Christ the King (Revelation 5)

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The Bible, rich with symbolism, paints many pictures of kings and kingdoms, some of them nightmarish and bizarre; huge, grotesque monsters emerge from the ocean to dominate the earth, their armies sweeping across the globe like so many twisted, mutant locusts. It’s fair to say that, when it comes to kins, the Bible is ambiguous to say the least.

And yet despite this, there’s an image of kingship that is both simple and earth-shattering in its implications. It appears in the midst of Revelation’s monsters and mayhem, but it’s far from being part of that chaos – the opposite in fact.

We’re introduced to the ultimate king, the holy king, the good king, and while all the other empires have been described with imagery from a Japanese monster movie, the great king is actually a lamb – a slain lamb at that. And I think we’re supposed to react to the contrast, be thrown for a moment at the apparent power differential – Godzilla vs a lamb? What’s going on here?

And then we remember that the lamb on the throne is Jesus, and all our categories for power and kingship and empire have to change in the face of a bleeding sacrifice that nevertheless sits on a throne and is worshiped by multitudes of angels. It’s an image that should inform and subvert all our other images of Jesus: if he’s a king, then how does he rule? If he’s a warrior, whose blood is shed? The lamb on the throne helps answer those questions, even if those answers turn out to be a challenge.

But we can’t hide among metaphors: these images need to change what we look like in the here and now. After all, if we’re inhabitants of a different Kingdom, we should echo a different king, and that affects how we think about everything, from our politicians, to the people next door to the wildlife that surrounds us. All of those interactions need to be rooted in Christ – not a cultural facsimile branded with a winking caricature of Jesus but in Christ the king, with discourse inspired more by the Sermon on the Mount than the media.

Today we remember the king on his throne, but we also remember that this king acted more like a servant than a warrior, and inaugurated his kingdom through death on a cross. Maybe today’s a good day to seek a vision for what that kingdom needs to look like in the life of each individual disciple.

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe (Ephesians 5:19)

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Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. Back in May this year, broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.

The Widow’s Offering: Blog Action Day 2014 (Mark 12:38-44)

Facebookinstagramsocialtile2There’s a moment, not long after the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus and the disciples are watching the rich and the powerful make extravagant offerings to the Temple coffers. And yet Jesus isn’t impressed with them; rather, his attention turns to a widow, tatty-clothed and hungry, who places two small copper coins into the collection. “Look,” he says, “She’s put in more than everyone else; that’s all she has to live on.”

I’ve always heard this taught as an example of great faith, and maybe it is – after all, no-one can say that the widow’s offering isn’t sacrificial. She gives everything she’s got to God, trusting that he’ll look after her; frankly, she’s got more guts than I’d have in that situation. Problem is, if we leave this story as one of an individual’s trust in God, we miss the prophetic anger that drives the scene. Because this is all about inequality.

The widow appears in verse 42, four verses after Jesus excoriates the religious leaders. These so-called “Men of God” demand respect and honour and make a great show of their piety, but they’re all surface – underneath, they’re the sort of people who “devour widows’ houses” and they’re heading for a fall.

This pretty brutal summary comes immediately before the widow makes her offering, painting the whole scene in a harsher light. Suddenly her story falls within a great prophetic tradition – look at how Isaiah and Amos rail against religious observance coming at the expense of justice. It’s clear from the Old Testament Law that the widow s08257_all_001_01-widowsMitehouldn’t have been in such dire straits – the community should have been protecting her, along with orphans and immigrants. Instead the very men who should have been defending her cause were pushing her deeper into poverty. We’re seeing piety without justice; doctrine without jubilee. No wonder the very next passage is a prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.

So, what does this mean for a world in which the richest 10% hold 86% of the wealth, in which the wealthiest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion? I live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet we’ve seen a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last twelve months. It feels like inequality has been sequenced into our society’s DNA.

The frightening thing is, I know the answer starts with me – or rather us. I like blaming the 1%, until realising that I’m in the next 9% just by benefit of being born in a European country and having a decent job. That’s a sobering thought, forcing me to count my blessings and check my privilege. But even when I realise that I still do more tutting than acting. And the houses of widows still get devoured.

I can’t fix global inequality. But I can vote with an eye towards justice, I can make my voice heard, I can donate, I can use my democratic right to hold power to account. I can see people not as shirkers or skivers but as individuals with there own stories and circumstances and histories that I need to be aware of. Because, in the face of naked displays of avarice and hypocrisy, Jesus, the Son of God, was most interested in a starving widow.

