Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Most Controversial Statement We Can Ever Make

‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."’
Luke 23: 33-43

Christ is King!  That, brothers and sisters, is the most controversial, most radical statement that any person can ever make.  Today, on the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, and the last Sunday of our liturgical year, we mark an occasion that we call Christ the King Sunday.  While it is not an official high holy day in the Episcopal Church, it was created to be such a day by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  The purpose was, as he said then, “that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.”   While it does not hold quite the same solemnity for us as it does for our Roman brothers and sisters, it is still a day we mark with great joy—which is why we wear white—as we mark the end of one church year and the start of the new one with the same bold proclamation:  Christ is King!

Why would I say suggest that this is the most radical statement any of us can ever make?  Because, simply put, if Christ is King, then it means nobody else is.  If Christ is our Lord, our sovereign, the one to whom we owe our allegiance, our devotion, and our love, then there can be none other besides him.  For the earliest Christians it meant that if Christ is King, Caesar is not.  Down through the ages the same has been echoed.  Whether in imperial colonies, totalitarian states, benevolent monarchies, or even democratic republics, if Christ is King, then the monarch, the dictator, the president, or the state is not.  It’s not hard to see why a great many have lost their lives being bold enough to make this proclamation. 

To be fair, if Jesus looks and functions like every other kind of ruler, then I suppose declaring, ‘Christ is King!’ wouldn’t be quite so radical or unsettling. When we behold images of Jesus like the Christus Rex in my congregation—which literally means, ‘Christ the King’—it’s not hard to imagine Jesus merely stepping into the place of an earthly authority; in fact, as Christianity spread throughout the world that is exactly what happened.  In art Jesus was often depicted as a conquering warrior, beating down the forces of Satan under his feet; or as a monarch seated on a throne with a crown of jewels on his head, and a scepter in his hand, decked out in the finest royal garments.  Especially in lands where Christianity became the dominant religion, Jesus merely took the place of whatever the sovereign of that land looked like.

Good Shepherd’s Christus Rex

Yet I am always struck by the fact that, on the day where we declare Christ to be our King, we are given no such images in our Gospel text.  Instead of a throne we have a cross.  Instead of a crown of jewels we have one of thorns.  Instead of subjects praising and adoring the king we have soldiers, clergy, and passers-by mocking and deriding him; in fact, in the text the only ones who even acknowledge Jesus’ kingship are those who are openly mocking it.  Let’s face it, this image doesn’t exactly fit any of our prescribed notions of kingship, does it?  It IS a mockery.  It’s a joke.  A complete flipping of idea that the world has ever had about power.  And the only one in the middle of all of this who manages to even begin to understand is a criminal.

A depiction by Vecellio of Jesus and the so-called "good criminal"

This exchange between Jesus and the other two men being crucified next to him is fascinating.  It is only found in Luke’s version of the crucifixion story.  The original Greek word used to describe them is kakourgos, literally meaning, ‘worker of evil.’  These were not robbers or thugs, these were seditionists, insurrectionists, those who, like Jesus, had spoken up against the tyranny of the empire.  However, we can imagine their actions were much more militant than his.  Still, in this moment we see what kind of king Jesus is and what qualities mark his kingdom.  He pleads to God, “Father, forgive them!” on behalf of those mocking him and putting him to death.  The first criminal joins in the derision, hearing Jesus’ words of forgivnenss and paying them no mind, as he is only interested in what Jesus can do for him now.  The second, however, hears Jesus’ words as those of a king whose authority is like no other, and he seeks a place in such a kingdom, where the defining characteristic is pardon, not punishment, where even condemned criminals can be redeemed.  He asks not for forgiveness or for eternal life.   “Jesus,” he begs, “remember me.”  And Jesus’ reply is that he will be with Jesus in this Paradise.

