Trinity 5 - God's universal rule

A sermon preached by Fr James Heard in the United Benefice, 20 July 2014

I wonder what you have made of today’s Gospel reading about the wheat and the weeds. Its pretty scary stuff:
The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

I’d like to start by making something absolutely clear. God is not the God only of Christians, or even only of the Jews and Christians. God is not restricted to the walls of this or any church. God’s love cannot be controlled, God’s love cannot be restricted or manipulated because God, quite simply, is love, and that love overflows to the most unexpected places and people.

So hearing the Gospel passage today, we mustn’t go away thinking that we Christians here in church on Sunday are the pure wheat who are on God’s side, we are the ones who will inherit the kingdom, who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God. And others (add non-believers, Buddhists, Muslims and so on) are the weeds who will be, as the Gospel puts it, ‘pulled up and burned in the fire’ at harvest time. That’s a crass interpretation of this passage. It’s a rather repulsive view but it’s a particular interpretation which I spent much of my life believing.

What we learn from Scripture is that God’s love is generous, it’s expansive. It reaches to the very darkest and lowest places of existence and into the very darkest parts – the weeds, if you like – of our lives.

What’s the basis for such an expansive or embracing view? I have two thoughts on this: the story of the Israel and a theology of creation. In the Genesis story God called Abraham to form a nation for himself. God said that he would bless not only the Hebrews, but ‘all peoples on earth’ (Genesis 12:3, 22:18).

God repeated his divine call to Abraham's son Isaac, emphasising his indiscriminate love for all the world: ‘in you, Isaac, all nations on earth will be blessed’ (Genesis 26:5). And when Isaac's son Jacob used a rock for a pillow and dreamed a dream at Bethel, God affirmed: ‘In you, Jacob, all peoples on earth will be blessed’ (28:14).

It’s pretty clear what is being affirmed. God’s love in limitless, unconditional, for each person and every nation. In Ephesians (3.14-15) Paul emphasizes this point by using a clever word play. God, says Paul, is the patera [πατέρα] of every patria — he's the ‘father (patera) from whom every family (πατριὰ) derives its name’. God is not a being that I may own. He's not the God of Jews alone, not Britain’s God, or even the God only of Christians. Rather, he's the ‘father of all fatherhood’, the ‘father of the whole human family’. This is regardless of what people believe or if people believe.

That’s the emphasis from the story of the Israel. But the scope of God’s embrace widens by including all creation. The eastern Orthodox tradition reminds us that Jesus is the pantocrator — the lord not just of people but of all things seen and unseen. The scale and scope of this future hope includes not only each person and every nation but, as our epistle reading puts it, ‘the whole creation’ (Romans 8:12–25).

There's an expansive logic to the Christian good news. God ‘created all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ (Colossians 1:16). He will ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’ (Colossians 1:20). He will sum up or bring together ‘all things in heaven and on earth’ (Ephesians 1:10).

In sum, what we may know from the symphony of Scripture is that nothing and nobody exists outside the presence of God’s infinite grace and perfect love.

What I think today’s passages are saying is that ultimately, one day, God will destroy all of the works of darkness. And we rightly long for the day when death and injustice and corruption and violence will be destroyed and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

In the meantime we see suffering on a cosmic scale – I often feel overwhelmed when turning on the news to hear of the sort of airplane tragedy we’ve being hearing about in Ukraine; or the conflict in the Holy Land where innocent people are being maimed and killed; or when I hear about abuse, or corruption, or discrimination. And these are only a few of the things that actually get reported. Paul says in our epistle reading that, like a woman in childbirth, the entire creation groans inwardly and outwardly. The pain can feel unbearable.

We long for the day when God’s kingdom, as we pray every Sunday, will be on earth as it is in heaven. Until this vision of a new heaven and new earth comes becomes fully present, we live and experience a tension. It is a tension between the ‘now and the not yet’. The now of heaven, the reality of God’s redemptive work through Jesus, the future breaking into the present most significantly in Jesus’ resurrection. And the not yet, where we continue to live in a world of sin and suffering, where we are only too aware of our distance from God.

In other words, we live in a sort of gap. Many know the feeling of God’s love and have experienced it in their lives. Many have seen it in grand acts of compassion and small daily acts of kindness. We rejoice when justice triumphs and celebrate when sickness turns to health. These are signs that the reign of God has come near.

We are encouraged to believe that a time will come when God will not be distant, but fully present. Heaven and earth will no longer be veiled off from one another. The traffic between the two, highlighted in the first reading, while opaque for us now, shall then interpenetrate one another. Earth shall be the dwelling place of God, as heaven has always been (Mike Lloyd).

And in the meantime? How are we to live? We are invited to be a part of God’s kingdom, and to start by doing some weeding, digging up the weeds from our lives that threatening to entangle us. And we are invited to live a life that can stride confidently into the gap – angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning. We are invited to be gap closers. Where we can clearly see the distance between what should be and what is, and we strain, and we heave, and we work to lift to close that gap. To be individually and as a community signs of God’s reign.
Holland Park Benefice