Sunday, 28 July 2019

Apocalypse Now #6: Heaven’s perspective on mercy and judgement

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 28 July 2019

Revelation 14.1-5, 14-20

Listen to this sermon her

There are two related issues 
which I want us to think about this morning,
and they can be expressed as two questions: 

firstly the question of whether the reign of evil on the earth will ever end, 
and secondly that of whether a life of suffering and faithful witness 
is ultimately worthwhile. 

In these two problems are reflected two desires which I suspect many of us can relate to: 
the desire for the overthrow of evil, 
and the desire for mercy towards sinners. 

On the face of it, these two desires can seem to be mutually contradictory. 

After all, if God is to be merciful to those who have sinned, 
how can he simultaneously punish them for their sinfulness?

This contradiction is explored within the Jewish tradition in the book of Jonah, 
with Jonah famously frustrated 
when God shows mercy to the sinful inhabitants of Ninevah. (Jonah 4.1–3, 11)

And it is this tension between mercy and judgment
that John explores in chapter 14 of the book of Revelation.

John’s original readers, those in the seven churches of Asia Minor, 
were hopefully, by this point in their engagement with his book,
becoming convinced by the repeated assertions 
that the empire of Rome is actually a satanic beast 
deceiving the nations of the earth, 
and drawing idolatrous worship away from the one true God.

But as the scales fell from their eyes as to the true, beastly nature of the empire,
their temptation would have been for them
to desire nothing less than its total destruction,
along with all who continue to be associated with it. 

And it’s always tempting, isn’t it,
for those of us who long for a new world, 
for a brighter better future, 
to also long for the destruction 
of the systems of oppression,
and to work for their replacement 
with new, better, more just ways of governing society?

The temptation is always before us
to seek the overthrow of the existing evil empire,
and its replacement with an empire of our own devising.

This might be a religiously motivated temptation,
but it doesn’t have to be:

There has never been any shortage of people 
offering an ideological panacea for human woes,
and whether it’s the elysian fields of a no-deal Brexit,
or the utopia of greater European integration,
or the communitarian economics of Socialism,
or the self correcting justice of the free market,
or the paradise of a truly Christian country…
the temptation to see one ideology as the solution to all our problems,
is every bit as much before us in our world, 
as it was before the first century Christians of Asia Minor.

Do away with the empire!
Down with Rome! 
Long live King Jesus!
Vive la révolution of the Kingdom of God.

However, this attitude of pitting the Church against the world,
where the world is bad, and the church is good,
can also lead, at the opposite end of the scale, to an attitude of isolationism;
where the Church’s task becomes that of remaining pure 
while the rest of the world ‘justifiably’ goes to hell. 

We can see this in those forms of Christianity 
that emphasise moral and doctrinal purity,
but which disengage from action on justice 
in order to keep themselves holy.

And it is in order to avoid both of these extremes,
revolution and isolation, 
that John wants those in his congregations 
to understand the importance 
of their role as a light to all nations. 

By John’s understanding, the central task of the faithful Church 
is that of bearing faithful witness, 
even if it means persecution and martyrdom, 
and this core task cannot be set aside 
either in the interests of isolationist purity,
nor violent revolution.

And John achieves this balancing act
by holding together two images:
one of judgment, and one of mercy.

So before describing the judgement of the satanic empire, 
John addresses the issue of God’s mercy towards sinners.

And he begins with an image of the Church, 
depicted in both its heavenly and earthly manifestations: 
The church in heaven, the church universal,
is depicted as the twenty-four elders worshipping before God’s throne (14.3);
And the church on earth, the church militant
is depicted as a great crowd numbering 144,000. (14.1,4).

John then hears the song that is being sung in heaven,
and it turns out that on the earth 
it is only the 144,000 who are able to learn it. (14.2–3). 

Let’s spend a few minutes now getting to grips with this strange image 
of the church on earth as 144,000 male virgins.

