So I was at a retreat with a group of college students at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center in downtown Richmond. It was back when I was in campus ministry and I had taken a group of students who were living together in intentional Christian community to see how another intentional Christian community lived. Richmond Hill is in an old Catholic monastery high on the top of Church Hill in Richmond. The nuns moved out about 25 years ago and an ecumenical group has run it ever since.
If you go there, they will put you up in some of the old cells that the nuns used to use. Over the doors there are the stenciled names of Catholic saints. There’s the Ignatius room, the Augustine room. Well, I was staying in a very small room at the end of the hallway. The only furnishings in the room were a desk, a chair, and a small twin bed. I fell asleep with the chair right up against the bed.
In the middle of the night I woke up with a start. I had a very strange feeling that someone was watching me. I opened my eyes and there, straddling the chair and looking at me, was the King. That’s right. You know who I mean. Elvis was sitting on that chair. It was such a vivid image that when I actually woke up awhile later I had a hard time convincing myself that it was only a dream. And who knows?
I don’t know what that vision meant. At the time I took it to mean that I was really hungry for some evidence of God’s power and my brain did that crazy thing brains do in dreams and gave me a king. But it was during a low period in my life and, strange as it was, it did tell me that God was present.
Today, though, we talk about the real king. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year. Next week we begin Advent, which is the first Sunday of a new Christian cycle, and we will start moving toward Christmas. The scripture lessons will take us back to the promises of the Messiah’s coming and then to the beginning of Jesus’ story in a manger.
The Christian year always ends with this day, though. We may start with a baby. We may walk with Jesus through the sufferings and the trials of his life and death. But we end the year with this image of kingship and we ask ourselves what it means to call Jesus, not just our friend, not just our brother, not just a carpenter, not just a great human being, but the one who will reign forever.
This is not an easy thing for us to hear. Our world doesn’t make it easy for us to talk about who Jesus is for us. There are all kinds of competing claims out there. All kinds of messages. All kinds of options. We might pay lip service to the idea that Jesus is king, but it’s hard for us to live it out.
Last year the Pew Forum came out with a study on how Americans think about their faith and what they found is that most of us use a kind of cafeteria style to put together a set of beliefs. We take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, throw it together and come up with beliefs that are individual as we are. For instance, almost 40% of Americans attend worship regularly at multiple places, 28% at worship of different faiths. 22% of Christians say that they believe in reincarnation, which is about the same percentage as in the general population, and even though the Christian story, centered on Jesus, has a very different message about what happens to us after death. Other people say that they mix their beliefs in Christianity with astrology or crystals or nature worship.[i]
This doesn’t surprise me. It tells me that we are a spiritually confused and spiritually hungry people. We see people who have experienced powerful mystical experiences and we are attracted to that. Like Julia Roberts discovering Hinduism in Eat, Pray, Love. We like the idea of something new. And maybe we have heard about Jesus for so long that we think we know him. Maybe he’s become so thoroughly domesticated that we can’t see him as wild and holy anymore. He’s like the sweater Grandma knitted us when we were teenagers. It’s warm. It’s comfortable. But we’re a little embarrassed to wear it out in public because we’re not sure how stylish it is.
There are dangers to being confused, though. I have talked in several sermons recently about the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Christian theologian working through the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and into World War II. Bonhoeffer watched as the Christians around him began to compromise their beliefs in order to conform to the pronouncements of the Nazis. When the Nazis said that Jewish Christian converts shouldn’t worship with German Christians, the main Christian church agreed. When the Nazis said that clergy ought to pledge an oath to Hitler in addition to committing themselves to serving God, the Christians agreed. When the Nazis said that the Old Testament was degenerate and the cross was a bad symbol because it revealed weakness, the church got rid of both.
Bonhoeffer looked at all of this and he could only conclude that Christianity as a religion had failed. If a thousand years and more of Christian teaching in Germany had produced people who couldn’t put up any more resistance than that, then perhaps the religion needed to die. If Christians were able to hear the gospel message and then go on and do whatever they wanted, including doing things that were directly contrary to the gospel, what good was the title Christian? What Bonhoeffer said from his prison cell in the darkest days of the war was this: “We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”[ii]
Bonhoeffer feels far ahead of his time in talking like this. Or maybe it’s just that our culture today feels a lot like his, not because we have Nazis challenging the Christian message but because we have so many other ways in which that message is being challenged. If we use Christianity as our grounding, it seems to be only in the bumper sticker sense.
Colossians has a much larger vision of who Jesus is. Remember that the early church grew up in a Roman Empire that was also a place of many competing religions. The Christians in Colossae would have been very tempted to be just like we Americans are, picking and choosing from a menu of religious options. What made Judaism and Christianity so threatening to the Empire, though, was their insistence on making these outrageous claims for a single God.
The letter to the Colossians says that Jesus was not just a great person within this world, he was also the one who liberated us from the power of darkness and transferred us into a new kingdom. We may have been a people marred by sin and stuck in our tired stories of failure, but we do not have to be that any longer. We have been forgiven and freed for new life with a new ruler who is not like any other ruler in the world.
He was human, but Jesus was also the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, which means he was there at the beginning of all creation. Everything was created thorough him. He is the head of the body, the church. He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end. He was God. And he was God in a way you never expected. He was God in a way that went to the cross and died and made a way through his blood to peace and life.
Now if you believe that, it means that it challenges every other way of thinking. If you believe that, it means that you can’t live in the world in the same way. If you believe that, it may make you uncomfortable sometimes. But it may also make you understand the greatest power the world has known.
Robert Capon writes that when we Americans think of a powerful Jesus, since we don’t have kings anymore, we think of Jesus as Superman.
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It's got it all -- including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.[iii]
Yet the way that Jesus saves is so much different than that of a superhero. He is thoroughly human and the life he calls us to is to be thoroughly human ourselves. If we follow this Jesus we will encounter each other in deeply personal ways and we will experience a new way of being human.
There is a popular story that tells about a person walking down the beach. She sees a man standing at the water’s edge and flinging starfish into the ocean. She also sees that the beach is covered with starfish and that even if the man stayed there all day he would never be able to make a dent in the number of beached starfish. So she goes and says to the man, “Isn’t this a little silly? You’ll never be able to save all these starfish. There are just too many.”
The man pauses for a moment, then picks up one more starfish and tosses it into the water. “I saved that one.”
Living in this world as a Christian can seem like a silly and pointless thing at times. Following Jesus can seem like a waste. “What good are we to the world?” we might be tempted to ask. Why should we live differently than this world does? But we follow one who says, “I desire that those whom you have given me will be where I am.” Jesus comes to lose no one and invites us to discover what it means to reign with him. Thanks be to God.
Colossians 1:11-20 (NRSV)
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 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.
[i] “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 9 December 2009, http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/Many-Americans-Mix-Multiple-Faiths.aspx.
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethke, April 1944, quoted in “Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity” on the blog Experimental Theology, 10 Oct 2007, http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/10/bonhoeffers-religionless-christianity.html.