Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Do You Have a Puny Jesus?

STH Community Worship
Wednesday 28 November 2007
Celebration of Christ the King

Do you have a puny Jesus?

When I ask this, I am not so much concerned about the height of your Jesus.  Jesus lived in a time when the stature of human males was somewhat diminutive in comparison with present demographics.  If you believe the Shroud of Turin, Jesus was about 5 foot 7 inches.  Here at Marsh Chapel we have three Jesuses, one in the rear stained glass window, one in the altarpiece and one in the Rose window.  I think the one in the rose window is probably the tallest although he is seated so it is somewhat hard to judge.  The moral of this story is that if you find the height of your Jesus to be a topic of existential concern for you, you can see Dean Hill and I’m sure he would be more than happy to loan you one of ours.  Just be sure to have filled out your pledge card.

I, for one, am not particularly concerned about Jesus’ height but about Jesus’ depth.  I am concerned, on this celebration of Christ the King, that perhaps our Jesus has become puny and shallow.  So I ask again, do you have a puny Jesus?

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.

Sovereign God, ruler of creation,
we come before your throne
in meekness before the mystery of your majesty.
We pray you send your Spirit, the holy comforter,
to enlighten our hearts and minds
in the glory and power of your Son, Christ the King.
May the words that we speak and the meditations we offer
be a prayer of sweet smelling incense before you,
who reigns with your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

There are two ways in which we make Jesus puny.

First, we make Jesus puny when Jesus becomes for us merely Christ the King.

The soldiers hanging out near the cross certainly saw Jesus as merely Christ the King.  They placed the sign that read “This is the King of the Jews” on the cross and then demanded of Jesus that he save himself.  They had a view of kingship based on the Roman imperial model.  The idea that Jesus, if indeed he was a king, was also God would not have been strange to them who worshipped the emperor as a god.  But, if indeed he was a king, and thus a god, he should have been able to get himself down from the cross.  And yet, there he hung.  Apparently, Jesus was not merely a king, or even a king, let alone a god, at least according to their test. 

The people standing by, who mere days earlier hailed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the coming of the king who would redeem Israel, now demanded the same sign from Jesus to prove that he was Messiah, the anointed one, the king.  Get yourself down from the cross!  Save yourself as you saved others!  Bah!  How dare you call yourself a king!

The first thief had more hope.  Of course, he had more at stake.  Please Jesus, be the Messiah, the king, because if you are king you can save yourself and me!

Either/or; one or the other; all or nothing.  Jesus hung on a cross between two thieves, reduced to the dichotomy of king or bandit.

In our day kingship is not the reduction we most frequently hear demanded of Jesus.  Much more frequent is the image of Jesus as savior.  If you pray the right prayer and assent to the right beliefs Jesus will save you from your sins.  Other times it is Jesus the healer.  If you only pray hard enough, Jesus will heal you or your loved one.  Of course, all too frequently, Jesus fails the test.  Some of the most sinful people in our society are also the most convinced that they are saved, and the recovery of our loved ones is equally likely predicted by the flip of a coin as by the intensity of our prayer.

But even when it works, even when lives are changed by commitment to an ideal of goodness, courage, and righteousness and when people are healed from their diseases, conditions and infirmities, still Jesus is impoverished.  Jesus becomes uni-dimensional.  Jesus is king.  Jesus is savior.  Jesus is healer.  Either/or; one or the other; all or nothing.

What happened to the expansive vision of Jesus advocated by the author of the letter to the Colossians?  Image of the invisible God!  Firstborn of all creation!  Creator of all things in heaven and on earth.  Creator of all things visible and invisible.  The one before all things who holds them all together.  Head of the church.  Firstborn from the dead!  Dwelling place of God! 

Where is this Jesus who is before, above, below, beyond?  Such a Jesus certainly cannot be stuffed wholly or even partly into a single image or symbol.  Such a Jesus cannot be reduced to either/or.  Such a Jesus defies one or the other and transcends all and nothing. 

Do you have a puny Jesus?  Or does your Jesus burst the bonds of narrow categories and images?  Does your Jesus fit neat and tidy in a carry-out box to be toted home and conveniently stored in the refrigerator until he is convenient for consumption?  Or does your Jesus demand a rich panoply of overlapping and interrelated symbols that impinge upon your every thought, belief and action merely to be present to you in the various ways relevant to your existential situation but still and beyond the needle-eye scope of your imagination?  Is Jesus merely Christ the King, savior from sin and healer of infirmities, or is Jesus also Lamb of God, the Cosmic Christ, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, second person of the Trinity, historical figure, liberator, judge, prophet, priest, bread, wine, water, oil, soldier, sage, saint, black, white, brown, yellow, red, male, female, gay, straight, tall, short, broken, whole, lover, enemy, master, servant, stranger, friend?

