Only Christ, whose kingdom has no borders, can claim our conscience
Liz Stuart, 20 November 2022
Colossians 1: 11–20; Luke 23: 33–43
A couple of weeks ago the Bishop of Oxford caused a bit of a kerfuffle when he published a paper coming out in favour of the Church blessing same-sex relationships. In the paper, which is well worth reading, Bishop Steven puts forth many sound arguments.
I was, however, struck by this sentence: ‘We, therefore, now have a profound dislocation between the Church of England — the established Church, aiming to serve the whole of our society — and the society we are called to serve’. Now, I am 1,000 percent in favour of the Church blessing same-sex relationships. I have argued for it for nearly 40 years, and I think there are many good theological reasons for it. Our gospel story today reminds us of the fact that Jesus placed no gates on the entrance to the kingdom of God; an unrepentant thief who just asks to be remembered is taken by Jesus through death.
But we need to be careful about using the argument from culture — ‘The rest of the world has changed, so the Church needs to’. It is complicated, of course, because we believe that God is active in the world, that the Holy Spirit bounds through it revealing God to us as she goes. But she moves so fast and we so slowly that it takes a lot of careful discernment to work out what is of God and what is not, and where exactly God is.
I well remember a bishop friend of mine saying that he had no confidence that the Church of England would ever resist fascism if it raised its ugly head again, so prone it is to baptise dominant culture. When National Socialism took control of Germany the reaction of the Churches ranged from outright support to working around the Nazis. When the German Evangelical Church introduced the Aryan Paragraph, which defrocked pastors of Jewish descent, a breakaway group of pastors formed the Confessing Church which was launched with a Declaration of Faith authored by the great theologian Karl Barth.
The so-called Barmen Declaration stated that no earthly power could claim absolute authority over the Church; only God, as revealed in Christ, can do that. That took some discernment, because no doubt others were quoting Romans 13: 1 ‘Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in their places of power.’ But through that process of discernment these pastors realised that the Nazis were seeking to displace the one who is ‘before all things and in whom all things hold together, the head of the body, the Church’.
That discernment led to further insight into the evils of antisemitism, and many pastors and members of the Confessing Church actively resisted the regime, including Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. An awareness of the kingship of Christ gave them eyes to see the dominant culture in a different way to most of their fellow citizens and Christians in Germany.
Now, we are all members of a Church by law established, whose life is in all sorts of ways intrinsically interwoven with the life of our nation. And there is so much grace in that: for example, in every single person living in this parish, no matter what their belief, having a claim on the care and ministry of this place.
But there are dangers in being part of the establishment, of being too close to the centres of power, of not seeing when the values of the kingdom are being compromised. That is why we hold before us the image of Christ the King, the only one who can claim our conscience – the King who rules through service; who stands with the poor, the marginalised and oppressed; whose kingdom has no borders or detention centres; whose population is made up entirely of refugees (of which we are some), all welcomed with open arms. And because Christ is our King there will be times when we need to oppose things going on in our land, sometimes even things happening in his name.
I am always struck by the fact that there were very few times when people en masse stood up against the Nazi regime, but when they did the regime backed down. In 1943 at what became known as the Rosenstrasse Protest, 6,000 mainly non-Jewish women protested against the arrest of their Jewish husbands, fathers and sons. After this, intermarried Jewish men were largely left alone, and some were actually released from Auschwitz. When two Munich bishops were put under house arrest, thousands of people protested in the streets and the bishops were released.
Tyranny and injustice are built on the sand of fear and death, and when people are inspired and emboldened by God’s Spirit to stand up and oppose them, they eventually crumble. God’s kingdom and Christ’s rule, on the other hand, are built upon the rocks of love and life and the gates of hell will not prevail against them, which is why people like Bonhoeffer were prepared to give their lives in the service of that kingdom opposing Hitler’s.
Tyranny and injustice are built on the sand of fear and death. God’s kingdom and Christ’s rule, on the other hand, are built upon the rocks of love and life.
‘This is the King of the Jews’, mocked the sign placed over the dying Jesus. How could a naked preacher, dying the shameful death of a common criminal, be a king? But he is our king, and the only one who can demand our conscience and complete authority over our lives.
No other person or institution can claim complete authority over you – not your spouse, not your employer, not your government, not even your Church. To do so is sinful, because it is to claim an authority only God has. Working out what that means in specific times, contexts and places is sometimes perilous work; it is always hard work, because sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks through the dominant culture and sometimes she speaks through the victims of dominant culture, but such discernment is what Christian discipleship is all about.