Evensong 2nd July 2017
The Kingdom of God is among you
The Kingdom of God is Among You Luke 17. 20 – 37
Hampstead Evensong 2.7.17
I was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for thirteen years, in two stints. It is meeting next weekend in York, and a little bit of me misses it. Any institution needs a means of establishing its patterns, agreeing its beliefs and processes, sorting its life, and the Synod generally does that well. I have to say that the hour long debate we had about the quality of the envelopes in which papers were sent was beyond parody (though the envelopes did improve).
Where Synod is at its best is when people with experience and commitment speak into areas they know, to relate the Gospel mission imperative to serve and love to the contemporary world. And that is where Synod is at its worst too. The best: the challenge to trade fairly; to set aside historic and crippling debt; to enable flexible new ways of mission for the church; to simplify bureaucracy so that church can get on with the job; to provide new ways out of debt for people over reliant on extortionate lenders; and many more.
At its worst: when the call to be distinctive and to hold on to the Gospel becomes tied up with a particular moral, ethical and spiritual position, such as in the debate there will be on human sexuality. I found the intense debates we had about equal ministry so wearing that I simply couldn’t imagine what the new Synod would make of human sexuality and equal marriage. The House of Bishops report on this was, it seemed to me, the worst kind of declaring what the rules of the Kingdom of God were to be on this matter, and I’m glad it was voted down, with the ensuing promise of a more rounded, more generous approach.
The problem comes when people believe they know how the rules of the Kingdom of God apply in particular cases, and beat people about the head with them. Rather than allow testing, thoughtful examination, generosity of application, some people declare what the truth is to be and condemn any other approach. We heard something of this from the son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, this morning on the radio, about a proposed mission in Blackpool being a kind of hate crime because of his published writings about homosexuality. On this matter Graham has declared his traditional views to be the eternal truth of the Kingdom of God, rather than one, possible, interpretation.
When debates in Synod take place with people wielding those kinds of weapons, trouble ensues, and not even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s famed ‘good disagreement’ will do. For those who believe they know the views of the Kingdom of God on a matter, all disagreement is anathema. So six clergy in the Diocese of Chelmsford have written expressing ‘no confidence’ in their Diocesan Bishop, and one of his suffragans, a friend of mine. And, a couple of days ago, a university contemporary of mine was consecrated as a missionary Bishop, to hold the true faith against the onslaught of revisionist doctrines, and mainly around sexuality.
The thing is, people who read the Bible carefully should know better than to know whether their interpretation of something is indeed the last word on it within the Kingdom of God. Take Luke 17, verses 20 and 21. If anyone knew about the coming of God’s Kingdom it was the Pharisees, who were looking for the earthly reign of the Messiah; the changing of the world order and the bringing in of justice and righteousness. Jesus says it’s not the kind of thing that can be seen or pointed to, as if a succession of events would culminate in everything changing.
No, says Jesus. Neither is it something that will come very soon. This is written to the church soon after Jesus’s death, some of whom were utterly convinced they would not die before Jesus returned. Don’t get twitchy about it, says Jesus, putting two and two together and making a hundred. Until Jesus returns, and there is a new heaven and a new earth – and who knows when that will be – all the signs you are looking for will be very confusing. Don’t even start trying to interpret the events of today in apocalyptic terms.
Rather…the Kingdom of God is ‘among you’. The word ‘entos’ has caused some trouble to translators: it could be ‘within you’. But ‘among’ or ‘in the midst’ of you seems best. It is present in Jesus, pushing boundaries, dwelling on the edge (he has just touched ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan), simply living and being. It is not, yet, to be found in an institution or a programme or a manifesto. Don’t think you can grasp hold of it, as if it was a thing. The Kingdom is me, says Jesus.
I think that means that the Kingdom is found when we recognise Jesus in each other, when we value people as if they are Christ, when we are taken by surprise, when we commit ourselves to finding the other and understanding them. If the Kingdom is tied to a set of propositions alone, then we may preserve some sort of pietistic purity but really be irrelevant to the communities and society in which we live and move. When you think about it, there is much that is taken as normal and unremarkable today which would have been anathema to our parents or grandparents.
The knack with the Kingdom is to recognise where we have to stand firm, where we have to challenge, and where our emphasis on one aspect of belief – a holding to sound doctrine – plays against another – to love our neighbour. ‘the Kingdom of God I among you’. May we know wisdom, from the Spirit, so that we can stand firm, and that we can be bent and shaped by the Spirit’s work across society, not just in the church.
I pray that especially for my friends on General Synod next week, and that they will know that, for us and for them, seeking the Kingdom first will put everything in place. Amen.
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