The kingdom of Jesus waits for us in every moment
– are we awake to it?
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by David Barton on 9 October 2016
As I set about pondering that healing miracle we just read, I was rung by someone I have known for many years to be told that she had been diagnosed with an inoperable illness, and the prognosis was not good. I went to visit her shortly afterwards. It was hard to sit with her, and carry in my mind the atmosphere of that reading – Jesus extraordinary power to heal. How weak my visit by comparison. It’s one of the perils of the job I suppose, and one you get used to. But my friend had no such expectation of a reversal of her diagnosis. What she wanted to talk about was how to face it, how to find the strength to manage.
And that, if you look at the healing miracles of the gospel, is part of what many of them are all about, Jesus looked for more than a physical improvement; more than getting rid of an organic, physical problem. That was only one part of what he seems to have seen as the healing a whole person. It’s as if Jesus was rebuilding sick people from the bottom up – drawing them out of isolation and despair, freeing them from guilt, building up their trust, putting them back into community again.
It’s one of the things about sickness we would all recognise: we easily get low and depressed. My friend was noticing a tendency to withdraw into herself, become isolated, limit the visitors. If that is true now, how much more in a society that could easily see sickness as a punishment from God.
But there was/is something about Jesus that seems to crash through all of this. As if he was contagious with life and health. A kind of compassionate power flowed from him, inspiring everything he did. He was clearly deeply moved by sickness, though outraged might be a better word. The Greek of the NT sometimes uses very strong words in connection with healing miracles. We read of Jesus “moved with compassion”. Actually, the Greek word means “a deep confusion in the guts”. This sickness was not the life God wants for his daughters and sons. Jesus was, above all, showing people that they are loved and deserved to be loved.
And that of course is the heart of Jesus message. It’s a message for everyone, sick or well. Healing was for Jesus a sign of the “kingdom of God/heaven”. We are all invited to step into this kingdom, where we will discover a depth of joy we will not find anywhere else. And it is free, gratuitous, open to all.
And it’s when I write and say that, that I often stand back and think to myself, “What an odd business christianity is!” We have this great religious apparatus, churches, clergy, special robes for those who are high in the pecking order, and what, from the outside, seem to be complex rules about who is in and who is out.
It’s hard sometimes to remember that at the heart of everything is this very simple free gift that Jesus called, somewhat mysteriously, The Kingdom of Heaven. If we step into it, we will indeed find a joy we will not find anywhere else. But we also have to learn that things are done differently there: we are to live peaceably and generously, we are to go the second mile, we are to forgive. But if that’s tough – and it always is in a world and a society that can be dysfunctional as ours can – we also discover, to our surprise, that the life and energy to do it flows into us. Rather like the life and energy that so clearly flowed through Jesus and passed into those who chose to follow him. And Jesus taught that that is just there for us, sick or well. The kingdom of heaven is at hand” he used to say. – as if you could reach out and touch it.
So if we want to enter or re enter this kingdom – and all of us are in need of entering and reentering the kingdom of Jesus – today’s Gospel gives us a hint of what to look out for. Luke’s gospel, as it moves towards the end, begins to hover around the idea of the stranger. In that passage the Samaritan is referred to a “foreigner” – a stranger.
But the interesting thing is that from now on, Luke begins to indicate to us that Jesus is the one who becomes the stranger. We are coming to the end of the long journey he takes to Jerusalem. Jesus knows what he has to face, but it is more than his disciples can accept. He begins to become a stranger to them. He often seems to walk ahead of them alone. And in Jerusalem that only increases. Jesus becomes more isolated, misunderstood, until in the end he is crucified outside the walls of the city – the final definition of the outsider, the stranger.
So when, in Luke’s gospel the disciples see him again, it is as a stranger, walking the road to Emmaus. someone they don’t recognise,
It’s helpful sometimes to think of Jesus in exactly that guise – the stranger. The one who, I sense, mysteriously, walks beside me. Strangers, don’t forget, in the gospels, are the ones we should always welcome. But this stranger is not the easiest to immediately welcome. He walks in a different rhythm to mine. Where my footsteps are uncertain, his seem firm. His voice I can dimly hear in the gaps of my conversation. He fills the silences in ways that are disconcerting, confusing my speech. And then, something ordinary shatters my confusion: the bread is broken, a hand reaches out to touch, a word cracks open into meaning, the sunlight falls on a tree and the world is filled with light. And, suddenly, through this stranger, we discover that we have stepped into his, Jesus’ kingdom of heaven. It’s gift, utterly unexpected.
Or perhaps we have seen a hint of that, and missed it, and need to go back. In that gospel passage the Samaritan comes back. There is something slightly odd here. Would Jesus really have told a Samaritan to show himself to the Jewish priests? I doubt it. Did Luke get it wrong? Perhaps he did, because he had his eye on that idea of a return. It’s an echo really of that parable about the man who realised that a pearl of great price was buried in a field, and went away to get the money and return to buy it. This man returns, as if he realised healing was only the opening to something more wonderful.
R S Thomas has a poem about a man who saw the sun break through to illuminate a small field. And he goes on, only later to realise that was the field that had the treasure in it. And he realises that life is not hurrying after a receding future, or hankering after an imagined past. But turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to the brightness that is the eternity that awaits us.
The kingdom of Jesus waits for us in every moment, whether we are sick or well. As Jesus so often asks, Are we awake to it?