God save the queen
Have any of you been watching the Netflix series The Crown about Queen Elizabeth and her family in Great Britain? I was really enjoying it until it got to this season which is all about the unfortunate marriage of Charles and Diana, and I admit that I had to stop watching. My opinion of the system of monarchy – of course as an American I’m glad we broke away from it – was relieved of any romanticized notions.
The Origin of Christ the King
But let’s go back almost 100 years. In 1925, Pope Pius XI was very troubled by the political climate of that time. Dictators, like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Pius, concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, introduced a new day onto the Church calendar – the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping to show that the authority of the Church was separate from and free from the state.
Having said that, I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your calendar. Maybe you recognize it as the last Sunday in the church year, the Sunday before Advent. I confess that I’ve often looked at this day as an archaic remnant of a bygone time. Thinking back, most sermons I can remember giving began: “Now we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.”
Be careful what you wish for
Of course, we can read about it in the Bible. The reading from Ezekiel is a condemnation of Israel’s kings, whose failed leadership led to their captivity in Babylon. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because Samuel had long before tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.
And so it did. What’s really important about this warning is that’s an expression of the tension between prophets and rulers. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel weren’t predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state -which is still the role of prophets today.
Which brings me back again to Pope Pius and Christ the King. Even though the original intent of the day was a good one, there are still some problems. As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me. I’m a firm believer that language matters, and that includes the words we use in church. In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018 on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” (Part 1; Part 2) And #1 on my list of action items was: “Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God” – which, by the way, we got incorporated into the ELCA’s latest social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”
“We don’t have a king.” – Monty Python
So I’ve always resisted using ‘king’ language because of the gender issue. Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t completely solve it. If you’re a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you might remember the scene where Arthur reveals himself to a peasant as his king. The peasant, who is not impressed replies, “Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society?”
You see, patriarchy isn’t just a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc. And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our understanding of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.
The ‘Basileia tou Theou‘ has come near.
Now I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. This is still a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21st century in the midst of the issues of our day. Therefore, along with ‘king,’ there is also the question of ‘kingdom.’ ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But ‘basileia’ is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Some New Testament scholars are even calling it the ’empire’ of God – because Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the ’empire of Rome.’
Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes ‘basiliea tou theou’ as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the ‘divine commonwealth.’ Kin-dom of God is coming more and more into use.
Living in the Divine Milieu
As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind ’empire of God,’ I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to ‘kin-dom’ or ‘divine commonwealth’ because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the ‘divine milieu’ of early 20th century scientist-priest Teilhard de Chardin.
In this ‘divine milieu,’ Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teilhard, Christ isn’t just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism.
With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teilhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.
If that sounds too far out, remember that even a spirituality of the divine milieu includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day. Our relationship with the Divine is a personal one, as near to us as our breath.
And when we look at each other, we can even see Christ embodied. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that. Simple when it’s the people we love or the people who are like us. And even that gets challenging at times, right? The face of Christ in the spouse you’re fighting with? The child having the temper tantrum? The parent being intrusive? Even harder when it’s the people we don’t like, the unlovely and unlovable. The difficult, the challenging. All these people matter to God, as Jesus always made clear.
This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem too big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or our national and global challenges, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message of this final Sunday of the church year.
It is a countercultural way of being – being willing just to be open to loving all God’s people and thus being open to finding ways to love even the most challenging. It’s a recognition that we live in the gracious reign of Christ, the commonwealth of God, in which love rules – not political maneuvering, economic gain, national boundaries or military might – in this realm the only legitimate exercise of power is the non-coercive way of the open heart.
How do you live out your faith in your life?
A while back, I got a call from a local high school student who needed to interview a Christian for her paper on world religions. One of the questions she asked was how do you live out your faith in your life. That might seem like a no-brainer for a pastor; after all I get paid for being a professional Christian. But after giving that smart-alecky answer, I gave my real response. I said that I’m called – as every Christian is – to follow the wisdom of Christ in everything I do: what I eat, where I shop, who I love, how I respond to those I find hard to even like, how I vote.
The Charter for Compassion
I’m talking about how we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, the Alpha and Omega into action in the world. And I’ve come to one conclusion. One word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic. But at the of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in both 2015 and 2018, I learned more about The Charter for Compassion, a global movement that connects organizers and leaders from around the world to create networks to provide all kinds of resources for creating compassionate communities and institutions.
The charter, adopted in 2008 and endorsed by more than two million people around the world, calls upon “all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion – to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate – to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures – to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity – to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.”
As Christians, we come to the table of initiatives like this in awareness of our mandate from the teachings of Jesus. As difficult as they may be to follow – and let’s admit it, they can be difficult – they comprise our job description as disciples. Thankfully, we also know that as hard as we try and with all our best intentions, we can’t save the world. Sometimes we’re even the goats in the gospel story. Knowing our limitations, knowing the complexity of our response to the call of discipleship, we are grateful to be able to run to the offer of grace always open to us. And then return, with renewed conviction to the ethic of the divine milieu, the kin-dom of God.
Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. We live in an unprecedented time. Our government in crisis, we’re a severely divided nation, our very environmental system is in crisis, we’re suffering the effects (physical, economic, emotional) of an out-of-control pandemic. Add all that to our individual lives with our everyday stresses and strains. Add it to the church, where we long to go for comfort and peace, yet already before COVID struggling to adjust to new realities.
The Cosmic Christ in the World
How do we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in this world? As we stand on the cusp of a new church year, ready to enter the season of Advent waiting and expectation, we are gently reminded not to succumb to discouragement. Because as we go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, we go knowing that we’re loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. It’s bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take heart – and action. In the name of Christ, the true anointed one. Amen.
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel: I, I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when their flocks are scattered in every direction, so I will search for my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they scattered on a day of cloud and thick shadow. I will bring them out from the countries and bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by its streams and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them on good pasture land, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing ground.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and have them lie down, thus says the Holy One, the God of Israel. I will seek out the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, for you shove aside the weak with flank and shoulder; you butt them with your horns until they are scattered in every direction. I will save my flock and they will be ravaged no longer. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will set up over them one shepherd to care for them: my servant David. He will care for them and be their shepherd. And I will be their God, and my servant David will be their leader. I, YHWH, have spoken.
“At the appointed time the Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels of heaven, and will sit upon the royal throne, with all the nations assembled below. Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on the right hand, the goats on the left.
“The king will say to those on the right, ‘
Come, you blessed of God! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world! For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then these just will ask,
‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’
The king will answer them,
‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.’
“Then the king will say to those on the left,
‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’
Then they in turn will ask,
‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’
The answer will come,
‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’
They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”