SERMON: Magna Carta and Mustard Seeds – defining the Kingdom

by Revd John Davies

The Second Sunday after Trinity, 14 June 2015

Queen Camel, Sutton Montis, Corton Denham

2 Corinthians 5.6-17Mark 4.26-34 

So, the ‘petty, spiteful and cruel’ King John

[1], the extortioner, the one who confiscated church property and sold it back to his bishops at a profit, the one who took cash from his barons to fund his war efforts and then decided not to fight, the King increasingly unpopular for the nastiness and injustices of his rule, agreed to come to the negotiating table.

KING JOHN reached Runnymede on 10 June 1215, and after five days of intensive negotiations with the barons, on Monday 15 June 1215, the King sealed his agreement with them. Tomorrow, 800 years later to the day, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family will be at Runnymede. Three people will address the gathered guests: the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Master of the Rolls, who is the judge in charge of civil justice in England and Wales; and the Prime Minister.

It is a token of the continuity of government in this country that these three will address a direct descendant of King John, a Sovereign who has served her people for more than 60 years. It is also a token of Magna Carta’s own significance that its most famous words are on the statute book to this day:

“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

“To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”

Yet we may still ask, why are we celebrating Magna Carta: what good will be in place in 2020 or 2025 that would not be in place without such celebrations?

Anniversaries have the value of reminding us as nations and communities who we are, and of reinforcing that identity. All of us in England and throughout the Common Law world who share in the Charter’s legacy can claim a share in its history, too, wherever we have come from.

Equality before the law, fair trial, constitutional and fiscal restraints upon the executive – all these can be traced in a direct line back to Magna Carta. And all of us who value these rights are united in the debt we owe to the generations of politicians and jurists who have secured and developed them.

What we share is not just Magna Carta, but the structure of checks and balances on power which has been built on its foundation. Magna Carta is an icon of the start of the tortuous and contested journey towards the rights we enjoy today. By today’s standards the Charter was very limited. But over the centuries the Magna Carta’s great clauses on justice became a grand statement of principle, protecting men of all estates with that still-famous phrase “due process of the law”.

In 17th-century England this inspired the opponents of royal absolutism, in 18th-century America those who saw in English rule little more than tyranny. Those clauses on justice have spread round the world in every Common Law constitution and in every human-rights instrument of the 20th century. 800 years after Runnymede, they are the bedrock on which much of the world’s freedom is built.

But why should the Church be celebrating the Charter? To merely sanctify a current constitutional cause? Or to recognise that the Church’s best hope of security and freedom lies in the equality of all citizens, whatever their faith, before the law?

Yes, but we have better grounds than these. In 1215 Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury was central to the drafting and sealing of Magna Carta. Two archbishops and seven bishops advised the King to grant the Charter. The Charter was entrusted to cathedrals, for safety from those who wanted to suppress it. The Salisbury Cathedral copy is there for all to see today. [2]

It became part of the parish clergyman’s job description to know the charter, and to publicise and enforce it. Anyone who broke the Charter’s terms were publicly excommunicated by notices given out in parish churches, accompanied by lighted candles and the ringing of bells.

Sir James Holt, respected historian of the Charter, wrote: “The men who were responsible for the Great Charter of 1215 asserted one great principle. In their view the realm was more than a geographic or administrative unit. It was a community. As such, it was capable of possessing rights and liberties which could be asserted against any member of the community, even and especially against the King.”

The Sovereign no longer threatens our rights and liberties; the Church no longer threatens excommunication. The lessons we can draw from so long ago are more rhetorical than practical. 

But the Church’s part in the creation, promotion, and enforcement of the Charter offers an inspiration of its own. Through our engagement with scripture we in the Church know the power and importance of foundational texts re-interpreted and selectively re-applied, generation by generation. The Charter still calls on us to build out of our country’s disparate components a single, peaceable, and just community, with all the courage and insight of Archbishop Langton himself. [3]

In responding to this calling, our inspiration is another foundational text – the foundational text – the Bible, and especially the gospels. For our scriptures teach us to be wary of kings, to resist putting our faith in the kingdoms of this world, to direct our desires towards the Kingdom of God, to put ourselves to work at the outworking of its values.

What is this so-called Kingdom of God?

We can define it by what it isn’t – it’s not the rule of God by force, by ‘pettiness, spitefulness and cruelty’, by extortion, confiscation, taxation, manipulation. It’s not the the way of corrupt kings, governments and corporations.

Neither is the Kingdom of God a geographical space, a bounded area within which God has his or her way.

[However tempting it might have been to offer the people utopia as an alternative to Roman rule], Jesus never asks his followers to imagine the Kingdom of God as a place. Rather, it is something dynamic – a process carried along under its own momentum, difficult to stop once it has started. [4]

In Mark 4 Jesus defines the Kingdom of God as someone scattering seed on the ground, and the seed sprouting and growing, without him knowing how.

The parable of the sower takes us to the harvest; for the crop is grown to be used, not just admired in the field. There will come a time, in the proper order of growth, when it is ready to be gathered. [4]

Then Jesus defines the Kingdom of God as like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth but when it grows up, the greatest of all shrubs, growing large branches, ‘so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The parable of the mustard seed takes us back to small beginnings. The unstoppable process of the Kingdom, as it develops into something strong and sheltering, is out of all proportion to its modest origins. [4]

This is a very different ‘kingdom’ than the ‘kingdoms’ of the world; an unbounded space where a loving, creative God is uppermost in the hearts of those who share this space with their creator.  And it is a growing space. Our discovery of the Kingdom of God is a journey parallel to the journey we are on with charters of human and environmental rights. For, to borrow a quote from Nobel Peace Prize nominee Fr John Dear,

… The [Kingdom is a] journey from violence to non-violence, wealth to poverty, power to powerlessness, selfishness to selfless service, pride to humility, indifference to love, cruelty to compassion, vengeance to forgiveness, revenge to reconciliation, war to peace, killing enemies to loving enemies. [5]

According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is an unbounded space whose ultimate expression is a sprouting tree where the birds of the air make nests in its shade.

This takes us so far from the practices of the ‘petty, spiteful and cruel’ King John; it takes us so far from the inheritors of his kingdom today, the destroyers of this world’s community and peace. And it invites us into the mission of the Kingdom of God, of which the Magna Carta was an expression, to build out of the disparate components of our world, a single, peaceable, and just community.



[1] As described in Ralph V.  Turner, King John: England’s Evil King?

[2] Salisbury Cathedral: Magna Carta.

[3] The entire italicised section is my adaptation of the feature article by Robin Griffith-Jones, Called for 800 years to build community, Church Times, 12 Jun 2015.

[4] Bridget Nichols, Readings: 2nd Sunday after Trinity, Church Times, 5 Jun 2015.

[5] Fr John Dear, You Will Be My Witnesses: Saints, Prophets and Martyrs. In the original, this paragraph begins, ‘The Gospel [is a]…’

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