It’s pretty weird, isn’t it?
Apart from anything else, at the time of the writing of Revelation,
there were nowhere near this number of Christians in the world!

We first met the 144,000 in chapter seven,
and if you remember our sermon from a few weeks ago,
we discovered that they’re one of the images John uses for the church on the earth.

They come into view again here at the beginning of Chapter 14, 
where they appear as the army of the Lamb, 
standing with him on Mount Zion. 

This image of the Church on earth, 
arrayed behind the Lamb as a mighty army prepared for battle, 
is offering John’s readers heaven’s perspective 
on their experience of themselves as members of small, struggling churches. 

They might experience their present circumstances 
as a time of failure and difficulty, 
with small numbers of believers struggling to remain faithful to their Lord 
in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Empire of Rome

But in John’s vision, the church are already a great force,
on the brink of victory over the very forces that would seek to crush them (14.1). 

And the sound of heavenly worship is heard echoing over the battlefield (14.2), 
with 144,000 the only people on the earth
whoa are able learn this new song of heaven (14.3; cf. 5.9–10). 

The worship offered in the seven churches 
may not have always have resounded with the echo of divine harpists, 
but from heaven’s perspective the worship of the Church,
the faithful naming of Jesus as Lord 
in place of all other claims to power and authority,
is the only way in which the world gets to hear
they joyful song of the victory of ultimate good over evil. 

And there’s a message here for us here, I think.
Our worship at Bloomsbury can sometimes seem heavenly,
particularly, from my point of view,
when Philip literally pulls out all the stops 
as we sing one of the great hymns of the faith.
But even when it isn’t, even when we don’t know or don’t like the song,
even when we mumble through, or disengage,
we are still naming Jesus as Lord,
we are still proclaiming that all other powers are not Lord,
and from heaven’s perspective this proclamation is not lost,
it is taken up into the eternal song of which it is but an echo,
the song that the church sings in all places and all ages, and in all languages,
as the accompaniment to the ultimate defeat of evil,
and the final victory of good.

The content of this ‘new song’ of heaven is revealed 
by the fact that the 144,000 are twice described 
as the ‘redeemed’ in verses 3 and 4:
they are those whose salvation 
has been purchased by the blood of the lamb, 
to use the old phrase.

Humans are rescued from the power of sin and death
by the redeeming death of Jesus.

Interestingly, the only other occurrence of the word ‘redeemed’ in Revelation 
is found in the context of another ‘new song’ 
that sung by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders 
in chapter 5.8–10, 
where praise is once again directed to the Lamb 
who has ransomed the saints for God by his shed blood. 

Only the Church, it seems, 
can sing of the victory won by Jesus on the cross. 
The only way the good news of Jesus is made known on the earth,
is when the followers of the lamb join their voices
and proclaim it in song and action to a world 
that would otherwise remain deaf and blind to the path to new life 
that has been opened for all by the death of Jesus on the cross.

The Church of the redeemed on the earth, symbolised by the 144,000, 
is then described in the next verse as being the ‘first fruits’ (14.4), 
recalling the Jewish practice of offering the first fruits of the harvest to God
as an indication that the greater harvest also belongs to God (Ex. 23.16–19). 

And this gives us an image of the Church, the 144,000,
taking the path of sacrifice 
and enduring through tribulation, 
not for their own salvation and benefit,
but for the greater benefit of all those who will follow: 
they are the first fruits, of a greater harvest which is still to come.

The strange description of the 144,000 as those 
‘who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins’ (14.4)
has attracted an undue level of speculation and interpretative ingenuity:
it’s a problematic image, because it seems to exclude women,
and also because it has idealised male celibacy as a characteristic of holiness.

To understand John’s use of this image 
we need to understand both his Jewish background, and his theological point.

