The Last Sunday after Pentecost: The Reign of Christ (Proper 29-C), 24 November 2019
November 24, 2019 | by David Grant Smith
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Jeremiah 23:1-6||Luke 1:68-79 (Song of Zechariah)||Colossians 1:11-20||Luke 23:33-43||Jeremiah 23:1-6||Psalm 46|
Exploring the (Feast?) Day
Though in many denominational traditions this Sunday is simply referred to as the Last Sunday after Pentecost, there are some who either add or substitute a title to it — some call it The Reign of Christ, while others refer to it as the Feast of Christ the King.
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, commonly referred to as the Feast of Christ the King or Christ the King Sunday, is a relatively recent addition to the Western liturgical calendar, having been instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI for the Roman Catholic Church. In 1970 its Roman Catholic observance was moved to the final Sunday of Ordinary Time. Therefore, the earliest date on which it can occur is 20 November and the latest is 26 November. The Anglican, Lutheran, and many other Protestant churches also celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, which is contained in the Revised Common Lectionary. [“Feast of Christ the King”, Wikipedia]
As I noted at the beginning of the month for All Saints’ Day, it can often be useful to look at a Collect of the Day for any given observance in order to explore the themes within the day, the scripture readings for the day, as well as its traditions. In my tradition, the Episcopal Church, which officially still refers to the day as the Last Sunday after Pentecost (although many local parishes refer to it by one of the aforementioned titles), offers this as the Collect:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 236]
When I find myself in a position or context in which I am free to exercise some liturgical liberties (i.e., when my bishop and parish leadership encourage such creativity), I would rework such a collect to be more in keeping with process thinking, as well as a more progressive/inclusive theological perspective:
Most holy and everlasting God, whose will it is to reconcile all things: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, who are divided and have lost their way, may be found and brought together into your most gracious love; through your well-beloved Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray. Amen.
As process preachers, we want to tread carefully around the issue of such words as “Almighty” when speaking to (or about) God. The use of such words weaves a tapestry which begins to look an awful lot like omnipotence — cue the “Hallelujah” and/or “Worthy Is the Lamb-Amen” Choruses from Handel’s oratorio Messiah! Although there is a seemingly subtle difference between restore and reconcile, as I read the gospels (as well as Paul, cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20), it seems to me like reconciliation is something which we are called (lured, empowered?) to participate in implying that it is a collaborative and co-creative ministry, whereas the idea of restoration is more of a passive thing which is done to us from a top-down hierarchical “power.”
In both versions of this Collect, there is mention of the peoples of the earth being divided and brought together. Expressed in process terms, this can easily serve as a metaphor of Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysic of creativity, in which “The many become one, and are increased by one” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 21]. This day could easily become a celebration of how the Christ-event can be seen as an event by which creativity and novelty become incarnated — not just in the Jesus of once-upon-a-time-ago, but daily in each of us through moment-by-moment transformation.
I named this section “Exploring the (Feast?) Day” intentionally including parentheses and a question mark, because in my mind celebrating it as a Feast, rather than as the Last Sunday after Pentecost, seems to defeat the purpose of the day, which is to consider what it would look like if the kingdom/kindom of God which Jesus proclaimed were to become a reality. If Jesus and/or God were the “king of the world,” that reality would not have need for pomp and pageantry to draw attention to itself. If Christ were king, would he rule from a golden throne, or would he lead by example from the margins of society on a wooden cross? This is the central question to be explored through today’s readings. And how we answer that question will determine whether we ultimately decide how (or whether) we observe the day as a Feast dedicated to royal power or as a Sunday which looks forward to a new and radically different way of understanding that it is the power of vulnerability which is at the heart of Jesus’ gospel message.
