Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reign of Christ

Central United Church—25 November 2012—Michael Kooiman

John 18
Jesus answered Pilate, saying: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the the religious leaders. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

I seems you can have too much of a good thing.

When my loving partner and I enjoyed our honeymoon, I thought to would be helpful to record the event with my camera. I took 3,000 pictures. No one told me that taking 3,000 photos on your honeymoon is excessive: no one, except Carmen, of course.

So yes, you can have too much of a good thing. This summer I had a brief but lovely week in the Cotswolds (1,600 photos), and managed a side trip to Tewksbury Abbey. The Abbey, it seems, is the second largest parish church in the UK and may have the largest Romanesque crossing tower in Europe. In a land of abbeys and cathedrals, I guess it helps to stand out.

So I’m taking photos, mostly upward toward the fine vaulted ceiling, and chatting with one of the Abbey volunteers. As he was telling me, in some detail, about the death of some long-ago Prince of Wales in the field next to the abbey, I notice a small metal box labelled 50p. “50p,” I’m thinking, still listening and trying to be polite, “what could be 50p?”

I asked, and it turns out that for a mere 50p you can illuminate the ceiling of the Abbey for about ten minutes. I pay, of course, and then happily proceed to retake all the photos I just took (did I say 1,600 for the trip?). Now I’m trying to retake my pictures, listen politely, and digest the implications of 50p. ‘This is brilliant,’ I think while snapping and listening politely, “everything at the church becomes 50p.’

You want light? 50p! You want this microphone to continue to work? 50p! You want the heat on, or better, you want the heat off? 50p. Bathrooms? 50p. Coffee? 50p. Choir anthem? 50p. Sermon longer or shorter? 50p. There is no end to the possibilities in the land of 50p. Church may never be the same.

And I would have learned none of this, if Henry VIII had his way. You see, Tewksbury Abbey was founded by the Benedictines, actually made of French stone floated across the channel starting in 1102. It was wealthy, and on the list of monastic communities to be dissolved in Henry’s Reformation. The church would have been destroyed, except for the townsfolk who complained to Henry that destroying the Abbey would deny them their parish church.

Ever practical, Henry said, ‘pay me for the lead I was going to salvage from the bells and the roof, and you can have your Abbey, for £453.’ Seems like a deal, really, £453 for one of the finest churches in England, but consider that Tewksbury was tiny, the monastery was gone (the main source of income for the town) and £453 is £200,000 in today’s pounds.

But they paid. They found the money and they bought themselves a church that still stands 900 years later, looking lovely and bright, 50p at a time. They paid because it obviously seemed foolish and short-sighted not to, but also because the idea of paying would have made sense to everyone in the town and surrounding area: This after all, was the time we call Christendom.

Christendom, is a term most often given to historically Christian societies, societies where the vast majority of the population participated in the Christian church or at least respected its place at the centre or society. If you are a sociologist or a Marxist or both, you might describe Christendom as a form of cultural hegemony, where an elite favours and propagates a cultural norm, in this case Christian practice and belief.

Christendom is not the Kingdom of God, they are two completely different things. But the Kingdom is a little harder to define:

Jesus answered Pilate, saying: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the the religious leaders. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Before I begin to try to unpack this exchange, a note. John has this troubling habit of describing the mob and the religious leaders that they follow as Jews. And this is true. But what is also true is that John is trying to create distance between a very Jewish Jesus and the crowd that wants him dead. It is part of John’s unfortunate project to begin to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from the Romans and onto the Jewish community that he wants to imagine is separate from Jesus and the twelve. But they are not. Jesus had trouble with the religious leaders of his own religion, much in the way that Jesus would likely trouble with the Pope, the Moderator, the Archbishop of Canterbury and everyone else who imagines they have a lock on the truth.