He is wanting to portray the Church as priests before God (1.6; 5.10; 20.6).
And in the Levitical law, the act of sexual intercourse was regarded 
as rendering both partners ritually unclean for the next day (Lev. 15.18), 
which meant that Jewish priests were required to abstain from sexual relations 
before entering a period of priestly service in the temple. 

In John’s image, the Church is seen as ritually pure 
– not just through a temporary abstinence from behaviour that would defile, 
but pure in an eternal and absolute sense 
as befits his later image of the church as the bride of the Lamb (19.7; 21.9f.). 

His point is that the church can be the priests of the whole earth,
because the church is pure, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, 
and dressed in white robes indicative of this purity (7.14; cf. 3.5, 18). 

The church on the earth, the 144,000, are not only the first fruits of the great harvest,
but are also the pure and undefiled priests of the earth,
singing the song of heaven 
which enables all those beyond the church to draw near to God.

With regard to the male virginity side of this image,
it is also likely that John has in mind here the Jewish practice 
of soldiers ensuring they were ritually pure before a battle (e.g. 1 Sam. 21.4–5),

Intriguingly, this tradition of celibacy before a battle is still current even in the UK: 
with a BBC survey reporting that
‘More than a third of male football fans 
abstain from sex the night before a big match’. 
And those of you with long memories
may remember that Berti Vogts, the German football manager in 1994, 
banned his players from seeing their Wives and Girlfriends 
on the night before a match. 

So this image of the 144,000 as the army of the Lamb, 
is an image of the church, ritually pure and ready to fight:
‘Match ready’, so to speak.

And their purity is emphasized even more by the statement in the next verse
that ‘in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless’ (14.5).
This is a reference to the suffering servant passage from Isaiah, 
who is ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter’ (Isa. 53.7).
Early Christians came to understand this as referring to Jesus,
and in Isaiah, the suffering servant is declared innocent after his death
with the phrase, ‘there was no deceit in his mouth’ (Isa. 53.9). 

In John’s scheme in Revelation,
the innocence of the slain Lamb Jesus is passed on 
to all those redeemed by his shed blood; 
and the purity of the suffering servant (Isa. 53.11) 
becomes the purity of his servants, who endure through suffering.

The 144,000 pop up a couple of times more in Revelation,
as an image of the church on the earth,
blazing the trail to heaven which the nations of the earth can then follow:

John depicts them again as the army of the Lamb in chapter 15 (v2-4)
where once again they are singing,
this time as they stand beside the sea of glass and fire, 
echoing the story of the Israelites standing beside the Red Sea 
having come out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 15.1f.). 

The song offered here by the 144,000 is described by John 
as the song of Moses and of the Lamb, 
and this parallel makes it clear that he sees the Church as being at the forefront
of a process of a new exodus.
They have passed through the waters (of baptism, rather than the Red Sea), 
they are no longer under the tyranny of the beast, 
whether that be Egypt, Rome, or Satan,
and they are embarking on their journey to the new promised land, 
the new Jerusalem, 
led on the journey and in song not by Moses, but by the Lamb.

The 144,000 then  appear again in chapter 19 as the army of heaven, 
assembled behind the rider on the white horse 
at the final battle of Armageddon. 

They are still dressed in their white linen clothes
but by chapter 19 they are also riding white horses (19.14). 
The beast and the kings of the earth 
gather to make war on the rider and his army (19.19), 
but the army of heaven have no need to participate in this battle: 
their fight against the forces of evil in the world is already over 
for the forces of the beast have been defeated 
by the rider on the white horse. 

Ultimately the battle against evil is won, 
not by the efforts of the Lamb’s army, 
but through the truth of the gospel 
as it comes from the mouth of Christ himself (19.21). 

Those who have ‘conquered’ are victorious through their faithful witness 
to the one who conquers.

In all of this, John is emphasizing the inherent difference 
between those in the Church, 
and those who are still embroiled in Babylon. 

The vital function of the Church 
is that it alone of all the inhabitants of the earth 
can learn the song of heaven and sing it to the earth. 

