Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reign of Christ

In Peter Adams quirky and memorable book, "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", the hero Arthur Dent accidentally finds himself on an alien space ship right at the moment when a Vogon constructor fleet has arrived to vaporise the Earth to make room for an intergalactic hyperspace freeway.  The few people who manage to look up and protest as the large ugly spaceships block out their view of the Sun are informed dryly - an instant before their demise - that the plans have been posted for at least 12 standard galactic months on the hypernet of the Galactic Council in Alpha Centauri, so they had had plenty of time to lodge an appeal if they didn't like it. Meanwhile, finding himself breathless and bewildered in the hold of the alien space ship Arthur encounters another stowaway, who apologises for zapping Arthur aboard by mistake and introduces himself as an intergalactic hitchhiker.

Halfway through the book, Arthur Dent is invited to dinner party. This dinner party is no ordinary one, because it is to take place in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Hypostatically suspended at the very point in time and space when the universe finally sputters out and dies, diners are able to feast on the culinary delights of the expired empire of their choice, while they watch the dying embers of the final star implode. It's a meal, curiously enough, which many diners choose to come back for time and again-with the advantage of course that you only have to pay the first time because they keep serving the same meal over and over – but the unavoidable confusion that you keep encountering your earlier selves coming and going.

So, at the end of the church year, on the Sunday oddly named "Christ the King"-as though the Greek word, Christos, didn't already mean King-our readings focus our minds yet again on the end of all things, and on judgement. 

If this morning when you heard the readings from Daniel and Revelation you were shocked awake with a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat – it means you got the point! The writers are talking about nothing less than the end of history, and the judgment of the nations. And this morning I particularly want to think about that word 'end,' and to suggest what sort of end is in mind and what it means, because I think this points to what we need to be on about on Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to the four-week journey of Advent.

'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so fundamental that nothing is ever the same again.  I don't think that what the biblical writers mean by 'the end' is the same thing at all as what Arthur Dent is witnessing as he chews his way through an eight-legged Betelgeusan spider antelope.  I doubt that ancient writers would even have been able to imagine such a thing as the Big Crunch, or however it is that the universe is supposed to expire in 14 billion years or so.  But 'the end' in the Biblical sense means that as mortal human beings we are finally forced to face up to our limitations and contradictions, and our attachments to worldly empires of inequality and oppression that are finally shown to be fleeting and illusionary. 'The end' – in the sense that Biblical writers mean it – comes when we can no longer deny or dodge the consequences of our own bad choices – or of the structural evils of the time in which we live, and we must let go and step into an uncertain and frankly scary future in which all our chickens have come home to roost. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to the illusions that everything is under control, the more frightening 'the end' will be.

To give an example.  At the end of this year – on 31 December, to be precise, unless the President of the United States can arrive at some sort of compromise with a hostile Congress – the United States will drop off the edge of a so-called 'fiscal cliff' – and with it most of the advanced economies of the developed world.  The 'fiscal cliff' doesn't mean the stars will all go out and the Earth will freeze over – but it does mean that much of what you and I take for granted in our lives would disappear.  The 'fiscal cliff' is a series of legislative time bombs put in place the last time President and Congress couldn't agree, to automatically slash the limits of public borrowing and spending, middle-class welfare and so on by about four trillion dollars, effectively forcing the Government and people to live within their means instead of continuing the economic fiction that allows the printing of new money by borrowing against the expectation of future prosperity and growth.  A cynic might suggest that if the President and Congress don't hold hands and jump off the cliff this time, if they do find a way of agreeing to keep borrowing from future generations, then the cliff is just going to keep getting taller, but there you have it.  When and if modern advanced economies are forced to stop pretending that growth can be infinite even though the planet isn't, then that will mark the end of a centuries-long experiment and trigger a sustained period of economic contraction and belt-tightening that might make some of us, perhaps, wish the world really had ended.  Interestingly the Earth itself – the living systems of water and air and soil that our health and well-being really depend on – the Earth itself would get a reprieve.  But I digress.

