The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons this month will follow the theme of 'Signs of the Kingdom of God'. Today, on this first Sunday of the month I shall be talking about 'Love': how Jesus teaches us to love. Next Sunday I shall address 'Compassion': our need to transform unjust structures of society. On the third Sunday: 'Justice': our commitment to moral correctness and fairness. On the fourth Sunday: 'Freedom': the importance of personal freedom of choice and living; and on the final Sunday of the month, 'Creation': our responsibility to protect the natural world.
Signs of the Kingdom of God: The phrase "Kingdom of God" appears 53 times in the New Testament Gospels, almost always on the lips of Jesus, and the synonymous phrase, "kingdom of heaven," appears 32 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout the accounts of his ministry, Jesus is always talking about the kingdom of God. Many of his parables explain something about this kingdom: It's like mustard seed, a treasure, a merchant looking for pearls, and a king who gave a banquet. Jesus even defines his purpose in light of the kingdom: "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose".
So often the Kingdom is described in metaphorical terms, the kingdom is like … in order to engage us with the greatness of God's love and the limitlessness of his grace. In many ways, New Testament kingdom language is a natural extension of the Old Testament concepts of God's grace and unconditional love. But here the New Testament Gospel writers are describing something radically new. In Jesus Christ, they reveal an incarnational God; an immanent God: they proclaim that the Kingdom is within our grasp if only we can learn to love God with all our soul, with all our heart, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbours as our self.
In other words, God's Kingdom is less a place or an idea, but rather a total commitment to love one another, for it's through our love of one another that we become the agents of God willing to work to bring about God's Kingdom in today's world. When we explore the scriptures we find that Jesus talks about love without limits. He teaches you to: love your enemy, do good to those who hate you; and when you have a party invite the lame and the poor, those who cannot repay the compliment; and to the rich young man, he says - go sell all you own and give to the poor and come, follow me.
We also find that Jesus ate with tax-collectors and public sinners. He broke the Sabbath regulations because healing was more urgent. He sat with the madman who lived among the tombs. He touched the leper and allowed himself to be touched by women who were themselves variously ritually impure or notorious or both. Indeed no one in the Gospel receives a higher accolade than the woman who anointed him at Bethany: "wherever throughout all the world the gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as well in remembrance of her."
Ritual purity, even moral purity, is replaced by the purity of Jesus' welcome. And this foretaste becomes the promise of future fulfilment. Indeed the parables speak time and again of the joyful and dangerous crossing of boundaries: the return of the Prodigal, whose father runs down the road to meet him, the rich man compelling the poor and the lame to come into his wedding feast when the original guests refuse, the Samaritan enemy who turns out to be the hearers' good neighbour, the vineyard owner who forgets the fundamental laws of economics and pays even the latecomers a full day's pay, and, ultimately, the landowner who sends his Son, only to have him murdered by his wicked tenants.
But what do these fantastically counter-cultural stories teach us about his joyful and costly love? Firstly they are examples of how we should emulate God's love. If Jesus is our example, then our lives should reflect how he lived, and particularly how he demonstrated the love of God in the world. So how does God's love effect how we should love others? Well, Jesus expressed God's love in action. God does not simply feel love for the world, God has demonstrated God's love in a real event; the Christ event.
We often think of love as an emotion, but the person we love can only experience such love when we express it through our actions. This means that love isn't really love until it's proven through action. William Barclay, the biblical scholar, tells the story of a group of soldiers during WWII in Italy who had lost a friend in battle and wanted to give their fallen comrade a decent burial. Having been told the local cemetery was only for Catholics, they buried him just outside. After the war, they returned to visit the grave. They went to the priest and asked, "Father, we cannot find our friend's grave". The priest answered, "well, after you buried your friend, it just didn't seem right to me that he should be buried there, outside the fence". "Ah, so you moved the grave?" asked the soldiers. "No" said the priest, "I moved the fence".
And that is exactly what God has done for us. None of us deserves a place "inside the fence" of his love, but God keeps acting in love toward us and extending his love to embrace us. That is why Jesus teaches us that we are even to love our enemies. The heart of the Gospel tells us that there's no one in the world who stands outside the circle of God's love.
Just the other day, Pope Francis during his Angelus address on Sunday said, "the goodness of God, knows no boundaries and does not discriminate against anyone, everyone is given the opportunity to respond to his invitation, to his call". He reminds us that, as kingdom people, we are all called to love God with all our soul, with all our heart, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbours as our self.