Sermon for Williamstown
22nd of November, 2015
On Thursday evening I attended a wonderful ordination. The person being ordained was Berlin Guerrero, who began his theological training with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the UCCP, and completed it at the Uniting Church Theological College here in Melbourne. I first heard of Berlin when I was a very new minister in the Macedon Ranges, and he was imprisoned in the Philippines on trumped up charges because of the work the UCCP did among the farmers, fisherfolks, and the urban poor. The Justice and International Mission Unit of our Synod circulated petitions and asked us to write to the Philippines Government asking for Berlin’s release, and the then General Secretary of the World Council of Churches visited the Philippines, calling attention to the imprisonment, torture and murder of social activists, including pastors like Berlin.
I wrote the letters and signed the petitions, and asked members of my congregation to sign, too, but even with the General Secretary’s visit I didn’t expect that anything would happen. Asking corrupt authorities to stop persecuting people always feels a bit futile. But then, after 15 months of imprisonment and torture, Berlin was released! It was wonderful! The UCCP was still worried about his safety, though, and asked the Uniting Church to help Berlin find asylum in Australia. He was allowed to come here; a few years later his family, his wife and children, were able to join him; and now Berlin is a permanent resident of Australia and an ordained minister in the Uniting Church. I know that I wasn’t the only person who had tears in my eyes during his ordination.
I wanted to begin today’s sermon with a tiny snippet of Berlin’s story (and some of you will have heard him tell his own story, which he does much better than I could ever do) because today, on the last Sunday of the Christian year, we are celebrating Christ the King Sunday. Today we affirm that Christ is not just the ruler of our hearts but of the whole world; that following the way of Jesus is not just a personal decision for Christians but something that influences everything we do and say.
That might seem to be an easy and obvious thing to say. We might imagine that the Feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ is an ancient one, going back to the first century when the Gospel of Matthew told of magi seeking “the child who has been born king of the Jews” and the book of Revelation described Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”. But in fact the Reign of Christ is one of the most recent additions to the Christian liturgical calendar. It was initiated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and then adopted quickly by those Protestant denominations with European roots that were already seeing the gathering threats of fascism and communism. Celebrating the Reign of Christ can be, in some places and at some times, a very brave and radical thing to do. For many Christians, people like Berlin, it has led to imprisonment and torture. Other Christians have died because of their belief that loyalty to Christ supersedes loyalty to secular rulers..
Another example of the courage it can take to acknowledge, promote and celebrate the Reign of Christ comes from one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis in 1945. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on ‘The leader and the individual’. The word for ‘leader’ in German is, of course, Fuhrer. The authorities recognised how subversive Bonhoeffer was being and cut him off before he could finish, but a couple of months later Bonhoeffer was able to return to the subject in a lecture.
In his broadcast Bonhoeffer argued that no mere human could have ultimate authority over other humans. Ultimate authority lies with God. Bonhoeffer said: “The individual is responsible before God. And this solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority … The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of the Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.”
For holding views like these Bonhoeffer was seen as a dangerous and subversive individual. He was following the example of the very first Christians, who were also accused of sedition because they claimed to belong to a “kingdom of God” and a “citizenship in heaven”. Christians were thought to be fanatical, obstinate, and defiant. Tacitus called them “haters of mankind.” Christians scorned long-held Roman religious traditions. Christians included slaves and women. Christians refused military service. Christians just did not seem to understand their civic duty. For this reason, some critics even blamed Christians for the fall of Rome.
The problem was not that Christians hated humanity or refused to be part of civil society. The problem was, and is, that Christians have a very different idea of what civil society is like. Christians are citizens first and foremost not of any particular state, whether that’s the Roman Empire or twenty-first century Australia, but of the kingdom of God. That kingdom, as Jesus said to Pilate, is not of this world. As Jesus pointed out, if the kingdom he was announcing was like other kingdoms, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over.
At times, sadly, Christians have confused God’s kingdom with the kingdoms of the world, and have tried to impose Christianity through violence and authority. When we talk about the Reign of Christ, we are not talking about something that can be brought about by inquisitions or by crusades. When we talk about Christ the King it’s important to be clear that he’s not a king with an army or a police force. But he is a King to whom we owe ultimate loyalty. If our commitment to the secular state comes into conflict with our commitment to Christ, then our commitment to Christ is to take priority. This why the Code of Ethics for Uniting Church ministers includes the clause: “It is unethical for Ministers deliberately to break the law or encourage another to do so. The only exception would be in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience.”
How do we know when our commitment to the kingdom of God should take priority over our commitment to the secular state? I believe the answer is quite simple. We should obey the law and live as members of the secular community, except in cases when the secular law or the beliefs of the community actually conflict with the kingdom of God. The kingdom that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king. We see what this kingdom would be like in the life of Jesus. Jesus created a new community among enemies. The kingdom reconciled a Samaritan woman and a Jewish man, a Roman soldier and a Palestinian peasant, the leprous and the clean, the stranger and the resident, Jew and Greek, tax collector and exploited farmer, male and female, slave and free. The new community gathered around Jesus broke bread together, shared their goods and their lives, and resisted the Roman Empire’s powers of division. The way of Jesus gathered enemies into one community, forgave and reconciled them. The community that Jesus created was the first taste of the peaceable kingdom. King David described this sort of kingship as “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land”.
When the secular state acts in ways opposed to this, as Nazi Germany did in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christians must remember that our first allegiance is to God. When the secular state acts in ways that are congruent with this, as it is seeking to do at the moment with new laws to protect children, Christians must give it every encouragement.
Jesus’ kingship is unique. Unlike any earthly kingship that is bound by geographic borders, this kingdom is boundless. Christ’s rule is not limited to a particular racial or national group. All are welcome, especially the chronically unwelcome ones. And we are part of it; we too are citizens and subjects of Christ the king. We celebrate this today; let’s celebrate it every day. We belong to God; thanks be to God. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, (London: Collins, 1965) p. 203.