Rags to riches
We love a rags-to-riches story. And in South Africa there are many people who have overcome huge challenges to reach heights, which they and their communities never dreamed possible.
There are two ways to approach a rags-to-riches story. There are those of us who have known only the “riches” part of this person’s story, and we are amazed when we discover the humble beginnings from which he or she emerged. There is hope here, because perhaps even we can aspire to greatness.
Then there are those of us who knew the “rags” part, when this person was in the neighbourhood. We can’t believe that this is the youngster we knew. For some, this role model from our hometown gives hope. But for others there is cynicism, disbelief in the reality of the dream: “He isn’t all that great.” “She isn’t that important.” Jesus himself experienced that response in Nazareth, his home town. We read in Mark 6:3, “In the next breath they were cutting him down: ‘He’s just a carpenter–Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers…and his sisters. Who does he think he is?’”
In spite of that, we love these stories, because someone who makes it from the bottom of the pile suggests to us that maybe we can also move up the ladder a rung or two. The so-called great American dream.
Christ the King Sunday
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar. Next week the new Christian year starts with Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. On this Sunday before Advent starts we celebrate the reign of Christ.
It might seem strange that we celebrate the glory and majesty of King Jesus, and recognise his reign, just at the time that we prepare to remember his humble beginnings, the outrageous circumstances of his birth.
Is this another rags-to-riches story? We begin the liturgical year with a poor family, and a helpless baby in a manager. We end the year celebrating the reign of that baby as King.
But this story doesn’t have the usual happy ending. The rags are there alright. But there are no riches to be seen, and the end is no better than the beginning: rejection, suffering and a shameful death.
The Reign of Christ
Yet, still, we celebrate Jesus today, not as the babe from Bethlehem, or the boy from Nazareth, or even the man on the cross. Because that’s not where the story ends. We celebrate him as the risen Christ, Christ the King.
Of course, Jesus is not a traditional ruler whose massive and private compound is not open to public scrutiny. Christ is King, but we won’t know what his rule is like by trying to compare it with anything we have experienced or that history can show us, not even the reign of the great King David. In fact, just as the fatherhood of God is unlike anything we see in human fathers, the reign of Jesus is unlike any rule we have ever seen.
We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that is radically different; we are called to a way of life that contradicts everything we experience in the world, literally contradicts, and turns our world upside down—or, some would say, the right way up.
Rags-to-riches may be something to aspire to, something we might achieve one day, with a bit of work and a bit of help. But the reign of Christ the King, is a way of life for us now, whether we are in rags or surrounded by riches.
Christ’s Kingdom, is not a Disney World that we visit when we feel like it, or when we can afford it. It’s the real world we live in. He is not my King, or your King or this group’s King. Christ is King of all, whether people acknowledge him or not. There are no foreigners; there are no “us” and “them”. It’s all “us”. He is our King, and his reign contains only two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Mark 12:30)
Part of my job involves making sense of the labour legislation we have in this country. And while it’s difficult to run a business within the restrictions of labour law, tax and company law, municipal bylaws and the like, it is at least reasonably clear. We know we are not allowed to fire someone, just because we feel like it, or stop paying taxes. We know which side of the road we have to drive on, and that we can’t park on the pavement (where would the taxis park?).
While it’s difficult to remember everything, we can always find a friendly lawyer to help us understand the relevant pieces of legislation.
Under the reign of Jesus, the law is much simpler, but obeying it, living it out, is much more difficult. Labour legislation only applies to those who employ people; building regulations to those who are building. “Love God” and “love your neighbour” apply to all of us, all the time, in every circumstance.
I received a rather alarming email last week. An intruder found his way onto this blog. I always welcome comments here from those who visit and read my ramblings. But this intruder managed to find my email address. He sent me a ten page, 7000 word email, ranting about how bad the world is, and how bad all the Christian churches and ministers he had been in touch with are (apostate is what he called them). He asked me what I believe about some issues of faith. He didn’t want to check his own understanding or his own faith, of course; he wanted to check if I was a true Christian or whether he should add me to the list of all the other “apostates”.
“I’m interested in your specific beliefs about Biblical truth”, he wrote. “Your response will help me discern your relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”
That’s quite an arrogant statement from a complete stranger. And it raises Pilate’s question all over again, “What is truth?” But instead of asking the question humbly (or perhaps fearfully, in Pilate’s case), the question becomes, “What do you think truth is. I’ve got the answer neatly package over here and I want to check your answers against the right ones.”
But the Biblical truth he is asking about isn’t whether I love God with all my heart, or am I striving to love my neighbour in all circumstances? Nothing like that. It’s:
Was Mary a perpetual virgin?
