Preached on 6 April 2008 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
You can listen to a second-service version of this sermon by clicking here …
There, on the screen, are four images … they are meant to represent the world, heaven, the church, and Jesus … and I want to begin this morning by asking you to consider how, in your mind, these four things relate to each other … and to you yourself. Yes, I know … it’s difficult to do that in the space of just a few seconds, so let me help you by telling you how I think that most Christians have put them together over the last couple of hundred years. Then you can see if you find yourself thinking, “Yes, that’s kind-of the way I see it too.”
First, the world. For at least two centuries now, Christians in general have seen the world as doomed … a still-beautiful planet if you go to the right bits of it, but one that has well and truly gone to the dogs so far as the human species is concerned and which is getting worse all the time. Of course, advances in science and technology have meant that some things are better now than they were in times past … health, hygiene and so on; but the general trend is downward. There is increasing crime, violence, corruption, exploitation, poverty, suffering, and misery which we try our best not to think about too much, and to close our eyes to wherever possible. Oh, we’re happy to enjoy all the good things the world still has to offer us, yes … but we throw up our hands in despair at all the evil and darkness and turn our backs on it. Terrible, we say … terrible, terrible, terrible.
Unlike heaven. Heaven, for the last couple of hundred years at least, has been the place of eternal bliss where God lives, surrounded by his angels, and where Christians go when they die; and not only Christians but, hopefully, other selected friends and relatives who will somehow manage to make it through the pearly gates. What goes on there is pretty vague … but we know it is going to be even better than we can imagine and a place of great reunions and endless pleasure … which for some will no doubt include singing in the celestial choir. Certainly, there’ll be none of the stuff there that we find so distressing here … which is why we’re so glad that, by dying on the cross for us, Jesus has, if you like, bought us a ticket on the Heaven Express which we’ll magically find in our hand when the moment of death arrives.
We’ll come back to Jesus in a minute, but before that … the church. Where does the church fit in? Well the church is, if you like, the waiting room on the station at which the Heaven Express will pick us up. It is where, when Platform World is at its coldest and wettest and most unpleasant, we can find a shelter from the storm … a bit of comfort and warmth and comradeship with like-minded people as we all await the Great Escape. We pay lip service, of course, to the concept of “mission” and we would genuinely like more people out there to come and join us in here, but we know that not many will and that if they do they probably won’t stay very long. But we’re not really too worried because the real function of the church is to give us solace and comfort and to provide some solid ground in which we can remain anchored. (I know I’m mixing my metaphors and we’ve moved from a train to a boat … but you get the picture.)
So, finally … Jesus? Well, as I said a minute or two ago, for the last couple of centuries, Jesus has been seen as, first and foremost, the heavenly ticket provider. His main job is to get us safely from here … in the world … to there … heaven. And then his job is … well, I suppose it’s to keep us all blissfully happy when we get there … a kind of divine Redcoat in the Great Butlins in the Sky. Christ is Risen! Hi-de-hi! He is risen ind … no, no, no, let’s leave it there. And … well, that’s just about it …
OK, okay … it’s a caricature. I know it is. And because it’s a caricature you may be tempted to say, “Well, I certainly don’t think like that” … but, please, consider how much truth about the way we think does lay in it. You see, the picture I’ve painted is of a very private salvation. Of a world that is going to the devil. Of a Jesus who comes to rescue me from it. Of a church that will comfort and protect me until the moment of my rescue arrives. And of a heaven to which he will carry me and where he will shower me with blessings for ever more.
It’s a picture that has hardly any public element at all. And the proof that Christians have now come to see their faith in purely private, non-public terms, is that the world out there now sees the Christian faith in those terms too. When a bishop declares from his pulpit (as Tom Wright did on Easter Sunday morning) that the creation of hybrid embryos is wrong, he is told to keep his nose out of things that do not concern him. Journalists and MPs, enraged by his interference, ask “What has Christianity to do with science … with politics … with education … with law? Nothing. Get back to where you belong, bishop … out of the world and into your church … into the area of private salvation … into the saving of souls and the offering of comfort and hope to sad individuals who are weak-minded or naive enough to still believe in all that nonsense about cribs and crosses and empty tombs.”
And, sadly, of course, many of us might be found agreeing with them. Well, with the first bit anyway. We don’t see ourselves as weak-minded or naive but we do think bishops and all other Christians for the matter should stick to “spiritual” stuff and not start sounding-off in public about “worldly” matters.
How dismayed … how appalled … Peter, Paul, James, John, and all the early Christian leaders would have been at such thinking, at such a travesty of the Christian faith. You don’t believe me? Then listen again to what Peter said to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost in our reading from Acts 2 this morning. “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (verse 36).
Both Lord and Christ. They are two words … two titles actually … that nowadays we toss around very freely in relation to Jesus without giving them any thought at all. They’ve actually now just become part of his name — the Lord Jesus Christ. But when Peter used them, those words, put in the way he put them, were public and political dynamite. So let’s just unpack them and feel something of their force.