Here we see the two most consistent and challenging hallmarks of Jesus’ kingship: forgiveness and grace.  He implores God to have mercy on those who are literally killing him.  And moments later, when a criminal at the end of his life, possibly seeking some kind of last minute forgiveness—who knows whether he means it or not—asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus grants him that grace.  He doesn’t tell him he needs to be baptized, and he doesn’t chastise him and make conditions based on his crimes.  He simply tells him that he will be remembered, based on nothing that the criminal has done or earned.  Forgiveness and grace: the foundations of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

And this, brothers and sisters, is why ‘Christ is King!’ is so controversial. Our king wears no fancy garments with a crown of jewels, but is naked and bears a crown of thorns. Our king reigns not in splendor on a throne, but in agony, nailed to a tree.  Our king does not show his power through military might, but through forgiveness and grace. Our king makes a mockery out of the very idea of kingship, a final punchline to the setup long ago when the Israelite people told God they wanted a king, only for God to say no and for them to persist until God caved in.  This is what they ended up with when all was said and done: a homeless, itinerant preacher of questionable birth who ate with treacherous tax collectors and told prostitutes and criminals that they were loved and forgiven before being put to death by the state for insurrection.  What a joke.

 Is this what we seek from a king?  Is he really who we want?  If we are bold enough to confess him, then we must also be bold enough to throw off whatever false sovereigns seek our allegiance, devotion, and love on a daily basis.  If we are to confess him as king, then we must be ready and willing to live as citizens of his kingdom, to take up our own cross when necessary, to let forgiveness and grace be our defining characteristics.  The Feast of Christ the King gives us a choice:  will we live by the standards of the Kingdom of Christ, or the Kingdom of Humanity.  As Preston Epps once wrote:  the kingdom of humanity says assert yourself, the kingdom of Christ says humble yourself; the kingdom of humanity says retaliate, the kingdom of Christ says forgive; the kingdom of humanity says get and accumulate, the kingdom of Christ says give and share.  So which kingdom will it be?

It is not an easy thing for us to declare that Christ is our king.  It’s paradoxical.  He’s a Messiah that saves others only by not saving himself; he is committed to a message of life abundant, even though it leads him to a brutal death; he demonstrates his authority and power, rescuing criminals, bullyish soldiers, and mocking religious leaders, by hanging powerless from the cross.  To proclaim this guy as our king means living paradoxically ourselves, being in this world but not of it.  It is the most controversial statement we will ever make, for it means no one else has our allegiance, devotion, and love, but I pray, brothers and sisters, that today and everyday, we may be so bold, so brave, so courageous, and so insane, as to proclaim with all that is in us:  Christ is King!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Good News from a Misunderstood Text

'Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.'
--II Thessalonians 3: 6-13

The above Scripture, which was the prescribed Epistle reading from this past Sunday, contains one of the most difficult sentences in the entire New Testament:  “For even when we were with you we gave you this command, anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  I’ve never been one to shy away from hard Scriptures, and because this one has been so misunderstood and has been used to malign the poor, the hungry, and the homeless, I think it is really important that we tackle rather than ignore it.

First, a word about the Second Letter to the Thessalonians as a whole.  Though we may be quick to assume that it is a sequel to I Thessalonians, a letter that is indisputably written by Paul, there is strong evidence to suggest that Paul likely was not the author of this letter.  We know this not only from the letter’s tone, its sentence structure, and the use of certain verb tenses, as well as other factors that we find when we analyze the original Greek text.  The fact that the text’s authorship is disputed doesn’t mean we should throw it out, however; in fact, it was a common practice in the ancient world for a person or group to assign the authorship of something to a mentor, teacher, or other reputable source.  This is not a cause for alarm, but we do have to bear the letter's authorship in mind when we hold it up next to pieces that we are sure Paul himself wrote. 

Nevertheless, as we read II Thessalonians we can see that the author is writing to a community that is, how shall we say, troubled.  The immediacy of Jesus’ return any second now is causing all kinds of problems. Certain members of the community are forsaking their duties, both in worship and in work,; after all, why put in a long-term commitment if Jesus is on his way?  To add to this stress, some members are so discouraged by the persecutions that they are facing that they have little to no motivation to participate in the life of the community.  These folks are effectively living off the work and witness of their brothers and sisters. An example of this for us today  might be someone who never comes to church, who never participate in the life of the community, and yet still wishes to reap the benefits thereof.  This attitude of idleness, which appears to include eating food that they themselves did not work for, is what the author is speaking against. 

