You can hear the surf crashing on the beach. You can feel the cold, cold wind, and taste the salt in the air. But you can’t see a great deal; and what you can see fills you with dread. This little boat looks decrepit, and very small for so many people; and its owner seems shifty, and ill-at-ease. At the last minute, just as you are about to climb on board together with your frightened family, the three men who led you down here demand more money. You’ve already paid thousands! But what else can you do? You must get away from here! You must get across the Mediterranean! You have to get to England, where your children might grow up in peace, and safety. Where there might be jobs, and a welcome, and a life. Because without this hope, there is no hope, except to die here.
But really, we can scarcely imagine what it’s like to be so desperate to escape, so desperate that you would give all your savings and risk your life, and the lives of your children, to cross the sea in a leaky boat, or stow away in the back of an airtight lorry, to flee to this country.
Because we live here! We have citizenship. But we didn’t have to take a citizenship test, or fill in reams of immigration forms, or prove our qualifications to be here. So that much of the time we take it completely for granted, this citizenship of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We can own property, have a bank account, vote, have recourse to law if we need it, obtain a passport. We can do so much because we enjoy all the other benefits that citizenship confers. But we just don’t notice any longer.
St Paul says that Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son. But we find it hard, sometimes, to feel rescued, hard to feel that we are citizens of heaven.
The waves are breaking over the bows, now; and the water is icy. An evil tide is sloshing about the bilges, and your children are whimpering with fear and hugging you close and the baby is crying with the cold. And the night is ink-black dark. The engine has cut out, and the captain is cursing, and the panic in his voice is plain to hear. Perhaps this is the end, after all. You can do no more to save yourself, and this pitiless sea will not remember any of you.
But a pin-point prick of light, on the horizon? Growing larger, steaming closer, becoming a beam, blinding you now, so that you must look away, look into the faces of your family, and see here at last a glimmer of hope, the hope of rescue and of life.
St Paul says that Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son. But we find it hard, sometimes, to feel rescued. It hasn’t been visceral for us. It hasn’t been bodily. We haven’t stared death in the face in order to transfer ourselves into the kingdom of Jesus. He did that for us. A real death, of the cruellest kind possible. ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’. But he doesn’t.
And because the Kingdom of God is not a physical place like the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it can be harder to appreciate its reality. You can tell you’re in Britain because people drive on the left, and our coins and bank-notes bear the queen’s head on them, and on the whole our policemen and women don’t carry guns, and because of a million other clues all around us. But to tell that we’re part of the kingdom of heaven? That seems more difficult.
Here’s a clue, then: how many green cars did you see on the way to Church this morning? Pilate can only see a political pawn, a nobody, stood in front of him at that show trial he holds. The Jewish authorities can see only a trouble-maker, a threat to their authority and power.
But Jesus is not the only one crucified that fateful Good Friday. The two criminals with him also hang in pain, waiting to die alongside him. And they see him in a different way, as these three face death together.
You are entitled to feel bitter, if someone is aware of your agony, yet refuses to help. One of the criminals has heard the rumours about Jesus, and reasons that he has nothing left to lose. ‘Are you not the Messiah, then? Save yourself and us!’ Help us, then, if you are who they say you are.
We know the other man as the penitent thief. He too sees Jesus in a different light from those who condemn them all. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
How many green cars were there on the way to church this morning? I have no idea. There are green cars out there, but so often we just don’t see them, because we’re not looking for them. And there are signs of the king and his kingdom all around. But so often we just don’t see these, because we’re not looking for them. Perhaps, because they are staring death in the face, the two criminals see the signs of the kingdom more clearly that we do.
But did you pick up the story this week about the bundles of cash that are being found in the village of Blackhall Colliery? I’m not sure which is the clearer sign of the kingdom here, that people are handing these to the police in case they were truly lost by another villager, or that someone feels the urge to be generous to his neighbours in this way in the first place.
Or did you meet anyone collecting for Children in Need the other week? It’s not so common out here in the country-side. We didn’t meet any at all up on Skiddaw in the snow. But up and down the country, in towns and cities and railway stations and supermarkets and high streets, people dressed up and did daft things and rattled their collecting tins in order to raise money for causes, and people, that need help. Another green car, once you see it that way. Another sign of the kingdom.
Or have you ever spoken with someone who feels it viscerally that their sins have been forgiven, and their world made new? That they have been rescued from the mire into which their life had sunk; that they have found a freedom, and a purpose, so that the reality of God’s kingdom burns warmly and brightly for them?
Looking out for signs of the kingdom will help us, we who have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Son. For they will strengthen our faith, and bolster our resolve, and reinforce our hope when the waves seem to be swamping the boat we’re in. Dark waters are all around, it is true. Yet goodness and love and hope break out all over the place, pointing us to the reality of the kingdom of God. And they help us appreciate the citizenship we enjoy, and all that Jesus has won for us. Next time you see a green car, remember your citizenship of the kingdom of Christ the King.
© Jon Russell 2019