112121 Cosmic Christ Sunday Facing Painful Truths
The sermon begins at minute 18:15 of the video
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
What a week to celebrate Cosmic Christ Sunday, traditionally known as Christ the King. As we consider Jesus’ trial before Pilate, when truth itself was on trial, we are witnessing multiple trials of white people who have murdered and done violence to people on the basis of race. The first verdict came on Friday. Once again, truth was on trial, as Farhad Manjoo shows in an article in the NY Times. Rittenhouse says he carried a rifle in order to guarantee his safety during a violent protest. He was forced to shoot at four people when his life and the lives of other people were threatened, he says. What was he protecting everyone from? The gun strapped to his own body, the one he’d brought to keep everyone safe. The truth lost that day, as it did with Jesus. We’ve gotten so used to verdicts where truth loses that this one didn’t shock, though it always disappoints. Perhaps that’s why there were no riots in Kenosha this weekend.
The images of this last Sunday in the Christian year have fomented a great deal of violence in the course of Christian history. Not only wars like the crusades and the battles for “Cristo Rey” in Mexico, but the images of justified domination of cultures and lands around the globe – native peoples massacred, enslaved, and coerced to convert, and their lands stolen in the name of salvation of heathens. Many of you know that I moderated an interfaith panel on Christian Nationalism last Thursday. We heard story after story that revealed the distorted moral narrative that has misguided the US over the entire course of its history. In the end, it seemed that the primary impact of Christianity on marginal people around the globe has been negative. Much of that negative impact has been the result of getting the meaning of the title “Christ the King” wrong. Referring to the “Cosmic Christ” doesn’t really help change that; but at least it moves us away from a term that has done so much damage.
Ironically, the whole point of this Sunday is to point out how different Jesus’ way of being the anointed one was from what most people wanted and expected. Jesus stood up for truth in the face of accusations and verdicts based on falsehood. King David revealed that the anointed one should be “one who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God.” The Psalmist wrote, “Let your priests be clothed with righteousness; let your faithful people sing with joy.” The Book of Revelation called “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth… who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests.” Those are not images that foment violence. But, of course, to understand that, people would have to read and reflect on their content, not just repeat the title. And therein lies both the problem and the solution.
The members of the interfaith panel last Thursday all agreed that the way forward is to reaffirm faith over religion, and to transform our story from one of justified oppression to faithful service. The voices that affirmed that truth were Muslim, Native American, Black Christian, urban Christian, Jewish, and Hindu/ Sikh. But the story that required changing was associated with Christian domination around the world. The change needed is to let today’s biblical texts inform the meaning of the title, Christ the King.
John’s Revelation describes a scene in which God puts the Roman empire on trial for crimes committed against humanity. That would have encouraged early Christians, who were targets of persecution. It looked to them like the Roman Empire was eternal. The Book of Revelation assured an oppressed church that systems of oppression don’t last forever. It used codified language so the empire wouldn’t know that they got hope from knowing the empire would end. Similarly, slaves who lived in the south of this country sang spirituals to fulfill a similar function. They used images of putting on shoes in heaven to describe the destination of the Underground Railroad that carried them to freedom.
But the white church has often used the images of the Book of Revelation to justify extreme treatment of unbelievers. In its extreme forms, it means we must convert as much of the world as possible to Christianity because Christians will escape the worst ending – the Great Tribulation – by being raptured to meet Jesus in the sky. If that means forced or manipulated conversions – taking their land, or literally hurting people to get them to convert to “our” Jesus, so be it. It’s not about how we treat the planet; but how many we can cram into the escape tunnel before the world falls apart. That view has justified much of what has passed for Christianity, and it has done major damage to people who are finally speaking up.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus wanted to speak about “truth”, an utterly strange topic to Pilate. Pilate operated in a carefully maintained world of illusion, and the presence of one whose mission was to strip away the illusions and point to what is really real posed an enormous threat. “Disillusionment” is precisely what Pilate needed if he was to be set on the road to truth; but it was also what he most feared. We can’t keep our hands clean and commit to the truth at the same time. Truth always threatens, especially when the one in our midst is the way, the truth, and the life. The voices of those who have been silenced are speaking truth that threatens our innocence about the way the Christian message has been distorted.
People who have had power, even if only benefitting from policies that give them the advantage, have their ways to deal with this threat. The religious leaders arrest Jesus under the shroud of night in a garden away from the crowds. They try to avoid the ritual defilement that of entering Pilate’s headquarters. Pilate has his own ways of avoiding being revealed. Jesus kept trying to engage Pilate personally: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate demurs: “I’m not a Jew, am I? Don’t try to involve me in this, Jesus. I don’t belong to your community.” Jesus replies: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
For Jesus, truth is not something you believe in; it’s something, or someone you belong to. In other words, “I am the truth. Do you belong to me?” This is the kind of truth today’s generation is asking for, and that this moment in history demands: relational truth. Truth has to be lived out by real people, connected to a person or institution that relates to them truthfully. Is the truth about avoiding risk or caring for people? Jesus is truth in human form, the kind we’re looking for; but, like Pilate, we’re scared because Jesus’ truth is so personal.
When the Bible speaks apocalyptically, it addresses situations where one way of life ends and another must be found. We have already said that the Book of Revelation revealed that the imperial world under Roman rule was coming to an end. What’s coming to an end in our lives? Here Christians disagree as well. Some say that what is coming to an end is the brief experiment in civil rights and a multicultural view of life in America. For others of us, recent events have brought an end to the illusion of innocence about our history, and of control at every level of life; an end to the belief that humans cannot destroy the planet, because now we can; an end to the world’s supply of oil during some of our lifetimes; an end to glaciers and life as we know and love it. What the best biblical apocalyptic would say is that what may end soon is an unsustainable way of life, but not the earth itself.
Friends, this weekend we are between one verdict and several more. We must face truth, even when it questions everything we have believed. We must listen to Jesus’ testimony of truth, and not hide behind titles like Christ the King. Then we must join with those whose voices have been silenced to act on the truth. We may be more susceptible to pessimism than optimism today. But the call of truth is to hope – a hope that engages the real world with compassion.