As the prophet proclaims “woe” to the naughty shepherds, there is also a proclamation that it will be good when “the many become one” as the divine lure is heeded by a righteous shepherd who has more than self interests at heart. The prophet is painting a picture in which scattering is seen as being contrary to the divine vision of transformation for the world. Rather, bringing the diversely scattered sheep together is what is needed for there to be the kind of justice which the prophet proclaims. The prophet is proclaiming that the righteous shepherd isn’t working alone, but that God is intimately involved in the process of bringing the many into one. In the ancient context into which these words were first offered, this was a direct reference to the desire that the Israelites who had been taken into exile would be brought back together into their rightful homeland, where they would be “fruitful and multiply” (23:3b). In a contemporary context, this set of images can be understood to be a proclamation of God’s blessing being on how diverse peoples can come together, and how societies can be justly ordered to keep people from feeling exiled from (or even within) their own homes and contexts, whether they are native-born or immigrated to their present homes.
The prophet also proclaims “nor shall any be missing” (23:4b) when the sheep are brought together. There will be none who are not included; no one will be cast aside; there are no more margins on which to leave anyone. This sentiment can be expressed in terms of process thought by noting that this means that all the “sheep” are to be seen as being of great (and equal!) value. If there are none who are missing, there is no loss of potential to grieve, no lost opportunities to mourn. It is this process of valuation and removing the potential for lost opportunity which is often how process theologians frame the notion of salvation and redemption. Here in Jeremiah, the proclamation is that this salvation is thorough by leaving no one out. The initial aim is finding home within the “sheep” — all of them — thereby empowering the vision of God for transformation in the world to take place.
Luke 1:68-79 (The Song of Zechariah)
Like last week, this is another of the rare Sundays of the lectionary when the response to the first reading doesn’t come from the book of Psalms. This week’s response comes from the Gospel of Luke (1:68-79), and is usually referred to as the Song of Zechariah, especially when used in liturgical settings as a response to a reading. The backstory of this passage is that an angel visited Zechariah and brought him tidings that in their old age he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. When Zechariah questioned as to how two old people could possibly have a baby, the angel rendered Zechariah mute and completely unable to speak until the baby was born. Later, when John wrote down that the baby should be called John, the name the angel had given him nine months prior, Zechariah’s ability to speak returned. The first words on Zechariah’s lips after nine months of silence is this prophetic vision of how God is always in the process of delivering Israel from enemies, and how this baby which is their son will help to pave the way for the next step in that process.
Though not every congregation may be ready to hear this, the likelihood that these exact words were actually uttered by Zechariah (or maybe even that there even was a Zechariah!) is pretty slim. It’s fairly clear that the author of Luke-Acts was framing the birth narrative of Jesus with the birth narrative of John the Baptist — after all, the two birth narratives are told in Luke side by side, alternating the pieces of the two stories from John to Jesus to John to Jesus. And, as is the case in the other Synoptics, Jesus’ ministry is then launched after his encounter with John who baptized him.
As with Jeremiah above, redemption/salvation is among the themes to be found in the Song of Zechariah; this is essentially what the “thesis statement” is at the outset of Zechariah’s proclamation (1:68). What follows is a section of verses which reflect on how this particular moment of Zechariah’s experience has been framed by the history of ancient Israel’s past (1:69-75). This part of the Song of Zechariah gives witness to his people’s legacy; Zechariah (or, more likely, the author of Luke-Acts) sees a legacy which is a thread of continuity woven through the past and which he perceives as being hurled from that past-tense experience into the then-future-tense context of his own present-tense reality.
Then Zechariah’s proclamation moves into his own present-tense context — the birth of his son John (1:75-78). Zechariah sees in John the potential which the angel foretold nine months earlier: that John will be a prophet — “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High…” As is commonly found in readings toward the end of the Liturgical Year, this text is an anticipation of something which is already happening as well as something yet-to-come — in this case it’s about both the becoming of this child’s life and the becoming of the one for whom he will prepare a way. The baby John’s becoming will grow into the man John whose becoming will be a harbinger of other things to come. John will become an embodiment of the initial aim with a present-tense urgency, all the while pointing towards a possible future-tense becoming for his cousin Jesus.