This is a picture of the witnessing Church, and the message is clear: 
if the Church fails to sing the new song, 
then the song will remain in heaven. 

However, if the Church picks up the heavenly refrain, 
the glory of heaven is brought to the earth. 

Once again in Revelation, then, 
worship is seen as both a spiritual and a political activity, 
proclaiming the kingdom of Christ on the earth 
in place of the idolatrous claims of empire; 
drawing the nations of the earth 
from Babylon to the new Jerusalem. 

An angelic messenger then confirms this perspective, 
echoing the witness of the Church 
by proclaiming an ‘eternal gospel’ 
to ‘every nation and tribe and language and people’ (14.6), 
calling all people to repent and give God glory (14.7).

John then sets before his audience two harvest images, 
the harvest of grain (14.14–16) and the harvest of grapes (14.17–20). 

The Old Testament background for these images 
is found in the two harvests referred to in the book of Joel: 
‘Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. 
Go in, tread, for the wine press is full.’ (Joel 3.13). 

The grain harvest, as John presents it, is a positive image, 
representing the ingathering of the entire earth (14.16). 

In this image is found the end goal 
of the faithful witnessing of the people of God, 
as all peoples are harvested by Jesus himself (14.14). 

Just as in Chapter 7 the 144,000 became the great multitude (7.4, 9), 
so here in Chapter 14 they become the great harvest. 

We have seen how John describes the 144,000 
as the ‘first fruits’ of a greater harvest (14.4), 
Well, here in the image of the Grain Harvest,
we get to see what that harvest looks like,
and it looks like a farmer gathering in all the grain from his field.

There may be an echo here of the parable Jesus told,
with wheat and the weeds growing together and being harvested together,
before the weeds are cast into the fire to be burned,
but where that parable was about the weeds and the wheat 
that grow together in a person’s life, 
and indicates God’s mercy in freeing us from sin and evil 
by casting them into the fire; 
the harvest image in Revelation is more universal and less individual in scope: 
it depicts the harvesting of the whole earth, 
and makes no mention of either weeds or fire.

What John is showing here is that  the faithful witness of the Church 
results in the salvation of all the nations of the earth,
as the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled, 
and God’s people become a blessing for every nation

So, to return to one of John’s key questions: 
is it worth persevering in witnessing 
even through difficulty and persecution? 

Yes, says John, it is!

The scholar Richard Bauckham says that
[The people of God] are to participate in Christ’s victory 
by bearing witness, as he did, as far as death 
in [the] great conflict with the idolatrous power of the Roman Empire. 
In this way, they will witness to all the nations 
and bring them [all] to repentance and faith in the true God. 

However, this positive harvest image 
is then followed immediately by a more negative counterpart, 
in the form of the image of the grape harvest. 

In this image, John addresses his other question, 
that concerning the desire for judgement on evil in the world. 

The grapes are harvested by an angel (14.19), 
placed in a winepress, and trampled by Jesus (cf. 19.15). 

The wine that flows from the press is identified as blood, 
and John says that it flows ‘as high as a horse’s bridle, 
for a distance of about two hundred miles’ (14.20). 

The grape harvest represents the uncompromising judgement of God 
on the beast and all his powers and structures, 
and it offers an assurance to John’s readers 
that the satanic empire will eventually face the consequences of its actions. 

The blood that flows from the winepress 
represents the very real and bloody human consequences 
of humanity’s infatuation with the beast.

This isn’t a picture of God doing violence to humans,
it’s a picture of God’s judgment 
on the violence humans do to one another.

An insight from the world of liberation theology is of value here: 
namely that the images of judgement in Revelation 
are only truly problematic 
when they are read from the perspective of the wealthy oppressor.

Within John’s symbolic world, 
it is powerful Babylon and those who buy into the ideology of empire 
who are on the receiving end of judgement 
which is understood as God’s righteous wrath 
against evil, oppression and injustice. 

