Sermon Seeds: Together in Christ/Christ over Chaos
Reign of Christ Sunday Year C
Worship resources for Reign of Christ Sunday are at Worship Ways
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Luke 1:68-79 or
Jeremiah 23:1-6 with Psalm 46
Further thoughts on Reign of Christ Sunday
Together in Christ/Christ over Chaos
by Kathryn Matthews
Perhaps it’s easier to write, and presumably to preach, on the texts 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 it is to preach on Reign of Christ (formerly Christ the King) Sunday, this last Sunday in the church year.
There are those in our pews (and perhaps a number of us in our pulpits) who are uncomfortable with talk of kings and the triumphalism of Christendom’s history that the old name for this Sunday suggests. However, isn’t the church year of preaching appropriately ended with one more reminder of who holds us, and the church, and all of creation, in wisdom and love?
As beautiful as this passage is in the NRSV, 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 and accessible translation. In his introduction to the letter, 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?”
The swirl of ideas and philosophies
Christian teachings, then, had to compete in a kind of philosophical 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 more among many competing approaches to life, not even 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 one of secondary importance in the life of a person who seeks to follow him; it’s of primary importance, 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”: it means turning our hearts and minds from the empires and kingdoms of this world (materialism, militarism, prestige and power) to the reign of God, which was at the heart of Jesus’ message. Or, as Neta Pringle notes, 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” (Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 4).
Our own powers swirling around us
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”? 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.
The author of this letter is no harsh teacher but one with 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 wants 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). How spacious, how roomy, is the God in Whom you place your trust?
Providing a worldview
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 (as worldviews should be), 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 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” (Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, Westminster Bible Companion).
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. She draws on the work of Walter Wink to remind us of that imperative to work for the transformation of the very systems in which we live, in order to further, of course, the reign of God (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4). So much for dropping out, or tuning out, in order to escape what distresses us in the world. Disciples of Jesus are called to transform the world, not escape it. 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.
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 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 (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4).
Imagining 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 (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4). 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.
So many ideas, so many worldviews
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.
As the end of another year draws close, what are the powers that you and your church members fear, consciously or unconsciously? What “philosophies” and “false teachings” undermine Christian faith today, especially in your own setting? 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? Perhaps we say that we depend on God and believe in Jesus, but “hedge our bets” just in case, as Donelson observes (Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, Westminster Bible Companion).
What, and who, matters first for the church?
The image of a king may seem a bit outdated for people in post-modern democracies (see the Further Thoughts on Reign of Christ Sunday, below). 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?” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4). Christ above all, and at the heart of everything: this is our hymn today, on Reign of Christ Sunday.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Thomas Merton, Love and Living, 20th century
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone–we find it with another.”
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.”
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding….And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.”
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.”
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.”
Anaïs Nin, 20th century
“In chaos, there is fertility.”
Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark, 21st century
“I like it that order exists somewhere even if it shatters near me.”
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting, 21st century
“Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple.”
Further thoughts on Reign of Christ Sunday Year C:
by Arthur Clyde and Kathryn Matthews (2004)
The Big Wrap-up
For most churches that follow the church calendar, Reign of Christ is the last Sunday of the year before the season of Advent begins a new church year. It has sometimes been slighted by those who feel that the church of Jesus Christ must take care not to be triumphalist in its celebration and observance. Is it possible to take a fresh look at the purpose and meaning of this Sunday, and claim it anew? If this is the “wrap-up” Sunday of the church year, shouldn’t it get special attention?
The Problem with Reign of Christ/Christ the King
For a church that embraces inclusive language, words like “king” and “kingdom,” “ruling” and “triumphing” are metaphors that need special care. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) has provided “Reign of Christ” as a name for the Sunday that originally was (and often still is) known as Christ the King. It is probably true that for many the words king and kingdom suggest a system of royalty to which they cannot relate, while, for others, they speak of a world of patriarchy and class oppression. Kings and kingdoms may seem remote as fairy tales, as long ago as the day of church and state being one rather than separate, as long ago as the days when secular rulers dictated the religious beliefs and practices of their “subjects,” and Christendom imposed its religion on the world it attempted to conquer.
Reign of Christ stands in tension to a culture of strong individualism where democracy is seen as freedom from sovereignty and church is separated from state. In recent years, some churches have chosen not to deal with all these issues by simply not observing Reign of Christ Sunday. However, it’s possible that dealing honestly with the issues of naming and authority may provide keys to reclaiming this day as a celebration that combines the great themes of God’s sovereignty in our lives, and of Christ as both Ruler and Suffering Servant.
So What Is the Solution? Some Thoughts for Worship Planners
So how can we re-envision this Sunday and bring both vibrancy and integrity to its observance, honoring sensitivities of language, respecting the dignity and freedom of every person, and acknowledging the hard-learned lessons from our past? The worship planner may begin by reading the lectionary texts for the day with an ear for language that lifts up the sovereignty of God, of Christ, without sounding antiquated or irrelevant.
