Sermon: Reign of Christ Sunday, November 25, 2018 – 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
Jesus is Lord.
Three words, but oh, what a range of responses they raise.
As a United Church person, what I run into rather frequently is an aversion to the term “Lord,” whether applied to Jesus or God. As a term it is masculine and hierarchical; and for those with British roots, it hearkens, uncomfortably, to a world of nobility and privilege. The declaration “Jesus is Lord” may have some positive emotional or spiritual connections, but as a group that has worked pretty hard to name the dangers of male privilege or class hierarchy, it’s not the easiest term for us.
As a Christian who understands Christianity as both ecumenical and global, though, the reaction to the word “Lord” and the joyous declaration “Jesus is Lord” is quite a bit different if one goes further afield. Particularly in nations where there is no other association with the word, Lord is a beloved term for the God who is encountered in the big things and the little things of life, the God whose presence is constant and tangible, the risen Christ who is a daily companion. So when we spent our summer internship in the Philippines many years ago, “Jesus is Lord” was a phrase heard everywhere, linking the caring, courageous person of Jesus with the majesty of God. You’d see it on Churches, you’d hear it in conversation, and a day wouldn’t go by that you didn’t see it on a Jeepney, those long-bodied jeeps that are half-way between a bus and a taxi.
The titles for God, Yahweh and Adonai, have traditionally been interpreted by the English word “LORD” [(Yahweh) or “Lord” (Adonai)], and are found over 7,000 times in the Hebrew Scripture. In the New Testament, the Greek term Kyrios gets translated “Lord,” most often referring to Jesus, and it shows up over 700 times. So, this is not a term that shows up a handful of times, or a couple dozen times. Referring to God as Lord, or speaking the classic Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord” is not an obscure, peripheral formulation; it has been perhaps THE cornerstone phrase for professing a Christian faith over the millennia.
As you see on the front of today’s worship bulletin, today is “Reign of Christ Sunday,” and that gives us an opportunity to ponder what it means to say “Jesus is Lord,” to contemplate a new realm, in which God’s love will be the governing principle, in which the promise of Shalom will be spread over all the earth and Christ will truly be the Messiah or King. Our term, “Reign of Christ Sunday” originates in the Roman Catholic “Christ the King Sunday,” instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Interestingly, it is said that the Pope instituted this festival in response to three factors: the ongoing dispute over what lands, if any, the Pope could rule over; the growth of secularism; and the rising nationalism of the day. While I could care less about the first of those three factors, we, too, live in a time of sharply rising nationalism, and exercise our mission in a very secular context, so I find this century-old special day to have continuing relevance in 2018.
For the past six weeks, a study group has been meeting on Tuesday nights to study the book, Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg. (Or to use the entire title, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored.) Half the group gathers here in Canmore, usually in Gordon Hall, and the other half gathers at the Church lounge in St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Kiel, Wisconsin, and we connect by videoconference to talk about Borg’s book. This past week we looked at four chapters of this book dealing with Jesus, including a look at this proclamation, “Jesus is Lord.”
The basic premise of Marcus Borg’s book, is that Christian language has, over the years, taken on meanings it was never intended to have. The word “salvation,” for example, was almost always used in the days of the Bible to refer to being liberated or delivered, not just symbolically or in some heavenly way but as a physical, earthly reality, in the way that the Hebrew people were liberated from their servitude in the land of Egypt. The idea of salvation being a term related to a heaven-and-hell understanding of the world was a much later addition, not a “biblical” understanding at all. Over the course of 25 brief chapters, he goes through some of these classic Christian words, and helps us to take Biblical terms that we think we understand, and see them in their original setting, so that we can have a more sensible, accurate connection with them now. As he put it rather succinctly (p.29) “The question is no longer simply, ‘What does the Bible say?’ as if that would settle everything. Rather, the question becomes, ‘Given what their words meant for their then, what might their meaning be for our now?’”
With that basic understanding, Borg waded in to the question of Jesus – who Jesus was in “their then” in order to understand who Jesus is in “our now” – and shared this very helpful context for the use of the phrase, “Jesus in Lord.”
“Lord” writes Marcus Borg (p.95), “carried with it the notion of loyalty and allegiance. To say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ means that he is the revelation of God to whom we are to be committed. In a Roman context, Lord (like Son of God) was one of the titles of the emperor. To affirm ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to affirm that the emperor was not.” Borg goes on to write (p.111), “’Jesus is Lord’ means the lords of this world, including the ruler of the empire that executed [Jesus], are not supreme. To affirm ‘Jesus is Lord’ systematically subverts all other lords, including the lords of culture. Thus Easter is about much more than whether a spectacular miracle happened on a particular day a long time ago…. It is about who is Lord. Is God, as revealed in Jesus, Lord? Or is somebody or something else Lord?”
That’s a lot to take in all at once, so let’s allow that so soak in a bit.
“To affirm ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to affirm that the emperor was not.”