We have to stop right here and take note of the fact that the concerns being raised in this letter are for matters within this Christian community.  The author’s denouncements are not directed toward, say, the homeless person sleeping outside the church door or the woman and her kid asking for help on the street corner.  Verse 6 introduces the idleness problem with this command: “keep away from believers who are living in idleness.” Also, we must note that the word idleness is not exactly a perfect translation of the Greek word ataktos, which primarily describes behavior that is insubordinate or irresponsible, not lazy. Thus, the letter implies that there is an expectation for what living in Christian community looks like, and what it doesn’t look like is shirking one’s responsibilities, chaffing at the constraints imposed by the needs and wishes of others, or refusing to fully participate in the life of the community. The problem being addressed here is how Christians treat one another.  It’s not how we handle laziness or the issues of poverty, hunger, or homelessness.  Context, with this and all Scriptures, is everything.

Unfortunately, some Christians do not realize this.  Earlier this year someone cited Matthew 25: 36-43 in a post on the Facebook page of Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.  You know that passage:  I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was sick and you visited me, etc. etc.  The congressman’s response?  He cited II Thessalonians 3: 10, pointing out that the Bible does not condone offering handouts or food to someone who doesn’t work, to someone who is lazy.  Using this passage as an excuse not to give to those in need or to moralize against folks who are poor, hungry, or homeless, not only is a gross misuse of the text but also completely—and conveniently—ignores every other mandate in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels of Jesus to address the needs of every person who seeks help, which (in case you need a citation) can be found, among other places, in Deuteronomy 15: 11 in the Hebrew texts and in Luke 6: 30 in the Gospels.  This passage must never be used to label poor people as lazy, and it is our duty to understand its context, so that if and when we find ourselves in conversations with those who would have us believe that Scripture teaches us not to offer any assistance to those unable to work or in some other great need, then we will be ready to correct their course—in all Christian love, of course.

What, then, is the text about?  What is the good news if it is not a far-reaching indictment of “lazy” people?  The ultimate goal of the admonition in this text is to bring people back into the community.  Too many of the Thessalonians were relying on Jesus’ immediate second coming.  In the Gospel text that accompanied this Epistle, we hear Jesus talk about what that day will look like, and frankly, it's enough to make anyone quit their job, stop going to church, or give up caring about almost anything  Here's how Jesus describes it:  

'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.' 
--Luke 21: 10-12

But what these folks, and many Christians today, seem to have forgotten is that being in Christian community is not about waiting around for Jesus to come back and set the world right again. Christians living in community with one another have a responsibility to each other. When a person is not present in the gathered assembly, then the community is worse off.  When all gather around the table, but someone is not there, then the community is cheated of the precious gift of that person's presence.  Each member of the community matters because each is the reflection of Christ, and each brings with them something that nobody else can provide.  Those Thessalonians who were focused so much on Jesus' return figured such matters weren't important, but they could not have been more wrong.  The question every Christian should be asking themselves is not “Do I need to go to church today?” but rather “Who needs me to be in church today?”  It’s that sense of communal responsibility that the Thessalonians had forgotten, and it’s something that we could certainly stand to be reminded of today.

One of the top Google image searches for 'Christian community.'

But with everything in us, we must resist the urge to see this text as an invitation to judge others.  We must always be a people of justice, not judgment.  Justice is about God working through people to ensure that each and every person is able to live the life abundant as a grace-given child of God, making no negative proclamation on a person’s value or worth.  Judgment, meanwhile, is reserved exclusively for God, who has preordained all of us as beloved and forgiven.  

If we’re not careful, we could take this text as in invitation to be the very worst kind of judgmental, passive-aggressive, shaming Christian, those who use the Scriptures as a curtain behind which to hide their apathy..  Instead, let us hear this text in the manner it was originally intended, as instruction for us to be accountable to one another in the context of our particular Christian communities.  Let us embrace the unique experiences, perspectives, and talents that we each bring, and let us be eager to share them with one another.  When we approach even a complicated piece of Scripture like this one in such way we find that it is, in fact, good news.