Here and Beyond

Sunday 26th November 2006
Year B, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Daniel 7:9-10; 7:13-14
John 18:33-37

One of the most bizarre and hilarious scenes in Monty Python's Flying circus is the one involving an architect presenting to a panel which has issued a tender for a block of luxury flats. "The tenants pass through hand-crafted, sound-proofed doors" he says "and travel on a conveyor belt past Spanish murals until they reach the rotating knives ..." at which point, naturally, the panel gasps: "Rotating knives, rotating knives" and then the poor architect, who specialises in abattoirs, admits: "I am sorry, I hadn't clearly divined your attitude to the tenants." No indeed!

I know the feeling. You can be sitting in a meeting thinking that it is running smoothly on course only to find suddenly that somebody else has a totally different idea of what to do.

That was the problem which the Apostles of Jesus faced in general terms and which Judas experienced in a particularly sharp way; and it presents us with a rather sharp area of discomfort today on the Feast of Christ the King. So that when Psalm 24 asks: "Who is the king of glory?" the answer we most certainly do not want is: "the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle". To want that is to put us firmly in the Judas camp. It is also the assumption behind the deep misunderstanding between Jesus and Pilate in today's Reading.

So just as I feel uncomfortable on November 11th and want it to be a day positively promoting peace rather than simply regretting war, so today I tend to think much more of a citizenship of divine love rather than a celebration of traditional kingship. Jesus Christ is King of Heaven and therefore no ordinary king, so we have to stop thinking of all the kingly ideas we have ever had; and start again.

It's always tempting to start with Daniel because he is such an attractive man who has a very special way with mighty and rather unpredictable king/emperors; but our Reading today doesn't help, filled as it is with high flown rhetoric which we recognise in Ezekiel and in the Book of Revelation. In general, Daniel is too much like a prophet and the kings are very kingly, all superfluous jewels and gratuitous slaughter. We find it hard to imagine the massive arbitrary power and the exigencies of ruling extensive but fragile empires with nothing but horse transport.

Jesus, of course, is a much better guide when it comes to the Kingdom although the way John tells the story it is usually much more enigmatic than we will find it in Luke during our forthcoming Church Year. John is very good at making the link between the Kingdom of God on earth and the Kingdom of God in Heaven; the link is the incarnation of the Logos which has given the physical earth the sacred Son of God as our mediator. This is why we pray to the Father through the Son; but the realisation of the Kingdom also involves the continual transmission from Heaven to Earth undertaken by the Spirit. This immensely complex, metaphorical, theology loses a great deal in the telling, particularly as we refer to it in multiple, daily doxologies. Again, as with other discussion in Daniel, the language can get in the way.

Now I don't think it's good enough for any preacher to say: "It's all very difficult and metaphorical and rather vague and there isn't much that we can do to improve the clarity"; it's for us to take risks together in order to get closer to God. So here's my starter for ten:

Forget the patriarch God and all the angels and saints in Heaven; forget Dante and Renaissance painting; forget all the cultural implications. Remember, on the other hand, Jesus dining with sinners; remember angels and saints treading the earth and what they said and did; and remember the saints for our time who have worked selflessly in a selfish culture to bring good news to the poor.

The purpose of the kingly metaphor is that it points us beyond ourselves which is very good for us when we are trying to stretch our minds into the limitless mystery of God; but it tends too often to divert us from God's Kingdom on earth, on the earth which God created, where Jesus lived and where the Spirit is with us now; here and now.

What we tend to do is to put Heaven on one side, as an idea to be contemplated, like the kind of things we keep in a glass display cabinet or in a jewel box; and in a completely different part of our minds we think of the corruption and degradation of the earth, of wickedness and pollution, of war and famine; and then we think that, admittedly in a way about which we're not very clear, Heaven will be a great release from all that mess.

But if that is what Christianity is really all about, if the Kingship of Christ is so radiant, neat and tidy, why would He have wanted to come here at all? Why did the Creator decide that communicating through His Prophets to His Chosen People wasn't enough?

The answer, surely, is that as creatures created with free wills we were bound to be messy and the Creator needed to reassure us in our messiness, not to tidy us up, but to console and encourage us where we are. What we need in God's Kingdom on Earth is an immensely strong grasp of where we are: where we fit into God's plan; where we resemble and differ from Jesus; how our responsibilities to ourselves and to other people relate. In the words of Theresa of Avila: "God has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours". In other words, the Kingdom is not an escape from earth it is a lifelong embracing of it.

The scandal is that in God's Kingdom here on earth, there are places without hope; there are places without light; there are places without self worth; there are places without any kind of understanding of purpose. We are not to look away and think that if we behave as reasonably good earthly citizens we will get to Heaven because, after all, Jesus spent his mission telling us the exact opposite; no, we are to look within and around to see which aspect of God's Kingdom here on earth we can improve. We are not waiting for the Kingdom, we are making it up as we go along; but better to make a narrative for ourselves than to think it is somebody else's narrative.

So what of the Kingdom as other place? Well, the purpose of moral purpose, in the end, is to enable us to recognise God when we come face to face. If we have not tried hard to know God and to love God and, above all else, to recognise God, when we die we will drift past God into loveless oblivion; we will be looking for the wrong thing, we will have incorrectly divined our attitude to the tenants.