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Sermon – “Us A Kingdom” – April 7, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, April 7, 2013 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Us A Kingdom Acts 5: 27-32; Revelation 1: 4-8; John 20: 19-31

The kids in Junior Church made Easter cards for folks from the congregation in nursing homes. So I am bringing them around. Of course I look at them first, to see which is addressed to whom. The messages are sincere, and the drawings cute. At first I think how the recipient will see the card and it will mean, in addition to Easter greetings– it will mean that someone has remembered him.

Then I think, you could look at it the other way. These two men aren’t acquainted, one in his mid-nineties and one in elementary school. At this point I don’t think they’ve ever been in the church together, since the older man hasn’t been for a while. Yet along with the card being a bridge that connects the young person to the old, it also provides the older man with the idea that in his church there’s someone eighty-five years younger who has taken the time to send this greeting: a stranger. The boy is a stranger to him, but not entirely, because it all is connected to his church, and church is connected to his life, and he remembers being a boy in church. This man was reared in the church–not this one, another Baptist church. He remembers a church boyhood and recognizes that this young man who made him a card is a bit like him, a fellow citizen of the kingdom of God, way at the other end of the project of being a person, of being a person of God.

When the older man says his prayers, he may pray for the card sender, whose name he has on the card. It may be that the whole effort of the younger person was this project, and not knowing the recipient except by a name, he hasn’t added to this kindness. He may not be thinking any more about it, but in the older man’s prayers he is named. It’s part appreciation for kindness, and part identification between the old man’s boyhood self and this twenty-first century version, and it’s partly the way that prayer asks people to enlarge the circle of their concern, and seek blessings from God on a world wider than their own.

In the scripture we read this morning from the Book of Revelation the writer says that God has, through the Easter event, made us–by “us” meaning believers, disciples of Christ–into a kingdom. We are a kingdom. In addition to whatever other kingdoms lay claim to us, some times in harmony with those and some times in tension with those, we belong to the kingdom of God.

This is what Paul wrote to one of his churches. “Formerly you were no people but now you are God’s people.” This isn’t the way the world figures it–some places recognize your belonging by right of blood, that your parents belong and so do you–some places recognize your belonging by right of soil–if you’re born here, you are of here. This kingdom of God of which the New Testament speaks is before all that, because it doesn’t result from¬†accident of birth, but by intention of God. It is, in the logic of the Bible, prior to the distinguishing marks of where we are born, or of whom. It is that being “born from above” mentioned in the gospel of John, that attaining of the potential as children of God which the introduction of John’s gospel names the achievement of Christ.

The Book of Revelation says it a bit differently, but the idea is the same. Jesus Christ has, in his living, dying, and being raised from the dead, changed who we are. We are no longer of the world. We belong to a realm larger than the workaday world we inhabit, a reality greater than the flesh we wear and the rhythms and requirements of nature.

That makes us related more closely than we might suppose when we aren’t thinking of our spiritual nature, or the true character of the church of Christ. People joke about being related to people they’re not proud to claim–horse thieves, ancestors who were hanged– but we have such an affinity for connectedness we generally like being related to people. Folks spend years tracking down family trees and finding satisfaction in locating themselves and their loved ones in this big pattern of begetting and getting on. I once read that, mathematically speaking, none of us could be more remotely related to anyone else, ever, than thirty-second cousins. That’s not sufficient consanguinity to work on our sympathy. We’re not related closely enough to the unknown soul in the other hemisphere to feel a personal responsibility for his or her welfare. Blood doesn’t get us to relent and write a check, or to pause and say a prayer. It’s spirit which prompts those expressions of fellow feeling, and for many of us it’s the spirit we share because we are loyal to Christ.

I’m not saying that we don’t also care for people of other faiths and people of no faith in God, but there is a satisfaction in recognizing fellow members of the Christian world, whoever they may be. There’s a way to be chauvinistic and selfish and stupid in identifying with other Christians, I suppose because pride of one’s own and fear of the other are such common attributes of human nature. That’s not what we are talking about today. Today we’re talking about living in the world and living in the kingdom of God and acknowledging a special relationship with those others in the world who also are part of the kingdom declared by Christ.

There was a professor who taught a course on the Philosophy of War. At one point he was speaking about warfare in an earlier world when kings and chiefs were the focus of the loyalty of the soldiers. He said that he was Canadian, and he believed it was easier for a human being to feel a gratifying sense of duty fulfilled when serving a royal family rather than something like a constitution, or a particular government–he thought the interpersonal element made a difference.

This kingdom of the New Testament is one of those old world kingdoms. It has a recognizable person at the head in Jesus. We are not being asked to live for principles as much as for that incarnation of God who challenged the haughty and comforted the humiliated, who made addressing basic human needs signs of his serving the true God, and who wouldn’t do violence to another nor let violence done to him deter him.

Our passage from the book of Acts of the Apostles relates their response to an order from the council of Jerusalem, which wants them to stop proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. They tell the officials “We must obey God rather than men,” and make clear their intention to continue doing what they’ve been doing.

They have respect for the council. They’ve gone before them when they’ve been asked to do so, and they make clear that it’s because they believe they are following a higher authority that they cannot comply with what the council wants. Formerly, before the resurrection, they acknowledged the power of the council by fearing it, by hiding from the authorities. Now they live as though the rules have changed. They take for granted that God is in charge, and even the government’s power to take their lives doesn’t persuade them that it’s not so. The resurrection has made even arrest, condemnation, and execution seem secondary. They can’t consider those as obstacles–the world that believes in those things is no longer their world. They are living in the kingdom already.

The portion of the gospel we have read today includes the encounter between the risen Christ and Thomas. The message from that– blessed are those who do not see and yet believe–is always worth repeating. That’s the only way that you or I even begin to live in the kingdom revealed through the resurrection. I don’t want to focus on Thomas, however. I want to see Jesus’ return in his resurrected form to the midst of his followers in terms of the kingdom over which he now rules.

What does he do? He comes to them, partly to convince the one missing from his last visit, but also to establish an understanding about how the new kingdom is going to work. He bids peace on them. He shows them evidence of his having been crucified, at which point, we’re told, “then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” So it’s not only Thomas, even now, whose full recognition of Jesus needs this concession of self- revelation.

Then Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The vital, discerning, invigorating spirit which has animated his service to God in the world will now be theirs. Don’t worry about this not jibing with the Pentecost story. It’s a different gospel tradition, but the idea is the same: it is not just in their human capacities–which evidently don’t cope well with the miracle of Easter, anyway–that will serve Jesus’ followers in their new, post- resurrection life together. Something of God is being shared with them, to give them surer judgment and more trustworthy authority. They have a role to play in the new reality they now inhabit. They are to have responsibilities, as Jesus’ followers, in the kingdom.

Those responsibilities are large. They are to convict persons of wrong, or release them from it through forgiveness. They are to be, in every instance of church life, a local government under the authority of God’s spirit, distinguishing those things which are intolerable from those things which merely are regrettable, and administering a kind of justice on behalf of God, making the kingdom of all believers not merely a matter of persuaded persons, but also of proper boundaries, and deliberate decisions.

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