Richard Maxwell

Christ the King, Proper 29 C
24 November 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As you have undoubtedly noticed, today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, as we always do on the final Sunday of the liturgical year.  I have ambiguous feelings about this feast because it brings up the issue of power.  After all, kings are about power, are they not?  And I think our world is pretty messed up about this issue . . . I think we’ve got it all wrong in the ways that we think about, and react to, and use power.  And in this we’re no different from our ancient ancestors.  Today, because we heard a passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I want us to think about that little church in Colossae.

The people of Colossae lived in a world that thought about power kind of like we do.  People during the time of the Roman Empire viewed the world as being controlled by “powers” . . . by invisible forces beyond their control.  They called these powers ‘gods.’ And ya had to placate them; ya had to be nice to these gods or they’d probably cause you trouble.  For example, if you were going off to war, a sacrifice to the god of war, Mars, was a pretty good idea.  Pluto, whom we think of as the god of the underworld, was also the god of wealth.  Sometimes he was called Mammon.  If you wanted to be rich, you’d better be nice to Mammon.  Venus ruled the affairs of the heart, and if you were in love, her assistance might gain you success with your beloved.  These gods, like all the others in the Roman and Greek pantheon, were never very far away.  They controlled all the different aspects of life, but they were also quixotic and unpredictable, which is why it was so important to keep them happy.

Now, you may be thinking, “But this is nothing like our world today.  We don’t believe in Mars, or Pluto, or Venus.”  And, of course, you’re right.  But on the other hand, we DO have our gods . . . we’ve just given them different names.  We haven’t given our gods human qualities . . . they’re more like THINGS . . . well, no that’s not right, because if you think about it, our gods are actually somewhat amorphous.  What am I talking about?  Well, the gods that we think of as controlling our world have names like ‘government,’ ‘corporation,’ ‘economy.’  Have you ever SEEN an economy?  I haven’t.  And yet, for example, we all hope that some of the high priests of the economy – the Federal Reserve – will offer the right sacrifices to keep that unpredictable god, economy, happy.

We’re not as creative as our ancestors.  They gave human qualities to the powers that controlled them.  They told wonderful, elaborate stories about them; stories that helped them explain the unexplainable.  We haven’t done anything nearly as interesting with the powers that we believe control us.  Although . . . maybe the Supreme Court was trying to get the ball rolling by declaring that a corporation is a person.  We haven’t begun yet to sacrifice lambs and bulls on altars in the stock exchange . . . but I don’t think that we know how to deal with our gods any more than our ancestors did.

This is where the letter to the Colossians begins to apply to us.  Paul begins his letter by giving thanks that there’s any church at all in Colossae.  You see, the city had once been an important and thriving metropolis, but times had changed and the city was now a mere shadow of what it had been.  Sound familiar to any residents of Hartford?  The church there was also small and working hard to stay vibrant and true.  But Paul disregards these facts and urges this little group of Christians to live as if they are all a song of thanksgiving to God.  Isn’t that lovely?  “To live as if we are a song of thanksgiving to God.”  (My interpretation of 3:17.)

Paul says that the Colossians should be thankful that God has rescued them “from the domain of darkness and brought [them] into the kingdom of His dear Son, through whom [their] release is secured and [their] sins are forgiven” (1:13-14).  Do you hear an echo in that phrase?  It’s an echo from the Book of Exodus.  Just as the children of Israel were brought out of slavery in Egypt and were delivered as free people, so now, through the power of Christ, people everywhere can be rescued from the powers that rule this world, and be brought into the Kingdom of Jesus.  Jesus has the power to do this because, as Paul says, all things were made in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ (1:15-20 in essence).

ALL things were made in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ . . . even the powers of OUR world . . . government, corporation, economy.  The world is NOT somehow divided into two parts . . . the good part that belongs to God and the bad part that is ruled by the powers.  The whole world was created by God and belongs to God!

So . . . what went wrong?  What is STILL going wrong?  Paul seems to say that what has gone wrong is that we human beings have abandoned our God-given responsibility for God’s world, and have let “the powers” take over.  When we let our voices go silent and ignore the duties of citizenship because it’s all just “politics” and we can’t influence “government,” then Mars is delighted to rule in our place and let havoc loose in the world.  When we do our business for profit only, ignoring the fact that all of our money is a gift from God NOT to be used simply for our own welfare, but for the welfare of others, and for the glory of God – if we ignore all that – a then Mammon is all too happy to take over and greed operates freely.  When we refuse to conduct our love lives as the gift from God that they are, then Venus takes charge and we objectify those we should love – as well as ourselves – and lust is in control.

Jesus came into the world to take on these principalities and powers, living and teaching a way of life that challenges them.  The powers say, “Get a big gun and use it; it’s the only way to get things done and stay safe.”  Jesus says, “Those who take up the sword perish by the sword.”  He also says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  The powers say, “Make it while you can,” urging us to live and die for the almighty dollar.  Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”  The powers jostle among themselves proclaiming that one or another of them is in complete control.  Jesus declares the reign of God.  Jesus conquers by offering himself as a living sacrifice.

Yet we all know what happens to people who try to follow Jesus too closely . . . who stand up to the powers.  Everything may go fine for a while . . . until, that is, the powers figure out what’s goin’ on and get organized.  Then the powers let loose, flexing their muscles.  All the gods we have manufactured rule through the illusion that they have everything under control, and when someone challenges that illusion . . . well . . . look out!  Anyone who challenges the powers is gonna get into big trouble.  At least, that’s what happened to Jesus.

They stripped him naked and beat him and publicly humiliated him at his trial.  They paraded him through the city.  And then they nailed him to a cross.  Over his head, the powers posted the charge that Jesus was found guilty of . . . he had acted like he was in charge, when, of course, everybody knows that it’s the powers who control everything.  They celebrated their victory over this would-be king, as Jesus was dying . . . proof that nobody can beat the system.

But listen to how Paul turns all this on its head in the second chapter of his letter to the Colossians.  “[Through the cross, Jesus] disarmed the cosmic powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, leading them as captive in this triumphal procession” (2:15).  The cross was not the defeat of Christ by the powers; it is the defeat of the powers by the bloody cross of Christ.  The powers – like fear, and greed, and lust – whisper to you that you can’t resist them.  But Paul shouts that these powers were defeated on the cross.  They have no REAL power over you.  The decisive battle has been won.  Yes, we may have skirmishes and fights, but the IMPORTANT battle has been won.

Remember, every time you say the prayer that Jesus taught us, you are saying – with joy and defiance – that Jesus Christ is our Lord and that God is our ruler . . . and that the so-called “powers” have no power at all.  Every time you say grace over a meal, you are making a political statement . . . saying that the food you are about to eat is a gift from God and not simply an achievement of your earning power, or a triumph of agri-business.  Every time you come forward to receive the bread and the wine, you are participating in a banquet . . . a victory celebration for the unmasking and defeat of the so-called “powers” of this world.

Just like the Colossians who first heard this letter – this political proclamation, this announcement of victory – we are to go home, to our schools, and offices, and live the truth we know.  Despite the lies told to us by the world around us, we are to live knowing the truth . . . the truth about who is in charge, the truth about who sits on the throne, the truth about how the world ends:  Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and those gods, Mars and Mammon, or whatever they’re called, have no power over us whatsoever.  The decisive battle has been won.  Victory is assured.  Now let’s get on with it and live it!

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