Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 July 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Samuel 28.3-19; Luke 17. 20-37
“The kingdom of God is among you.”
When I looked at tonight’s readings my first thought was that some-one had pressed the “fast-forward” button on the Lectionary: Saul and the Witch of Endor for Halloween (and one of those evangelical moans about Harry Potter), and Luke for Advent.
In our passage from Luke, Jesus speaks to two different audiences.
First, the Pharisees, who ask him when the kingdom is coming.
Then his disciples; he speaks to them about the coming of the Son of Man.
Shared vocabulary,“Look, here!” and “Look, there!,” and questions about past, present and future link the two together.
All devout Jews hoped for the coming of the kingdom of God. This meant different things to different people; but for most it conjured up a vision of freedom, peace and prosperity.
The Pharisees seek signs of the kingdom’s arrival, but reject the ones before their very eyes: in the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus. His presence and activity is the presence and working of the kingdom.
“The kingdom in in the midst of you/among you.”
Some will recall the King James translation’s version of this: “The kingdom of God is within you.” This is a possible translation, but two factors suggest it is not the correct one.
First of all, “you” is plural.
Secondly, those being addressed are Pharisees, who have not accepted the message of Jesus. The kingdom of God is clearly not “within” them.
“Within you” owes its popularity to its reflection of two factors:
1. An individualistic piety which sees personal relationship with God or Jesus as primary and the Church, the people of God, as secondary, if important at all. Churches are merely convenient gatherings of like-minded people. I’m not saying we should not have a personal relationship with Jesus –quite the opposite – but we can’t keep him to ourselves. The kingdom, like the Church, is communal, corporate, or it is nothing.
2. Then there’s an individualist and ‘psychologized’ culture which stresses personal self-fulfillment and self-realization. It sees religion primarily in emotional and therapeutic terms – about making us feel better about ourselves. It is about my relationship with “me” and with God rather than God’s relationship with us all and our relationship with others.
Then Jesus turns his attention to the disciples who have been listening to this exchange: “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. The early Christians, suffering abuse and ostracism, if not outright persecution, did long for that day; they prayed “Marantha – O Lord, come.”
Jesus assures them that he will come – but will not tell them when. Indeed he warns them that however anxious they might be, they must not to be fooled by those who claim to have calculated when it is to occur.
Whatever Jesus says about not calculating dates, about ignoring those who claim to have worked it out, and however often they have been proved wrong, there have always been those, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who picket Oxford Circus these day, who think they know better.
Against the background of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine writing in “The City of God” said to his contemporaries: “In vain, then, do we attempt to compute definitely the years that remain to this world, when we may hear from the mouth of the Truth that it is not for us to know…but on this subject he puts aside the figures of the calculators.”
The only thing that is certain, Jesus says, is what must come first: the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected. This conditions all hopes. There can be no Easter without Good Friday; no second coming without the first. To place all our hopes in the return of the Messiah while avoiding his journey to the cross is to choose a triumphalism that has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
By putting Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and those to the disciples together, Luke keeps intact the New Testament’s understanding of the kingdom as “already but not yet – in the midst of you and still to come.”
Jesus’ warns against thinking and behaving as if the end has already come. Luke and his contemporaries knew that this as a real danger. The early Church knew of:
- a perfectionism which claimed that Christians could lead sinless lives. I’ve never met one and I don’t expect you have either.
- a belief that they were so “spiritual” that they had transcended their sexuality; leading either to ascetic denial of sexuality or hedonistic immorality.
For Paul, Christian faith involved sharing Christ’s sufferings as well as his resurrection life. To experience the Spirit is to know a power made perfect in weakness; not one that leaves behind the limitations of this present existence.
Luke, too, even though he sets out in his Gospel to show the gifts of the Spirit in the life of Jesus and believers, shares Paul’s understanding. It is a power experienced within the bounds of this life. For both there is a “now” and a “not yet” to Christian existence in this world.
But not everything has been postponed to some remote future. Both Paul and John speak of the present benefits of life in Christ:
- we have been raised with Christ;
- we have passed out of death into life;
- whoever has the Son has eternal life;
- life eternal is to know God and believe in him whom he has sent.
Failure to accept these present realities and gifts, because we think Christ’s coming indefinitely postponed, generates apathy, inertia and irresponsibility. Every problem or injustice or oppression or human misery can wait until the Lord comes. This may provide a sort of comfort, but it leaves unrealized the possibility, here and now, of that life in all its fullness which Jesus comes to bring. Even more tragically, it leaves nothing done to alter the conditions in which misery and oppression continue.
In churches like this one we are unlikely to be seduced by those who calculate the end of the world. Our temptation, especially seductive because of our respect for tradition, is like Saul to seek the living among the dead; like Lot’s wife, to look back.
Saul faces a real crisis, but his response is not one of courage and leadership but to turn to idolatrous practices he himself had forbidden. Fearful of the future, he returns to a past only to find it cannot save him.
A story of mediums and ghosts may seem something out of Harry Potter World: the kind of thing evangelical preachers thunder against. Yet our times are not so different. We, too, have our Philistines, terror stalks our streets; fears and suspicions threaten to drive us apart; consumerism reduces our human worth to what can be defined by our spending power.
In the face of such death-dealing believers should be able to respond with resources of life. But too often, like Saul, we despair of the future as God’s future. Instead of David’s trustful living and bold facing of the future, we opt for Saul’s anxious efforts to know and control our destiny; and so cut ourselves off from trustful confidence in God.
In politics this can lead to a nostalgia for the past as a time free of the crises that beset us: whether it be some fantasy of empire when Britannia ruled the waves or Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The past is to be remembered, yes, to be learned from and built on; but it cannot be reborn. not reborn.
In religion, too, we can seek to call up the past as a way of refusing the future. The present with its statistics of decline and litany of scandal is bad enough, but the future is unknown and so even more frightening. Like Saul, we try to summon up the past to rescue the present and to control of future which is unknown. Like Lot’s wife, we look back to what we had rather than to the future which God holds out to us. We prefer the safety of the familiar or the counterfeit comfort of an imagined past. But the past is rarely as rose-tinted as we think and in any case it is gone; no one lives there anymore, and we cannot return to it. We invoke tradition, hoping that it will tell us what to do; rather than inspire us to listen to what God wants us to do now and in the future. But the ghosts of our past, if we dare to listen to them, tell us that if we would secure our life, we must first lose it, because that is the way of Jesus Christ.