Thus it is that, when read from a perspective of collaboration with empire, 
the judgements of Revelation might be heard 
as the vindictive vengeance of a wrathful God. 

However, when viewed from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, 
the victims of the satanic empire, 
the situation is totally reversed. 

No longer are the judgements threatening, 
rather they are liberating. 

From this perspective, the prayer ‘your kingdom come’ 
becomes the ‘how long’ cry of the martyrs (6.10), 
and is heard as a prayer for release, 
and for justice, and for judgement. 

As Brian McLaren comments: 
‘God’s wrath is God’s justice in action 
… [and] only the oppressors fear God’s justice.’  

So as we consider this passage today,
we might to pay attention to the reaction it stirs in us.

Are our hearts gladdened that God’s mercy embraces all,
or are we resentful that others will benefit from our faithfulness?

Are we fearful of God’s judgment
or do we welcome it?

For whom would we desire mercy,
and for whom would we desire judgment?

These are deep questions,
and there are no easy answers.

A reading of Revelation, however,
might suggest that God’s mercy is universal in scope,
and that his judgment is not for individuals
but for those satanic systems in the world,
that stop people’s ears to the song of heaven.

In which case, our task is to sing that song of heaven to the world,
even if it costs us our lives,
because in the sacrifice of the first fruits,
is found the ingathering of the great harvest.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Why This Church? The Parable of the Yeast

A Sermon given for the Bloomsbury Anniversary Service, 21 July 2019

Mark 2.13-17
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. 15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples-- for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Matthew 16.6
 Jesus said to them, "Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

Matthew 13.33
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."

Listen to the sermon here:

One of the most distinctive things about Jesus was that he taught using parables.
            Not many other teachers in the ancient world did this, and not many do it today.
But, time after time, Jesus told short stories that packed a punch.

Certainly, Jesus wasn’t the first person to teach using parables and stories,
            there are both Greek and Semitic examples from before his time.
But there is no evidence of anyone prior to Jesus
            using parables as consistently, creatively, and effectively as he did.

One of P.G. Wodehouse’s characters says:

"A parable is one of those stories in the Bible which sounds at first like a pleasant yarn but keeps something up its sleeve which pops up and leaves you flat."

Some of you may have heard the slightly clichéd definition of a parable
            that it is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”

And certainly when I was a child growing up in church
            the parables, well, some of the them at least
            were presented to us as stories suitable for children.

These days, I have to say, I’m not so sure
            I think the parables aren’t nearly as warm and fuzzy
            as they are sometimes portrayed as being

Rather than being short and simplistic stories,
            with two levels of meaning – one earthly and one heavenly,
parables are actually much more complicated,
            and Jesus’ parables are both works of art
            and also weapons he used in the conflict with his opponents,

The parables that Jesus told were always an invitation to see the world differently,
            and they had the effect of polarising those who heard them;
either you entered into the new world that the parable created, or you didn’t.

If you did, you found yourself living the new reality of the kingdom of heaven, w
            here love overcomes evil,
            where the least and the last find themselves valued as never before,
            and where peace defeats violence.

But if you didn’t, you found yourself trapped in a world
            where power is allied to status and outworks as oppression,
            and your heart is hardened as you get drawn ever further
            into the destructive patterns of living that this world demands.

These are not merely stories to enjoy
            rather they hold up one reality to serve as a mirror of another
            the world of the story reveals the world of the Kingdom of heaven.
Parables are avenues to understanding,
            they are handles by which one can grasp the kingdom.

Jesus told parables to confront people
            with the character of God’s kingdom,
and to invite them to participate in it
            and to live in accordance with it.

Last month, when our communion series
            had us looking at the parable of the mustard seed,
I issued a challenge to see write a parable,
            taking something from the world around
            and using it shed light on some aspect of the Kingdom of heaven.