The idea that an infant will be a prophet seems backwards. Prophets are people who are thought of as being sages, filled with the wisdom of much life experience. But the author of the Gospel of Luke was interested in showing things which were backwards, upside-down, or the opposite of the current ways of the world. As I noted in the All Saints’ Day commentary, Luke is framed by thematic “bookends” which proclaim that God’s mission in the world is to turn things right-side-up, which to humans in the present-tense reality seems like a move towards being upside-down. [The “bookend” at the beginning is the Song of Mary (l:46-55); the one at the end is the final part of today’s Gospel reading (23:39-43).] Zechariah’s Song isn’t the first time which this vision of right-side-upping is offered in the trajectory of ancient Israel’s history. This sentiment is expressed vividly in a prophetic vision frequently called “The Peaceable Kingdom” in Isaiah 11:6-9, and then echoed again in Isaiah 65:25, which we encountered last week. And the idea of right-side-upping the world is the major theme of Jesus’ ministry throughout Luke; and the author even uses the phrase “turning the world upside down” in Acts 17:6 as part of an accusation against those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus.
The Song of Zechariah then closes with another framing of the anticipated reality toward which he believes the birth of his child points (1:78-79). Zechariah (and/or the Luke-Acts author) is careful to not say that this piece of the vision is brought about by his child, but rather is the result of God’s action in the world. By God’s mercy there will be light in the darkness and peace on earth. Yet, there is a spirit of collaboration in the delivery of this last part — God will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” God may lead and lure us toward the pathways of peace and light, but we need to use our feet and other abilities to work together with God to co-create this potential reality which lies before us in the open future. Intentionally discerning and being attentive to this lure, embodying it in our daily lives, and acting on that lure is what the path to peace is all about — it is what brings about the kindom of God as proclaimed by Christ.
There will be a temptation for many congregants to hear Colossians 1:11’s invocation of strength, power, and endurance as triumphal words steeped in a philosophy of “might makes right.” This can be especially true in a context in which this day is identified as a celebration of Christ the King (rather than the Reign of Christ or the Last Sunday after Pentecost). It will be important to remind listeners that the power of Jesus/Christ isn’t found in coercion or domination but in persuasion and vulnerability. The author of this Letter to the Colossians (who is at least very familiar with Paul’s writing if it isn’t Paul himself), helps to link that concept of power to that sense of persuasion and vulnerability by linking it, and the Colossians themselves, to the “inheritance of the saints in the light” (1:12). The “inheritance of the saints” is another concept which we encountered earlier this month, and was unpacked in the Ephesians reading of the All Saints’ Day commentary.
The author of Colossians goes on to proclaim that those who are part of this company of saints are rescued “from the power of darkness” (coercion/domination/exploitation) and moved from that context into “the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (1:13-14). A certain irony of this passage — made especially poignant by its use on this particular day of the Church Year — can be found by a reflection on the historic trajectory of the Christian Church from its humble and persecuted beginnings, onward into the amassing of wealth and power over the centuries, and its role in the perpetuation of European colonialism, misogyny, racism/slavery, heterosexism, classism, and imperialism.
Alfred North Whitehead makes note of this problematic trajectory when he writes that the “brief Galilean vision of humility flickered through the ages, uncertainly” and then ultimately the “Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 342]. The “Galilean vision of humility” is a beautiful and evocative way of summarizing the central message of Jesus! Whitehead goes on to compare the way that Christian (and other) trajectories have gone astray from what would have been in keeping with the message of Jesus:
“There is… in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 343]
However one might label this particular Sunday, it will be imperative to give witness to the fact that the Church, which is identified here (1:18) and throughout the New Testament, as “the body” of Christ, has in many ways gone astray from the intended path of the one who is identified as “the head.” In order to bring into fruition the vision of Jesus as received from God, the Church must be ready to admit to, repent from, make amends for, and leave behind the errors of its ways.
The second half of this week’s epistle reading is believed by many scholars to be a quotation from an ancient hymn of the early Church (1:15-20): “He is the image of the invisible God…” The word “image” is the Greek word “εἰκὼν” (icon), and is not only intended to be a christological statement about Jesus of Nazareth, but is also an intentional and poetic harkening back to Genesis 1:26-27 which proclaims that God created all of humanity “in the image of God.” The Greek word εἰκὼν is used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis, and would have been the version of the Hebrew Scriptures known to most of the early Church. A process notion of how humanity is made in God’s image is often expressed in terms of relationality — God created humanity to be effected by others while having an effect on others, to be aware of the effect others have on us and the way we have an effect on others — all the while being rooted in a profound sense of interdependence. The very first verse of this ancient hymn is a statement that, like Jesus who came to be called Christ, we are also “the image of the invisible God…” The author of Colossians is linking all of us to Jesus, and implying that this hymn is also about us.
