Sunday, November 24, 2013
Christ: Agent of Creation, Agent of Redemption
This last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical season of Pentecost and of the liturgical year is known as Christ the King Sunday. With the beginning of the Advent season, we enter upon a new Year of Grace: Year A in the liturgy’s cycle of Scripture readings.
For many years I’ve found myself resistive to associating the term “king” with “Christ”. He was, in fact, not royalty. He intentionally avoids it, as noted in John’s Gospel: “When Jesus realized that they [the crowds after the feeding of the 5000] were about to come and make him king, he withdrew...to the mountain...” (6:15) Contemporary theologian James Alison suggests that, since what we most talk about these days when it comes to social constructs is culture, not about kingdoms or even nations, it would make more sense to call this “Culture of Christ Sunday”.
Alison has long drawn on the insights of René Girard, a noted cultural anthropologist. Girard sees the Cross of Christ at the center of what reveals to us what our own culture is founded upon: violence and killing. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we base our culture and how God founds and offers to us the divine culture 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. God has, in fact, brought about a new culture, a new reign: the opposite of murder and vengeance, namely, by forgiving others, even in the face of violence and killing.
The one statement which fairly leaps out at us from Luke’s Gospel text (23:33-43) this morning is: “And the people stood by, watching…” It’s found only in Luke who, throughout his Gospel, shows how “the people” witness virtually every aspect of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptizer’s father, Zechariah the priest, proclaimed early on (Luke 1:68-69) that God has “looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them”, even sending a messenger to “give knowledge of salvation to his people”. Jesus’ hearers listen to his 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, gawkers, craning their necks at the sight of the some gruesome horror or spectacle, captivated, but without any personal commitment or involvement? Or are they, perhaps, 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 in the Gospel invites you and me to enter into the episode as we “watch” the story unfold. What do “the people” see? What do the hearers hear? or 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. Nevertheless, Luke uses some interesting allusions earlier in his Gospel. Zechariah refers to the One who will be “a mighty savior...in the house of [God’s] servant David”. (1:60) The heavenly angel, appearing to the shepherds after Jesus’ birth, confirms that. (2:11) Other allusions include Jesus being referred to as “the Anointed One” [messiah], in the manner of a king, and his entry into Jerusalem, seated on the royal symbol of a donkey, receiving the acclaim of “the people”. (19:35-36)
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”. (Luke 2:7) 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”. (Luke 4:18-19) 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”, 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!…” (23:35), 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. (23:36-37) 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!” (23:39)
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 alone: bringing God’s saving love and compassion to, and sharing it with, every person, regardless of status or condition. Yet, in the human culture of violence which brought about his death, which Jesus had predicted, there were obviously many questions, doubts, and much disbelief about his true identity and purpose.
Luke notes one exception: the other criminal crucified with Jesus. Unknown and unidentified, he’s depicted as a person who sees what’s happening and “gets it”. He rebukes his derisive companion, pointing out that they’re getting what they deserve 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 he 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. (23:40-43)
Luke doesn’t tell us how “the people” who were watching reacted to any of this. We don’t know what they thought about others taunting Jesus about his saving power; or about Jesus’ conversation with the two criminals; or whether, in their minds and hearts, Jesus truly was who he had proclaimed himself to be. “The people” don’t ever appear again in Luke’s narrative.
What of us who also “watch” this story? We do so as the beneficiaries of centuries of thought and discussion about it. Perhaps there is no more eloquent commentary from Scripture to guide us and teach us about the One who ”reigns” with compassion, forgiveness and love, than the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. 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 set free 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…” (1:11)
In Christ, the Father has “enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light…” (1:12) Enabled, in Greek 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 proclaims that God, because of Christ’s continual forgiveness and love, we’re always adequate, and sufficient, and qualified. In Baptism, you and I undergo 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. (1:15) In Jesus the Christ, however, we do see God. All of creation begins in Him. Paul says, “all things have been created through him and for him...in him all things hold together…” (1:16-17) 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 origin, first in order, first in priority, first in importance, so that nothing in the entire universe exists outside of Christ’s/God’s domain.
In this “Culture of Christ”, what is God up to? What’s God’s agenda? What’s the bottom line? Two things, says Paul: 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.” (1:19-20)
As members of God’s people, the Communion of Saints, we’d do well to think back over this past year, and ask ourselves: what have I understood, seen, heard? More importantly, how has what we’ve observed, dealt with, and heard moved us to respond 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, the reign of peace, compassion, forgiveness and love?”