First, let’s understand this. To make someone Lord, in the first century, was, quite simply, to appoint them Emperor. When Tiberius took over up the reins of the Roman Empire after the death of Caesar Augustus in AD 14, he was “made lord” and became Tiberius Caesar. Likewise to make someone Christ in Israel was, quite simply, to make them King. Christ is the Greek word for “anointed one” which, in Israel, was the synonym for King. A king’s succession to the throne was marked by his anointment with oil. In 2 Kings 11, for example, you can read how “they brought out the king’s son and put the crown on him. They anointed him, and the people clapped their hands and shouted, “Long live the king!”
So when Peter announced to the multitude on the Day of Pentecost that, through the resurrection, God had made Jesus both Lord and Christ, the multitude then heard something very different from what we hear today. We hear a kind of bland spiritual or religious claim; they heard what can only be described as a revolutionary cry almost guaranteed to get the military up in arms: namely that, through the resurrection, God had endorsed and established Jesus as the rightful King of Israel and as the true Emperor of the world.
Yes, you say, but you can’t build much on that. Maybe Peter got a bit carried away in the excitement of the moment? Not a bit of it. Go to the start of Paul’s letter to the Romans and there it is again … Jesus, marked out by his resurrection from the dead as the Son of God, the Christ, the Lord. Indeed, Paul calls this “the Gospel”. In our twenty-first century, private spirituality we see the gospel as being that Jesus died for us so that our sins can be forgiven and we can go to heaven but the New Testament never defines the gospel in those kind of terms. Indeed, the New Testament borrows the very word “gospel” — euangelion — from the Roman world in which those first Christians lived, and where it meant the “good news” — trumpeted by heralds throughout the empire every year, on Caesar’s birthday — that Tiberias was emperor and still reigned from Rome. So in the New Testament, the gospel becomes the good news that, no, Jesus is emperor and he reigns from heaven, and that Caesar (whoever Caesar happens to be) isn’t and doesn’t. That’s why, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul can make the ability to say “Jesus is Lord” a test of Christian authenticity. You’re not going to be crazy enough to make that claim unless you really are a Christian.
No, the gospel is that, when Jesus strode from the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning, a new age had dawned and a new kingdom had become established … a kingdom of which you and I are public citizens and of which this church and all churches are public front-line outposts. The gospel is in the glorious words of Philippians 2 that “God has exalted Jesus to the highest place and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It is not just that Jesus is my Lord in some private and personal sense (though he is and must be) but that Jesus is the Lord … the Lord of Queen Elizabeth II and of Gordon Brown and the British Parliament – whether they like it or not, or acknowledge it or not … Lord of George Bush and the US Administration … Lord of the Kremlin … Lord of the Communist Party of China. It is, indeed, that “Jesus is Lord of all the earth, He is the king of creation” and that “Jesus shall reign where ‘ere the sun shall his successive journey run”. Jesus is king of kings and lord of lords. That is the good news.
And it is news that, if we fully grasp it, changes everything. Suddenly, Christianity is not about hiding away behind closed doors like the disciples on Easter Saturday and waiting to go to heaven when we die. No, suddenly it’s about publicly serving the true King and living out his risen life in the power of the Spirit in the midst of this world. Suddenly it’s not about letting the world go to the devil but reclaiming the world from the devil. It’s about involvement and, if necessary, confrontation.
Our calling is to honour the ruling authorities — Paul makes that quite clear — but our calling is also to keep reminding those authorities of the task with which God has entrusted them … the task of governing wisely and well … and to encourage them and help them as they seek to perform it. So it’s about doing all we can to ensure that, at every level, justice is done in our society and mercy is loved; that the weak and vulnerable are protected and cared for, and that corruption and vested interest is exposed and dealt with. It’s about doing all we can to bring about the forgiveness of third-world debt. It’s about protesting against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. It’s about Fair Trade. It’s about seeking just and merciful treatment for refugees and asylum seekers. It’s about playing whatever part God gives us in making his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Of course, as we might expect, faith plays a vital role in all of this. It takes faith for me to see Jesus as Lord of all the earth and it takes faith for me to proclaim and apply that Lordship in the sphere of influence — small or large — within which the Lord has placed me. The world denies and continues to deny his lordship. It refuses to recognise it even where it manifests itself in amazingly striking ways such as, in our own day, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe that was triggered by the fearless witness of Pope John 23rd, and the peaceful dismantling of apartheid in South Africa that had Bishop Desmond Tutu at its centre. But for all that, the Lordship of Jesus is real and we are called to live it and proclaim it. As Tom Wright says, paraphrasing some verses from Chapter 5 of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
It’s time to wake up. Come alive to the real world, the world where Jesus is Lord, the world into which your baptism brings you, the world you claim to belong to when you say in the creed that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.
Jesus is king. Let’s stop sleeping … or hiding. Let’s go out into the world, proud to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and let’s commit to the very public task of serving him faithfully, fervently and fearlessly until the day the trumpet sounds … that glorious day when, as it says in Revelation 11.15, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and he will reign forever and ever.” Amen.