Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: Luke 23:35-43;
Jer 23:1-6; Col 1:11-20
UNDERSTANDING THE GRAVITY OF OUR SITUATION
When we look back over the Twentieth Century, in these last few years of it, how should we characterize it? It is certainly an age of technology, one in which our abilities to harness the powers of nature has grown at an exponential rate. But with this incredible explosion of scientific and technological knowledge goes an extra responsibility to use it wisely. In other words, it requires good leadership. So the crucial question is: Do you think the leadership of the Twentieth Century has matched up with the responsibility of our increased knowledge? I’d say “No,” wouldn’t you? In fact, I think that we might characterize the Twentieth Century by saying that we have had a crisis of leadership. Bad leaders are as old as the prophet Jeremiah, as we read this morning. But so many more lives are now at stake because of our technology. In this century, we’ve known some of the most brutal dictators in all of history: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Ayotollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein. Many of the good leaders, who have stepped forward, have been killed, Itzak Rabin being the latest tragic victim. In our own country today, our trust of government and politicians seems to be at an all time low. Our trust in business leaders isn’t a whole lot better, as many of them have made numerous blunders over recent decades, forcing thousands of layoffs that have terribly hurt many an American family. In our churches, too, there is a lot of talk these days about leadership. We crave good leadership. But do we even know what it is anymore? Or maybe we think we know what it is and long for the good ol’ days; but did we ever really know what good leadership is?
That’s our question today on Reign of Christ Sunday, a day we focus on the claim that one Jesus of Nazareth, who was executed as a criminal on the cross, is the leader we look to with our lives. In fact, Reign of Christ Sunday was added very late to our church year calendar in response to the crisis of leadership earlier in this century. Unlike most our other Christian festival days, which were established centuries ago, Reign of Christ Sunday was instituted by Pope Pius IX in 1925. Mussolini had been dictator in Italy for three years, Stalin was coming to power in Russia, and Hitler’s popularity in Germany was just beginning to take hold. Despite the rising to power of these dictators, Reign of Christ Sunday asserted that nevertheless Jesus Christ is Lord, and ‘he shall reign forever and ever’ (as we boldly sing in the “Hallelujah Chorus”). This day stands as a critique to every form of earthly power. It stands as a sign of hope in the face of our current crisis of leadership.
In order for this day of the Reign of Christ to stand as a critique and a sign of hope, let’s see if we first can understand our current crisis in leadership a little better. In recorded human history, there seems to be only two main categories of leadership and government. The first is autocratic, where basically one person is in charge, most often a king. The strength of this form of government lies in the strength of each particular king or queen. A good king provides a good model for his people, an example for them to follow; a good queen makes decisions which serve the common good of everyone. Unfortunately, the power that goes with this form of government seems to corrupt. It brings a sort of rivalry with the gods, and kings and queens have tended to dominate with force, rather than serve the common good. Modern people have rightly turned away from this form of government. It even gives Christ the King Sunday a bad image, because most our images of human kings are so tainted.
In the modern world, we have mostly opted for the other form of human government: democracy. This is where all the people rule. We elect leaders who are shouldered with the responsibility of serving all the people, or they will be voted out. This is, of course, the form of government which we have embraced, even though it seems to be failing us right now. Is this failure simply a matter of finding better leaders? Or is there a critical flaw in this form of government, too? This is a risky thing to do with our cherished form of government, but let me suggest to you today a possible flaw. The general principal of democracy is that we are all equals. The inequalities of a monarchy are so obvious and harmful, that we lift up equality with very good reason. But is it possible to go too far in the other direction, from harmful inequalities to unhealthy equality?
Equality has become so foundational for us that we have come to think that the Bible says as much, that we are all equals. But the Bible never really talks about equality quite like we do in our modern world. It does say that we are all children of God, and so we are all brothers and sisters. But is that the same as saying we are all equals? Those of you who are parents: Are your children all equals to you? Is that how you say it? Or do you stress that they are all different and unique and precious. The problem with being “equals” in the modern sense, I think, is that it seems to reduce us to rivals. And when we are all rivals, then no one can truly be a leader in the sense of being an example for us, because we all think we know best for ourselves. And our leaders have trouble serving the common good, because so much rivalry arises that there is no identifiable common good. In this modern age, where the competition and rivalry has really seemed to take hold, doesn’t this seem to be the case? We are trapped in such bitter rivalries and competitions, that it is impossible to have someone lead us into a common good. And the violence continues to escalate.
How did we get to this point? How can we get out of this mess? The exciting thing for me has been that, in the last several years, I’ve found someone who has helped me see everything in a new light– the Bible, my faith, the world around me–such that I’m finding answers for such questions that make sense to me. I’d like to share some of that with you this morning. And I’m going to use the image, or metaphor, of gravity. Just as gravity is a natural force that governs our relationships to other objects, I would like us to consider that there are natural forces that govern human relationships, our relationships with one another. And I think that our modern notions of freedom and equality go against these natural forces which govern our relationships. So thinking that we are all equals in our ‘freedom’ to completely choose our own destinies is like jumping off a cliff and thinking that you can defy gravity. The person who I think will revolutionize our understanding of such things is a man by the name of René Girard. To me, he is like the Isaac Newton of human relationships. He helps us to truly understand human relationships in the way that Isaac Newton helped us to understand gravity.
