Sunday, November 5, 2017

Living for the kingdom

A Sermon preached on 5th November 2017, Celebration of All Saints and All Souls (on Pentecost XXII) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Revelation 7: 9 – 17, I John 3: 1 – 3, Matthew 5: 1 – 12

In the Church of England, the feast of All Saints that we are celebrating today – four days after the actual feast day - inaugurates what is called the Kingdom Season. These last four weeks and Sundays of the Church calendar include Remembrance Day, and end with the Feast of Christ the King on November 26. Then of course it’s Advent and soon Christmas. And no, I haven’t written any of my cards or bought any presents yet either!

The theme of the Kingdom Season is of looking forward to the eternal reign or kingdom of Christ. I do wonder however if one motivation for introducing it, was the feeling that what is called Ordinary time is a bit too long. Today is the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost and therefore the 22nd Sunday in succession for which green is the liturgical color. Perhaps some Church of England priests just wanted a change.

However, while I'm not going to introduce a new season, nor am I allowed to, I swore a vow to adhere to the Prayer Book, I understand the reasoning behind this idea and the kingdom theme is also reflected in today’s readings. None of them refer explicitly to saints, but all of them have something to say about the kingdom: what it will be like, what its values are, and who will be there. 

The reading from Revelation is one of many visions in that mysterious book of the new or renewed world and creation that awaits us all. It is described as a place of joy and celebration, a place of comfort and fulfillment. Nothing is wanting, no one is hurting, no one is sad or suffering: “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat …. the Lamb … will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:15-17) And who is there? All those who have witnessed, often suffered, and sometimes died for the kingdom of God, and there are very many. John calls them “a multitude that no one could count” and tells us that they are incredibly diverse, coming from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” (7:9)

The John of the First Letter of John also looks forward to the kingdom, but unlike his namesake he does not go into any detail about what it will be like.  What he knows, and what we know, is the love the Father has given us in Jesus. And if what has not yet been revealed is anything like the one who has been revealed, it will be glorious. Who will be there? All those who have hope in Jesus, all those who want to become like him, all those who through the love of God are called children of God.

Matthew’s Gospel, in what we call the Beatitudes, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, supplies the missing details. What does it mean to be like Christ? Here is the list.
You should consider yourself blessed or happy if you are “poor in spirit,” which means you embody humility and show detachment for worldly wealth and power.
You are blessed if you mourn over the evil and injustice in the world.
You are blessed if you are meek, not meek and mild as in the Christmas carol, but slow to anger, and gentle with others.
You are blessed if you hunger and thirst for righteousness.
You are blessed if you are merciful by fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and to forgive even your enemies.
You are blessed if you are pure in heart, free of the sin that mars and hides the image of God at our core.
You are blessed if you are a peacemaker. And the Hebrew word Shalom means much more than just absence of war. It means you strive to bring peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, and welfare for all.
None of that sounds very easy, does it? It’s the sort of thing that kept the young Martin Luther awake at night, worrying about his salvation.

Just this week I ran into a very different list of Beatitudes[1], one that I shared with the Wednesday Bible study group. These are what the author thinks a set of beatitudes written by the devil might be like. They are very easy, in fact far too easy to fulfil. Here are a just a few – we will publish the full list in the next newsletter.

  • Blessed are those Christians who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked—it's pretty easy to keep them from working for God.
  • Blessed are the complainers—I'm all ears for them.
  • Blessed are those who are bored with the minister's mannerisms and mistakes—for they get nothing out of the sermons.
  • Blessed are those who gossip—for they shall cause strife and division—that pleases me.
  • Blessed are those who do not give their offering to carry on God's work—for they are my helpers.
  • Blessed is he who professes to love God but hates his brother and sister—for they shall be with me forever.

When I compare the two lists, I am reminded of that Jesus did not say that following him and his path would be easy. Just two chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel (7:13-14) he tells his listeners: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

But especially after having commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just last week, I want to make clear that the beatitudes are not a list of conditions or requirements to “get into heaven.” We are children of God and citizens of that kingdom solely on the basis of our faith, hope, and trust in God and in God’s son. Nevertheless, the first list, the genuine Beatitudes are kingdom values. We are called to try and live here and now as if the kingdom of heaven has already arrived. Which it has. Christ inaugurated it with his life and ministry; his sacrifice and return from the grave. Gregory of Nyssa, a 5th century theologian and bishop, wrote a book about the Beatitudes and is credited with introducing the idea of seeing them as stages of virtue, as steps leading the believer towards his or her goal of union with God. He wrestled with the problem of whether it is possible to live up to these goals in this life and concludes that the Lord would never command anything that “completely surpasses our nature and the limits of its power.”[2] God’s saving action in Christ, the love that the Father has given us, makes it possible.

If we are truly the children of God, if we truly believe in Jesus Christ and if we aspire to follow him, then we must try and follow his example. The virtues listed in the Beatitudes are all qualities that Jesus himself modelled and exemplified. They are not just something spiritual, not something for a heavenly future, they are a program of life, of this life. 

Today is the Feast of All Saints, especially intended for those saints who have no feast day of their own, and yet who lived God’s love in the world. But this is our feast day too. Paul often addressed his letters to the saints in Corinth or Ephesus, to those who are faithful to Christ Jesus, or simply to all Christians. We are set apart by virtue of our commitment in Baptism. And what we committed ourselves to is a new life for God in Christ. Instead of just inaugurating a Kingdom Season today on All Saints, let us inaugurate a kingdom life. If we manage to live just some of the time according to just some of the values and virtues from Jesus’ list, we can start making this world a little more like the place that the John of the Book of Revelation describes - a place of joy and celebration, a place of comfort and fulfillment for all. In the words of Jesus' own prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  

[1] © Grove Books, Ridley Hall Rd, Cambridge, CB3 9HU, United Kingdom
[2] Gregory of Nyssa, Beatitudes

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