Sunday, November 21, 2010

Culture of Christ Sunday

This is known as “Christ the King” Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, and the culmination of the Church’s liturgical year. Next week is our “liturgical New Year’s”: the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Cycle A lectionary readings.

Contemporary theologian, James Alison, says this about “Christ the King” Sunday: “We don't often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. The ‘PC’ way of talking about it is to talk about a ‘Reign of Christ.’ But I'm not sure that catches it, either. In this democratic, capitalist age we don't talk about either kingdoms or reigns. Even ‘nation’ is becoming less of an issue. What is it that we talk about the most these days when it comes to social constructs? Isn't it ‘culture’? Everything these days is about ‘culture,’... So how about the ‘Culture of Christ’ Sunday?

Alison goes on to reflect on how fed up he is “of going to seminar after seminar in which there is so much babble about culture that amounts to little more than a cataloguing of characteristics…” No one seems to examine the deeper issue: namely, how culture is generated, how it comes into being.

René Girard, noted cultural anthropologist, was one who did think about such things. He puts the Cross of Christ right at the center of what reveals to us how our culture is founded, is based upon, violence and killing -- which is exactly what today’s Gospel (Luke 23:33-43) seems to be about. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we base our culture and how God founds the divine culture, offered to us in Christ: a culture based on Christ's yielding to the violence and killing on which our culture is based, at the same time that he forgives us for it.

Take, for example, the ongoing world crisis against terrorism. Our culture seems unable conceive of any other option than to meet violent force with further violent force. We attempt to make peace by threatening more violence. Look at the attitudes and actions of our current political leaders in the Congress and Senate: apparently, they truly can't imagine any other option for the President. What would it look like if we possibly based the affairs of State on something like the Cross? We can't even imagine it. But God could. And God has, in fact, brought about a new culture, a new reign: the opposite of murder and vengeance. namely, by forgiving, even in the face of violence and killing.

The one statement which fairly leaps out at us from Luke’s Gospel text this morning is: “And the people stood by, watching…” (23:35) It’s found only in Luke who, throughout his Gospel, shows how “the people” witness virtually every aspect of Jesus’ ministry: Zechariah the priest proclaimed early on that God has “looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them”, even sending a messenger to “give knowledge of salvation to his people”. The people listen to Jesus’ teaching, praising God for his healing power. The people witness Jesus confronting and criticizing the religious authorities, and flock to hear him in the temple, even as he prophesies its destruction. Luke says that “a great number of the people” follow as Jesus is led away to be crucified, and here they are, again, “the people” standing by the cross, watching.

What a contrast with the others at the scene. The people don’t mock or deride Jesus in his desperate situation, as others do. What could their presence here by the cross mean? Are they just curious onlookers, like gawkers who crane their necks at the sight of the gruesome horror and “spectacle” of a freeway accident: captivated, but without any personal commitment or involvement? Or perhaps, are they like friends and family, gathered in vigil at the bedside of a dying loved one, simply offering support to their beloved Teacher in the only way they know how?

Luke’s silence about “the people’s” motives invites you and me, as readers and hearers of this Gospel, to ourselves enter into the episode as we “watch” the story unfold. What do “the people” see? What do the hearers hear? the readers understand? What do we hear and see and understand?

As Jesus travelled around among the people, he clearly rejected any association between himself and the idea of “kingship”, despite the interesting allusions which Luke uses earlier in the Gospel. Zechariah, again, refers to the One who will be “a mighty the house of [God’s] servant David”. The heavenly angel, appearing to the shepherds after Jesus’ birth, confirms that. Other allusions include Jesus being referred to as “the Anointed One” [messiah], in the manner of a king, and his entry into Jerusalem, on the royal symbol of a donkey and with the acclaim of “the people”.

Despite these allusions, Scripture also hints that this Savior/King isn’t the royalty most people were expecting. Jesus is born in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”, says Luke. Jesus’ royal anointing is expressed, not in any military action engaging other powers, but in bringing “good news to the poor...and...proclaim[ing] the year of the Lord’s favor”. Finally, Luke presents Jesus, hanging on a cross, outside the walls of Jerusalem, in between two criminals whom, even as he suffers and his life ebbs away, he engages in conversation. Hardly the typical place for a king! Yet, above Jesus‘ head hangs the clear inscription: “This is the King of the Jews”.

The leaders”, Luke says, witnessing the crucifixion and recognizing the irony of a crucified man, acclaimed as a “king”, repeatedly scoff at Jesus [lit., kept sneering]: “...let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!…”, even as the Pharisees had done earlier, when Jesus taught about the dangers of wealth. “The soldiers” also mock him, continuing the demeaning actions of the “men who were holding Jesus” before his trial, as Luke says. Even one of the criminals sharing Jesus‘ plight joins in the disdainful chorus, “deriding him”, Luke notes, “...saying ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!

