Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday 27th April 2008 - Not a Private Kingdom

This sermon is based on Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21



I don't know about you, but I'm very glad to see spring once again.

Where I come from in the US, – near the Canadian border - Spring is one of those 'blink and you'll miss it' seasons that happens for a few brief days in May. But here in the UK, Spring is definitely my favourite season, not the least because it is long languorous and it really gives you time to notice it and appreciate it. Sometimes if we're lucky we get snowdrops in early January and then, for what seems like weeks and weeks and weeks, we get one new sign of life after another as different flora and fauna begin to sprout and bloom. Even someone like me, who often fails to notice things, can't help but notice Spring.

The Wheel of Life

There really is a lot of beauty in nature and it's not surprising that many societies down through the ages have worshipped the creation rather than the creator. And within the understanding of many nature-based religious systems, there is the concept of 'The Wheel of Life.' It's easy to see where this concept comes from, especially if you consider that many of our distant ancestors were much closer to the land and to nature than we are today.

Spring, a time of renewed light and life when the earth bursts forth with new creation. Summer, life at its pinnacle when life reproduces. The climax of the year and of nature's beauty. Autumn, a season of fruitfulness, insight and wholeness. Winter, a season of death, but also a season where the land lies fallow, preparing itself for new work and new life in he coming season.

And so, the wheel of life was said to turn from generation to generation. Always changing, but always staying the same: it rotates not so much like a wagon wheel but more like a cog in clock. The sameness is being just as important as the change.

And herein lies the difference between popular ways of understanding the meaning of life and the Christian way. If the human way of seeing 'The Wheel of Life' is as a stationary cog, always changing and always staying the same, The Judeo-Christian way of seeing 'The Wheel of Life' is as a wagon-wheel, travelling on a path or a journey to a very specific destination. For Christians, history has an end-goal, a purpose: the Kingdom of God.

Spiritual but Not Religious

Consider for a moment the reading from Acts where Paul presents the Gospel message to the Athenians. Don't think for a minute that Paul was addressing a group of people with a strong belief in the ancient Greek gods and myths. Whether they were students or teachers, this was a group of people who undertook the study of sophisticated philosophies. It is very likely that they were as sceptical of their own ancient religion as they were of Paul's message. That's why Paul uses a number of concepts, phrases and buzz-words from the Greek philosophers to get his message across: 'In him we live and move and have our being' and 'For we too are his offspring'.

The people to whom Paul spoke on Mount Athos, like many people today, were spiritual seekers. They were not against religion, they were – as many people today claim to be - 'spiritual but not religious'. But their pursuits were private pursuits, dedicated to their own private spiritual understanding and to making their own private meaning. Their relationship with God was not so much 'personal' as it was 'private'.

The Kingdom is not Private

And one thing that the message of the gospel is not is 'private'. Our Gospel reading this morning begins and ends with Jesus' declaration that being his follower – loving him – is all about 'keeping his commandments' – which are, of course, the commandments to love God and love one's neighbour. In John's Gospel, this reading is part of the farewell discourses, a long section where Jesus teaches he disciples prior to his arrest and crucifixion.

If the disciples' relationship with Jesus had been a private thing, then the disciples would have mourned, they would have talked about their memories of Jesus and they would have had nostalgia for the good old days; but if Jesus' death had no more meaning than his private relationship with the disciples, it would hardly have changed the world. Equally, if his death had operated under the rules of nature-religion, it would simply have been one death in an on-going but unchanging cycle of death and new life. His memory would have lived on in his disciples but, again, it would hardly have had the power to change the world.

Behind today's Gospel reading is the implied understanding that the death and resurrection of Jesus have some kind of profound and real effect on creation that alters the very fabric of both creation and human history. Rather than The Wheel of Life rotating endlessly in one place, human history is on a journey to a destiny defined by God: the Kingdom of God, where our reality and our values are defined by hope rather than by despair and by resurrection rather than by death.

The Kingdom is not just a spiritual heaven. Although it will ultimately be brought about by God himself, it is a kingdom that began with the resurrection and for which we are called to work by keeping God's commandments. But we are not called to this task ourselves. God himself is responsible for bringing about the Kingdom, and as his followers we are invited to join in with God's tasks as well as with his celebrations. Just as Jesus joined in with the work of the Father, so we will join in with the work of Jesus and the Spirit will enable us and join in our tasks. This is a community effort, whose power comes from God and not from ourselves.

The Good News is that self-giving love is not a private thing. The Good News is that God has a plan to bring about his Kingdom and that The Wheel of Life has a wonderful destination determined by God. The Good News is that we are invited to join in with God's plan to bring about his Kingdom.


As we come to the Lord's Table this morning, we will join together as a community, with each other and with our Lord. I pray that we will each be inspired with a vision of the Kingdom and empowered by the Spirit of God to fulfil our calling as his disciples. Amen

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