Thank you to those who took shared your parables with me,
            and I thought I’d take a moment now
            for us all to hear some of these Bloomsbury Parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a strand of DNA, so tiny only electron microscopes can see it. But it gives shape to all the glories of nature: from the eye to the brain, from the rose to the mighty oak.

The kingdom of heaven is like a beautiful birthday cake, which can only bring its true joy once it has been broken into pieces.

The kingdom of heaven is like a light, it is hope that shines in the darkness.

The kingdom of heaven is like the transistor which lies at the heart of all modern electronic devices.

The kingdom of heaven is like swimming a mile: the only way to do it is one length at a time.

The kingdom of heaven is like the New Year’s Eve feast prepared by my non-Christian friend for her elderly, lonely, and difficult neighbours.

The kingdom of heaven is like a rainbow, reminding us of the eternal promises of God.

The kingdom of heaven is like a picnic: once the food is dispersed, a happy satisfied group of people remain.

The kingdom of heaven is like the electron: a tiny, tiny particle buffeted about in all matter. But it bears a charge and as it joins with other electrons it imparts terrific power that can do so much.

The kingdom of heaven is like this. A theatre was putting on a wonderful production; everyone would enjoy it, and the standing ovation would be rapturous. Some people heard about the production early, and quickly bought their seats in the stalls. Some people could not afford the best seats, and instead bought cheap seats on benches up in the gods. Some people left it until the last minute and bought reduced price tickets at the door.
When the performance was due to start, the stalls were not full. So those with cheap seats were moved down to the stalls alongside the rich and the cultured. 
The show was magnificent, but those who had bought their tickets early tutted and spent the performance composing in their heads letters of complaint to the management about how unfair it all was.

And so today we come to the parable of the yeast or leaven,
            and I wonder what challenge we will hear
            in this short and subversive story.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took
            and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

As is always the case when we come to the Bible,
            it’s worth paying attention to the cultural background to what we read there.
Whilst human nature hasn’t changed,
            the world in which we live is very different from the world of the first century,
and we need to be alert to the error
            of thinking that things that are obvious to us were as obvious back then,
            and indeed vice versa.

The first thing we need to tease out here
            is the difference between yeast and leaven.
I don’t know if you’ve ever baked bread at home,
            but if you have, you’ve probably bought those little packets of dried yeast,
            which is activated by moisture as you knead it into the dough.

Because we have microscopes and science,
            we know that yeast are single celled microorganisms
            that are classified along with moulds and mushrooms as part of the fungi family.
And we know that it causes the bread to rise
            by converting the fermentable sugars present in the dough
            into carbon dioxide and ethanol.

It won’t surprise you to know that those living
            in the ancient near east of the first century didn’t know all this.
They just knew that if they took a lump of dough from the last batch
            and added it to the new one,
            it would cause the dough to rise when it was baked.

This lump of dough was known as the ‘leaven’,
            and it was more similar to a modern friendship or Herman cake,
            where you pass on a portion of the uncooked dough to a friend,
            that they then use to activate their cake, before passing it on again.

So the ancient Greek word for yeast was the same as the word for leaven,
            and it refers to this lump of fermenting dough,
            that keeps the process going from one batch of baking to the next.

The next thing we need to realise is that
            in the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus,
            leaven is not always a positive image.

The origin of this negativity towards leavened bread
            comes from some regulations in the Hebrew Bible
                        regarding the preparation for the Passover meal,
            which required that people ate only unleavened bread for a week.
            (Leviticus 23.5-8)

The idea was that when the Pharaoh freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt,
            it was believed that they left in such a hurry
            that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise
and that in commemoration of this, for the duration of Passover
            no leavened bread was eaten.

Symbolically speaking, then,
            whilst leavened bread certainly tastes nicer than unleavened bread,
it also came to symbolise being overly settled, too much at ease in the world,
            and being unready to drop everything and follow the call of God.

