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Reign of Christ Sunday, November 24, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.
The Universal Christ
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11). If I were to write that today, people would call me a pantheist (the universe is God), whereas I am really a panentheist (God lies within all things, but also transcends them), exactly like both Jesus and Paul.
Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ
This is the last Sunday in the Christian liturgical year. It is called Reign of Christ Sunday or, sometimes, Christ the King Sunday. Advent begins next week, marking the beginning of the Christian year. The new year anticipates the birth of a tiny baby in a stable, born to poor parents, and then—fifty-two weeks later—the year ends with that same person enthroned as Lord of the Universe. It’s the most audacious claim, a claim we just heard in Colossians:
“Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or power—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
What is your favorite image of Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is a picture of Jesus with children, Jesus carrying a lamb around his shoulders, Jesus the compassionate one. Perhaps it is Jesus knocking on a door, the one who seeks to enter our lives. Or it may be a portrayal of Jesus on the cross, the Savior who forgives our sins and reconciles us to God.
But neither Jesus the compassionate man nor Jesus the seeker nor Jesus the crucified Savior were images recognized by Christians in the first century. Their image of Christ was different. It is called the “Pantocrator,” the ruler of the universe. You can still see it in that part of the world where Christianity first put down roots, painted in the domes of Eastern Orthodox church ceilings: Christ ruling from the heavens, Christ, the Pantocrator. We may call this image the “cosmic” Christ—the Christ that Colossians describes as “the image of the invisible God . . . in [whom] all things hold together.”
Why did the early Christians focus on such an exalted Christ? There is a reason. They saw themselves as challenging Rome. Today many of us think of religion in a realm of its own, a single compartment in life, perhaps in competition with other religions. But in the first century, when the church began, Christians didn’t see their religion as a challenge to other religions. Rather, the church saw itself challenging Rome, the Roman Empire. Rather than honoring Caesar as lord, they sought to establish Jesus Christ as Lord of this world. Though they lived in a kingdom that was ruled by Caesar, Christians came together and proclaimed, “Our ruler is Christ.” Even though Rome thought they had gotten rid of Jesus and his preaching about God’s kingdom, the Christians claimed, “Christ is alive and with us now.” There was a battle going on over who is Lord of the world. Is it Jesus? Or is it Caesar?
For a while the practice in Rome was to elevate Caesars to the level of divinity after they died. When Julius Caesar died in 44 B.C., the empire named him a god. It gave him titles of divinity such as “Savior of the World” and “Prince of Peace.” But the later Caesars, the ones who lived in the first century, current with the earliest Christians, didn’t want to wait until they died for such titles. They were named gods as soon as they assumed their office. There were statues of them all over the empire; citizens were expected to worship them.
But the Christians resisted. They took those titles that belonged to Caesar and ascribed them to Jesus in order to say “Jesus is Lord,” not Caesar. Jesus “is above all thrones, and all dominions, and all powers, and all rulers.” Christ is above everything.
Now, what does this text mean to us in our day? We do not live under Roman oppression. The Roman Empire is no longer here. So what does it mean for us to uphold the ancient affirmation that Jesus is Lord of the Universe, the Cosmic Christ?
If Jesus the Christ holds all things together, that means that love holds all things together. That was the Christian preaching that converted the ancient world. This is what is still heard as “good news” today.
Just as in ancient times, still now some people look at the world in different ways. There is a “secular” way that assumes God has nothing to do with the world. God is indifferent, if there is a God at all. We are by ourselves here; it’s up to us. If I’m going to make it, I have to do it on my own, all by myself. That was a prominent idea in the Roman world. It is still a prominent idea, even among people who go to church.
Another view of life, then and now, is that the world is hostile—just look around! A religious variation of this says that God has set up the rules and we must live according to them or we will punished. People who believe this way think that God has to be appeased somehow. This is why their interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion is that Christ paid penance for us, so that we don’t have to. But that way of thinking never really works. People who believe this way still feel guilty, which may be good for business if you are a religious institution, because some religious institutions profit from all that guilt. But even with religious mechanisms to get rid of guilt, these people are usually not at peace. Instead, they punish themselves for what they have done or not done or who they are or are not. Many ingenious ways have been used to inflict self-punishment.
There is the indifferent world. There is the hostile world. And then there is the benevolent world.
The earliest proclamation by Christians about this world was revolutionary. The world is not indifferent. The world is not hostile toward us. The world is benevolent toward us. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?. . . Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:31, 38–39). Paul is naming all the principalities and powers of the universe. None of these could be against us if Christ is for us. If Christ holds all things together, then it is love that holds all things together.
Which means that who Jesus of Nazareth was and what Jesus taught are of ultimate importance. It turns upside down our notions of what the true, exalted ruler requires of us. His call for us is not to become self-exalting in his name but rather to emulate his life and his teachings, which move us downward toward humility and toward freedom from self-preoccupation to loving others.
The letter to the Colossians interprets this in its third chapter: “If you want to be exalted with Christ, then put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you. . . . And above all, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12–14)
Love is the power that brings about harmony. That is what Jesus is, moving in our midst, holding all things together with love. That’s what we ought to be doing with one another, bringing all things together with love.
This love bond that holds us altogether was experienced in a life-changing way by a twentieth-century English mystic named Caryll Houseland. She described her experience:
I was in an underground train, a crowded train in which all sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in all of them. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because he was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here, too, here in this underground train; not only the world as it was at that moment, not only all the people in all the countries of the world, but all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.
I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every pass-by, everywhere—Christ. . . .
I saw, too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are his tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. . . .
Christ is everywhere; in him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. . . . Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. . . . It is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life. (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, pp. 2–3)
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, let us recognize that Christ is all around us, and within us, among all of us and beyond us as the love that holds altogether. The way to celebrate the reign of Christ is to become like the exalted Christ yourself, which means to humble yourself. Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. And above all, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Amen.