The Queen

What motivates hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs to travel to London, queue for hours and pass briefly by the coffin of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second?

Many answers to that question have been suggested over the past few days:

  • grief at the loss of the one who has been uniquely and publicly constant in our lives for longer than most of us can remember
  • gratitude for the Queen’s integrity, selflessness and devotion to duty
  • the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a moment in history to be treasured and passed on to subsequent generations; we are not going to see so long a reign, encompassing so much social change, nor a Queen as Head of State, any time soon
  • the unifying effect of a shared emotional experience which enables us to lay aside (at least for a time) the things that divide us
  • perhaps also the transference on to the Queen of some of our personal griefs, which may have lain dormant
  • a wave of emotion fanned by overwhelming media attention and focus: specialists in the psychology of crowds have been observing with interest

There is probably some truth in all these suggestions. But there is something in what we have witnessed this week which is deeper and more significant.

This is the powerful reality of representation. In our individualistic, atomised lives we have lost conscious touch with the way representation works. But it is still there and still powerful. Think of the way people identify with a football team: when “our” team wins or loses, “we” (the fans) win or lose too, despite never having set foot on the pitch. The same holds good for many other spheres of human activity: the few act for a whole community, the one represents the many.

A monarch represents his or her people. That is, he or she in some sense sums up the nation. He or she speaks and acts for them at key moments of national significance at home and abroad. This is specially true of a constitutional monarch. A constitutional monarch is by definition above party politics, which means being above and beyond the success or failure of particular governments and particular policies. They represent the interest of the nation as a whole rather than a faction or interest group within the nation. If you’re Henry the Eighth or Ivan the Terrible, you are very likely part of the problem – perhaps even the problem; if you’re Elizabeth the Second or Charles the Third you’re above the problem.

There is a sacred dimension to monarchy. The Queen was anointed at her coronation, as King Charles will also be, as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable her to fulfil her calling. The practice goes back to the Bible. David was anointed King of Israel, and in the power of that anointing and on his people’s behalf, he defeated Goliath: the one for the many. His victory was Israel’s victory.

Supremely, representation is the key to understanding the work of Jesus Christ. He takes upon himself the vocation of Israel. Where Israel failed in obedience to the Lord, Jesus lived out a perfect obedience on their behalf, taking that obedience all the way to death, even death on a cross. (Israel was always going to fail, and in her failure the Divine Purpose was mysteriously being worked out, pointing forward to Jesus.) Jesus represents Israel, the one for the many, and because Israel was chosen to represent the whole of humanity, he represents all of us. And he does what we cannot do, going where we cannot go, going to the cross to take our place, so that we, and the whole creation with us, can be reconciled to God and restored to wholeness.

Faced with scenes of vast numbers of people queuing to pay their respects to the Queen, seeing the perfectly-executed and spectacular ceremonial enacted these last few days, some commentators have been saying that monarchy is wonderful but irrational. The secular mind-set has no frame of reference to understand what monarchy is and how it works. But in the light of the Bible and Christian faith monarchy makes perfect sense. We have been blessed to have a Queen these last 70 years whose life and faith have been a signpost to the King of Kings.

A Good Friday Reflection on the power of the cross (based on the account in Mark’s Gospel)

Jesus was being crucified with two “rebels” or “bandits”. Not “thieves” as traditionally rendered. These were not men who had run off with somebody’s handbag. Crucifixion was reserved for runaway slaves and those who had rebelled against Roman rule. Jesus has the charge “King of the Jews” over his head. Only the Emperor is allowed to say who is the King of Jews. Anybody proclaiming himself to be King of the Jews is a rebel.

I want to focus on the centurion, the soldier in charge of the crucifixion. As Jesus dies, the centurion is standing in front of him, looking at him. And he says these words “Certainly this man was the Son of God!”

He has probably killed many people by crucifixion, watched them suffer, sometimes for days, and watched them die. A prolonged agony accompanied by cursing, shouting, screaming. But this King of the Jews says almost nothing, apart from calling out to his God. He doesn’t curse, he doesn’t rail against those who are torturing him. He is different. Completely, radically, entirely different. So different that the centurion is compelled to say: “Certainly this was the Son of God”.

“Son of God” was one of the titles of the Roman Emperor. The centurion was pledged in absolute loyalty to the emperor and to his divine status. Now he is overturning that loyalty and saying: “actually, this crucified rebel is the real Son of God”. This is a momentous change of heart and mind and understanding. His whole worldview, his entire way of thinking about life and his place in it, has been overturned by Jesus. It’s a complete about turn, an earthquake in his understanding of life, the universe and everything. This is what is called in the history of science a “paradigm shift”. It’s like what Copernicus did to our view of the solar system or what Einstein did to our understanding of physics. Only more so.

And it was a dangerous thing to say. Lining himself up with a rebel against Rome and against the Emperor himself. A sign of how deeply this man had been touched.

Jesus said that when he was lifted up on the cross he would draw all people to himself, including all kinds of people. Even those like this man who on the face of it could hardly be further from coming to faith in a crucified Jew.

Nobody is beyond the reach of God’s love shown in the cross.

The power of the cross is the power of weakness.

