Wednesday, 21 November 2018

How can the Church make
Mission a sacramental sign of
the coming Kingdom of God?

The Lamb of God in a Trinitarian depiction in a stained-glass window in a church in Charleville, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Reading: Revelation 11: 15-19

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.’

16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 singing,

‘We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign.
18 The nations raged,
but your wrath has come,
and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
and saints and all who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.’

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

It is always interesting to work with the weekday lectionary of another church. So, while the Church of Ireland was using a very different New Testament reading this morning (James 3: 13 to 4: 12), Common Worship in the Church of England gives us this reading from the Book of Revelation (Revelation 11: 15-19).

This is much more appropriate a reading as we prepare for next Sunday, which celebrates Christ the King, or (in the calendar of the Church of Ireland) the Kingship of Christ.

Verses 16-17 in the NRSV is a clear example of how the translators of the NRSV always go for the lowest common denominator … or denomination, if you excuse the pun.

For we could read these verses as saying in the original Greek the 24 elders are 24 priests, they are at their altars rather than on their thrones, and they are not merely giving polite thanks but celebrating the Eucharist. That is the plain and simple reading for many Greeks to this day, and in Greek liturgy the Lamb on the Throne is the Eucharistic bread on the Altar.

So, the English translations deprive us of an interpretation that is sacramental, and that would appeal to what I like to imagine is the core, traditional, support base of USPG in the dioceses and the parishes.

But perhaps, I digress, if only a little.

Last Sunday [18 November 2018], we heard the Marcan Apocalypse (Mark 13: 18), and as we begin the Year C cycle of readings on the First Sunday of Advent [2 December 2018], we have more apocalyptic visions from Saint Luke (Luke 21: 25-36), with the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with portents in the skies and seas, the shaking of the heavens, and with people fainting from fear and with a foreboding of what is coming upon the world.

It is very easy over these three weeks to relate these forebodings and apocalyptic fears with the state of the world today. How many of us, listening to this reading today, wonder about the nations raging and the coming wrath?

There is an uncertainty about the future of the world, not only with the Trump presidency, horrific images of war and famine in Yemen, but, even closer to home, the uncertainty created by ‘Brexit.’

Those images of the skies and the seas become even more ominous as we look at the consequences – perhaps now the almost irreversible consequences – of climate change and plastic pollution in the seas.

How are we to respond?

In all those readings, over a span of three weeks, we have been reminded:

To not allow ourselves to be led astray (Mark 13: 6)

To not be alarmed (Mark 13: 7)

To testify to the truth (John 18: 37)

To listen to the voice of Christ (John 18: 37)

To be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down (Luke 21: 34)

To be alert at all times (Luke 21: 36)

To pray (Luke 21: 36).

But, most of all, to be prepared for the Kingdom of God.

In today’s reading again, the nations rage. But it is also a reminder that the Church is the means or the agency through which the world is being invited into the Kingdom of God. How, then, do we encourage or enable the Church to be a sign of the Kingdom of God?

In some ways, I like to think of USPG in its best expressions of mission, as a sacrament or sign of the world being invited through the Church into the Kingdom of God.

What are the signs of that sacrament?

How do we express, through the work of USPG, or put forward values, incarnationally, that are signs not just of mission or of the Church but of what we believe and trust the Kingdom of God to be like?

I invite discussion on this before concluding with the Collect and the Lord’s Prayer.

The Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed
to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory
we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father …

The Lamb of God in a depiction in a stained-glass window in a church in Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Revelation 11: 15-19:

15 Καὶ ὁ ἕβδομος ἄγγελος ἐσάλπισεν: καὶ ἐγένοντο φωναὶ μεγάλαι ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ λέγοντες,

Ἐγένετο ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ κόσμου τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν
καὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ αὐτοῦ,
καὶ βασιλεύσει εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων.

16 καὶ οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι [οἱ] ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ καθήμενοι ἐπὶ τοὺς θρόνους αὐτῶν ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν καὶ προσεκύνησαν τῷ θεῷ 17 λέγοντες,

Εὐχαριστοῦμέν σοι, κύριε ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ,
ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν,
ὅτι εἴληφας τὴν δύναμίν σου τὴν μεγάλην
καὶ ἐβασίλευσας:
18 καὶ τὰ ἔθνη ὠργίσθησαν,
καὶ ἦλθεν ἡ ὀργή σου
καὶ ὁ καιρὸς τῶν νεκρῶν κριθῆναι
καὶ δοῦναι τὸν μισθὸν τοῖς δούλοις σου τοῖς προφήταις
καὶ τοῖς ἁγίοις καὶ τοῖς φοβουμένοις τὸ ὄνομά σου,
τοὺς μικροὺς καὶ τοὺς μεγάλους,
καὶ διαφθεῖραι τοὺς διαφθείροντας τὴν γῆν.

19 καὶ ἠνοίγη ὁ ναὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, καὶ ὤφθη ἡ κιβωτὸς τῆς διαθήκης αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ ναῷ αὐτοῦ: καὶ ἐγένοντο ἀστραπαὶ καὶ φωναὶ καὶ βρονταὶ καὶ σεισμὸς καὶ χάλαζα μεγάλη.

The elders before the Lamb of God on the Throne … the Altar in a church in Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale Group of Parishes in the Diocese of Limerick. This theological reflection was prepared for a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) at the Kairos Centre in Roehampton, London, on 21 November 2018.

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