“I, Edward the Eighth, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Emperor of India, do hereby declare my irrevocable determination to renounce the throne, for myself and for my descendants, and my desire that effect should be given to this instrument of abdication immediately.” When King Edward wrote these words in December of 1936, it was the first voluntary abdication of the British throne in all of history. People don’t just decide to stop being king. Usually, it’s the other way around: everyone is trying to be king. People kill and die to be king, they don’t just give up power and wealth and walk away. The abdication of King Edward VIII was shocking, even for love, which is usually given a pass as the ultimate excuse for anything. It’s good to be king. Why wouldn’t you want to be king?
Medieval Japan, however, was a completely different situation. Emperors routinely abdicated the throne, by choice, usually after about ten years of service. From a Western perspective, this is completely puzzling. Why would so many of them not want to stay in power?
Well, it turns out that the throne was not where the power existed in Japan at that time. The emperor was mostly occupied by long religious and political ceremonies that were physically demanding and, from what I’ve read, probably pretty boring. After ten years of that, emperors were considered to have earned a pampered retirement – and usually more power than they ever had while they held the throne. Many of the emperors ascended during their childhood and were “retired” in their teens. It’s not that they didn’t want to be in power; it’s just that the power was located very differently in Japan than it was in Europe.
Different cultures often don’t make much sense at first glance. Good manners in one country can be unspeakably impolite in another. My Minnesotan tendency to say lengthy goodbyes and explain why I’m leaving is just plain awkward in many contexts, while we find the “Irish goodbye” off-putting. Basic courtesies are not so basic between cultures, and political structures vary widely. And even when the systems seem much the same, the power in the system is sometimes located somewhere entirely other than you might expect. When we enter another culture, sometimes we’re not even aware that there are differences until we’ve misstepped, or some event jolts us into the realization that all is not as it seemed.
I sometimes wonder if the people who were around Jesus sometimes wondered if they had stumbled into an entirely new country. Even though he came from the same place they did, spoke the same language, was raised with the same customs, every time they turn around, he’s doing something completely unexpected. And just when they think they understand where the power is, he turns everything on its head.
Prior to this passage in John, Jesus had been traveling around with his disciples, and strange things had begun to happen. Word got out that he was healing people of their sicknesses and injuries. So, crowds of people started following him. There was power there, and people tend to follow power. And they’re expecting him to do what most humans in power would do: use the power. Surround himself with the crowds, and grow his influence.
But just when they think they know what Jesus will do, he takes his disciples and disappears up a mountain.
And then, when the disciples start to think they understand what’s happening, that Jesus is going to impart some power to them alone, Jesus flips everything again, and takes this small amount of bread and fish, and feeds an enormous crowd of people – who happen to be the same people he was just trying to get away from, but that doesn’t seem to matter; Jesus wants everyone to eat, to live, to thrive. After something so miraculous, you can’t blame the people for their reaction. Ah, we’ve found it! This is the prophet who was to come! This is where the power is! I know, I know! Let’s make him a king! Who wouldn’t want to be king??
Well, as it turns out – Jesus. Jesus runs away from being king, runs away by himself, without even his disciples. But lest you think he’s running away from all types of power, they next find him walking across the waves in a storm. Now that’s power!
The people around Jesus were always not quite getting it. They were constantly misstepping and finding that the power he had was not as it seemed to be. It’s as if Jesus came from an entirely different culture, a different country, where nothing was the what they expected.
And indeed, I think that is exactly the case – that the “culture” that Jesus represented and instilled wherever he went, operates on an entirely different set of rules than the structures humans have created. There’s a sense in which Jesus’ “country” parallels ours and moves within it, but it also transforms it, turning our values and desires and expectations on their head. Things we think are impossible happen. Small, insignificant things – and people – become the greatest of miracles.
Especially when it comes to power, if you pay any attention to Jesus at all, it quickly becomes clear that his ideas about power are almost completely opposite of most of ours. In Jesus’ country, the poor are rich. The blind see. The enslaved are free. The hungry eat. The sick are healed. The first are last, and the last are first. Even those who die may yet live. And Jesus makes it clear that this country, foreign as it may seem, is not somewhere else. It is actually the real world, here and now, waiting for us to notice it and realize that we are part of it.
Which is a lovely picture, but what does it mean for us? Well, I for one have felt continually challenged by this unsettling Jesus who doesn’t seem to operate within the structures that make up most of my life. When I open my eyes and really look at the world around me, I realize that nearly everything I do contributes to a structure that is the opposite of what Jesus lived and taught. The clothes I wear, the food I eat, the ways I live and transport myself – all of it is tied to systems that affect the world far beyond my own little bubble. I am bound to a global economy that uses resources at a rate that is not sustainable, that treats people as commodities, that destroys the earth without care for those who come after us, that abuses and marginalizes the powerless, that gives more and more to those who are already wealthy while leaving others without the most basic needs of food, clean water, and shelter.
This is a culture that takes much and makes little.
This is a culture that Jesus refused to be king of.
This is not the culture that Jesus, who always took little and made much, invites us to be part of.
And so I want to extend this invitation to all of us, to think individually and together as a faith community about our values and our actions – to see clearly the ways that we contribute to structures that do not embody the values of the culture of God, and to let Jesus challenge us to live differently. To engage the powers of our world with the power of the culture of God. To take what we have been given, however small it may be, and make much, so that all may live and thrive.
In 2004, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana. During the meeting, delegates traveled to the coast, to two castles that had been used to hold slaves waiting to be sold in dungeons on the lower level, while living quarters and a church were housed above. Christians like you and me worshipped God, while literally below their feet, people starved in chains. The delegates at Accra wondered, how could these people’s faith be so distant from life? How could they separate spiritual experience from the suffering of those directly beneath them?
But as the delegates heard voices from around the globe speak of their current experience, they realized that we are in danger of repeating the same sin. Today’s world is just as divided between those who worship in comfortable contentment and those enslaved by the world’s economic injustice and ecological destruction.
And so they wrote the Accra Confession. It is a challenge and pledge. And I want to leave you with a few sections of it today.
We believe in God, Creator and Sustainer of all life, who calls us as partners in the creation and redemption of the world. We live under the promise that Jesus Christ came so that all might have life in fullness.
Therefore, we reject the current world economic orders, which defy God’s covenant by excluding the poor, the vulnerable and the whole of creation from the fullness of life.
We believe the economy exists to serve the dignity and wellbeing of people in community, within the bounds of the sustainability of creation. We believe that human beings are called to choose God over Mammon and that confessing our faith is an act of obedience.
Therefore we reject the unregulated accumulation of wealth and limitless growth that has already cost the lives of millions and destroyed much of God’s creation.
We believe that God is a God of justice. In a world of corruption, exploitation and greed, God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, the exploited, the wronged and the abused. God calls for just relationships with all creation. Now we proclaim with passion that we will commit ourselves, our time and our energy to changing, renewing and restoring the economy and the earth, choosing life, so that we and our descendants might live.
Choose life, so that all might live. In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. Amen.