Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.

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