So when we understand 'the end' in this way, Pilate's response to Jesus in this morning's Gospel reading makes sense.  He doesn't send Jesus off to be crucified because he doesn't know what he means when Jesus says 'my kingdom is not of this world', but because he understands all too well.  He knows Jesus is not talking about some airy-fairy spiritual realm or afterlife, but that the kingdom that is 'not of this world' is the reign that calls the legitimacy of this age into question.

The reign of God that Jesus is claiming, isn't just a revolution aimed at toppling Caesar's power while leaving everything else pretty much as it is – but a fundamental challenge to the very idea of power that structures the world so that some people have and others don't.  The kingdom Jesus announces is 'not of this world' – not because it is concerned with some other world – but because it is about the end of this world as it is structured by the sort of worldly power that Caesar embodies.

We need to be very clear that it isn't about the end of creation.  God sees the cosmos that God has created – in the Book of Genesis – and pronounces it very good.  In Hebrew it is a double – tov tov – very good.  A bit later in Genesis God assures humankind – Noah and his family – that the destruction of creation is not on the agenda, that 'as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease'. [1]  But it means – Jesus' announcement of the reign of God – the end of the world as it has been structured by human dreams of economic and military power since the beginning of history.

For us – you and me – this is both a scary and a joyful prospect.  Scary, because we are all very well off, and have benefitted greatly in our lives from the very sort of inequality and oppression that Jesus is announcing the end of.  You might not feel particularly wealthy, especially if you are living on a pension or a fixed income, if you are paying exorbitant rent, or if you are faced with bills you can't quite see how you are going to pay – but the reality is this: if you have a home to live in, if you ate today, and expect to eat tomorrow, if you have access to clean water and electricity and medical care and education and transport – then you are part of the wealthiest 10% of the world's population.  And we – the 10% - have benefitted from centuries of economic and military power that have structured the world so that some countries benefit from other countries poverty.  The economic power of the First World keeps most of the world's population poor, so Jesus' announcement of the end of the world as we know it is a challenge for us – individually, as a parish church, and as a community – to reassess our relationships and our use of resources we take for granted, to understand that the poverty of the two-thirds world affects and concerns us, and to start to change how we live.

There is a connection between justice and ecology.  The same imbalance between the wealth of some and the poverty of others leads to the over-exploitation of the Earth's natural systems and the series of environmental crises that – for all the efforts of the deniers – are staring us in the face.  The end that is the implication of Jesus' claim that it is God who is in charge, not Caesar or Gina Rinehart or Clive Palmer, challenges directly our own choices and lifestyles.

Yet it is also a joy, especially if we can actually believe in the claim that Jesus is making.  Two thousand years have passed, of course, and Caesar appears still pretty firmly in control.  Jesus does have this annoying habit of claiming the reality of things that don't yet seem to be the case, and challenging us to believe in them and to live as though it were true.  To believe and to live into the reality that God is in charge, that the reign of God were here and now.  To live in such a way that the cries of the poor and the groaning of the planet's living systems are heard, and so far as is in our power, to make a difference.  I think that's what discipleship is about.  I've heard it suggested – by cynics – that to be a Christian is to believe three impossible things before breakfast, but I beg to differ.  Discipleship is the choice to believe and to live into the possible dream, in fact the inevitability, of the reign of God.  It is to be a prisoner and an agent of hope.

Today we make a fundamental move in the direction of this hope, and this reality, because in baptising Phoebe-Rose we make a statement that Jesus is right, that the reign of God is both a present reality and a future hope.  The birth of a child is a fundamental experience of hope, and of trust in the future – it is no accident that at Christmas we celebrate God's coming into our world as a baby.  By bringing her for baptism, Phoebe's parents are saying they understand that the promises of God come true in us, as we recognise and choose to live into them.  And Phoebe's baptism today is a concrete expression of that trust, and the faith that she will live into the reality of the end of the world.  Joyfully, and with strength.



[1] Gen 8.22 NRSV