A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21st November 2004, the Festival of Christ the King, by David Gill. Scripture readings heard during the service, which was broadcast by RTHK, were Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20 and St Luke 23:32-43.
Here in Hong Kong, in recent months, we have had a number of substantial political debates. We’ve also had one or two that, alas, were not substantial at all.
One slanging match that was singularly lacking in substance involved the idea of patriotism. Remember it?
In brief, the suggestion had come from highly placed sources in Beijing that only “patriots” should be considered eligible to hold political office in Hong Kong. A lively brawl ensued, generating lots of heat but precious little light.
Generally, Hongkongers saw the suggestion for the nonsense that it was and very quickly changed the subject.
Don’t get me wrong. Patriotism can be a wonderful thing.
Years ago, when I was a student at the University of Sydney, one of my friends in the local branch of the Student Christian Movement hailed from Indonesia. He had done well in his engineering course and had been offered an opportunity to do a higher degree. “No,” he said, “I can’t”. Why not, I asked. You have the qualifications to get into doctoral work. You would love a career as a university teacher. “No,” he said again, “I must go back to Indonesia”. Why? “Because my country needs engineers, and it needs them now.”
“My people need me. They have an important claim on my life.” If that’s patriotism, I’m all for it. We can all drink to it. It’s a spirit we should all admire.
But … patriotism can also be very harmful.
For one thing, the word is vague in its meaning and powerful in its emotive consequences. Toss the rhetoric of patriotism around irresponsibly and you can do an awful lot of damage.
We’ve discovered the dangers the hard way. Through the centuries, we have realized how perilously easy it is to be conned when governments play the patriot card, when media voices pump up aggressive nationalism, when people’s capacity to think critically about political issues is anaesthetized and the mob mentality of the crowd takes over.
“My country, right or wrong!” we cry so glibly -- only to discover later, all too often, that my country was very wrong indeed and we failed to see it.
Not only is the notion of patriotism notoriously slippery. Not only has it been dreadfully misused by the powerful. There is also a fundamental problem with it, at least there ought to be, for those of us who profess the Christian faith.
For faith in Christ entails recognizing a loyalty transcending our cultures and ethnic groups, an authority more binding than that of governments, a power beyond that of the state. The cross that stands above and within our churches is a symbol more potent, for us, than that of any flag.
Some years ago I had to lead a pastoral team from the World Council of Churches that spent three weeks meeting with local congregations all over what was then called the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). It was 1979. The communist government was still firmly in power. Christians there felt isolated from the wider church community and seemed to welcome our presence as a way of communicating with Christian brothers and sisters in other lands.
At one point, visiting the east German city of Leuna, I asked the congregation before me whether they had any message they wanted me to carry back to the WCC. “Yes,” said a voice in the crowd. An elderly woman stood up. “Please tell our friends in the World Council of Churches that we have learned that Christus ist Herren – that Christ is Lord”.
I was about to dismiss that as an easy bit of piety, the sort of thing you expect to hear in churches. But then I looked again at who was saying it. She was old. Her face was lined. She must have been born back in the years of the Kaiser. She’d seen her country defeated in the first world war. She’d seen the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, the emergence of Hitler, the persecution of the Jews, the defeat and devastation of her country in the second world war. She experienced thirty years of life under a-not-always-very-benign communist government. Centuries of human experience, concertinaed into a single human life. And out of it all, she was able to say, in ringing tones and with a look in her eye that defied contradiction: “We have learned that Christ is Lord”.
“Christ is Lord”. The very same affirmation is being heard this morning in many churches across the world. For today, the last Sunday of the Christian year, is the festival of Christ the King.
It’s an inspiring theme. But it’s also baffling one. In this morning’s gospel reading we’ve just heard the story of a man condemned as a subversive, ridiculed as a fool, executed as a criminal, keeping company in death with two thieves. A strange kind of king, indeed. A different kind of king, for sure.
Jesus of Nazareth was not leading an armed insurrection. He was not competing directly with the power brokers of his time. Yet clearly there was something about him that shook the existing order to its foundations. The divine love he embodied challenged the status quo. And the cross on which he died still does.
That cross speaks still of a love which is for all. As his compassion reached out then to the penitent thief, so it reaches out still – to you, to me, to all the people of this city. Still it breaks down the walls we build to insulate ourselves from each other, to exercise power over each other. Still it stands in judgment over the identities – of nation, race, gender, culture, even religion -- to which we give our loyalty and which all too often we treat as gods.
Christ the compassionate King gives himself in love for others, all others, whether they know it or not, whether they care about it or not, whether they respond to it or not. We who acknowledge his rule are asked to do the same – right here, where we are, in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China.
Maybe, after all, there is a place for “patriotism” – my Indonesian friend’s kind of patriotism. Not the kind that blusters against others, that rants about “my country right or wrong,” that becomes the unthinking agent of aggressive nationalism, that uses slogans of loyalty as political weapons to exclude. But the kind that says yes I do owe something to the human family, yes I do yearn to give myself to the community where I live and work, yes I do want to be a good steward of the skills God has given me and put them to the service of those around me.
Christ is King. Not a ruler who treats people as doormats, but a servant leader who invites us to sign up for his revolution of limitless love and amazing grace.
In that revolution, my friend, there is a place for you, for your gifts and your dreams. And that place, very likely, is right here, in the Hong Kong SAR. Pray about it. Look for it. Fulfil it.
Let’s be patriots, of that kind, together.
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