Does the millennium come before the rapture or after?
Does the rapture happen before the seven years of tribulation (Pre-trib rapture, if you want the buzzword); or does it happen in the middle of the tribulation (Mid-trib rapture)?
This is just the sort of legalistic nonsense Jesus warned us about. Yet on this basis, my intruder is able to state quite categorically:
“I discerned that all the “religious establishment” churches (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox/Baptist/Pentecostal/ etc.) are apostate, deeply ignorant, and involved in all kinds of false teachings and activities.”
Unfortunately this intruder is by no means unique. It’s all over the internet, as if these things were what Christian faith is all about; as if what you and I think about these things are key to understanding our relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Admittedly we Methodists don’t go in for these particular issues much; that’s why most of us are quite ignorant about pre-tribs and mid-tribs and so on. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own set of avoidance tactics—questions we focus on to avoid the call to love.
We’re more familiar with the really important stuff like:
Was Jonah real or is it a parable? Was there a real whale?
Was the world made in seven days or was Genesis 1 a poem?
Should we have women bishops? Oh, no, that’s the Church of England.
Do Christians use make up, drink alcohol, dance, go to movies?
The list is endless, and the arguments intense, depending on the circle you belong to.
Truth or distraction?
When we ask these questions, when this guy who wrote to me asked his questions, are we really searching for truth? Or are we simply looking for a distraction from our real duties, the critical things that Jesus called his disciples to focus on.
We are not going to understand each other’s relationship with God by means of rules, regulations and exam-type questions. Tick these answers and we’ll see whether you belong. All we are doing is avoiding having to face up to our neighbours and carry their burdens.
Jesus has told us very clearly how we will recognise a disciple. And it has nothing to do with belief, but everything to do with practice. Even the world around us, Jesus said, would be able to recognise our relationship with him, by our love for one another.
“Love one another,” Jesus said in John 13:34-35. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Not by our belief in this, or our understanding of that, but by our love for one another.
Of course, the law is much easier. If I can tick all the boxes and pass this arbitrary belief exam, I’m A for away; and if you can’t I can ignore you, because you’re into false teaching.
Love is a much more severe test. For example, let’s try these questions on for size.
- What does love look like in my relationship with my spouse?
- What would grace offer my rebellious child?
- How does love respond to angry suffering?
- How do we engage with the communities around our churches, that are struggling with debt and violence and teenage pregnancy?
- How does grace engage with the young woman for whom abortion seems the only way?
- Does love only engage with a gay person if he or she leaves his or her gayness outside the door?
I’m sorry. I don’t have answers to these questions. I only know that I don’t grapple with them enough. I also know that they are far, far more important than believing in a pre-Trib Rapture, or in Jonah’s whale.
The story of Jonah is important for us because, as I see it, we are fleeing from the call of Jesus in the same way that Jonah fled from God’s call to go to Nineveh. We want to avoid this business of love, this call to carry each other’s burdens, and the burdens of the weak, the poor and the downtrodden. Perhaps, when we pray for the church, we should be praying, “Lord, please send us a whale.”
The coming of Jesus as a baby may give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. A baby we can understand, look after and mould into shape. But our celebration of Christ the King on this day, reminds us that the gift of this baby comes with a warning on the wrapper. As Peter Storey said at the Carol Service held at the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary on Friday night, “The babe of Bethlehem is dangerous. He has come to turn our world upside down.”
If we let the Christ-child into our lives, we will not mould him or shape him. He will mould us and, indeed, turn our lives upside down as he invites us into his kingdom, to live under his reign, with rules that are radically different from ours.
“What is Truth?” Pilate asked. If he’d stuck around with Jesus instead of rushing out to the crowd, he might have discovered where truth is to be found. Truth is not the answer to a list of questions, not even to important questions. Truth is a person. We will only know truth as we draw close to and engage with that person, Jesus, who is Christ the King.
I came across the following re-posted comment on John van der Laar’s Sacredise webpage this last week:
“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.” (Wilbur Rees)
Is that what we would prefer, our God in a bag, ready to bring out when we need him, and when it’s safe?
Are we ready for the Babe of Bethlehem to become Christ the King? A King who is not concerned with answers, so much as lifestyle; who doesn’t want us to understand our neighbours, but to love them; who doesn’t call us to analyse their burdens but to carry them. He calls us out of the womb, into new birth: a transformed life for a transformed world.
A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 25 November 2012. Scripture readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38
- A prayer for Christ the King Sunday (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Christ the King? (sacredise.com)
- The Search for Truth Ends Here? (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- 2 John: Truth and Love (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)