As we saw in our first reading,
            Jesus also uses the image of leaven negatively
            when he is talking about the Scribes and the Pharisees,
and the point he is making is that they speak words which sound very attractive
            but which are actually working against the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming.

The thing is, whilst they might not have understood the microbiology,
            the ancient people of Jesus’ time knew that yeast was an infection.
You only needed a small amount of it,
            for it to quickly spread through the whole batch of dough.
And once the dough has been leavened,
            there’s no going back.
You can’t get unleavened bread from leavened dough.

So whilst it might be fine to add yeast to your dough to make it taste nice,
            the dangers of becoming too settled to follow God’s call,
            or of being infected with a virulent ideology,
are also there in the background to Jesus’s parable.

I don’t think this is a ‘nice’ parable.
            It’s one of those which packs a punch,
            and is designed to shock.

And I wonder if one way of getting our heads around this,
            is to play with a few more parables
            that might illuminate what Jesus is trying to do here.

See how you get on with these:

The kingdom of heaven is like a virus, 
        which spreads throughout the body and against which even antivirals don’t work.

The kingdom of heaven is like compound interest, 
         which seems to make millionaires out of thin air.

The kingdom of heaven is like rust, which can eat away even the strongest iron.

In other words, like leaven in dough,
            the kingdom of heaven is unstoppable,
            it increases exponentially,
            and it fundamentally changes the nature of everything it encounters.

I think that if you had asked the Scribes and the Pharisees
            to come up with a parable of the Kingdom,
            using the imagery of leavened and unleavened bread,
they would have told you that Kingdom of Heaven
            is like un-leavened bread.

Bread infected by yeast might be fine for everyday eating,
            but it’s profane, it’s commonplace,
            it is, quite literally, not kosher.

And if you want to be holy, like at Passover,
            you leave the leaven out.

This is because adding leaven changes things,
            it alters them, it messes them up,
and the Scribes and the Pharisees would have been the first to say
            that the path to holiness is found in taking things back to basics,
                        leave out the leaven, discard the infection,
                        get back to purity and holiness.

I have a suspicion that they might have added,
            ‘Make Israel great again’.

So when Jesus comes along, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like
            a woman who kneads leaven through the flour
            until there is enough risen bread to feed a village,
is a deeply subversive image.

Because Jesus is saying, to those who have ears to hear,
            that the Kingdom is found in things that are everyday,
            in things that are unholy, in things that are profane.

Whist the Scribes and the Pharisees got upset
            about Jesus taking a meal with tax collectors and sinners,
this parable is about the kingdom embracing everyone
            the unholy, the unworthy, and the unexpected.

The Scribes and the Pharisees would have said
            that Jesus was infecting the holy community
                        as leaven infected bread,
but Jesus said that their ideology of purity and exclusion
            was the real infection,
and that the mixing in of the outcast and the sinner
            was what made the kingdom come to life.

Jesus’ parable is about bringing the margins to the centre
            it’s about taking those whom the Scribes and Pharisees would cast aside
and instead mixing them in,
            transforming both them and the kingdom in the process.

For yeast to be successful it has to be kneaded into batch,
            it has to spread throughout to infect the bread,
            to transform it into something else.

And there is a real challenge here for all those of us
            who already find ourselves on the inside, so to speak, of the Kingdom of Heaven.

How can we avoid becoming like the Scribes and the Pharisees,
            mentally excluding those who we think will mess up our holiness and purity?

If I think back a couple of weeks,
            to the angry Christians standing beside the Pride Parade,
            telling people that they are going to go to Hell because of their sexuality,
I become ever more convinced that those of us who go and stand in front of them,
            offering messages of love and acceptance and welcome
            to people who have been excluded from church after church,
            are closer to the kingdom than some might think.

But we still need to guard ourselves.

