Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Of our King, slavery and being priests.

Peter Lockhart

Today is traditionally known as the last Sunday of the Christian lectionary and we celebrate Christ as King. Of course the imagery of what it means for Christ to be a King is easily distorted by the centuries that have passed by, since the plaque inscribed “Jesus Christ King of the Jews” was nailed above the crucified man Jesus of Nazareth.

This inscription flows from the claims being made about Jesus in his confrontation with the Roman ruler, Pilate. The imagery of Jesus kingship is a bound man standing before the political authority of the day contesting meanings of truth.

This should automatically put to one side any notion of a triumphal kingship for Jesus based on the sword and military power, neither does it connect even with the notion of a benevolent dictator – Christ’s kingship entails him submitting to a process of humiliation, torture and ultimately death on the cross as a way of demonstrating God’s love and God’s power.

It is within this context of remembering Christ as King that World Vision, knowingly or not, has set us on a path today to stand against slavery and so with the oppressed. There can be no doubt that as we do this we are making a political statement and making judgments about the way in which people are treated. In making this decision we as relatively wealthy and positively free people in Australia are also exposed to difficult truths about the world we live in and our complicity in these issues.

When Pilate interrogates Jesus on the question of his kingdom Jesus response is that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus kingdom is not a place but is the very will of God, God’s reign, coming to bear in the lives of people, “on earth as it is in heaven”.

This coming kingdom to which Jesus refers is about the renewal of the whole creation and of its people. Paul will later speak of the kingdom as the coming reconciliation of all things in Christ. This imagery and vision of reconciliation is a particularly strong theme within the Uniting Church in Australia, which is committed to justice and reconciliation in many matters.

At the heart of our faith is belief that Christ comes to set us free from the sin that imprisons us and so destroys our relationships with God and with each other, the kind of sin which would have human beings treated as commodities and bought and sold in the marketplace.

The image given to us of Christ as King before Pilate is an image in which our hearts and minds are drawn yes to what Christ did to set us free from sin but more to the point to Christ’s personal association with those who suffer and are oppressed in their lives, and in this we hear a call to mission and to ministry.

In the book of Revelation when the author writes to the seven churches in Asia we might take this a euphemism as a letter to all churches in all times and places and thus hear the personal and collective note of challenge within the words of the letter:

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.

In Christ the King we are called to be a priesthood of all believers. One side of this priesthood which is often emphasised, especially within the churches stemming from the Protestant and reformed traditions, is that us all being priests means we do not need a mediator to stand between us and God.

This may be true but this privilege and gift is not simply about our access to God in and through Jesus Christ but is also about being drawn into God’s mission in the world revealed in the life of Jesus.

Being a priest is not simply about personal access to God but is about advocating on behalf of people who as yet have no voice with God or might I dare to suggest earthly authorities.

It is recorded that when Jesus began his ministry he sat down and read from the scroll of Isaiah which declares:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

The gospel writer Luke who records this event then tells his readers:

That Jesus then “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus ministry begins sounding a note of liberation for those who have been debased and deprived of their gift of simply being human and living freely in response to God’s love.

When Jesus declares the year of the Lord’s favour I believe it is a proclamation not bound within that moment in time but is an expression of the promise of the coming kingdom and any time, in any moment, in which people a liberated and set free from such oppression the kingdom of God breaks into our reality.

The kingdom not of this world in which we find children enslaved in coffee fields and picking cocoa; a world in which girls even before the age of 10 are sold by their parents into prostitution; a world in which cheap indentured labour is shipped around the world to countries including Australia.

As priests of this Christ, and members of his kingdom, it is with these people that we find Jesus standing in his own state of powerlessness before Pilate. In Jesus we find a God who suffers alongside us and so says to the entire world that God’s purpose and vision for all people is life in all its fullness.

Being priests of this Christ means that we are called to raise our voice with his, to cry out for those who suffer, to advocate for those in slavery and consider how our own actions might perpetuate or alleviate the plight of slaves around the world.

When William Wilberforce caught the vision of the coming kingdom and the promise of grace for all of God’s children he expressed God’s love through his political action, in his liturgical and prayer life and through actions and changed behaviours.

So as we recall the spirit of that age in which Wilberforce stood as we remember those who simple actions like refusing to use sugar in their tea we too can be the priests that God is calling us to be.

Christ stands before Pilate, maybe not in slavery but certainly in a position as powerless in his time; his life is in the hands of another. This is our king; this is our God; who is willing to stand alongside those who suffer not in some metaphorical sense but literally.

We as recipients of the gift of grace will find that at times we are made uncomfortable by the truth of our reality and the distance it might be from the truth and promise of Jesus’ kingdom yet in hearing his voice and responding we are continually called back into life and are drawn into sharing the love of our King Jesus and the promise of his kingdom through our behaviour as his priests.

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