Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday November 21, 2010 Christ the King
Text: Colossians 1: 11-20 / Luke 23: 33-43
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: Christ plays in 10,000 places
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King - the last Sunday of the Church year. As we come to the end of our yearly cycle and begin to anticipate the coming of Mary’s child and child of God at Bethlehem, we are given an opportunity to consider the deep mystery of Christ in creation and the foolishness of the cross-shattered God.
Many approach Christ the King Sunday with severe caution. There has simply been too much damage done, in the heady Triumphalism of Christianity throughout history. Too often Empire and conquest found a willing partner in the church baptizing their moral failings with a cocksure sense of God’s blessings on their greed, domination and violence. If celebrating Christ the King means the marriage of coercion and spirituality we would rather pass. We are not interested in a return to crusades and inquisitions or pogroms and genocides.
For women this feast carries with it the sexism of the Christian tradition. We are not so sure about this obviously male, hierarchical, patriarchal holy day. Jesus was a sensitive guy, liked talking theology with women, and counted them among his disciples. This Jesus we can deal with but thrones and scepters and “yes my Lord” is a little much for democratic Christians, especially those who have suffered in a male dominated world with glass ceilings and much too elusive equality.
In Seminary my history professor playfully suggested that we were all monarchists at heart. I bristled at the idea. But, then again, what do we mean when we say, “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t this an admission that there is a kind of king we’re willing to embrace? And isn’t it a way of saying that the kingdoms of this world are not what they are meant to me? Is this prayer in fact an overtly political prayer, calling down the ways of God in judgment upon our own flawed and failing systems? To pray “Your kingdom come,” is an invitation to see the world as God sees it, not just as it is. It is a way of saying that faith in Jesus is not just simply an idea or an emotion. It is a concrete reality in which we are invited to become part of, to participate in, if we are to become part of the adventure now that God has come into the world in Jesus.
In our Epistle lesson today Paul wrote to the Christians living in cosmopolitan city of Colosse, a town in what is now modern day Turkey. Paul had never visited this faith community but he is writing to encourage them and to warn them. Paul is writing to counter something akin to Gnosticism in the church at Colosse. Gnosticism was an early theological challenge to Christianity, and for Paul theology was not an intellectual game but a matter of life and death because it had the power to shape the understanding of human life and destiny.
Gnosticism began with two basic assumptions about matter. First, it believed that spirit alone was good and that matter was essentially evil. Second, it believed that matter was eternal and that the universe was not created out of nothing but rather out of this flawed matter. This way of thinking had several inevitable consequences.
If God was spirit, then he was altogether good and could not possibly work with this evil matter. Therefore God was not the creator of the world. God put out a series of emanations, each of which was a little more distant from God until at the end of the series there was an emanation so distant that it could handle matter; and it was this emanation that created the world.
Gnosticism had a significant effect on understanding the person of Jesus. If matter was altogether evil and if Jesus was the Son of God, then Jesus could not have had a flesh and blood body. This of course removed Jesus entirely from humanity and made it impossible for him to sympathize with suffering humanity or get anywhere close to them in a saving way. Now lest you think that that Gnosticism is long gone, I want you to give you an example from my own Gnostic childhood. When I was a child I had a red-letter edition of the bible, where all of the words of Jesus were printed in red. This is a Gnostic idea, that somehow the words, the ideas of Jesus are more important than the actions of Jesus. What Jesus does in his bodily life is just as important as what he says or teaches.
Ultimately Gnosticism was a highly intellectual way of life and thought. There exited this long chain of emanations between humans and God. Humans must fight their way up this long ladder to God and in order to do that one needed all kinds of secret knowledge and esoteric learning and hidden passwords, and clubhouse handshakes. Consequently the higher realms of spirituality were for an elite few. This kind of theology was creating a kind of religious aristocracy in Colosse and threatening the hospitality and openness of the emerging church there. So Paul writes his letter to the Colossians. At the center of Paul’s letter encouraging the church at Colosse is a beautiful piece of Liturgical poetry that scholars believe to be an early baptismal hymn to Christ.
In college I had a philosophy professor that one day confessed that although he was an agnostic most of the time, when he sang the great Christian hymns in church he believed while he was singing. To which I responded, then you should sing more often. Paul knew the power of music and he used it to carry his argument for understanding the saving work of Christ.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first born 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. (Col. 1:15-20)”
In the face of Gnosticism’s rejection of creation as evil, Christian theology proclaims that the “image of the invisible God” the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” is intimately involved with creation. This was and is radical theology, while both Jewish and Greek thinkers had ideas of Wisdom and the Logos as the instrument by which the world came into being and by which it was sustained, no philosopher ever thought of Wisdom or Logos as the goal of creation. But the apostle Paul articulates Christian theology in such a beautiful way that we realize that not only is Christ the King because everything has coming into being “through him” but that creation is also, “for him.” Creation not only belongs to God but also is God’s delight. God continues to be involved with the materiality of the world because he made if for himself.
