Sunday, November 24, 2013
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?
Reflection 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 lovely and accessible 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 perilÖ.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."
A fear of unseen spirits that need to be appeased may sound strange to us, but don't we too live in fear of many "powers"? There is good reason to fear the power of greed, and war, and violence, and addiction, and commercialism, as well as 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. Think of the damage these powers have done, especially to so many people who have no voice in them. Sometimes, it's easy to feel that the powers that be influence our lives more than the power, and the wisdom, and the plan, of God.
A humble pastor's response
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 depicts the author as the best of pastors, humble, energetically loving and kind, who wanted to ease the fears that afflicted these Gentiles (and us today, too) with a reminder that in Jesus we see God's plan for creation, that all the suffering and brokenness and sin in the world can be gathered up in Christ, who has room for all of us, and for all of the brokenness of the universe as well (The Message).
Paul is really providing the church in Colossaae 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, particularly, but not only, because of scientific progress. No wonder, then, that we're called to listen in every age for the Stillspeaking God to lead us in new ways toward ancient truths, the good news of the gospel. "It is the task of all Christians," Lewis Donelson writes, "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 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"). Again, Donelson finds in Christ the very "foundation for ethics."
There's no dropping out
A Christology that emphasizes and insists on the lordship of Jesus Christ also includes a call for his followers, according to Elizabeth Barrington Forney, who draws on the work of Walter Wink to remind us that disciples of Jesus are called to transform the world and its systems, not escape them. So much for dropping out, or tuning out, in order to escape what distresses us in the world! We are called to be part of God's own work in repairing the damage that has been done and bringing forth a renewed creation, that is, to further the reign of God.
The expansiveness of this hymn 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, as well as the "small," personal disasters of our lives (our personal disasters, understandably, never feel small to us). Scholars find here one of the roots of Christian hope, however, for God in Christ is at work in the world, in the whole universe, and not just in our churches or our individual lives. We need to open our eyes, our vision, to this vast mystery, and trust in the goodness of the One who brought it all into existence. If we think it's all up to us, that we can solve the problems of our existence, or even control a bunch of unseen minor spirits swirling around us, then our worldview needs some serious expanding.
Opening our eyes to a wider horizon
On the other hand, if we continue to turn to the biblical witness, including its poetry (and much of this letter could be poetry, or a hymn), we are reminded that our most ancient ancestors could look up at the sky, and catch a glimpse of the immense mystery of God. As we hear in Psalm 8, this transcendent God, as we know from Psalm 8, could nevertheless create us, mere mortals, as little less than angels. Amazing! Such reverence, and expanded vision, can bring hope for the world, despite its great suffering and many problems, and for the church in its ministry in that world, in every age.
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, "the fine print" the small print of a legal contract, to emphasize the comprehensiveness of Jesus' reign over every detail of human existence. None of us is too small, too insignificant, to be watched over by Christ. The hymn, Forney writes, reminds us of one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, in Romans 8, where we are assured that nothing can separate us from God's love.
How do you imagine the power of this Christ?
Scholars often 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." Much of the language of "Christ the King Sunday" is metaphorical, of course, but it's easy to mix the power of a transcendent God who holds the universe in God's hands and the seemingly overpowering might of an empire in ancient times. I have a vivid memory of a large mural in a church in eastern Europe in which Jesus wears a crown and brandishes a sword, but that's not the picture that Blodgett draws for us, for our Christ is not a military conqueror or ruler like the emperors of old, using weapons and intimidation to keep us in his power. Perhaps, then, 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 since we mistakenly assume that empires are things of the past.
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). 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 in order to heal all the brokenness of the world, and to 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, from the power of that love, the author of Colossians tells us, we draw strength to endure whatever comes our way, and to become people of joyful and grateful hearts--not a bad way to close one church year and begin a new one.
What, and who, matters first for the church?
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 claim as our motto 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--we are bound together by love, God's love, that is more powerful than our "church fights" over worship, or theology, or decisions about whom to include in our life, or even the monthly calendar or who has a key to the kitchen cabinets. In those situations, in every situation, large and small, 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 is our hymn today, on Reign of Christ Sunday.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-24-2013.html.
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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Together in Christ
Sunday, November 24, 2013