So, Jesus says “My Kingdom is not of this world.” But he also says “the kingdom is near” (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 10) and to those healed of a demon, he says “the Kingdom is upon you” (Luke 11). And to really muddy the waters he says to the Pharisees “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” So let me get this straight, Jesus: It’s near, it’s here, it’s not of this world, and it’s inside me. No wonder every parable in the Bible is another attempt to explain the Kingdom, and no wonder that he said “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” Still seems pretty hidden to me.

And that, I would argue, is precisely the point. The Kingdom of God is not a movement, or a program, or a set of steps, but rather the very mystery hidden at the heart of God. Just as God cannot be reduced to either ‘out there’ or ‘in here,’ God’s Kingdom cannot be reduced to a set of principles we ought to follow or the latest expression of the church that claims to be purer or nearer somehow to God.

And it is certainly never to be confused with Christendom. In Christendom, councils met and declarations were made, and earthly kings trembled at the thought of disobedience to God’s law, freshly interpreted. But Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” In Christendom, people clamoured to the church at the correct moments to see what their salvation might look like, but Jesus said “the coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed.” In Christendom you try to be mature in your faith, and take the whole thing very seriously, but then Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”

As we struggle to understand all of this, I want to share a recent story, one that may shed light on the difference between Christendom and the Kingdom we seek to comprehend. I also want to share it because frankly, it’s been bothering me.

I’m a member of our presbytery’s property committee, and as such we meet with congregations that want to renovate or alter or even sell their building. We met with a delegation from church near the lake, a delegation who have a redevelopment dream: to gut their church and transform it into a smaller congregational space and add seniors housing. It’s a good scheme, and it may be beyond the energy and skill of the forty or so members of the congregation, but they have been supplemented by at least three members of the community who understand community housing and such things.

They have become good friends, the three community folks and the members of the church that are working on this project together. Months of effort, achieving consensus, and deepening their bond has paid off in the quality of the plan they presented to our committee.

But only one of the three has joined the church. So here we have three well-meaning, left-leaning, well-educated, and middle-class people drawn into relationship with the church, but only one chooses to worship God. Do you see the source of the concern here? We, in the church, live with the illusion that if we could only meet the people who live around us, if we could only have a chance to tell our story, if we could only show them how friendly we are, and if we could show them how newly photogenic we are, then they would join the church.

But they won’t. And they don’t. Across the church, we are challenged by the disconnect between the excellent thing we offer and the relative indifference of the neighbours that surround us. We are challenged by being the very model of Christian community that feels like ‘thy kingdom come,’ yet the United Church of Canada still stubbornly refuses to grow. And we don’t even need growth, we just want it to hold our own.

I’m going to argue--and you can disagree--that the idea of church growth belongs to Christendom and does not belong to the Kingdom. Yes, we would love more fellow travelers on the road; yes it would be nice if the ushers struggled to carry the plates under the great weight of offering received. But these would seem to be more about the success of a church rather than the degree of faithfulness shown.

And in some ways it is not even about faithfulness shown, because this can quickly become a contest too: are we doing something more meaningful then the church over there, or the one over there? Rather, the Kingdom is a mysterious place where some hearts are turned to prayer, where some fall to their knees to express joy or regret, where some name Jesus Christ the Lord of their life, and others simply do not.

In Christendom, it was easy to identify and judge these people. Never darken the door, and you were not ‘good, church-going folk.’ Drop your kids off at Sunday School and race home for some alone time and you were better, but not good enough. Christmas and Easter only, we had their number. You see, whenever you set up a model and judge the people who fall short, you are engaged in ‘cultural hegemony’ (the needs of the dominant group) and not the Kingdom.

So we don’t want to go back, and we’re not sure there is a way forward. The Kingdom is not of this world but we want to help build it here, in some form. The Kingdom near or here or coming and all we know is that some will see it and some will not. And God knows why this happens. Literally, only God knows why this happens.

So it’s 50p to keep the lights on, and work hard not the judge 99% of the town who are not here this morning, and don’t judge ourselves for not attracting the 99% of the town who are not here this morning, and ponder the Kingdom, that is clearly not of this world, but speaks to our hearts, now and always, Amen.


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