Written by Daniel Hazard
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Reign of Christ Sunday
Together in Christ
Holy God, our refuge and strength, you have redeemed your scattered children, gathering them from all the corners of the earth through your firstborn, the Christ, in whom all things are held together. Make of us a just and righteous people, worthy by grace to inherit with him the kingdom of light and peace where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Luke 1:68-79 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 46
1. How spacious, how roomy, is the God in Whom you place your trust?
2. How would you describe your worldview?
3. As the end of another year draws close, what are the powers that you and your church members fear, consciously or unconsciously?
4. What "philosophies" and "false teachings" undermine Christian faith today, especially in your own setting?
5. Do we say that we depend on God and believe in Jesus, but "hedge our bets" as Donelson says, just in case?
by Kate Huey
Perhaps it's easier to connect with the readings of recent weeks (recognizing the outcasts with Jesus who used them as examples for the self-righteous, praising God with the psalmist for God's beautiful creation and works, remembering God's promise of a new thing being done right in our midst), than with the texts for this Reign of Christ (formerly Christ the King) Sunday, this last Sunday in the church year. Perhaps we're a bit uncomfortable, or put off, by talk of kings and the triumphalism of our history that such talk suggests. But isn't it a good thing to end the church year with one more reminder of Who it is that holds us, and the church, and all of creation, in wisdom and love?
As beautiful as this passage is in the NRSV translation included here, it's easier to get a sense of its meaning and purpose by reading the entire Letter to the Colossians in The Message, Eugene Peterson's elegant translation, beginning with his introductory comments. Peterson sets the scene with a description of the Christians in Colossae, surrounded by a polytheistic culture: "Most people of that day believed the air around them was thick with unseen spirits that humans ignored at their peril….The Colossians were terrified that if they didn't appease the spirits, they laid themselves open to disease and poverty. Who was Jesus when compared to such powers?"
Christian teachings, then, had to compete in a kind of philosphical marketplace with the values and beliefs - religious and secular, and often deeply ingrained - that were swirling around the current culture. However, Paul (or another teacher writing in his name, but with the same pastoral concern) wants to make it abundantly clear that Christ is not just one among many competing approaches to life, not just the first among equals: Christ is at the very center of the meaning of everything, for all people. The question of Jesus Christ is not of secondary but primary importance in the lives of his followers, in other words, not just something we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we go to, but a question that shapes our whole life. For the early Christians, and for us today, following Jesus is a big-time "game-changer." Or, to put it in ancient terms, as Neta Pringle does, the writer of this letter says that being a Christian "is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking. We are transferred, moved, deported, from one kingdom to another. Nothing is as we have known it."
Perhaps a fear of "unseen spirits" that need to be appeased sounds strange to us, but don't we too live in fear of many "powers"? Don't we fear the power of greed, and war, and violence, and addiction, and commercialism? And what about the philosophies, values, and beliefs that shape our way of life today, like an exaggerated individualism, excessive materialism, and an unfounded trust in military might for our security? Doesn't it often feel like the Powers That Be influence our lives more than the power, and the wisdom, and the plan, of God?
The author of this letter is no harsh teacher but has the heart of a pastor. In response to the fears and confusion of the ancient Colossians, Peterson says the author makes his case "from a position of rooted humility…with the energies of most considerate love…with a heart that is warmly and wonderfully kind." He wanted to ease "the fear of Fate" that afflicted these Gentiles (and us today, too) with a reminder that in Jesus we see "God's original purpose in everything created," that all the suffering and brokenness and sin in the world can be gathered up in Christ: "So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies…" (The Message).
A whole new worldview for Christians
The church in Colossae is really provided with a worldview here, a description of the cosmos from the smallest of things to the most incomprehensible, all taken up in God. Those are huge thoughts of tremendous significance, beyond our comprehension, and ancient worldviews differ from ours in many ways. But Lewis Donelson says, "Worldviews have and will always shift as our best science shifts. It is the task of all Christians to find the gospel in whatever worldview they hold. This is no easy task." (It seems to me that Donelson is not saying that we are to insert or place the gospel into our worldview, but to find it there, underneath and within everything.) The author of the Letter holds together the huge ideas of how the cosmos was created and how it then holds together with the everyday command to live as a community based on love. Perhaps that is the brilliance of this letter: it grounds our life together as a community of love in the power of Christ (hence, "Christ the King"). Donelson again: "The radical commitment to Christian love that Colossians enjoins can be managed only when we understand that Christ is the ultimate power….Colossians insists that Christology provides the only foundation for ethics."
A Christology that emphasizes, insists on, the lordship of Jesus Christ also includes a call for his followers, according to Elizabeth Barrington Forney. She draws on the work of Walter Wink to describe that imperative: "It is not enough simply to disengage from the hierarchies and idolatries to which we often find ourselves subject," for we must "seek to transform those systems so that they emulate the grace, mercy, and compassion we experience in the kingdom of God." So much for dropping out, or tuning out, in order to escape what distresses us in the world!
It's bigger than just us
There is an expansiveness in this hymn that encompasses so much more than our individual lives, although we of course each have our place in God's creation. We may feel overwhelmed with the problems we face that seem insolvable: war, hunger, poverty, and damage to the environment. Scholars find here one of the roots of Christian hope, however, for God in Christ is at work in the world, and not just in our churches. For example, Carl Holladay writes, "If our tendency is to impose limits on the work of Christ, today's text forces us to enlarge our horizons. We are taken from creation to new creation, from the beginning of time to the end of time, from microcosm to macrocosm, from alienation to peace; and wherever we are taken, there we find a reflection of God in Christ." Neta Pringle connects our worldview with our hope for the world itself and all that threatens it: "Our faith in Christ gives us a worldview that is both large enough and consistent enough to address the myriad questions and problems that confront human life." And not just the huge problems, either, not just all of creation but everything that affects us personally in our own little lives, as well. Elizabeth Barrington Forney uses a wonderful image to emphasize the comprehensiveness of Jesus' reign: "It is almost as though the lawyers have gotten down to the fine print, so that we make no mistake, finding no loophole in the complete and total lordship of Christ." The hymn, she says, reminds us of one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, for it has "echoes here of the litany in Romans of things that cannot separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-30)."
Theologians speak of "high" Christology and "low" Christology, the former emphasizing the divinity of Jesus and the latter emphasizing his humanity. Barbara Blodgett observes that reading this text on Reign of Christ Sunday, just before the seasons of Advent and Christmas, reminds us that "the same Christ who rules over all creation enters the world as a vulnerable baby." I have a vivid memory of a large mural in a church in which Jesus wears a crown and brandishes a sword, but that's not the picture that Blodgett draws for us: "He does not rule by threat or military domination or acquisition. His authority is not sustained by asking homage from others. He does not subject people to himself. His 'kingdom,' therefore, stands in stark contrast to other imperial rules. His is an entirely different sort of empire than, say, that of Rome." No doubt the early hearers of this letter more easily noted the contrast between the Roman Empire and the Reign of God than we do today, if we mistakenly assume that empires are things of the past.
And expanding marketplace of ideas and how to share them
In a world where travel, the media, education, and the Internet offer us so many ideas and so many approaches to life, our philosophical marketplace far exceeds that of the ancient world (in quantity, if not quality). For example, I just read Krista Tippett's "Being" blog on Facebook that cites reports from CNN and The New York Times about a campaign this Christmas by atheists trying to proselytize believers: how's that for ideas swirling around us? This letter instructs us as it did the early Christians of Colossae not to get "lost in the cosmic options," as Donelson says, but to recognize and give our allegiance to the One who died, Peterson writes, in order to gather up all those "broken and dislocated pieces of the universe" (The Message) and make us whole once again. This One is the Wisdom of God, which must have sounded familiar to early Christians raised in the Jewish faith and its wisdom tradition, in which Lady Wisdom participated in creation with God. Jesus, of course, is often identified in the same way, as Wisdom incarnate. We signal our recognition and our gratitude and our commitment of this Wisdom, the Christ, by living in love and being a sign of the love that grounds the whole universe. From that love we draw strength that "endures the unendurable and spills over into joy" (The Message) - not a bad way to close one church year and begin a new one.
What is the power that helps you get through your day and the struggles of your life? Does the universe, does creation itself, feel out of control to you? The image of a king may seem a bit outdated for people in post-modern democracies. Do you think it is still relevant for the church today? Is there another image that works better for you? How might our understanding of Jesus' being "raised up" expand beyond what happened on one Easter morning to a comprehensive understanding of his place over everything, not just our individual, personal lives, or the community, or the church in every age, but all of creation, in all time?
In the United Church of Christ, we often remember the words of Jesus, "That they may all be one" (John 17:21). These are more than just beautiful words, and or a nice thought: they are at the heart of being the Christian community. No matter what divides us - and it seems that countless things attempt to do so, in the larger scheme of things, and even within our congregations, even within the committees and boards of our churches - Elizabeth Barrington Forney says that "it is love for Christ and Christ's love for us that ultimately trumps any one doctrine or theological dispute" (or church disagreement, or variety of approaches to worship, and so on, and so on). In those situations, Forney suggests a simple but powerful question to clarify matters: "Does this," she asks, "allow Christ to have first place?" Christ above all, and at the heart of everything: this should be our hymn today, on Reign of Christ Sunday, 2010.
A preaching version of this commentary (with references) can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Blaise Pascal, 17th century
Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.
William Shakespeare, 16th century
Time's glory is to calm contending kings, to unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in His great campaign of sabotage.
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