Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Kingdom and the Cross

Easter Sermon year C 

Title slide
Why…when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection
on this glorious day…why…do we still have to look
upon a cross…why can’t we turn our eyes away
isn’t that behind us now…done and dusted…
hasn’t God shown us his love and sovereignty
in the resurrection…isn’t that the ultimate sign of God’s kingdom…

Well no… we can’t turn away from the cross…
because it is precisely there that God reveals
God’s ultimate sovereignty… it is precisely there that
God’s will is done on earth…precisely there…
where evil is defeated by love...absorbed into love...made impotent by love.
Any attempt to speak of the salvation of the world…must involve both cross and kingdom.

You see my friends…the cross is central
to the earthly reign of God ushered in by Jesus …and God’s kingdom can’t be understood apart from Jesus’ suffering on that cross.
We might wish to separate the two…but it can’t be done.

All four Gospels… are written to explain the irony
of the cross and the kingdom…

It’s so obvious looking back…why didn’t we see it!
As the tense trial scene reaches its conclusion…
we hear the Jewish leaders call for Jesus’ execution… because he’s ‘made himself the son of God.’

They are tempting Pontius Pilate aren’t they…
because Caesar’s has declared himself to be the son of God.
 And then we hear the irony… in Jesus’ gentle words to Pilate

Slide words You would have no power over me… were it not given you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

Blank slide
And oh my friends…did you hear what then what chief priests of the Temple shout next in unison…
we have no other king but Caesar’?

Gradually…page by Gospel page…in a story heavy with irony…we discover God’s purpose for the cross.
And as we should have realized all along

the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus on the cross…
is his exaltation as the kingdom-bringing ‘king of the Jews’... Messiah…and as he’s lifted up… right there and then
God’s kingdom on earth comes into being in the flesh…
In the victory of God’s love…kingdom and cross are fully joined.

But are we to sigh with relief at this point in the story?
and think ‘oh now I understand …God’s kingdom is simply the sum total of all those who respond in faith… to God’s love. Or do we think it isn't a real kingdom in time and space…it's  a spiritual reality ‘not of this world’!

I don’t think so... as my favourite biblical scholar Tom Wright points out…our gospel storytellers…refuse to collude with us in this misunderstanding
in fact none of the Gospels allows us to make such an
other worldly conclusion.[i]  

But still we argue… what about earlier passages…
about the ruler of this world being cast out
condemned and overthrown. Isn’t Jesus speaking…
of a dark and evil being…that stands behind earthly rulers …and incarnates itself in them.

No the gospel’s insist… Jesus God’s Word made flesh
isn’t just talking about a spiritual victory
which leaves… human rulers unaffected. This is indeed an earthly thing.

The resurrections scenes in John’s gospel
aren't describing some heavenly creature…detached from this world…But in the risen Christ…they show precisely the first fruits of God’s new creation … arrived at last…on earth.

On the Cross Jesus inaugurates a new creation
a new Genesis….and John wants us to hear this loud and clear…when Jesus cries out…

slide words
it is finished…
John uses the same root word as in  Genesis 2 …
God finished the work he had done…

On the sixth day God finishes the work…
and rests on the seventh.

And John underlines for us… the resurrection happens on the first day of the week. It is finished God has rested…a new creation is begun. Mary is sent to tell the others that Jesus will be enthroned beside the Father…and Peter is sent…to feed and tend the flock.

Jesus has been glorified on the Crosscompleted the work of rescuing his people…and now the Spirit can be given…
and Jesus followers can begin their own work.

That’s how the kingdom… which is from above
has come into this world…This is how God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven…and the Cross of Christ serves the goal of this kingdom…

Though scandal to the Greeks and a stumbling block for the Jews…all four Christian Gospels…Matthew, Mark, Luke and John …bring the kingdom and the cross into the closest possible relationship.

In Matthew the sermon on the mount points ahead to the cross…Jesus’ himself… loves his enemies…goes where the Roman soldiers force him to go…and turns the other cheek
before being set like a city on a hill
like a lamp on its stand…like a light to the world…

And again and again Luke insists on the Cross… as the fulfillment of scripture…
the launch of God’s jubilee. And it always came with danger. We see that when he first preaches at Nazareth …Jesus very opening statement of what God was now doing
might have led to his death…there and then.

Can’t you see it people…our gospel writers plead

to announce and inaugurate the kingdom of God..
is to go to the cross…in fact the shadow of the cross
falls on the message of the kingdom… page after page…

Luke reminds us in Jesus own words
Slide words
This is what is written The Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be announced to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses for all this.

Blank slide
And should we ever imagine the forgiveness of sins
is purely an individualistic thing. Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto makes it crystal clear…the forgiveness of sins… extends right into jubilee for the world…release from all debt, and a cosmic sigh of relief at God’s new exodus achievement …as people are rescued from all forms of slavery and oppression.

And at Pentecost…Jesus followers are commissioned and empowered by the Holy Spirit to announce to the world that in Jesus… a different way to be human is revealed. Through his suffering…and his words of forgiveness
for his enemies… Jesus brings about his messianic kingdom

And by the suffering of his followers…
God’s kingdom will continue to be born.

When Jesus says… I’m telling you the truth
some people standing here won’t experience death
before they see the kingdom of God come in power
he’s not predicting the second coming or the end of the world… or a great political revolution which would happen in their generation

he’s pointing to the cross and to the resurrection
for they will constitute him…as the one given all authority
in heaven and on earth.

And I agree with Tom Wright... it’s the church’s widespread and long-lasting failure…not to realise what the gospel evangelists mean.. In the death and resurrection of Jesus…the kingdom of God has already come to pass. Lifted high on the cross…
Jesus is enthroned… [pause]

But the gospel writers were as aware as we are
how paradoxical this appears… to those who don’t get it.
Then as now…the claim God’s kingdom is already present
 would be met with... ‘yeah right…
God’s kingdom is here…just watch the news'

And this public relations problem was far more acute for the early church facing hostility and often persecution and trying to assert God’s reign in the face of Caesar.

But the gospel writers want us to understand
the legitimacy of God’s kingdom… was never susceptible
to doubt… on the grounds of continuing evil, corruption, violence and death!

On the contrary the kingdom was never expected to be whole and complete all at once. Remember Jesus’ parables that the kingdom is coming like a seed growing slowly and secretly …a kingdom that would face strange setbacks
and unexpected turns. 

Like we've heard again and again… the kingdom wasn't going to arrive as people expected. In fact it’s the central contention of the gospels that the reign of God…
is coming in a dramatic new way through the work…
the teaching…the death …and the resurrection of Jesus...and those who take up his yoke.

Jesus warns his followers to put aside their dreams of utopia and get ready to drink the cup… he is to drink. To take up their own cross. [pause]

For the earliest Christians …and for you and I…
the kingdom and the cross… can… not… be separated.
And what’s more…in the kingdom... the cross reverses all familiar modes of power.

And that’s exactly how we stay faithful and hopeful… in the face of the powers and principalities of our world today …because we know from Jesus...
there’s no easier softer way.

Yes we might have to suffer in the face of our enemies
but nowhere is it written in the gospels
that God’s kingdom can be achieved without suffering.

Yes we might have to be unpopular…
and face persecution from religious and political authorities
when we demand an end to poverty and oppression
and exploitation and violence…

But we don't lose hope because of our suffering
nor seeing evil's continuing pathetic attempt to stop the progress of God’s kingdom…
for we have seen in the resurrection that God’s purposes can not be thwarted. And God's love is stronger than the worst humankind or any other kind can dish out.

May we love the world even as Christ has loved us…
even to the Cross. Let us pray…

[i] How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels