Not From This World

God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Proper 29b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over... but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Last week we reflected on the fact that no human being — Jesus Christ excepted — is quite like God. We are all, of course, like God in a few respects, having been made in God’s image. As the Catechism reminds us, right in the second question and answer, on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, this means that we, like God, are free: “free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason.”

Surely there is no doubt about God having these three attributes. “Reason” is God’s middle name, so to speak, for as theologians remind us, the Son of God is the Word of God — and that is the most meaningful and reasonable Word ever spoken: the Word through whom all things were made. In this we recognize God as the Creator of all that is and could possibly be. And as John the evangelist reminds us again and again, Love is at the very heart of who God is.

We human beings share in these capacities to love, create, and reason — but you can see at once that human likeness to God is limited in each one of these capacities. As I said in the sermon last week, “No man works like him.”

And as with God, so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is similar in some respects to earthly kingdoms, but ultimately so different from all of them that even thinking in such terms could be less than profitable, if we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Of course, that did not stop people from thinking about the kingdom of God in very earthly terms throughout most of human history. The form that Messiah takes in the Jewish tradition is precisely that of a king. Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek, both mean “anointed one” — and this refers to the fact that the way a person is made a king in the Jewish tradition — and in most others — is by being anointed. You may remember, for example, how God chose David out of all the sons of Jesse and sent Samuel the prophet to anoint him as king with holy oil, after Saul (whom Samuel had also anointed king at God’s instruction) turned out not to be a faithful ruler after God’s own heart, and willing to submit to God’s instruction and commandment.

Our reading this morning from the book of Daniel shows that this idea of God, and God’s kingdom, was still very much in vogue in the centuries before the coming of Christ, and even up through and into the time of his ministry. Daniel portrays what amounts to a coronation scene in which the one “like a human being” — or “like a son of man” as the older translation has it — comes before the Ancient One, the one Ancient in Days, to be invested with all authority over all the nations of the earth. And you will recall that the disciples asked Jesus if the time was coming when he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. The disciples saw the kingdom of God in very literal terms — an anointed King sitting on a physical throne in a particular earthly kingdom.

So strong is this image of God as a kind of super-king — a King of kings and Lord of Lords — that it persisted well into the life of the early church, as attested in that reading from the Revelation to John. That vision portrays God’s heavenly court as being much like an earthly court; the only difference being that Jesus is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.

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And so he is — I do not want to deny by any means that the Son of God is King of kings and Lord of lords. But I want to remind us that this is an image, a metaphor. It doesn’t particularly well speak to us in our days, anyway, when there are very few kings sitting on earthly thrones anywhere. God is not simply the boss of bosses, the capo de tutti capi as they would say in the Godfather. God is much more than that, but also different from that. There is a danger in seeing God as simply the biggest, the best, the boss, the most powerful ruler, or even as just “the supreme being.” And the reason for this is that it doesn’t well jibe with what the Catechism tells us about God — that the primary attributes of God reflected here on earth are freedom, reason, and love — not compulsion and power.

And this is in part what Jesus was getting at when he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from the world.” His kingdom is not a kingdom of one power dominating all other powers. No, his kingdom is a kingdom based on truth — and here we must understand truth not just as a collection of all things that are true, a collection of facts, but rather as something about the ultimate reality of all that is — something about the being of God rather than merely the power of God. It is not so much that God is in control of things, a power working over other powers, but that God is the source of all life and light and power that any thing has.

This is what is meant when John the Divine reports, a few chapters on from today’s passage, that the heavenly creatures sing out: “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being.” The kingly power of God is not that of an invading general conquering someone else’s territory; it is the gracious authority of the one who holds all things by right, not by compulsion.

For God is not only the creator of all that is, but the sustainer of it: were God to withdraw his loving care from the universe for an instant, were God to turn his gaze away or blink his all-seeing eye, all that is would simply cease to be — for God is the ground of all being, the source and sustainer of all that is, all things being created and sustained by the left and the right hands of reason and love.

This can help us understand on the one hand the nature of God’s creative reason — for he is the Word of Truth, the truth of everything that is. God is not simply reasonable in the sense of being intelligible or logical — God is the very basis of what makes Reason what it is — why cause follows effect and one and one make two. God is not just the Great Because; God is the Great Why.

But above all, and on the other hand, and again as John reminds us again and again, God is love — not just the love of affection and friendship and fellowship, not even just as the most loving being — but as the sustaining cause and end and purpose of all love. God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Dame Julian of Norwich, a great saint of the English Middle Ages. In her Revelations of Divine Love she wrote of God speaking to her; and the form of God that she saw was the wounded Christ on the Cross. And that Christ on the Cross spoke to her, in these words:

I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessèd love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who fills you with desire; and I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.

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Is God a king, even King of kings? Yes, so God is. But that kingdom is not from this world — it is to this world. For the love of God is not based on God needing anything, but having everything, so that all is a gift, a gift of freedom, reason and love, given to us by the one who took our nature upon, that we might grow into his nature; one who died for us, that we might live in him. So let us give glory to God, our true King and our Lord, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion — and all freedom, peace and love — be now and evermore ascribed, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

What Comes (Un)naturally

And so we do not trust in what is merely natural to make us good, but in the supernatural goodness of God to make us his.

Sermon for Proper 10a

SJF • Proper 10a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Some of the philosophers of the romantic era and in the 17th to 19th century came up with the idea that people living in simplicity in the time before civilization were somehow more innocent, more “natural” and hence unspoiled. The notion is sometimes referred to as that of the “noble savage.” The concept became attached to Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it isn’t exactly his idea. Still, he shared the tendency somehow to idealize human beings in their uncivilized condition. He saw civilization itself as a kind of introduction of morality and consequent decline.

The idea as Rousseau espoused it is that people in their primitive state were morally neutral, and that it was only with later civilization that evil entered the world as society began to corrupt the natural innocence of primitive existence. As Rousseau put it, the problems began “when the first man staked out a bit of land and said, ‘This is mine,’ and convinced others foolishly to agree.”

The Christian tradition is said by some to see things rather differently, but a closer reading may reveal that it is not quite so different. People sometimes look to the story of Adam and Eve and think of the innocent perfection of life that they enjoyed in paradise. But surely the point of the story is precisely that they were not innocent. They sinned — disobeying what at that point was just about the only thing God had commanded them — while they were in paradise. They may have been created innocent, but they were also created capable of committing sin, and it took them almost no time to do so.

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Theologians have wrestled with the question of human nature for thousands of years — whether people are good by nature or bad by nature, or started good and became bad, or whatever.

It seems to me that Saint Paul had it right, and made the most sense both out of that ancient story of the Garden and the Fall, and the practical reality of his own human experience. Human flesh — with its cravings, devices and desires — is weak. Human beings also have a natural tendency towards self-preservation, like most living things. And human beings develop very quickly the sense of property: at least when it comes to their own property. Much as Rousseau observed, children don’t take long to get to the point at which they have learned the first person possessive: Mine! It’s just that he saw this as part of a decline rather than natural, in contrast to another earlier philosopher, John Locke, who took the view that property was a natural right. Whether a right or a tendency, though, as a child, I had to be taught that not everything was mine — I had to learn how to share with other children.

For Saint Paul, this natural tendency is a part of the “mind set on the flesh.” It derives from our creaturely existence — our neediness. We need things; we need air to breathe, we need to eat. All of that is natural, natural to us. And that neediness has to be governed and ordered and civilized by some kind of regulation. Thus far Paul would be in agreement with Rousseau and the English philosopher Hobbes, with the exception that Rousseau was a bit more optimistic about the short-lived innocence of primitive humanity.

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But Saint Paul stands apart from all of these secular philosophers, in that, while they saw from rather different angles that law was society’s answer to the problem of human weakness, Paul saw that law was an insufficient solution to the problem. It is like a drug that comforts but does not heal. He saw law as an insufficient means of bringing peace to the warring hearts of fallible human beings. Even the law given by God could not bring compliance: in fact, God’s law only laid down the penalty: “Of the tree in the midst of the garden you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die.” That was the law that God gave to Adam and Eve, and it was the law they broke, before the proverbial ink was dry.

So what is the answer? What does Saint Paul offer us as an answer? Paul looks to God again — for something different this time; not for the law, but something different — after all, God is the source of all good — the fountain of all goodness, as we sang in our hymns today: it is from him that everything comes, the source of all good — but Paul did not look to God for the same old kind of law that God had given in the past, the law that was weakened by the flesh and so could not bring true righteousness.

Instead God sent his Son, but not, as the evangelist John would say, to condemn the world. God sent his Son precisely to relieve the world of that endless cycle of law-giving and law-breaking that was getting us nowhere, as we spun our wheels in the dry soil or the mud of our own failings.

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For Paul had observed something in that old, old story: you may recognize it too — let me ask you, when was it that Adam and Eve sinned? While God was away from them, while they were on their own. (Of course God was not really “away” but that is how the story goes — and we had best pay attention to the details of that story.) And Eve was off on her own — away from Adam — when the Serpent whispered sweet nothings in her ear and tempted her to violate the only law on the books at that time. And her weak flesh — the desire to live forever and become like God (even though, as the text shows, she and Adam already were like God, being made in God’s image) — as I say, her weak flesh gave in, and then she persuaded Adam’s equally weak flesh to join her: all of this while God was “away.”

So the answer to all of this, Paul says, is to be always “with” God — such that God is never “away.” And this is made possible both through the fact that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh” — that is to say, in and through and by means of the very human flesh that was the problem in the first place. And further to know that God is always with us, always present to us through the Spirit. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, God is with you, and even though the flesh might still seek to drag you down to death because of sin, the Spirit — God’s presence — is life because of the righteousness of Christ.

This is the hopeful message that Saint Paul brings: Christ came in the flesh and remains with us in the Spirit, and his spirit is at work in us and there it can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: even though we have no power in ourselves to become righteous, his spirit working in us is life because of his righteousness.

And it is a life that contains within it the promise of new life, the resurrection life. The Son of God, the Word of God, is at work within the soil of our human flesh. Remember how the story tells, what God made us from, at the beginning. Our soil, our flesh, comes from the earth. It is like the seed of the word received and nurtured, which grows in the soil to bear fruit for righteousness, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” We are not good by nature, but by grace: our soil cannot bear fruit on its own, unless the seed of God be planted in it.

And so we do not trust in what is merely natural to make us good, but in the supernatural goodness of God to make us his. That is the message of salvation and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.+