What follows the εἰκὼν reference in the hymn is an intensely and intentionally cosmic paradigm, asserting that the Christ event is, was, and ever shall be the lens by which followers of Jesus will shape their worldview. One could go so far as to say that this hymn is stating that the Christ-event is forever becoming part of the way that Christians construct their metaphysic of reality itself. A process reading of this text — though perhaps a bit of a stretch! — could see in it the notion that the Christ-event is the novelty and/or creativity being introduced into each moment of possibility on its way toward becoming a moment of actualized reality.
Perceiving the Christ-event on such a cosmic level — together with the invocation of strength, power, and endurance in 1:11 above — can imply an omnipotent Christ-as-cosmic-king image if we aren’t careful. But in this context, “cosmic” isn’t to be equated with omnipotence; rather, it is a statement of universality. The Christ-event, which is forever a becoming reality within the cosmos, is something which can be experienced by all of us. The cosmic scope of the hymn finds its culmination in 1:20 with the assertion that “through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” Perhaps the author wanted to include the text of this hymn in this Letter to the Colossians in order to make the same point which was made by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, which proclaims that anyone who is in Christ becomes a “new creation” (i.e., novelty), and that the process by which this renewing happens is through “the ministry of reconciliation.” As we enter more and more into the Christ-event — that process by which we are transformed to help transform the world — we learn to see more and more of the world around as as being interrelated to us in intimate and significant ways. We are connected to Christ, to each other, to our neighbors, to ourselves, to the world, to the cosmos.
As noted above in the commentary on the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and as noted in the All Saints’ Day commentary, the author of Luke framed this gospel with “bookends” of how the message and ministry of Jesus works to turn the world upside-down from a human perspective, but that it is actually a right-side-upping of the world from God’s perspective. Near the beginning of Luke, the first “bookend” is the Song of Mary (or Magnificat, 1:46-55). The “bookend” near the end of Luke is found in the second half of this week’s reading in Jesus’ conversation with one of the others who was also crucified with him (23:39-43). It’s true that there can be found narrative before and after these “bookends,” but I suggest that what comes before the first one is simply a backstory which helps to provide the context into which Jesus was born; and what follows after the latter is a testimony to what happens when one learns to see the world as God does through the radical reordering of the world through right-side-upping.
At the beginning of this week’s Gospel reading, we jump right into the details of how Jesus was executed by crucifixion. I do not pretend to be an expert in Ancient Roman culture by any means, but from what I’ve read of it, I have the impression that there was no death sentence more to be abhorred than crucifixion. Not only was it a grueling and painfully slow death, but it was also reserved only for the worst kinds of criminals — enemies of the Empire — and was intentionally demeaning of one’s humanity. That loss of dignity was often felt as a greater sense of shame in cultural contexts where there was a taboo on things like public nudity or allowing bodily functions to happen in public. The idea was to humiliate those who were crucified as much as possible (and to make them feel as much suffering as possible), as well as to deter anyone else from doing anything which would have them run the risk of suffering a similar fate.
The first paragraph of this passage (1:33-38) makes it very clear that in the eyes of the Roman Empire, Jesus was seen as being the worst of the worse. He was nailed to a crossbeam in a public space, stripped of his clothing, mocked, ridiculed, taunted, and humiliated. On top of all that, the Romans went a step further by humiliating everyone who saw the spectacle by saying that this naked, dying, taunted man was their “king.” The inscription was not placed there to indicate anything about the message which Jesus had preached — because he preached that God should be “king” of the whole world, rather than Caesar or Herod — but instead, the title above Jesus was to indicate what the Romans thought about the Jews whose land they were occupying. In the eyes of Rome, this “bandit” who was dying in shame and humility was better than all of them.
