Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold at St Mary’s, Garsington and across the Benefice on 30th July 2017.
Readings: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
Here’s a true story of a Roman Catholic woman who married an Anglican man. When they were first married they would sometimes go to each other’s denomination of Church- He would go to the Catholic Church and she would go to the C of E church. All was well except for a few of the lady’s friends, who were aghast at her attending Anglican services. ‘It’s alright’, she would respond, ‘we’re all Christians – we’re all travelling in the same direction.’ ‘Yes, my dear’, her friend would reply, ‘but some of us are travelling first class!’
I love the idea that there is a ‘first class’ Christianity with a superior route and carriage leading to the final destination – the kingdom of God. And perhaps there is a lesson in the story too, not that Catholics are inherently better than Anglicans (although this may be true), but that it is not just the destination that counts, it is the journey and the manner of our travel.
Our reading from the gospel this morning gives us Jesus’s indications of what the kingdom of God is like – all are images taken from the natural world – a seed that grows, mature full-grown wheat, yeast that makes bread rise and the pearl of great price, and so on. All these metaphors speak of growth of some kind. Indeed, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York instigated the week of prayer from Ascension to Pentecost called ‘Thy kingdom come’, making the clear connection between the making of disciples and the building of the kingdom. But what do we mean by ‘the kingdom’? Is the kingdom to come now? Or is it in the life hereafter? How do we bring it about? If it is to come, is that a present possibility or a future reality?
One theologian who considered the kingdom as impossible in this earthly life was Martin Luther, who sparked the German Reformation 500 years ago this year, in 1517. Those who claimed, in their arrogance, he wrote, to know the nature of God, were deluded. He called them ‘theologians of glory’ who glorified and exaggerated their own abilities to apprehend the attributes of God. This is a falsehood, claimed Luther. All we can know about God’s work is encapsulated in the cross. The only positive and true statement we can make about God’s immanence is Christ’s life and crucifixion – the rest of divine reality is hidden. Thus, any true theologian is a theologian ‘of the cross’. Our response to the cross is to live a life of penitence and humility, acknowledging our (Augustinian) indelible stain of original sin, and hoping that, through repentance and faith we may receive God’s grace to do some good, and await the fulfilment of God’s kingdom, either in the afterlife or at the second coming of Christ.
Conversely, the twentieth-century writer, C.H. Dodd, posited the idea that the kingdom could become a reality in the here and now, the fulfilment of the end times (in Greek the eschaton) could be brought forward, or realized, in the Church on earth now. He called it ‘realized eschatology’. I imagine each of us can think of people and events where the kindness, generosity and self-sacrificial values of God’s kingdom have been visible in the deeds of people today, which gives us hope of a better future, and perhaps faith that humanity can be redeemed. On the other hand, the continued rise of violence, whether in the name of religion, autocratic rule or nationalism, makes it improbable that Micah’s prophesy, where spears shall be made into pruning hooks and swords into plough shares will be fulfilled soon.
The Welsh twentieth-century poet, R.S. Thomas, recognized that the reality of the kingdom of God, whether it was to come about on earth or not, was a long way off and that we have not brought it about yet, but when it does happen, it will be revolutionary:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
That is why Jesus gives us this command to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer. Because, although we may glimpse the goodness of the divine from time to time, the world is yet to be healed from its brokenness. Jesus knew this before his crucifixion for, as he was brought to trial he declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world, for if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight’ to slay his opponents and save himself from the suffering of the cross.
But he does not do this. Any why? Because, to risk the idolatry of trying to talk about the nature of God, He is not that kind of King. The wisdom of the cross, wherein the essence of the kingdom lies, is illogical in worldly terms, it is ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of humanity, as St. Paul argued. It is paradoxical to say the least. The kingdom of God, according to scripture, is a place where the greatest power is found in the greatest weakness; where children are more readily honoured; where the first must be last; where to gain one’s life you must lose it; where, to become rich, one must give everything away; where the greatest must be the servant of all. It is a place where, in Mary’s words, the powerful are put down from their seats and the humble are exalted; it is where the poor, the meek, the bereaved, the persecuted are the most blessed. God’s kingdom is sometimes seemingly given to those who deserve it least. In the parable of the prodigal son, the elder brother is jealous and angry at the great feast given to his wayward younger brother. There is a clear salutary lesson for us to learn here. God invites us to feast with him in his kingdom; he invites us to a party, a heavenly banquet. In response, we can either stand outside in critical self-righteousness, refusing to sit down with those with whom we disagree, leaving us without friends, family or welcome, or we can accept the invitation and join the party, if we can also accept being with everyone else who has been graciously invited. If we can accept that invitation then our community might become a place where we can learn to practice true harmony and peace.
So, are we travelling first class, as Christians, to this kingdom? In fact, are we travelling in the right direction at all? One reason that the train might be stuck at the signals is that we don’t really want the kingdom to come at all. That, when we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, we don’t really mean it. For instance, when the rich young lawyer asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, ‘Sell all you have and give your money to the poor and follow me’ and the lawyer went away very sorrowful for he was very rich. ‘How difficult it is to inherit the kingdom’ sighed Jesus. Who here today is willing to give everything away to the homeless? Who is willing to give their position or status away? I do not point a finger, for these questions are addressed to myself and I preach to myself as much as anyone.
Perhaps, the next time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as we will shortly in this service, perhaps we can pray with a little more conviction that God’s kingdom really will come; give thanks that Christ’s death and resurrection gives us hope of an eternal joy in his heavenly kingdom and that we may have the humility and strength to consider the lowly, the meek, the bereaved, the poor, the persecuted. Then perhaps the best side of our human nature, through God’s grace, can join in the holiness of the Trinity – the Father, whose kingdom is in heaven, the Son, whose hallowed name is above every name, and the Holy Spirit, who gives fallen humanity the hope of living in the joy of the kingdom, both now and in whatever comes next. Amen.