My bus had entered Threadneedle Street, or somewhere very close to it. We were now in the financial heart of London, and these offices weren’t so much about efficiency and functionality as about status, achievement and power. I wonder whether they’ll be quite so grand post-Brexit?
Royalty is our theme today. The last Sunday before Advent is often used to celebrate Christ the King. And you don’t find kings in the ordinary and humdrum places of this world, like offices filled with desks and photocopiers and computer terminals. But you might find one in the other offices I passed. Kings are about status, opulent palaces and demonstrations of power.
These offices in the financial quarter were certainly palatial in style, and all very grand indeed. I’m reminded that in one of the churches I used to serve we had a statue of Jesus in which he was crowned, richly robed, and seated on a throne, looking every inch the traditional image of a king. And he is, of course. He is King and Lord, the one before whom every knee shall bow. But he’s no need of the trappings of kingship that the world holds so dear.
Since this particular church was a bit high church, it had quite a few statues, and it also had a quite lovely painting, Victorian I think, of Jesus wearing a crown. But this was a crown of thorns: Jesus hanging from the cross, not seated on a throne. The cross is his true throne: here’s where his kingship is proved, here’s where he displays his kingly power. That’s the story of the Gospel passage I read: while the kings of the earth provide themselves with trappings and effects that make them look special and powerful and maybe even divine, Jesus is recognised and affirmed as king when he is least powerful in human terms. When he has no power, not even the power to stay alive.
The mystique and specialness of earthly rulers is for the most part smoke and mirrors. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe went in an instant from the revered father of his nation to a man the crowds of protestors couldn’t wait to see the back of. As this week we celebrated the seventy years of our own Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, we might remind ourselves that the fact that she is loved and respected even by many who don’t really support the monarchy has more to do with the genuineness of her as a person than it has to do with the bling of royalty. If anything, as the mystique of royalty has faded, her popularity has grown.
She also has a deep and sincere Christian faith, and, I believe, a genuinely humble heart. As should all of us who follow the King who was crucified, for his cross provides for us a model of kingship. Throughout the Gospels he told stories of the Kingdom. When we think of kingdoms, we tend to think of countries, nations, borders, geographical things. Kingdoms may be acquired by conquest, kings have dominion and build empires; we of all nations know that, since when I was at school most of the world seemed still to be coloured pink on our maps. But Jesus doesn’t talk about that sort of kingdom; the Kingdom he proclaims has no borders or boundaries; it isn’t limited to any one nation or people, but is open to all.
For the Kingdom of God is found whenever and wherever people make him their King, whenever and wherever they acknowledge him as Lord. And that means that this kingdom is being built, offered and shared in many different places - places where people are listening to the word of God and taking that word seriously as they choose how to live. Wherever people do his will, share his love, praise his name. But we also pray “thy Kingdom come.” It is not yet complete; the Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Now as we serve our King, but not yet as we wait for its promised fulfilment, when at last all things are gathered up in him.
The Kingdom, then, is both good news now and also future promise. But it does need to be good news now, or our words about future promise will ring very hollow. So where will we find it? There’s no need for a palace: the Kingdom of God may well be being built in a street of suburban semis, or in the mud huts of an African village or the lean-to shacks of a Brazilian favela. Perhaps our King is building his palace in a line of refugee tents somewhere out in the desert, perhaps our King is joining the queue at the soup kitchen in some cold northern city. For wherever people are doing his will, he promises to be with us.
At the time I took that particular bus journey I was working for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). If that sounds a rather quaint and old-fashioned name that’s because it is: the Society was founded in 1701 by an Anglican clergyman called Thomas Bray, who happened to be born not far from here near Chirbury and was educated at Oswestry School. So for over three hundred years the society he founded has been propagating the Gospel. These days the society has changed its name to United Society, Partners in the Gospel - more modern perhaps, and easier to understand, but I’d like to stick with that world propagation. Propagation suggests that mission’s about rooting and earthing the Gospel, so that wherever we do it, it flowers and fruits in ways appropriate to the soil of that place.
Those words, “thy kingdom come” aren’t only what we hope for, but also what we commit ourselves to work for. While I was working at USPG I heard so many amazing stories. Like the work of the Delhi Brotherhood with street children in the bustling capital of India. With children who live their whole life on the streets; all they have is what they earn there. They need safe sleeping places, they need training and life skills, and drop in centres to bring in children who often aren’t very reachable and may have a deep distrust of authority and organisation. Why do these people care when others just walk past? Because they know that the King we serve had no place to lay his own head, and they know how he loved the lowly and the childlike in spirit. So his kingship is being proclaimed on the streets and among the children of India.
A young girl came to speak to us after working for six months in South Africa, where HIV and AIDS has had such a devastating impact on communities and families. Many people there still won’t admit to the scale of the problem of HIV, but it’s big and nasty and made bigger and nastier by ignorance and poverty. People need healing and therapy, and they also need care and affection, and advice and education. The girl who spoke to us had decided to train as a nurse so she could go back out there; that’s what she felt God was calling her to do, she told us. Our king sets his throne in the place of suffering and proclaims his reign among the sick and the broken. And today his kingdom is acclaimed in the places where HIV and AIDS rip families and communities apart, and among people no-one else gives space to.
Those were two stories out of many. I myself visited a project in Brazil that was working with people who, in a favela or shanty town, were rubbish collectors, making a precarious living out of recycling plastic and paper. The Church was helping them form a co-operative and start a depot a bit like the one at Cae Post, so they could make a better and more secure living, and not be exploited by the traders with whom they had to deal.
Jesus stands with those in our world who are exploited, ill-used, cheated - and he hopes too to change the hearts and minds of those who do the cheating. He isn’t a king who gives orders from somewhere remote and on high. When we roll our sleeves up and get on with it, his sleeves are rolled up too.
Wherever the Kingdom is found, its language and currency are the same. The currency of the Kingdom is love, and the language of the Kingdom speaks words of compassion and care. All of the stories I heard began in the same way, it seemed to me: with people who were feeling the pain of their sisters and brothers, and wanted to respond. Jesus on the cross shared our human pain, and in that pain he reached out in compassion to the robber crucified next to him, and prayed forgiveness for those who had nailed him there.
That love, offered for us, requires something of us. But what can we do, you and I, here and now, to serve our King and proclaim his Kingdom? I know that from this church you give generous support to the mission and aid work of Christians around the world. And in every act of worship we pledge our allegiance to Christ our King, the source for us of leadership and authority, and the fount of justice. And our world cries out for justice, the Gospel justice, the justice of the prophets: justice with a bias to the poor, justice that springs from righteousness and compassion, and that seeks to heal and to restore.
The thrones and palaces of this world convey the message ‘All this belongs to me.’ But in the end all that stuff is dust and ashes. The throne of Jesus, which is the cross of Calvary, has a very different message. It says, ‘All this I have given for you.’ We have been given so much by our king, so how can we hold back from giving in his name and in his service? Giving so that our sister and our brother may truly know the good news of God’s love, the healing touch of God’s hand, and the transforming power of God’s justice?
May I close with a short prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you lift me up and call me forward, and for the many blessings with which you enrich my life. Help me to see in every human being my sister and my brother, for all are made in God’s image and by his love. Grant me strength and vision to live in and by the light of that love; and help me, Lord, never to forget that each person I meet is, like me, the child of a king. Amen.