Do you have a puny Jesus?

Second, we make Jesus puny when Jesus is stripped of his kingship entirely.

Kingship was an important symbol for ancient Israelite religion.  Our reading from Jeremiah points to this first in reference to David, the quintessential image of the ideal King for Israel.  Jeremiah then goes on to draw a line from David through the present and projects it on into the future when a new king, a “righteous Branch,” will be raised up.  The suggestion that this king will “deal wisely” is a reminder of Solomon, the penultimate expression of Israelite kingship, or the ultimate depending on whether you are reading Chronicles or the Samuel/Kings narrative.  The reading appears in the lections for Christ the King Sunday as we Christians have a penchant for reading Jesus back into the prophetic tradition.

The symbolism of kingship is also a frustrating one for the Israelites, however.  Not that they hadn’t been warned!  All the way back in First Samuel, God declared:

‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

They had indeed been warned, and yet were somehow surprised when it turned out exactly as God said it would!  The Book of Kings is a rehearsal of the kingly reign over Israel, many of the depictions including the line, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done.”

In the prophetic tradition, kingship has been transformed, as terms are wont to do.  Terminology – theological, liturgical, scriptural, and ordinary – is transformed as it is specified to particular contexts and then transposed, along with its specified meaning, into other contexts.  In the new context, the meaning of the term must expand to encompass the new situation along with the old, but also leaving something of the old behind.  Over time, such as the period from the end of the kingly rule to the rise of the prophetic tradition in the context of exile, terms are adapted for present use, even as they seek to carry over the best of their prior meaning.  Such an historical link is important for the value of the new meaning of the term, even if the history carried forward is only partially representative of the facts of the past.  Jeremiah looks back at David and Solomon, the progenitors of kingly rule in Israel, and highlights their qualities of wisdom, justice and righteousness, overlooking their indiscretions and minor transgressions.  Just as Jeremiah overlooked the indiscretions of his primal leading figures in the face of national travesty and destruction, so too we may overlook the indiscretions of our not-too-distant leaders for hope and courage in the face of economic recession and humiliating moral collapse.

The importance of kingship for Israelite religion is not justification in itself for keeping the symbol in contemporary practice.  Symbols can be, and sometimes are, excised from traditions.  We no longer live in a medieval feudal society, and so it may be that the image of the king is one that is up for such erasure.  More frequently, however, symbols are transformed from the context in which they were initially introduced to have altered meanings such that the value of the symbol is carried over.  Such is the case with the very feast we celebrate today.  The feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by the papal encyclical Quas Primas as a means of combating the virulent –isms of its day – communism, Marxism, fascism, and above all secularism.  The encyclical announces a kingdom not of this world.  “It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”  Doubtless, however, is the fact that such a kingdom will indeed have an impact in mortal, finite, temporal life.

Of course, the carryover of value in the symbol from the past along with the finite creation of value for the symbol in the present inevitably brings with it unintended referents.  Kingship derives from an inherently masculine word and so risks the continued exclusion of women.  Kingship implies the unrestricted ability to exercise power and so invokes the very reasons democracy has developed as the hallmark of modern western civilization.  Kingship, looking all the way back to First Samuel, risks oppression and enslavement, which would be a crushing blow to the achievements of freedom and universal human rights.

What then are we to do with kingship?  Some, no doubt, would advocate its erasure.  But eliminating a symbol is not so easy.  Symbols are the bearers of meaning and value in religions and in all aspects of our lives.  They should not be cast aside without great care and consideration.  To do so risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater, a cliché with perhaps greater resonance as we look toward Advent and Christmas.  And we should give our symbols a second look, a second glance, a second chance given their propensity for transformation.  You never know, it may just turn out to be ourselves who are transformed.

Do you have a puny Jesus?  Or is your Jesus so deep that no symbol alone is large enough to contain him and even a plethora of symbols are only able to mediate him in the relevant respects?  Are you willing to risk an engagement with your creator, the one who gives you life, love, hope and courage, the very ground of your being, with all of the attendant baggage of unintended consequences?

Christ is the king who hangs upon the cross and does not save himself, and so reconciles all things to God.  Hosanna to the son of David.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Amen.