In the face of food banks and ambiguous percentages, I think that’s a lesson for us all.

Some older posts related to wider issues of inequality are The Edges of the Harvest, No Jew or Greek But Plenty of Elephants, and Aliens, Strangers and Junia the Apostle

The Edges of the Harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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And so we enter into harvest season; we hold festivals and bring tins of baked beans or our prize winning parsnip to the front of church and thank God for another year of his provision and blessings. And yet harvest isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility.

We see this back in Leviticus 19. Among various laws concerning lying, stealing and idolatry we come across what to do with the edges of your harvest:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

At its heart, this is a law of compassion, but one with far-reaching implications. After all, this law lead to the first meeting of Ruth and Boaz, who went onto become ancestors of King David and, by extension, Jesus himself: justice for a poverty-stricken immigrant is at the root of Israel’s royal line. When you help alleviate poverty, it’s always wise to listen for the echoes.

But the reason there are echoes is because some laws are also acts of remembrance. Deuteronomy 24:19:22 gives a bit more context for this: God helped the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they should help others in need. Yeah, sure, you may have planted the seeds and tended the fields, you may want to glean every last bit of profit from your labours, but ultimately the reason you’re there in the first place is because of God, and if you’re blessed you better make sure you’re blessing others.

This is the relevance of harvest to an increasingly urbanised population. Figures from the Trussell Trust note there has been a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last financial year, although the number of food banks themselves has only risen by 45%. There are needs out there, and while one-off donations are fine, there’s a more systemic element to this; people can’t be left to starve. There’s a reason we’re talking about Old Testament laws rather than suggestions. This stuff needs to be woven into our day-to-day lives; Israel was called to be a nation that protected orphans, widows and immigrants, to proclaim a Jubilee every 50 years to prevent generational poverty. It’s in the job description.

(So maybe, as Pastor Abe Johnson points out, the story of the widow’s offering isn’t just a celebration of a woman’s faith, but a condemnation of the attitudes that lead to her being so poor in the first place – you can’t divorce Mark 12:41-44 from verses 38-40.)

This isn’t about charity, this is about justice. Our harvest – literal or metaphorical – isn’t entirely ours, not in God’s eyes, and everything, from groceries to rainforests, are called upon to ensure fairness for the poor and oppressed. God has a call on our lives – our souls, our principles and the edges of our harvest.

The Scars of God (John 20:24-29; Revelation 5:6)

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Sometimes we miss the scandal of Christianity.

It’s shocking enough to say that God became human, that the creator and sustainer of the universe contracted and limited and incarnated himself, not as a warrior-king but as a baby. The Almighty had to learn how to walk and talk, had to learn to read stories in which he was intimately involved, had to be dressed and fed and washed.

The Son of God had to be potty trained. How shocking is that?

That was his childhood of course, and childish things would be put aside to follow a path that lead to the cross. We know this story, know that it ends with resurrection, Jesus returning in a body that seems both spirit and flesh and blood. It’s this resurrection that demonstrates triumph over death.

And yet look at Jesus’s encounter with a doubting Thomas; while Jesus is back from the dead, he still carries scars. They could have been healed, but they remain.

This isn’t just an interesting fact about what happens when someone comes back from the dead. This becomes a fundamental part of Jesus’s identity. When John’s having his apocalyptic vision in Revelation 5, a great and mighty figure is introduced, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David. We’re lead to expect some powerful warrior sitting on the throne; instead we get a slaughtered lamb, but a slaughtered lamb with power over all creation.

This is intrinsic to the gospel story, and points to the scars of suffering and sacrifice as being fundamental to Christ’s identity; Revelation, all about Jesus as king, portrays him as slaughtered rather than slaughterer. In John ‘s gospel, those scars are sufficient to prove that he is who he says he is. These aren’t battle scars either, at least not how we might understand that; sure, Jesus won the battle over death, but that was through his sacrifice, not war, through changing the game rather than playing by its rules. A God with scars turns the world upside down.

No, wait: a God with scars turns the world right-side up.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer, with those who have been hurt and abused, with those pushed to the sidelines, with those beaten and battered and bruised. And, because these scars are self-sacrificial, they also speak of love and compassion.

The scars of God aren’t a blasphemous anomaly, they’re a part of who he is. And that’s shocking but also hopeful: God is with us. Even when the knives are out, even when the war is raging, we’ll know the King through the scars on his hands.