Three times Jesus is ridiculed and taunted about his being called “The King”, “the Anointed One”, even though Jesus’ whole ministry to the people, not just to his fellow Jews, but to anyone and everyone who came to him, was defined by one thing: bringing God’s love and salvation to, and sharing it with, every person, regardless of status or condition. Yet, in the culture of violence which brought about his own death, which Jesus had predicted, there were many questions, doubts, and much disbelief about his true identity and purpose.

But, as Luke reminds us, there was one exception: the other criminal crucified with Jesus. Unknown and unidentified, he’s depicted as a person who recognizes the truth about what’s happening. He rebukes the other derisive criminal, pointing out that they’re getting what they deserved for their deeds, whereas “this man has done nothing wrong”. He’d heard Jesus say earlier: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Somehow this man recognized that the culture in which Jesus, “the Anointed One”, ministered and lived was one of forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the face of violence and murder. He confesses his own failings: “we...have been condemned justly...we are getting what we deserve for our deeds”, and in humility, he asks only that Jesus not forget him in the “kingdom” after they die. Jesus assures him that in his “reign”, in his “culture”, the “criminal” is already forgiven, that the man and Jesus already share the place where evil and violence give way to mercy, forgiveness and love.

Luke doesn’t tell us how “the people” who were watching responded to any of this. We don’t know what they thought about the taunting regarding Jesus’ saving power; or about Jesus’ conversation with the criminals; or whether, in their minds and hearts, Jesus was who he had proclaimed himself to be. “The people” don’t ever appear again in Luke’s narrative.

So what of us who also “watch” this story? We’re lucky to be the beneficiaries of many centuries of thought and discussion about it since the time it happened. Perhaps no more eloquent commentary from Scripture could be chosen to guide us and teach us about Jesus the Christ who “reigns” with compassion, forgiveness and love, than the passage (Colossians 1:11-20) from Paul’s letter to the Colossian community. Paul helps us to understand that the Crucified Jesus is the Cosmic Christ: that, first of all, in and through our baptismal relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, you and I are freed from the violence and evil of all “powers” and secondary “rulers” in the universe; and, secondly, that in and through that baptismal relationship, you and I and, indeed, all that has been created, participates in the reign, the culture of Christ. “...all the strength”, Paul says, “...comes from his glorious power…

In Christ, the Father has “enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light…” The Greek word for “enabled” means “to cause to be adequate, to make sufficient, to qualify”. How many times have you and I felt “inadequate” about ourselves? “insufficient”? “unqualified”? Paul is proclaiming that God, through Christ’s continual forgiveness and love, is always making us adequate, and sufficient, and qualified. In Baptism, you and I have made a huge transition: God has swooped us up, “rescued us” from the power of darkness, and put us in a new place, “transferred us”, into the reign, the culture, the life, of forgiveness, redemption, love. We come into “the light”: the place where there is only honesty, clarity, truth and vision. And in this place we’re never alone. We share “in the inheritance of the saints”, the Communion of God’s holy ones who love us, support us, and are, indeed, our true BFF’s...Best Friends Forever!

As the Agent of Creation, Jesus the Christ, God’s Son, is the icon,”the image”, of the God whom we can’t see here below. In Jesus the Christ, however, we do see God. Every human being and all of creation has its origin, begins, in Him. And, Paul says, “all things have been created through him and for him all things hold together…” Wherever we encounter things or human beings speaking to us of what Jesus the Christ is and does -- loving, forgiving, ministering to, accepting -- there we “see” not only Jesus the Christ, but the unseen Father and the life-giving Spirit, and we see the Church, the assembly of “the people” gathered to make Him, who is the Head of the body, present among us.

As the Agent of Redemption, Christ summarizes, encompasses, embodies, the fullness of Who God is. Christ is the beginning, the continuation, and the end of all life. Christ is the “first”, Number 1, in everything: first in priority, first in importance, first in origin, first in order, so that nothing in the entire universe exists outside of Christ’s/God’s domain.

So, in this “Culture of Christ”, what is God up to? What’s God’s agenda? What’s the bottom line? Two things, Paul says: first, in this beloved Son who is Jesus the Christ, who is above, beyond, and ahead of all that is created, God “was pleased to dwell ”; and secondly, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to [God]self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

As you and I, part of the people of God, the Church, today think back over this past year, what have we understood, seen, heard? More importantly, how has what we’ve observed, dealt with, and heard moved us to react to Jesus the Christ? “Who do you say that I am?”, Christ continually asks us, and “What have you done, what will you do, to bring into being my culture, my reign of peace, mercy, forgiveness and love?

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