The first paragraph of this reading could make a great starting point for a sermonic conversation on the consequent nature of God who feels and experiences all that we feel and experience. In fact, it can be said that in some ways our experience help to shape the image of God. So the details of Jesus’ crucifixion, and all that he endured and experienced in the moments leading up to his death were also experienced in the same measure by God. Because God is relational by nature, whatever is experienced within the depth and breadth of the cosmos, for good or ill, is also experienced by God. Process theologians avoid assigning omnipotence to God in any way, but are quick to say that the relational God is omnipresent, experiencing everything which is experienced anywhere in the universe; and that God’s experience of the world helps to make God who God is: “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God” [Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 348].
Another observation about the power of vulnerability as expressed in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth can be found in how he relates to everyone around him throughout the Gospel of Luke, but most especially in Luke’s descriptions of the Passion narrative, the final portion of which is this week’s passage. We see this starting in Gethsemane with Jesus’ urging the disciples to “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial” and his prayer that God will “remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (22:40, 42); his proclamation of irony to Judas that it was “with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man” (22:48); his stand against violence made clear by the healing of one struck by a sword (22:51); and his chastising the temple guards for arresting him under cover of darkness rather than in broad daylight in the temple (22:52-53). It continues in his refusal to give credence to any of the charges brought against him before the Council (22:66-71), Pilate (23:1-5), and Herod (23:6-12). It persists as he makes the journey to Golgotha when we see Jesus minister to the women mourning his condemnation (23:27-31), and it reaches a climax when he prays for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). If the image of God within each human being is our awareness of how we are interrelated to everyone and everything, Jesus surely bears that image most brightly as a shining light up to his dying breaths in which he verbally affirms his relationship with those who are dying alongside him — “today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43) — as well as his relatedness with God and his belief that this relationship transcends even the seeming finality of death — “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46).
Then what of the conversation with the other condemned men dying alongside Jesus, which is the culminations of this week’s reading? The radical message of Jesus, framed by Luke as being a reversal of what we know as the current order of things, is that God was equally present with them as with Jesus, equally feeling their suffering, equally experiencing their shame and humility, equally knowing their grief and pain. In the Roman Empire, the notion that God would be intimately familiar with a condemned upstart preacher like Jesus was one thing; but that Jesus would consider God to be intimately close as to call him “Abba” (“Papa”) was another — let alone that God would be intimately acquainted with a criminal who was condemned for doing violence (as these other two probably were). This is the world turned upside down from a human perspective; this is the world turned right-side-up in God’s eyes. God is as close to anyone as their own breath and skin are. There may be consequences for our actions; there may be suffering which we endure at the hands of others; there may be violence, illness, or accidents which shorten the span of life; but in all these things the intimate and omnipresent love of God is a reality in each moment of our becoming.
A further right-side-upping of the world can be seen in Jesus’ assertion that the criminal who spoke with him will be with him “in Paradise.” The word “Paradise” itself is intended to evoke an image of a garden. Like the “image” reference to Genesis in today’s reading from Colossians, “Paradise” is used here as a reference to the “Eden” of Genesis. Jesus’ message to the other criminal(s) — was he addressing just one, or both of them? — was that death is not an ending, but rather a beginning. The intimate relationship which Jesus enjoyed with God was (and is) one which transcends even death; and he/they would be experiencing God’s relational intimacy together in community as they faced their present circumstance of death, as well as beyond the moment of death as they were received into Paradise. They, alongside Jesus, were going to be received into God just as he believed that he would be. And beyond the moment and harsh seeming finality of death there will be new, creative, transformative experiences waiting. In this cosmic vision of relational intimacy, Jesus isn’t the only one who is a son or daughter of God, but we all are — every single one of us, no exceptions! And this is the Good News of God’s right-side-upping mission in the world. And this is the work to which we are called as co-creators with God, for which we are empowered as ambassadors of reconciliation — to turn the world over.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is presently pursuing the D.Min. degree at Claremont School of Theology, focusing his studies on process theology as a resource for parish ministry and spiritual care. While at CST, David is thrilled to be currently working as the Process & Faith Coordinator at the Center for Process Studies. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional, serving as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, tea, wine, and spending time with family & friends.