man, surely the ultimately marginalised member of his society.
But in the end it is not just through the scriptures that we are invited to affirm the reality of Christ's reign and participate in the life of the kingdom. The promises that Paul extols are made not simply to individuals but also to the gathered community of those who have been redeemed, that is, to the church. So we are invited through our own experience as a community, gathered at this place, to understand what the reign of Christ is and how we are part of it.
We must never lose sight of the simple fact that we are an intentional community. Most parishes come into being as accidents of geography and demographics: people move into an area, it reaches a certain density of population, and first mission churches and then parishes are established. Something like that process led to our first establishment in the nineteenth century as the parish church of Yorkville Village. But when people began to move away from this part of town and Yorkville was full of hippies and folk clubs rather than farmers and small craftsmen it looked to a lot of people as though the flight to the suburbs was the way of the future for the Church of the Redeemer. Thanks be to God that those were not the people whose voices finally prevailed! But along the way from then until now, our parish was disestablished by the diocese and put into a kind of trusteeship until we could prove to them that we had the numbers and the commitment to go on. And eventually we won the right to be re-established as a full-fledged parish.
I started to attend this church in the early 1980s, in the time between disestablishment and re-establishment, and was blessed to know many of those who were committed to keep this church at this crossroads of the city and to hear their stories. Many of them are of course no longer with us nearly 25 years later, but some are -- next time we have a nametag Sunday that people are asked to give the date they started to come, look around for those with dates before 1980 and ask about what it was like to go through those times. My experience was that all their stories were a little different, because everyone's experiences were a little different, but the result they achieved was the same: an invigorated Gospel presence at this corner.
The centre of the Gospel proclamation is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; everything else in Scripture either demonstrates why that life, death, and resurrection matter by showing us who and what Jesus was or points to the way we should live in a post-resurrection world. In the ministry of word and sacrament that lies at the heart of our common life, Christians relive the story and make it our own, an action that theologians call appropriation. But sometimes we are privileged to experience death and resurrection as a Christian community directly in our corporate life as well. Such was the experience of the Church of the Redeemer. So we are not just an intentional community but also a resurrection community, here in this very location not only to do the Gospel but in some sense to be the Gospel: to bear witness to the truth of the Resurrection by showing its transformative power both in our individual lives and our common life.
Scripture and our experience of life as a gathered community can teach us a great deal about the meaning of the reign of Christ. Affirming its reality in the world is much harder. Open the daily paper or just walk down the street with open eyes and it is hard to think that God or anyone else is sovereign over our world. We sometimes talk and act as though this is a new challenge in modern times. But Scripture itself and the witness of our forebears in the faith show that it has never been easy to affirm the reign of Christ. Part of the problem is because Christ's kingdom, being not of this world, is difficult to see in operation. Part of the problem is that the kingdom, like many of the other things that Paul talks about in Colossians, is both already here and now, and at the same time still coming into being. Just like the work of reconciliation to which the apostle refers, the reign of Christ is a process and the work of realising the kingdom has been entrusted to us, as Christ's body and people on earth. So, like the day of salvation, the kingdom of God exists at the cusp between the present day and the world to come, on the edge at which our 'now', the 'now' of our life in time, meets the eternal 'now' of God's life in eternity. We witness and affirm the kingdom by doing its work, that is, by living out the Gospel and doing God's will until he comes again. May God grant us, through our participation in word and sacrament here in this place, the grace to discern our part in that work. Amen.