Paul talks about “the weakness of God” [1 Cor 1.25] in relation to the cross. He says that Jesus was “crucified in weakness” [2 Cor 12.4].

Crucifixion is a profound and terrible experience of weakness. You can do virtually nothing, and certainly nothing to ease your pain. The most you can do is draw breath, and even that is unimaginably painful. In Mark’s account Jesus barely speaks. His only utterance is to cry out in desperation to God, not as “Father” but as “My God…”.

What does he do on the cross? Very little, except suffer. Hours and hours just enduring the horror.

But look at the fruit of this weakness. The conversion, literally the turning, of this hard-bitten Roman soldier. Converted not by Jesus’ words, or his miracles, but by his suffering and the way he bears it.

The power of the cross works in our lives too. God can sometimes work through our weakness more than through our strength, through who we just are rather than what we do or say. I was first drawn to Christianity by seeing something in a university friend which I didn’t have. This had nothing to do with what he said or what he did. It was something about the way he simply was.

That’s why Paul boasts of his weakness [2 Cor 11]. He is reluctant to boast of anything else.

Nobody enjoys their weakness. But sometimes when it feels as if everything has gone wrong, nothing is working, God is distant and we don’t know what to do or where to turn, that may be the time when God is most profoundly at work. That is part of the comfort of the cross – the cross as the way of life and peace.

A Reflection for Palm Sunday

We’ve just had a long weekend in Jordan. Driving around I’ve enjoyed looking out for flocks of sheep and goats (sometimes with a shepherd), camels, and the occasional donkey. I’d like today to focus on the donkey ridden by Jesus into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.

What is Jesus doing commandeering somebody else’s donkey? Is it something he has secretly pre-arranged? Or is he just laying claim to the donkey, knowing that the owners will be OK with that? Luke doesn’t say.

But the real question is: who does the donkey actually belong to? Who is the real owner? Jesus tells the disciples to tell anybody who asks why they are taking the donkey that “the Lord needs it”. But the word could equally well be translated “the owner needs it”. That is exactly the phrase Luke uses of the human owners.

So who owns the donkey? Jesus or the people it lives with and who look after it? I think the way Jesus behaves and the way Luke writes the story we’re meant to realise that Jesus is the real and ultimate owner. The donkey is lent to the human owners. They get to take care of it and use it for their own benefit and the benefit of the community. But they are not its ultimate owners. They are stewards, managers, entrusted with somebody else’s property to use with all the wisdom, skill, knowledge and generosity that they can muster.

Jesus is King. That’s one of the meanings of the word “Christ”. That’s the point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is the anointed King sent by God to put the world back to rights. If we acknowledge Jesus as King then we acknowledge that our possessions, our property, everything we have, ultimately belongs to him. It’s on long loan to us so that we can make the very best use of it. We don’t really own anything in any final sense. We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.

The point is reinforced when the crowds begin to throw their cloaks on the road underneath the donkey so that Jesus can ride over them. In the Old Testament that’s what people did to proclaim a new King. See the story of Jehu: 2 Kings 9.13. They are surrendering even their clothes to him.

Jesus has something of a habit of commandeering other people’s stuff. Think of the boy whose picnic lunch was used to feed the 5,000.

This is a good way to live. In the first place, whatever we have that we allow to be used for the Kingdom of God will in some way be blessed, given far greater significance, even multiplied. We become part of God’s story which is the best story there is.

And it’s liberating.

I once did a training placement with a vicar who had a bookselling business on the side. He said that if he lent a book to somebody and it wasn’t returned he concluded that his stewardship of that item had come to an end. He would refuse to fret over it.

If my house belongs to me then I must protect it. I have nobody to make sure it’s OK but myself. If, on the other hand, my house belongs to Jesus, then he will look after it for as long as he wants me to have it. Of course I will do my best as a good manager and steward to look after it, maintain it and insure it. But the ultimate responsibility is not mine. I can rest more easily because of that. I know that God will provide whatever I need. And he will do it with great generosity. There may well be times of deprivation and difficulty. But these will be in the providence of God and will in the long run serve his purposes.

Think of the people in Ukraine who are seeing their their property utterly destroyed. This was posted on Facebook today:

As the Ukraine war began a few weeks ago a great grandmother and her daughter packed a bag and started the long journey as refugees. Just before leaving, the older lady, who is a follower of Jesus, felt prompted to pack a small bag of seeds in faith. They were leaving their home of 60 years, their acres of land and their homeland as rockets were being launched by the Russians overhead.

She hastily packed the seeds believing she would one day plant them in safety and they set off.

Here in the U.K. [my husband] and I were getting ready to receive Ukrainian refugees. We had a home ready for a Ukrainian family who had served as pastors and were known to friends of ours. At the last minute they decided to stay in Germany.

A home on the farm was ready.

Then [my husband] heard of the plight of a Ukrainian mother and grandmother known to friends in a church in London nearby – who were praying for a place for these precious ladies to stay. The Lord had gone ahead of us all.

Two days later they arrived on a Red Cross flight.

With no idea of where the Lord might lead them they arrived to find a home prepared for them and specifically a place where those precious seeds could be planted.

We live in uncertain times. Knowing that we are in the end only stewards and not owners is a good thing. It is the best insurance policy you can have.