This is an odd day. Though, of course, “this is the day which God has made, so we are to rejoice and be glad in it,” as the old call to worship says. But it is an “odd” day in the sense that it is a day when the Church’s calendar seems to have nothing to do with the culture’s calendar, or even nature’s calendar. Here on the 4th Sunday in November, the church celebrates the culmination of its year, pointing to the culmination of history, when Christ is Sovereign or King over everything, “seated at the right hand of God, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” as the creed proclaims. There is so much here to make us squirm.
The United Church of Christ has dealt with its discomfort over the male, hierarchical image of “Christ the King” by re-naming today “Reign of Christ Sunday.” I don’t know about you, but that falls a little flat on my ear, probably because the image of “king” is so vivid, so bright, so glittering in my mind, from so many paintings and movies, and “the reign of Christ” is so much more diffuse, abstract, and, well, dull.
But I get it–the image of the once earthly and very human Jesus, born to a peasant family, who lived and taught and healed among the poor and rejected of Palestine, and who was nailed to a cross of the Empire, now a distant king on a throne, using the nations as a footstool and con-demning a good portion of them to eternal punishment just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s the same old, same old story of absolute, dominating power. There are way too many examples of that in our world, and none of them are bringing about a new creation.
So, there’s that. And then there’s the implication, if not outright statement, that it’s only those who profess their “belief” in Christ–those who “bend the knee” to Christ– who will be saved. Is that what Jesus was about? Is that what he taught about God? That the billions of people who experience the Divine through the teachings of Hebrew scripture, or Mohammed, or the Buddha, or Hinduism, or Bahalluah are condemned to eternal punishment?
We may not all claim this label, but we have used the term “progressive Christian” to describe our church on our website and other publications. There is actually an organization, a self-identifying group of Christian churches who call themselves “progressive Christians,” and the first two of 8 points describing this informal grouping say: By calling ourselves Progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who: 1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life; (and) 2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. [progressivechristianity.org, The 8 Points] What can we mean, then, when we celebrate the “Reign of Christ”?
In her book, The Signature of All Things, author Elizabeth Gilbert has created the character of Ambrose Pike, a young botanical illustrator of the mid-1800’s. Ambrose discovered the writings of Jacob Boehme, a 16th c. cobbler from Germany who had mystical visions about plants. “The old cobbler had believed in something he called ‘the signature of all things’–namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator’s love.” (P. 229)
Ambrose Pike himself had had a mystical experience of his own, he tells his friend Alma, who was anything but mystical. When she asked him to describe what happened, Pike replied: “I met the divine,” he said, eyes bright. “Or, I believed I did. I had the most magnificent thoughts. I could read the language hidden inside trees. I saw angels living inside orchids. I saw a new religion, spoken in a new botanical language. I heard its hymns. I cannot remember the music now, but it was exquisite. Also, there was a full fortnight when I could hear people’s thoughts. I wished they could hear mine, but they did not appear to. I was kept joyous by exalted feeling, by rapture. I felt that I could never be injured again, never touched. I was no harm to anyone, but I did lose my desire for this world. I was…unparticled.” (P. 231) Now, you may consider this little more than an artistic description of insanity, and mystics have been called that and more.
But what this 16th century cobbler called “the signature of all things” has also been put into more modern terms by the very contemporary theologian Cynthia Bourgeault, whom I’ve mentioned before. Bourgeault too has discovered the writings of Jacob Boehme, and talks about this “signature” as a hologram [Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, p. 101], that is, the full imprint of divinity put into all things, “the fullness of the One who is all in all.” If, as the Church has affirmed, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, then in Christ, the “signature” or fullness of God was made known completely in a human being. That same fullness fills all in all, whether we recognize it or not, and whether we choose to live in alignment with that fullness, “obey it,” if you will, that Divine Signature is the sovereign, the essential rule, of all creation.
Images of kings and monarchs, in fact, may distract us from recognizing the Signature of all things. When we think of God only in terms of power and might and glory, we miss the face of the Divine standing before us asking for a cup of water, or a place to sleep, or something to eat; or the Signature present in the blossom of an orchid, or the antenna of a beetle, or the moss on a mountainside. It has less to do with “confessing” the name of Christ and so much more to do with acts of service and mercy to those who bear the Signature of the creator of all things. We can choose to participate in partnership with God in bringing about the new creation, or do nothing. That is what the goats in the story did–not that they committed evil acts, but they did nothing in the face of suffering. And so they were judged–they put themselves apart from the saving grace of God.
If God has pressed the fullness of divinity into all things and all people, then it is our freedom and responsibility to recognize that and act in accordance with it. To say that Christ is sovereign, that the fullness of God is all in all, then the other authorities to which our lives appear to give allegiance–the authority of consuming, the authority of the status quo, the authority of perfectionism, even the authority of government when it does not serve the common good–all these allegiances are exposed and become secondary–that is the judgment. And the grace is, as one writer puts it, that we are given “the gift of a fresh spirit of wisdom and revelation.” [C. Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org, 11/20/11] “If Christ is king,” he says, or, as we have been thinking of it, if Christ is the signature of all things, “then Christians are not helpless victims. They are conduits of Christ’s immeasurably redemptive power: the church is the very body of his fullness that fills all things with loving goodness…” If we bear God’s imprint, then “nothing–unemploy-ment, poverty, cancer, war, terrorism [or death]–nothing can break God’s self-bonding to us through Christ.” (Black, ibid.) If god’s signature is in everyone, then no one is truly a stranger, an alien, which might inform our discussion on immigration.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells this last story of the sheep and the goats just before he tells his disciples, “You know that after 2 days the Passover is coming and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” The One by whom we are judged is the One who took on human suffering. And who was not destroyed by death, even death on a cross, but rather was raised into new life, the life in which we can all take part.
So, at the end of this year, we pray for a new beginning, we pray for the coming of the kingdom in which God’s signature will be recognized in all things and all people. We pray to the Author of our days, even as Jesus prayed to his abba– O God, you love us like a good parent, and are present in every aspect of our existence May your nature become known and respected by all May your joy, peace, wholeness and justice be the reality for everyone as we live by the Jesus Way Give us all that we really need to live every day for you And forgive us our failures as we forgive others for their failures Keep us from doing those things which are not of you, and cause us always to be centred on your love For you are the true reality in this our now, and in all our future. In the Jesus Way we pray. Amen. [ D. Sorrill, cited by Rev. Re A.E. Hunt, Liturgies for the Celebration of Life, 11/23/14]
Christ is the fullness in everything. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark