Christ in the Messiness
A Different Kind of King
Rev. Teri Daily
Today is Christ the King Sunday--the last Sunday in our church calendar. Today we celebrate Christ as Lord of the entire cosmos, of all that is. And we look forward to the day when the kingdom of heaven will come in all its fullness. To be honest, it’s an uncomfortable feast day for many progressive Christians. How does this celebration fit in a world where most societies are becoming increasingly pluralistic? Can we celebrate Christ as King of all without seeming to devalue or dismiss other religions? When we talk of Christ as Lord over all that is, are we as Christians not participating in the very type of domination that Christ sought to overcome? The truth is that some of us may find this day in the liturgical year to be uncomfortable, outdated, or even imperialistic.
But then we come to our gospel reading. It’s the crucifixion story as told in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is crucified at a place called The Skull; one criminal is crucified on his right, and one on his left. His clothes have been taken away from him, and some people are casting lots to decide who gets them. “This is the King of the Jews” is written above him on the cross where he hangs, and the soldiers mock him, saying “If you’re the King of the Jews, then save yourself!” Even one of the criminals joins in, a sneer on his face as he says “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal defends Jesus by admitting that, while the two criminals are getting what they deserve, Jesus has done nothing wrong. He then turns to Jesus and makes a request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” And so Jesus hangs between these two criminals--one who mocks him and one who places himself in Jesus’ care, one who turns away from Jesus and one who turns toward him. It’s a metaphor for Jesus’ life; it’s a metaphor for all human life; it’s a metaphor for salvation. Let me explain…
See, the Incarnation is all about hanging in the middle; it’s about breaking down all the binaries of our world, all of the categories and the divisions—between spirit and flesh, between divine and human, between the pure and the impure, between individual and community, between light and darkness, between faith and reason, between broken and whole, between good criminals and bad criminals. We live in a world of tensions and contradictions. And so we have three options: 1) flee from the messiness of those contradictions, 2) take sides and fight against them, or 3) simply hold the tension in our heart until we and the world around us are transformed. The cross-shaped or cruciform life is this third way, a way that holds the tension of life’s contradictions and conflicts without fleeing or fighting. It’s a hard thing to do.
In his book Hope Against Darkness, Richard Rohr describes those who flee from the messy contradictions of life as Pharisees. They hide behind rules and order and judgment instead of practicing compassion and dialogue, because compassion and dialogue might lead to inclusivity, uncertainty, and the breakdown of the pure and impure dichotomy. And that kind of blurring of dichotomies can be scary. Better to go with the fundamentalism of a clean, cut and dried approach, leaving behind all the messiness that comes with living in the middle.
On the other hand, there are those who experience the contradictions and tensions of our world and respond by fighting--Rohr calls these people Zealots. Zealots see all the opposing views, values, and claims of this world. They look at all this messiness and try to pinpoint where evil resides. And when they find it, they feel justified and even righteous using force in their fight against it. Now Zealots may be right in their judgments and prophetic in their positions on social justice issues. But here’s the thing: In their hatred of the unjust and in their self-righteous certainty, Zealots often become the very hate and coercive power that they fight against. They become the next cog in the wheel of pain, oppression and alienation.
But then there is the third way--we see it in Jesus’ life and in his death on the cross. Jesus recognized all the contradictions, complexities, imperfections, and pain of human life, but he didn’t run from them. He didn’t pretend that they weren’t there or that, with the right magic wand, he could make everything perfect. Instead, he dove right into all the messiness. He ate with tax collectors and cheats, touched lepers with his own hands, spoke with demons, broke the letter of the Law in order to uphold its spirit, was pulled between his family and his mission, was betrayed by friends, and felt cold steel go through his flesh. He didn’t run from the grittiness of life.
And yet Jesus also didn’t perpetuate the pain, suffering, and violence that he experienced in the world. He responded to evil, domination, and violence with goodness, inclusivity, and love. Jesus refused to become the very things he sought to overcome. Even hanging on the cross, he experienced violence without returning it, without releasing it back into the world. What we see in Jesus is that God’s power is never separated from God’s love for us, God’s desire for us, God’s mercy extended to us, or God’s compassion poured out for us.
The power of the cross is perfect power. It is power in vulnerability; it is the third way. To the outside world this response may seem passive, but trust me, there’s nothing weak or inadequate or unconvincing about it. All those who have ever truly changed the world for better have chosen this third way--Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. And it comes with a cost. But to go to the places in our world where we find pain, suffering, oppression, and violence, and to respond to what we find there in such a way that we don’t transmit the very thing we’re fighting against--that is the only kind of power that can actually transform the world.
It’s a good thing to remember on Christ the King Sunday, on the day when we celebrate God’s glorious power as revealed in Jesus Christ. The cross teaches us that every time we respond to evil and violence and brokenness without returning it, the reign of God--the kingdom of heaven--happens right here, right now; the invisible God is made visible; and God is at work reconciling all things to God’s self through the perfect power that is love.
 Richard Rohr, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001. I owe many of the ideas in this sermon to Richard Rohr, particularly the options with which we can respond to the contradictions and complexities of life.
Process theology proposes that the most powerful form of power is relational power. Teri Daily's sister puts it perfectly in explaining how she is trying to be a good parent to her son:
Then I stand there calmly, responding not out of ego or fear, but out of a place of health and strength. See, what I’ve come to realize is that when I respond gently and with compassion, not running from the conflict at hand and yet not returning the anger directed at me, that’s a response actually rooted in power, not weakness.
Those of us in the process tradition believe the kind of power to which Teri Daily's sister alludes is the very kind of power found in God. God's power is relational and vulnerable, capable of living with tensions, and therefore strong and mighty. In process theology "almighty" does not mean all-coercive; it means all-relational in a strong and loving way. The world values unilateral power, but relational power is much more powerful. It is the power of love.
Christ the King
Is this the kind of power revealed in Jesus? Teri Daily, an Episcopal priest, believes that it is. She sees this kind of power in his healing ministry, including his manner of dying on the cross. For her, the cross is not an invitation to unhealthy self-sacrifice amid which individual agency is obliterated. The cross is an invitation to healthy relationality: an invitation to live with others as best one can, amid tensions and affections, without fighting or fleeing. We cannot live this way all the time, but we can live this way some of the time; and when we do, we are sharing in the way of Christ.
Teri Daily believes that, in saying that Christ is King, Christians are not saying that Christianity, as a religion, ought to rule the world; but rather that the kind of power found in Jesus is the very kind of power by which the continuing creation has come into existence and continues to evolve over time, and that this very kind of power can -- and should -- guide our individual and collective lives.
We may not be formally Christian; instead we may be Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, Humanist or Naturalist. But this kind of power is the very kind we need; and in this sense it would be very good if Christ -- let us call it the Christic spirit of our lives -- were the lord of our lives.
Is this Christian imperialism? I don't think so. For my part, I believe that each and every person has a way of living from the Christic spirit of God. Sometimes "being a baptized Christian" can help a person live from this spirit. It opens a door to love that might otherwise be closed. But Christians have much to learn from people of other faiths and no faith about how best to live in the spirit of relational power, and there is no need to pretend that Christianity is the only way into relational love. If relational power is in some sense divine, and if we speak of this kind of power as kingly in its own way, we can also add that the idea of a king is but one metaphor among many for understanding its depth. What is important is the sovereignty of relationality, not the metaphor by which the sovereignty is understood.