What a game-changer, to take these three words that have come to have such pious, religious connections, and view them as a politically subversive statement. To say, “Jesus is Lord” is to take his words of resilient, transformative love, and say “I will let these words govern my life, not the words imposed by any other authority.” To say, “Jesus is Lord” is to take his actions of radical inclusion, healing all manner of people, intentionally sitting at table with those who were judged and excluded by his culture, and apply them to our time, as individuals, as voters, as a congregation, as a community. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to stand with the migrants whose suffering is too great to stand still, rather than standing with those in our world who want to build walls to keep foreigners out. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to raise our voices and cast our votes against those in our province who want to dismantle the one safe place that many LGBTQ students have, either by making school-based Gay Straight Alliances optional, or by insisting that schools break confidence and inform parents when their child is attending the school’s GSA. To say, “Jesus is Lord” is to tell the loud-shouting nationalists of the world that their emphasis on me and mine, their division of the world into we and they, their bigoted expression of ethnic and racial superiority over others, their specific targeting of indigenous populations, will hold no sway in our lives because our allegiance is to Jesus, who refused and refuses to see the world in exclusive, nationalist ways. As Borg so clearly puts it, to say Jesus is Lord is to say that someone else is not.
Today’s scripture reading from 2nd Corinthians reminds us of how terribly risky it was for the first Christ-followers to claim allegiance to the person and agenda of Jesus Christ – a risk that remains in some parts of the world even today. When the Apostle Paul writes, “8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies,” this was no mere metaphor. To say, ‘Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not)’ and to participate in a spiritual gathering where women actually had a degree of influence, a community where servants and masters were regarded as equals in the eyes of God, was to challenge everything that society stood for and to paint a target on one’s back. As we have heard time and again in our Tuesday studies – often reminded by Pastor Laura Yurs of Immanuel Church in Wisconsin – the call to be about the ways of God, to work toward the world God would intend, is not just a personal, singular call to get into a good relationship with God so you can go to heaven, it’s a communal, plural call to be committed to building a realm where justice for all of God’s people and all of God’s creatures is a reality. And in the days of the early Church, and in places where Christians are religious minorities, that desire to roll up one’s sleeves in Christ’s name, in favour of a world of peace and justice and equality, has often been a fatal choice.
To say that Jesus is Lord, is to say that someone else is not, and it is more than that. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that something else is not. Again quoting Marcus Borg, “To affirm, ‘Jesus is Lord’ systematically subverts other lords, including the lords of culture” which leads to the questions, “Is God, as revealed in Jesus, Lord? Or is somebody or something else Lord?”
This question, also, has far-reaching political implications: what kinds of economic behaviours do we rely on, even protect, in order to live in a more affluent society? Which possessions would we basically sell our souls to receive? How terrible are we willing to make life for the poorest of the poor in order to bolster the ultra-wealthy? What worldview actually functions as my Lord in the way society organizes itself?
In addition to these big political realities, this question of what actually functions as the “Lord” of our lives pushes us to go deep, in very personal ways. Many of us, I think, find our lives limited by powerful forces, either internal or external, and naming that helps us to be able to put those power-grabbers in their place.
In 1853, a Unitarian pastor named Thomas Parker expressed thoughts that were memorably shaped a century later (in 1958) by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The whole idea of there being an emerging realm, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, in which the peace and justice and love that Jesus spoke of and embodied would become the base-line for life, is summed up in this beautiful phrase. It gives us such hope, such encouragement to give our lives and our efforts on behalf of the world to that horizon line, rather than giving in to something else. It is a phrase which expresses deep hope for society, and it is a phrase which challenges me to look in the mirror.
On this day I would encourage you to do some soul-searching, to identify if there is “something else” in your life that is thwarting you, keeping you from really giving yourself to that vision of Shalom? Is there a repeating message, internal or external, that is acting as the Lord or “boss” of your life, subverting you from being the person that Jesus would have you be? Are you on the verge of re-ordering something in your life, or becoming involved in an organization that would push for social change, but find that something is getting in your way? It could be the opinions or expectations of others – family members or neighbours or even Facebook friends – that are holding you back from such changes… it could be a sense that you’re too far along to change, that you’ve been a certain kind of person governed by a certain set of rules for too long to break out of that, and be the person God is calling you to be…it could be unhealthy self-talk, perhaps rooted in depression or anxiety, that is convincing you of the lie that you are not capable of change…or it could be the exact opposite, one that Paul warns against in 2nd Corinthians: that is, a pridefulness within you that clings to a particular “reputation” that you are not prepared to let go of in order to really give yourself to the loving agenda of Jesus, that long-sweeping arc that bends towards justice. If you find that such blocks are present in your life, know that they need not have control. God’s greatest intention for your life is not that you be limited by others’ demands on you, or by emotional limitations that constrain you, or by habits or addictions or same-old-same-old behaviours that have come to define your life. The God who proclaims liberty to the captives, intends that freedom for you as well.
The simple statement “Jesus is Lord” could very well be a personal statement of independence, an assertion that you have agency over your own life, that you choose the broad-based and profoundly deep love of Christ over anything that is narrower and shallower. It could be a statement of intent, claiming the best and most authentic self that God desires you to be. It could be a political statement, standing up with others to the ridiculousness that is sweeping our world right now. One way or another, I invite the claim “Jesus is Lord” to have positive, transformative influence in our midst and in the life and work of the Church in many places, as we seek a realm where peace, love, justice, harmony and opportunity are enjoyed by all, not just by some. In Christ we pray, Amen.
Borg, Marcus J.. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored. HarperOne. Kindle Edition, 2011.
Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.