One of the featured attractions of Gnosticism is that one no longer has to take seriously or to care about the material world, namely things or people. It leads to a strict divide between the spiritual and the material world, the sacred and the secular. If matter is indeed evil and God is spirit, then the whole of creation is devalued. All of a sudden one does not need to take seriously the care of the earth as our home because we are trying to escape it or see it as unrelated to the divine life. Thinking through a Gnostic lens means that the “spiritual needs” of humanity become more important than any physical needs as if the two are not connected. Thus it becomes possible to give a starving person a bible instead of a meal. Gnosticism enables one to push the material world, what you can touch, see, taste and smell into an inferior realm. If we consider our own history, following the Gnostic way the church would never have created hospitals, child labor laws would not have mattered, the abolition of slavery would never have animated our lives, women would not have been given the vote, we would not be trying to honor the bodies of or GLBT brothers and sisters. When you think about it our current conversation about healthcare has strong Gnostic overtones, as only some people’s bodies deserve care, only some bodies are important and worthy of healing.
Ultimately Gnostic theology offers a spirituality without the inconvenience of people we don’t like or who aren’t our kind or who are self-sufficient or don’t seem as enlightened as us. Thus Gnostic strains of spirituality exist almost everywhere. In fact no church is safe from its influence. It is much too easy to believe that having a church full of people just like you is the perfect mix, but Christian spirituality is a bit messier than that, a bit more inclusive, for the arms of Jesus’ are wide open to all of humankind.
But our ancient Christian hymn will have none of this distaste for humanity and materiality. Against the Gnostic assertion that Jesus was not truly flesh and blood, but only temporarily entered a human body to give us the inside story on God and initiate us into the secrets of the spiritual life, Paul uses the powerful phrase, “the first born from the dead” thus proclaiming the messiness of the incarnation, the real humanity of Christ, the word made flesh as God’s full and complete revelation of God himself. Christ is king not only because he has created all that is but because he is also the one who has entered his own creation and suffered in order to save it. Christian life is not found in spiritual elitism in which only a precious few can obtain the necessary secret knowledge to escape the world. The Christian story is that because God so honored human flesh by entering into it, the spiritual path is to be found in the midst of the human condition and through its dark waters. The spiritual life is not found in trying to escape our humanity but by embracing life as a pilgrimage in the company of the saints and by following the way of Jesus.
For Paul the real proof that Christ is King of the Universe is seen in the everyday lives of those who love him and attempt in their faltering ways to follow the way of Jesus in the sacred ordinary. The only Christ the King anyone will ever see, is the reconciling community that Christ has begun in his followers. We are quite literally, my apologies to the Gnostics, the hands and feet of Jesus. The church, Christ’s body, is a community that is first and foremost a forgiven people, brought into right relationship with God. From this place of deep acceptance and love the people of God are able to demonstrate that the Kingdom has come near. Not in some overbearing hard to take, we’re always right kind of way but rather by shaping themselves into a cruciform people, facing their fears, seeking their own healing and making of themselves the shape of the cross in the way they live for and with each other.
For Paul this hymn is a song of praise for the crucified Christ. It is by the cross, through the self-giving love of Christ that humanity is salvaged and offered a new beginning. It is this mind-bending condescension of God, this wild idea that the maker of heaven and earth could die at the hands of flawed humanity that is the antidote to Gnosticism of any kind.
How is Christ the king? In love, in forgiving, in showing mercy. How is Christ King? In teaching us to face our fears, to acknowledge our needs, and to accept the generous grace of God filling us up everyday if we are willing to empty ourselves. How is Christ king? In the unexpected way of a suffering servant, through humility not entitlement. Christ is enthroned, but not in kingly raiment with the accoutrements of power. Christ is enthroned in the everyday love and service of humanity. Christ the king is found among the wounded and the lost. Christ the king is standing in the unemployment line. Christ is king in the father struggling to control his anger with his children. Christ the king is in the businessman wrestling with being honest instead of making a killing. Christ the king is in the woman finding her strength to lead in a man’s world with compassion and vision and toughness. Christ the king is reigning everywhere, everywhere the human heart is willing to be filled by the abundance of his grace. Christ plays in 10,000 places.
The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus of Nazareth that we too might know the fullness of God in our very lives, not as some fanciful idea but as the life-giving grace of relationship with God that can transform us into people whose lives are shaped by the cross, made cruciform by the stories and life and love of God in Christ. Christ is king when the love and sacrifice and self-giving of the cross invades your life and mine.