The Reverend Antonio García Fuerte
"Zadok the priest the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king and all the people rejoiced. Alleluia!” (1 Kings 1:39)
You probably recognised the the words I just read from Handel’s “Zadok the priest,” composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and used continuously for all coronations of British Kings and Queen ever since. The text comes from the first book of kings chapter 1.
This week, I came across an interesting recent survey about faith groups in Britain. Believers of various faiths (Christians, Jewish, Muslims, Hindus, Sikh and other faiths), were asked if they though the coronation of the next monarch should be: (a) a secular ceremony, (b) a christian ceremony (as it has traditionally been), or (c) a multi faith ceremony. Around 75% of people in each individual faith group responded that they would prefer it to remain a Christian ceremony and not to become secular or multi faith.
The ceremony of coronation is embedded in the language of the book of kings, and in particular of Solomon. It is not only this beautiful antiphon composed by Handel, but most of the prayers, the explanations of the symbols, the admonitions and exhortations… it all goes back to the book of kings. The narrative in both books of Kings, weaves together the history of the early Kings of Israel and the prophets that guided them.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, they are called “Nevi’im Rishoim”, or earlier prophets, highlighting the action of the prophets guiding the king who, in turn, guides the people —and their disgrace when the king doesn’t listen to the prophets.—
In the Christian tradition, the books of Kings fall under the “Historical Books,” highlighting the action of the kings, to whom the prophets are aiders. The key figure is the king and not as much the prophets. So, for example, the West End window of St John’s, has at its centre the image of the wise king Solomon setting the dispute between the son of the two women (in 1 Kings 3:16-28). The prophet Nathan, is relegated completely to a secondary figure in the outer windows, when in the book he is actually as important as Solomon. This is just another way to look at it, an editorial choice if you wish, depending on what you think is more important: the action itself or the wider narrative.
In the Qu’ran, Solomon is regarded as a prophet, so for Islamic Scholars, the two books of Kings fall under the “major prophets” with Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. Again, this is a completely different way of looking at it. The office of king becomes quite irrelevant in comparison to the office of prophet, which the king happens to be its greatest representative.
These are three perspectives, with three different accents, but what lays behind is really the same idea: striving to build the kingdom of God. No wonder then that believers might feel so comfortable having a Christian coronation, because it transcends mere Christianity to the roots of faith that are common to the Abrahamic religions, and even values that are beyond.
Building the kingdom of God is not the same as building an ideal kingdom or society. And here is where often we get it wrong. When we project over Christianity -or indeed any other religion- an utopia of perfection, we then fail. It is the same as pretending that the Bible has the answer to questions of scientific nature. It doesn’t, because the Bible talks about God. The same is to think that the values in Christianity are the answer to a perfect human society. Because Christianity is not about our relationships with each other as a whole, but about our own relationship with God, who also happens to live in each other, and meets us in each other.
The readings today remind us that human societies have boundaries that the kingdom of God does not have. The first reading from the first book of Kings, is part of Solomon’s prayer of consecration of the Temple of Jerusalem. This is the single most important even in Solomon’s life. All the History of Israel, before and after, revolves around this event: the construction and destruction of the Temple. Jesus himself is condemned for saying that he would “destroy the temple.” And even today, one of the greatest political problems of our time is the future of Jerusalem and where to reconstruct the temple in the place where today stands a mosque. Yet the prayer of Solomon is that “when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven, your dwelling-place.”
And the Gospel highlights the same idea: the unworthy centurion who is alien to the people however good he has been to them, and Jesus listens to him and heals his servant for whom nobody is an alien, nobody is an outsider, because faith knows not these human boundaries.
And maybe there is a lesson here to be learned about Christian boundaries, aliens and migrants, also for our up and coming EU referendum. The referendum itself might be on retracing the upper boundaries of our politics or our laws, but the problems beyond them are not going to go away after we vote. The 24th of June, there still be a war in Syria, the refugees are and will still be fleeing to Europe from Syria and from other countries through the Mediterranean, the NHS funding issue, terror threats, tax evasion… they will all be here.
For us Christians, building the kingdom of God is not about being part of Europe or not, but about engaging with those problems as members of Europe or not. We don’t know what is going to happen from the 24th of June onwards. And that creates fear. But fear can be dissipated by engaging positively with our future whichever shape it takes, because the problems are going to be there, and we can start thinking now how we are going to engage with them. And this is building the kingdom of God. A kingdom which in its present form is not perfect nor utopia, but a kingdom where God may become presence.