Even in an age of unprecedented personal power (at least in many places, for many people, if not for all), there is a profound and lamentable sense deep within the hearts of many of God’s children that we are “trapped” by the “trappings” of modern culture, and that our freedom and autonomy are elusive at best. The “powers that be” can easily make us forget about the “Power That Is” – the only power that really matters in our lives. In economic hardship and urban decay, in the loneliness of the human condition in neighborhood and town, and in the overwhelming reality of illness, uncertainty, and doubt, we long for the power of God to lift us up and transform our lives, to give us hope and set us on our way. It is a time to look at our allegiances and loyalties. And affirm that ultimately, God is in charge.
While hymns and prayers that speak of crowns and reigns ring glory and triumph, there might be, ironically, more power in the simple words of a hymn like Pues si vivimos (In All Our Living, TNCH 499), which remind us that “In all our living, we belong to God.” If we truly belong to God, then we need to trust, and our worship will reflect that kind of firm faith in the goodness of the One who holds all—from smallest flower, smallest child, and “little” problems of our lives, to profound suffering and great mysteries of the universe—in a loving embrace of wisdom and care.
Worship planners can be guided by this sense of Christ as the Suffering Servant who understands our pain and our questions and yet has triumphed over death, over misery, over every question and every uncertainty. On that “rule,” we stake our claim, and we gladly submit to the reign of the One on the palm of whose hand our names are carved, that we might never be forgotten.
These reflections are provided to give some support to worship planners who are about to choose liturgies, symbols, and songs, and ways to proclaim the stories on for Reign of Christ Sunday.
Look at the Lectionary Readings
Start worship planning by reading the scriptures for the day. Whether in Year A, B, or C, the RCL readings for this Sunday are reflections on the sovereignty of God and Christ in our lives. In Year C, the Old Testament reading (Jer 23:1-6) is God’s promise to gather up a remnant of God’s flock, and give them a righteous ruler. The epistle Col 1:11-20 is a beautiful hymn about the age to come when all that separates us from Christ will be erased. In the Gospel (Luke 23:33-43), Jesus promises the criminal on the cross that they will rule together in paradise. The Psalm (46) proclaims God as the ever-present strength of the city of God. The alternate Gospel canticle (Luke 1:68-79) anticipates a new ruler for the Holy City. Worship planners can consider ways that each of these messages can be proclaimed in the worship service.
This Sunday in music
A look at the lectionary provides interesting options for musical expression for selecting hymns, songs, anthems, and other vocal and instrumental music. Consider replacing the reading of one or more of the passages with a sung version:
— for Luke 1:68-79 (Song of Zachary), use Now Bless the God of Israel TNCH 110, or the chanted version, p. 733.
— for Psalm 46, use TNCH 439, 440, or the chanted version, TNCH p. 652.
Other hymns that are related to the readings include the Gospel: Eternal Christ You Rule TNCH 302 or The Royal Banners TNCH 221; Epistle: ¡Cristo Vive! TNCH 235, Glorious Is Your Name TNCH 53, When Morning Gilds the Skies TNCH 86, I’ll Shout the Name TNCH 234, and Pues si vivimos TNCH 499.
Consider other hymns appropriate to the overall theme: Lift High the Cross TNCH 198 would make a wonderful entrance hymn. Explore the “Reign of Christ” section of the hymnal (TNCH 300-305), and the index on page 925, “Sovereignty and Reign,” and finally, look at the Palm Sunday selections.
This Sunday in the church year
The use of festive music and lots of activity will help to make the statement that today is the celebration that “wraps up” the year. It will be in contrast to the following Sunday when Advent begins the new year with a mood of reflection and expectation. This is a chance to emphasize the change of seasons with white and gold fabrics, paraments, and vestments. (Blues and/or Purples will appear next Sunday).
Communion this Sunday will have its own festive feeling in contrast to communions in Advent that are likely to be more reflective in mood. Think of New Year’s Eve in the secular calendar. Although celebrative, with an eye to the future, it also can have a reflective underlay as we look both forward and backward. As we do the same in the life of the church, this is a time to acknowledge whose we are, where we have come from, and where we are heading.
A Time for the Cross
The empty cross can be a central image of Christ’s reign in our lives and in our community as it stands above us. Consider beginning the service with a procession carrying a cross with white and gold streamers, and let it stand throughout the service. (A purple strand or two could be mixed in to remind us of both Christ’s passion and royalty, a red strand could symbolize the martyrdom of Jesus.)
These planning ideas were prepared in 2004 by Arthur Clyde, Minister for Worship, Music, and Liturgical Arts, Worship and Education Ministry Team, and Kate Matthews.
Copyright © 2004 Local Church Ministires, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio. Permission is granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in worship planning. All publishing rights reserved.
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake
in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad
the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city;
it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar,
the kingdoms totter;
God’s voice resounds and the earth melts.
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of God;
see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
God burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
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.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”