Building the Kingdom

Sunday 15th January 2012
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
St John The Baptist, Clayton
1 Samuel 3:1-20
John 1:43-51

The last words of the Book of Judges, which chronologically precede the First Book of Samuel are: "In those days everyone did as he pleased" and we learn in our reading that "the Word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was  no open vision", so times were pretty chaotic and showed no signs of improving. The Book of Judges is a chronicle of Israel's fickleness, only turning to God when times were hard and turning away as soon as they got easy. But the call of Samuel marks a turning point; the Lord will lend his strength once more to the Philistines against stiff-necked Israel but after that he will institute a monarchy in a theocratic  state to get worship and  politics sorted  out; and Samuel will be his main instrument.

I think it is worth pointing out that Samuel is one of the few figures in the Old Testament who merges more or less faultless and he is the only figure who gives advice which the Lord rejects but afterwards wishes 'he' had taken. Improbably, too, Samuel, the King maker, dies in his bed and is incongruously called up by a medium acting on behalf of the demented King Saul before matters come full circle in the catastrophic defeat of King Saul by the Philistines, when we start all over again with King David.

The call of Philip and Nathaniel in our Gospel Reading is much  more low key: Israel has been in a state of Messianic ferment ever since the writing, some 200 years earlier, of the Book of Daniel and, in recent weeks, John the Baptist has been active in baptising and preaching a Gospel of penitence of Messianic salvation, whatever that means because we need to be clear that the Jews were not very clear what they expected. There is a widespread assumption that the Jews expected an earthly king to overthrow their Roman occupiers and, so this theory goes, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus because  he firmly set his face against temporal power; but there really is no evidence for this. The prophets who wrote about the concept of the Messiah emphasised spiritual renewal and not political rebellion; and those who organised political rebellion were  never, not even the Maccabees, characterised as Messianic. So Philip and Nathaniel knew what was in the wind not only because of the Zeitgeist but also because they knew some of John's disciples  and might even have been John's disciples, or at least been baptised by him. It does not come out all that well in the translation but there is even room for some humour in Jesus' first encounter with Nathaniel and the whole scene is played out like the bright opening of a play, far removed from the grim future. For whereas Samuel assumes the worst and dies in peace, Jesus' new followers surely assume the best but ended up as martyrs. How could being associated with  the Messiah bring bad fortune, they must have asked.

And we might ask what kind of fortune has it brought us as followers of the risen Jesus. After all, we might argue, in most  cases our calling was not particularly dramatic and our lives as followers have been pretty hum-drum. We haven't been arrested and tortured and we're not likely to lose our lives for our faith. The only thing we are likely to lose is disposable income which, in any case, we would probably have put into another organisation or towards another good cause. In recent years the militant atheists have, unintentionally, I am sure, forced us to be braver about our religion but they and their predecessors have scored heavily against us by forcing religion out of  the public sphere  into the private sphere; they tell us that religion should not be discussed in the public domain and we acquiesce; they tell us that when Christian organisations are participating in the relief of suffering that the price of being allowed to give aid is that we must deny Jesus in our silence, and we collude with the opinion that the good news of Jesus is a threat to the vulnerable; and we see church attendance as one of a number of 'leisure' options'. How do we expect our children and grand children to be followers of Jesus if we sanction their games playing on a Sunday morning instead of coming to church? And how committed are we to these children if we do not offer worship alternatives to Sunday morning, giving parents little excuse for depriving their children of the basic means of acting out their lives in a way for which it was intended.

What, you may ask, was God's 'intention', to  which the simple, though not the easy, answer is that we were created in order to be creaturely by worshipping God and building 'his' kingdom here on earth. While not denying that legal frameworks can help to accord people the equal concern and respect to which they are entitled in a community setting, the way we talk about rights too easily obscures the concept of creation and our part in it as pure gift for which it is creaturely to be thankful.

But what about this building work I talked about? Perhaps the most damaging interpretation of the Christian life is that it is lived in an ante chamber to Heaven, that as long as we keep on building up Brownie points on earth we will receive our due reward. This idea reached its zenith in the idea of Indulgences which was one of the trigger points for the Reformation which in turn led Martin Luther to deny that how we behave will be reflected in how we will be rewarded in the after-life; but not even the forcefulness of his personality and writing could keep at bay the human instinct for wanting to bargain with God to be sure of an outcome that is certain; and what this has done is to  make us behave well because we fear the consequences of not doing so instead of doing good for its own sake which is another way of describing how we build the Kingdom here and now. Samuel, Philip and Nathaniel knew what they had to do and got on with it, not knowing how things would turn out in the 'after life' and that should be our approach, too. Virtue should be its own reward.

Let me end by injecting a note of what I hope is realism: if we say that building the Kingdom is creaturely, then being 'sinful', if you want to use that word, is denying the nature of our creatureliness; but my guess is that we are  not very great sinners. It is just that, in the Kingdom building project, we don't put in the time  or  the effort and down tools too easily whenever an excuse presents itself. And, as you will have heard me say before, we tend to muddle up liking and loving so that we veer away from people we don't like. Well, I say to you, loving those that we don't like is one of the foremost ways of building the Kingdom.