Saturday, November 20, 2010
Christus vivat! Christus regnat! Christus imperavit!
[This sermon was written to be preached at Saint Faith's Anglican Church, Vancouver BC on Sunday, the 21st of November 2010, the feast of the reign of Christ.]
Collect of the Day
Holy God, our refuge and strength, you have redeemed your scattered children, gathering them from all the corners of the earth through your firstborn, the Christ, in whom all things are held together. Make of us a just and righteous people, worthy by grace to inherit with him the kingdom of light and peace where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Revised Common Lectionary Prayers
Focus Text: Colossians 1.11-20
11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 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. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 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. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 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.
Eighty-five years ago Pope Pius XI looked out on a world that was as turbulent, perhaps more turbulent, than ours. Fascism was on the rise in Italy and Germany. In the Soviet Union Stalin initiated programmes that would result in the deaths of millions of people, some by starvation, some by imprisonment in harsh conditions, some by summary executions. In Asia China was caught up in virtual civil war and Japan was quietly but firmly building up its military capabilities. In many countries anti-Christian sentiments were strong and the Roman Catholic church in particular was seen as a threat to democracy.
In the face of these and many other challenges to the Christian faith, Pius decided to issue an encyclical. An encyclical is a letter sent to all Roman Catholic bishops and is considered one the more authoritative statements a pope can make on a matter of Christian teaching. On the 11th of December 1925 Pius issued ‘Quas Primas’ in which he established a new festival in the Western Christian calendar, the feast of Christ the King. Pius believed that this new festival would be a means of holding up before all people the one who is truly ‘lord’, Jesus of Nazareth, rather than all those counterfeits who would claim human allegiance.
Over the course of the last eighty-five years Pius’ ‘new feast’ has been adopted by many Christian communities, especially those who use the three-year ecumenical lectionary, and is celebrated on the final Sunday of the Christian year. Some traditions have been uncomfortable with the use of ‘king’ and its masculine overtones. This has given rise to the practice of calling this Sunday, ‘The Reign of Christ’, a custom adopted by the Anglican Church of Canada and incorporated into our Book of Alternative Services.
But whether we call this day ‘The Feast of Christ the King’ or ‘The Reign of Christ’, there remains but one fundamental question: What does it mean to claim that Jesus is Lord in a society such as ours? As Canadians we live in a constitutional monarchy that functions primarily as a parliamentary democracy. Are we culturally accustomed to the notion of ‘lordship’? As Canadians we live in an increasingly multi-faith society where there are many people of faith who have a legitimate claim to respect rather than mere tolerance. How do we proclaim the lordship of Jesus in such a climate? As Canadians we live in a society where our legal system has to balance the claims of individual rights with the needs, concerns and well-being of the whole. In such a legal climate how do we experience the claim that Jesus makes on us to be a voice for the voiceless and to give rather than receive?
The writer of the letter to the Colossians uses quite elevated language to speak about the relationship that Christ has to God and to the community of believers. His language was influenced no doubt by the language of the imperial court and its exaltation of the emperor as divine. Our Christian writer takes this language and subverts it, turns it on its head, to assert that the real ‘emperor’ is not the one found in Rome living in luxury but the one found hanging on the cross. In this assertion we can hear the echoes of an ancient Christian chant: Christus vivat! Christus regnat! Christus imperavit! (Christ lives! Christ reigns! Christ will reign over all!)
But the rhetorical splendour of the language of Colossians has its own dark side in the history of the Christian movement. When Christians have gained political power over their religious competitors such as the Jews, polytheists and atheists alike, we have tended to forget that our Lord is one who was willing to die for others rather than summon the angels from heaven to obliterate his opponents. We have systematically persecuted the Jewish people and provided the theological rationale for the Holocaust. In our missionary efforts we have refused to see the good news of God already present in other cultures and forcibly robbed those who differ from us of their cultures, their languages and their unique insights into how God works in the world. When we have come face to face with intelligent questioners of orthodoxy, we have often compelled them to be silent and have forgotten that true faith in the living God has nothing to fear from any question. It is our history of dogmatism that has led many people to consider the Christian faith --- or any faith for that matter --- to be either irrelevant or, in the worst case, a threat to human survival.
But I have good news to share even in the face of the darker aspects of our Christian history --- we no longer hold the reins of power in many places of the world. We are presently faced with the opportunity of re-claiming what the author of the letter to the Colossians put forward to his original audience: “19 For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to [God’s very self] all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1.19-20) To claim that Jesus is Lord is to claim that God’s love made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the truth; it is, to use C. S. Lewis’ wonderful phrase, the ‘deep magic’ by which the universe actually works.
I have shared with you on other occasions, but I shall share with you once more an understanding of the foundation of the Christian faith that I learned from the late James Griffiss who taught me theology thirty years ago: When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God. Everything else we write or say is only commentary on this fundamental affirmation of faith.
And what does an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth reveal to us about the God who is fully present to us in Jesus? This God calls us to live our lives within the fellowship of people who want to participate in God’s mission to bring all of creation into a life-giving relationship with God, with each other and within ourselves. This God calls us to be courageous in naming evil when we see it at work not only in others but in ourselves. This God calls us to continue the mission begun in creation and renewed in Jesus of Nazareth by putting our hearts, souls, minds and strength at the service of that mission. This God calls us to set aside the labels we use to name some people or groups as ‘friends’ and others as ‘strangers’ so that there is only one label, ‘neighbour’. This God calls us to ensure that all human structures, whether political, social, cultural, economic, work for but one purpose: enabling every human being to become fully alive in the image and likeness of God. This is the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
To call Jesus ‘Lord’ is to proclaim our primary allegiance to the mission of God as it took form in Jesus’ ministry so long ago and as it takes form in the Spirit’s ministry begun in Jerusalem and now at work throughout the world. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ is to proclaim to all forms of human power whether political or social or cultural or economic that we will hold them accountable to the standard set in Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes this proclamation that Jesus is ‘Lord’ will bring us into external conflict with persons and structures that claim our secondary allegiance and who can exercise some coercive power over us. Sometimes we will find ourselves in conflict within the Christian community itself as we wrestle with competing and conflicting commentaries on what Jesus teaches us about the living God and about living in proper relationship with God entails.
But more often than not we will discover that seeking to be faithful to this Lord and discovering how God’s reign is already taking shape in our lives, personal and communal, and in the world makes the external and internal conflicts fade into the background. Christ is alive --- in us and through us and even despite us! Christ reigns --- in the lives of those who resist the demands of the many false gods who clamour around us --- celebrities, the rich and famous, the political demagogues and the spiritual gurus. Christ will reign over all --- not by coercion nor by enforcing a mindless conformity --- Christ will reign over all through the self-surrender that seeks the good of the neighbour rather than our own self-interest.
Let us pray.
Holy One of Israel, you reveal your fullness in Jesus of Nazareth. Look upon us, your people, who rejoice in your justice and mercy. Grant that your reign may be revealed in our own time and come to its completion at the time of your choosing. Amen.