The Adventurous Lectionary – November 20, 2022 – The Reign of Christ
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 1:68-79, Colossians 1;11-20, Luke 23:33-43
In many congregations, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday will be celebrated this Sunday. The Season of Pentecost, beginning with the coming of God’s Spirit in its fullness and for all people on the Feast of Pentecost, will conclude this Sunday with an affirmation of the universality of Christ’s sovereignty and grace. God’s power and presence is universal and life-transforming.
The Reign of Christ is a curious holiday for a variety of reasons. In a pluralistic age, the image Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, is anachronistic to many persons. Most of our congregants – and the pastor her or himself – do not believe that Christ is the only way to salvation and that all other paths are false. We have rejected rightfully the notion of the “one true church,” still clung too by traditionalists of all flavors. Moreover, we recognize saving wisdom outside our own faith tradition. Further, we are skeptical of theologies that identify God with unilateral power, domineering sovereignty, or militaristic expansionism. Moreover, we struggle with patriarchal images of God and Christ often cited in these passages. Beyond that, there is little evidence that Christ is the world’s “king,” whether in USA politics (where many Christians cherish an orange haired savior, who believes he is the best thing that’s ever happened to Christianity!)
On Reign of Christ Sunday, we are faced with the following questions, worthy of addressing in a sermon or adult faith formation class or the sermon itself: How might we understand Christ’s realm, Christ’s sovereignty, in a world of many ways, a world in which we challenge crusades of all sorts, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or nationalist? How do we share the gospel in a pluralistic age? I believe that the uncritical militaristic call “onward Christian soldiers” and its variations in other traditions represent a radical abandonment of the way of Jesus and other spiritual leaders and places the fate of the earth in jeopardy. We don’t want to “crown with many crowns” a ruler who “drowns out all music but its own.” (For more on pluralism, see Bruce Epperly, “The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism.”)
The words of Jeremiah challenge shepherds who lack a servant’s heart and who tend their flocks for their own benefit. Jeremiah is referring to political as well as religious leaders, and we see evidence of corrupt shepherds in certain televangelists, America first or Christian nationalist preachers, and prevaricating, violence promoting politicians. Leadership must go beyond self-interest and personal gain, even community interests at certain times, to global loyalty. A good shepherd will arise, replace these misguided leaders, and establish a safe and bountiful haven for the flock. Shepherding is about blessing and justice, not greed and self-promotion. The true shepherd serves rather than dominates and inspires his flock toward service and mutuality that promotes community, national, and planetary well-being. But, can we count on such a shepherd in our time? What would such non-coercive shepherding look like? What happened to the good shepherds in Jeremiah’s time? Did they differ the people, or are Jeremiah’s followers and us still waiting?
John the Baptist’s father Zechariah’s words reported in Luke’s Gospel portray a similar theme. The Savior to come will guide us in the ways of peace. Although he will displace the old order and deal justly with evil acts, the new order will be characterized by grace, healing, and mercy. We will no longer need to be afraid. God’s power will be defined by love not destruction. Divine power seeks justice not self-aggrandizement. Kenotic theology, found in Zechariah, focuses on God’s relationships with humankind and the world in ways that promote justice and peace, and are willing to sacrifice for the greater good of humankind and the nature.
Colossians describes Christ as both cosmic and intimate. The Infinite is the Intimate. In the spirit of panentheism, Colossians can be interpreted to affirm “God in all things and all things in God.” Like the Logos of John’s Gospel, Christ is the creative force moving through everything. Christ unites all things and inspires the universe adventure. Everything that exists reflects God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom is affirmative. God’s goal is to empower us to be creators and artists in imitation of Christ. Further, God in Christ seeks to reconcile all things. Nothing is left out of God’s aim at salvation. There are no God-free zones in a world where God is concerned with the healing of everything and everyone.
The Gospel describes the power of forgiveness to transform us and all creation. Tormented by his enemies, nailed to a cross, Jesus still pronounces forgiveness. Jesus goes beyond self-interest to sacrifice. In a moment of transcendence – and dare we say, mystical omniscience – the dying Jesus experiences the burdens and ignorance each of us experiences. We don’t know what we’re doing any more than Jesus’ persecutors. Seduced by consumerism, we prefer comfort and profit to the survival of future generations. Duped by demagogues, we blame immigrants and refugees for job losses rather than a changing economic structure and capitalist greed. Lost in our own self-interest, we fail to hear the cries of the forgotten and vulnerable even in our own families. We all need forgiveness, we all need grace, and we all need to admit our fallibility and imperfection – our sin – and its impact on those around us and the world. Without forgiveness, we can’t move forward toward the creative transformation God envisions for us.
The way of the cross becomes the way of salvation and eternal life as a result of God’s all-embracing love, not God’s unilateral power and punishment of sinners. We need to be awestruck at such love because it is, as Bonhoeffer says, costly. It costs Jesus his life. It also is bought through God’s redemptive transformation of our pain, suffering, and violence, felt in God’s heart. God is, as Whitehead says, the fellow sufferer who understands, and only a suffering God, to quote Bonhoeffer, can save. A suffering God is strong, not weak. A suffering God may even rise up to shake up our world to bring justice to the nations and the planet. But God’s power is always loving power, relational power, healing power, and transforming power. God’s victory comes from grace.
Today, we can ponder the many faces of God’s power in the world. As God’s children, we can choose the ways of peace and reconciliation, and while we will not avoid political conflicts, we must always contend with the goal of creative transformation and reconciliation and the ultimate healing of this good earth. We will encounter other faiths with grace and humility, sharing our faith and also listening to their wisdom.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, and FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION. His latest book is THE PROPHETIC AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. He can be reached for seminars and talks at email@example.com.