Pardon the distance — but I thought that given the subject matter this morning it was safer. I’ve been slapped across the face only once in my life and that was at the end of a conversation —I should probably say an argument — that I started by saying “You can’t be a real Christian unless you understand royalty.” It was a while ago, and I was being naïve and cantankerous, and I certainly deserved the surprise ending, but I think I still believe what I said.
But how do you speak about Christ the King in a nation founded on a bloody revolt against royalty and the power of kings? God help us, it’s hard enough to do it in England where we know monarchy only too well! Did any of you see the interview with Princess Diana the other night? A show of hands? When it was shown in England last week the national electricity companies had to be ready for the enormous surge in demand when, at the end of the interview, half the nation got up and switched on their electric tea-kettles to make tea.
But you can bet it wasn’t reverence for royalty that drew the audience but more likely a taste for scandal and a chance to gawk at the downfall of the mighty.
England or America, there or here, kings and queens seem outmoded, elitist, and faintly ridiculous. So, what do we do with a feast like this? When the writers of scripture choose to talk about God as King what are they trying to convey, what are they grasping after?
Partly it’s about power: the safety of knowing that someone almighty is in control to defend you.
Partly it’s about majesty and awe: recognising and submitting to a glory way beyond your own.
And partly its about kinship: having the “bone of your bone, the flesh of your flesh,” to care for you and keep you.
But of course all these things — power, majesty, and kinship — have been used instead, all down the ages, to oppress, to pacify, and to patronise.
And then it becomes convenient to justify the pattern of power here on earth by looking to the heavens and finding the same system there. Human beings have always projected into heaven the form of government they believe in here on earth — good or bad. And whether the pattern we project is monarchy, or democracy, or something else, it remains an agreeable illusion in place of reality — which prompts a deep question: what, in reality, are the politics of paradise? If heaven isn’t a royal court, what is it? A House of Representatives?
Our forebears in faith saw, in the regal image of divine government, a God who was intimately, and positively, involved with daily life, a God whose rule extended directly to the poorest in the land. They saw a God they were related to, a God they could be in awe of, a God who made a difference in their world.
What do we see when we turn to heaven with our model of government?
If we view government as being basically about keeping in check the nastier inclinations of humanity, what will we see in heaven?
If we regard government as being best when it interferes least, what will we see in heaven?
If we believe government provides the boundaries of law, inside which we are left alone to do what we like, what will we see in heaven?
Do we want to be related to God the same way we are to our government? Paying taxes and protecting our freedom? Its a problem! But what’s the alternative?
If we refuse to project our politics into heaven, how else will we relate to God? Typically, for us, it’s through freely chosen friendship. We let God be our friend. God is my friend and God is your friend, and yours. Never before in the history of humanity has God had so many friends, yet never before have so many people been poor and hungry and neglected!
Friendship doesn’t feed the children!
What’s going on in Washington with the budget and the welfare bill is precisely important here:
What is at stake is more than you or me — at stake is the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven if we don’t believe in kings? What is God’s government meant to be here on earth — here in the United States?
Listen again to the language of Luke’s gospel as the people jeer at Jesus. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” “Aren’t you the Messiah, then save yourself and us.” Save, save, save. Kingship and the power to save go together. Government has to be about more than leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Government has to about salvation. Yet here is the supposed King unable to save himself. Here is the governor fallen victim to the power of government. In his day, he was crushed by that power. In our day, he would more likely fall through the cracks and die ignored in an alley somewhere.
The good thief, as we call him, seems to understand some of that paradox: he both recognises the innocence of Jesus and acknowledges his kingship. He asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his power. And Jesus’ response should shock us: today you will be with me in paradise. Jesus is already in his power. He already has the power to save. Even strung out on a criminal cross, he governs. Even here is the kingdom and the reign of God.
If we are looking for the politics of paradise — and I can think of nothing we need more urgently — then only here will we find a clue.
November 22nd, 1998