Girard calls this gravity-like force that governs our relationships: desire. But we need to change the way we think about desire. It’s similar to the change that Newton brought to the way we think about gravity. Newton helped us to understand that gravity is a force field that exists between objects. Gravity is not something that resides in each object, as Aristotle’s physics claimed. This bean bag doesn’t fall to the ground [dropping bean bag] because it has gravity inside of it. It falls to the ground because of the force field of gravity that exists between objects–in this case, because it is close to the earth and the earth is a much bigger object. Out in space, this bean bag no longer falls. Well, it is similar for desire. The romantic notion of desire is that it is inside you and me. We are free because we control all our own desires inside of us. That is what we think. But Girard helps us to see that desire is a force field that exists between us, constantly pulling us in many directions, not something simply within us.
Actually, he calls this force “mimetic desire,” mimetic being a fancy word to say that desire is imitative. We arrive at all our desires by imitating others. That’s why its a force between us. But there is also a basic problem about desire being imitative. The person or persons we imitate may begin as models for us, someone we positively imitate, but they usually end up being rivals. Because we copy the things we desire, we come to compete for those objects of desire. This is simplest to see in children. Put two children in a room with fifty toys. The first child chooses a toy (no doubt, one she’s seen someone else play with). And which toy does the second child usually want? One of the other forty-nine? Wrong! Most often, the other child wants that same toy. Her desire has been imitative, but now the two are reaching for the same thing. It isn’t essentially different for adults. We are much more sophisticated and creative in our imitating, but it’s not ultimately different for us. We still live lives of “keeping up with the Jones,” lives of “coveting” is the good biblical word. The story in Genesis 3 has us pegged right. When the woman in the garden came to desire the fruit that God told her not to, did that desire just pop up from inside of her? All her own? No. The serpent convinced her. The serpent represents that natural force of imitation. And the end result isn’t just rivalry with each other, but it’s rivalry with God. We think our desires are our own, that we are free. So we think we can play the role of god in our lives, making all our own choices without any guidance from God.
And do you see what the modern notion of equality does? Doesn’t it help make the force of rivalry even worse? Again, we might be able to see this most readily in our children. It has always been true that siblings rival each other, largely because they feel themselves equals. But the relationship of children to adults has been different in the past, at times when the forces of rivalry weren’t so strong. Children were said to “respect their elders.” Adults provided good models for them to imitate, but their leadership was respected. Today, however, the modern notion of equality has seemingly done away with those boundaries, such that our children come to rival us, as well. We all know best for ourselves. We are free and independent, shaping our own destinies. That is what we think. But in reality we are still held in this force field of gaining our desires from others in imitation, and so we all become rivals, competitors. Modern advertising puts the gravity-like nature of desire to good use in selling its products. We are shown people to imitate, and we do.
Before we become too nostalgic for the good ol’ days, when at least our children obeyed us, though, we need to be clear about the harmful side of those days. Wasn’t it a bit like our problems with kings? Adults assumed they always knew what was best for children and so regularly used force on them. Many homes were there own little tyrannies of parents over children. The problem seems to be that sin, the force field of desire, distorts our efforts in both directions. We waver between tyrannical violence of the strong against the weak and a free-for-all violence of “equals” who essentially become rivals. Our basic choice seems to be between tyranny and anarchy, with moments of only relative peace in between.
We proclaim that, with Christ, we finally have the possibility of true peace, because Christ comes as the King we need not rival. Christ the King Sunday lifts up that we do need good leaders. We do need good models for imitating, so that we can make our way through this force field of desire we live in without getting pulled apart. The only leader who has perfectly pioneered the way for us is Jesus Christ. St. Paul puts it that, even though Jesus Christ was equal to God, he didn’t count that as a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, even to the point of death on a cross. And St. Paul tells us that we are to have that same mind of Christ. In other words, we are to imitate him. We are to be his disciples, following in his footsteps. If we follow in the footsteps of the one who came to serve, then we won’t be rivals any longer. You can’t rival each other when you’re serving each other. And it’s more than just a matter of imitation. Jesus created a whole new power in this world. It’s a new force field to live under. We call it agape-love; we call it the Holy Spirit. Remember the Holy Spirit on Pentecost? It came like a force of nature, like the wind, like fire. Because Christ lived in obedient servanthood to the Father, there is a new power to live by in this world. We are promised that power, that spirit, at our baptism. It is there for us in Jesus Christ.
One last thought for today. What does all this say about our American democracy? Should we just throw it out? I don’t think so! That wouldn’t be advisable while so many people are living by the power of rivalry or sin. I think that the American experiment is still the best that humans have to offer. But there is the challenge that, at the same time, God has offered us a new power to live under, as well, not just when we die, but now, today. As we said, that power is real and was let loose on the world when Jesus actually lived a different way, and his resurrection keeps that power alive and growing in this world through the Spirit. So you and I can hopefully carry on Jesus example in this world by being disciples. We can make this world and this country of ours a better place by living in true service to God and to one another. Most especially we can proclaim the Good News of God’s power of salvation to others, so that they might live in its grace, too. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 25-26, 1995