This is why our monthly series this year on inclusion,
            building on our registration as an Inclusive Church congregation,
invites us to consider not just sexuality,
            but also gender, disability, poverty,
                        mental health, and ethnicity,
as markers of exclusion that we need to be alert to.

We must never become complacent
            in our assumption that we are already embodying the kingdom,
because that way lies the leaven of the Scribes and the Pharisees.

Rather, we need to remember that yeast is an agitator,
            it mixes things up,
and in Jesus’ parable it thrusts the holy and the profane together,
            because in that mixture is found the Kingdom of God.

And like the leaven, Jesus was an agitator.
            Nothing and no-one touched by Jesus remained the same,
his ministry was one of radical transformation,
            and of finding the holy in the most unexpected of places.

This parable asks us to look for the kingdom in surprising places,
            to seek the kingdom in the mundane,
            to search for the kingdom even where we would never expect to find it,
            even, dare I say it, in those places we would consider unholy.

And we see this time and again the ministry of Jesus,
            as he called people to follow him who you wouldn’t expect.

And he didn’t expect them to follow from the margins,
            he didn’t say, ‘you’re welcome this far, but no further’.
Rather, the unholy became his inner circle.

Churches can run the risk of becoming the kinds of places
            that know what is holy and good,
and then because we are open and inclusive,
            we are kind and allow people to come in and join us,
            even people who don’t fit our understanding of what a good Christian looks like.

But do we allow them to become a part of us, to integrate, to mix in,
            to leaven us, to transform us into something different?
The risk is that we might not be quite as obviously holy as we were before,
            but then we might find that we end up
            looking a lot more like the kingdom of God.

But the bread that needs the leaven is not just our church communities:
            What if we think of ourselves, individually, as the bread?
            What if we allow ourselves to become infected?
            What if we invite the virus of the Kingdom into our lives?

This is a tough challenge,
            because I don’t know about you,
but as a Christian of many years,
            I’ve heard a lot of sermons telling me to keep myself pure and holy;
            I’ve put a lot of effort into learning to resist sin,
            and in repenting when I fail,

Many of us will have been conditioned to expect
            that our lives, if we live them rightly, will be analogous
                        to the unleavened bread of the Passover,
            that with enough prayer and holiness,
                        we can be ‘pure and free from sin’s alloy’,
                        as the old Christmas carol puts it.[1]

But that way, of course, lies the path of the Scribes and the Pharisees,
            who invested so much in ensuring
                        that their lives were pure and holy
            in ways that the lives of others weren’t.

And here we just need to be honest about our sin,
            and we need to stop kidding ourselves
            that any of us have, or ever can,
                        attain purity or holiness by our own efforts.

Because once we have acknowledged this,
            we are ready to receive the infection of the Kingdom of Heaven,
            which takes all our aspirations, and all our dreams, and messes with them,
taking us into places we never thought we would go,
            and transforming us irrevocably in the process.

Now don’t hear me wrong here. I’m not saying that sin doesn’t matter.
            We all know that there are infections which are destructive.
We can become infected with bad teaching, or destructive theology,
            we can become infected with gossip and hatred,
and these things destroy individuals and communities.

But there are infections that change us for good,
            like the viruses used to deliver the cancer treatment.

We need to learn to recognise and resist the leaven of the Scribes and the Pharisees,
            who would cast out all those unworthy of the kingdom,
and to welcome the infective yeast of the outcast and the sinner,
            who infect us for good.

We need to look for in the kingdom is the good yeast
            that makes itself known in unexpected places.

And then we can be part of spreading the contagion.
            This is the glory of the Kingdom: it spreads in us, and through us.

In a moment we will be sharing communion,
            in memory of the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples
            on the night before he was crucified.

And the bread we share will be leavened,
            and we will pass it one to another.

We do not keep the kingdom to ourselves,
            we pass it on, and we take it with us,
and in doing so we recognise that no one is more important than any other,
            and that at the table of Christ, everyone is welcome.