Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon -- 14 June 2009

PROPER 6 / 2ND PENTECOST — 14 June 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am

1 Sam 15:34-16:13 | Ps 30 | 2 Cor 5:6-17 | Mark 4:26-34

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

This may have occurred to you at some time, though I suspect most people (other people, not us, of course!) have never given it any thought and would find the idea quite surprising: Jesus was not particularly religious. Now, let me be clear: it is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus prayed; in fact, he prayed a lot. Apparently he often went off by himself, up a hill or whatever, and spent the whole night in prayer with his Father. Sometimes his followers would find him and interrupt him because there were people who wanted, for instance, healing and who needed his attention, and he always gave it. And obviously Jesus talked a lot about God. But most of what he said about God really wasn’t very what-we-would-call “religious.” One of the reasons why the Pharisees disliked Jesus so much was that he was clearly not as religious as they were. And that’s true!

In fact, the words that we translate into English as “religion” or “religious” occur very rarely in the New Testament, and not in a very positive sense. For example, in the Epistle of James he writes: “Religion [I’m actually tempted to suggest that James is putting quotes around the word: “Religion”] — “'Religion’ that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27] True “religion” has to do with love and justice and integrity.

Another place where the word “religion” occurs in the English bible is in the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul is preaching in Athens, and he says “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” [Acts 17:22] He says this with a straight face, but I suspect with his tongue in his cheek a bit. In this case the Greek word is not the same one James uses, but a word that can reasonably be translated “superstitious.” And Paul goes on to say, “I am here to tell you about the real God, the Lord of heaven and earth” — not, he implies, the deity of human religion.

Later on in Acts, Paul says in his self-defense before Agrippa and Festus: “I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.” [Acts 26:5] (The Greek is the same word that James used in his letter.)

And that’s pretty much about it for “religion” in the New Testament. The word never appears in the Gospels. The word only becomes common as denotative of Christianity later on, after the Church had spread out into the Empire and particularly after Latin become the dominant language of Western Christianity.

Jesus does not talk about “religion.” Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. Typically he begins by saying something like “The Kingdom of God is like this:” and then he tells a story, or paints a little word-picture. (“Parable” has a fairly broad definition.) Jesus’ parables are not particularly “religious” — mostly they depict situations or activities from normal everyday life. But they are designed “to get you thinking,” to present “a different perspective” on some aspect of life that we thought we were very familiar with. They provide an insight into the Kingdom of God.

Okay, having tromped around on the meaning of “religion” for a few minutes, now let’s tromp around on the meaning of “Kingdom,” specifically when we are talking about the “Kingdom of God.” We have a tendency, especially given the fact that culturally if perhaps not ethnically we are to a fair extent British by history, to think of “kingdom” as a political or geographical entity, as in “the United Kingdom” (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). A “kingdom” is a place, and that place is ruled by someone called a king. Or, in the case of Britain for the last 57 years, a queen. (Did you know that the longest-reigning monarchs of England have been queens? — Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II. At least until you get back to the Plantagenet kings Henry III and Edward III. But I digress.) But actually, it works the other way: The king comes first, and then his sovereignty, his reign, his rule, his kingship, may be referred to as his “kingdom.” In the Biblical languages, beginning with the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and continuing in the related language Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and true also in the Greek into which Jesus’ teachings were quickly translated, the words that we are likely to translate into English as “kingdom” actually have the sense of “kingship,” or “kingly rule,” or “sovereign reign.” The sense is more personal and relational than geographic or political.

So the Kingdom of God is not some place, some other place, especially not some other place in some other time, a time yet to come. But, as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (you plural) or “among you.” {Luke 17.21] Jesus told Pilate, “My kingship is not a merely worldly kingdom — it’s nothing at all like Caesar’s empire.” [John 18:36] The Kingdom of God is now; the Kingdom of God is here! All we have to do is to open our eyes to it, to open our hearts to it, to follow Jesus who leads us into it, here and now. Jesus did not say, “Come join my church” (although in due course that might be appropriate!). Jesus said, “Follow me!” Jesus still says “Follow me!” Follow me into God’s Kingship! This is what the Gospel, the Good News, really is: That the God who created us loves us and wants us to share God’s love with one another, and to share in the building and spreading of the Kingship of God throughout God’s World.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus did not say “I have come that you may have religion, and have it abundantly.” Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life — life in God’s Kingship — and have it to the full.” [John 10:10b]

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