“Seeing the Reign of God”
Christ the King / Reign of Christ Sunday
November 25, 2007
Today is “Christ the King’ Sunday, or the Sunday of the Reign of Christ.
It is a day when we are invited to reflect upon the nature of the kingdom that Christ came to establish on earth; and to remind ourselves about the qualities of the One whose reign we celebrate.
As we begin, I would invite us to focus on a remarkable phrase that is found in today’s suggested reading from the Letter to the Colossians -- chapter 1, verse 15.
“He is the image of the invisible God.”
There are certain phrases in Scripture that are so powerful that they should not be read quickly. These words from Colossians are just such a phrase.
He is the image of the invisible God. What a claim.
The Invisible God
From the beginning of
recorded human history, our ancestors, in almost every part of the world, have
experienced the presence of a great mystery whose power transcends human
This presence has been described in many different ways. In the biblical tradition, ‘God’ was described as a Creator, who brought the universe into existence; as a Lawgiver, who offered clear commandments for how life was to be lived; as a just – but sometimes very harsh – judge of human evil; as a shepherd who cared for people throughout life’s sometimes difficult journeys, and as a guide, who would send messages, by way of the prophets, when the people strayed from the ways that God would have them live.
It was not only people of biblical history, however, who sought to find words to describe God. The ancient philosophers described God as the unmoved mover, or the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’. Other belief systems, finding it difficult to imagine that there could only be one deity possessing such incredible power, chose instead to imagine a pantheon of gods, each with distinct roles to play in human life and in the cosmos.
Many of those ancient belief systems and philosophies described God – or the gods – in terms that tended towards the superlative. Knowing that human words would never be adequate, our ancestors often chose the best qualities that they could possibly imagine, and then attributed those qualities to the divine. God was described as a supreme power; as a being of incomparable might; of surpassing beauty; of wonder, truth, wisdom and unchanging goodness.
But all of those various belief systems and philosophical traditions were agreed on one thing. Whatever else God was, God was not visible. As the hymn so beautifully states, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”.
To speak of God required that our ancestors had to enter into the realm of imagination, the realm of faith -- because God was invisible.
Christ as the Icon of the Invisible God
That was then.
One of the most fascinating dimensions of life at this present time in Christian history is that we are learning more about the Eastern, or Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Almost a thousand years ago, in approximately 1054, a major schism happened in the Christian church. For a host of cultural, theological, geographical and political reasons, the Church was divided. The Western half, which was organized under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church – and it is in that Western half of the Church that the Reformation took place about 500 years later. The Eastern half of that Great Schism, in 1054, came to be known as the Orthodox tradition. The Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox churches – to name just a few – emerged from that Eastern half of the Christian faith.
For most of us, our knowledge of Christian history is quite limited – and what we know is almost entirely related to the Western half of the Christian tradition. We might know a few of the events that occurred in the first few decades after Christ, with Paul and the apostles; but then our minds jump forward about 1500 years to the time of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and the Reformation. While this lack of knowledge of the events of the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian tradition is troubling, our lack of understanding of the history and spirituality of the Eastern, or Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith is, perhaps, even more unfortunate. When asked, many of us, for example, would suggest that there are two major streams of Christian tradition – the Roman Catholic and the Protestant – without any awareness of the fact that there is a third important stream – that being the Orthodox tradition.
But things are changing. Immigration patterns, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a greater Orthodox participation in ecumenical ventures, and the recent advances in communications and transportation technologies have all helped to increase our knowledge and exposure to the Orthodox tradition
And we have much to learn.
Anyone who has been to an Orthodox Church, or travelled in Russia, or read Dostoyevsky or knows anything of the Orthodox tradition will know that one of the most important spiritual disciplines, in the Orthodox tradition, involves the use of icons in the worship and prayers of the Church. An icon, in Orthodox tradition, is an image which helps the worshipper to come a deeper vision and awareness of the One who cannot be seen.
And what is particularly interesting, for our reflections this morning, is that the Greek word that is used in verse 15 of this passage from Colossians, and that is translated as ‘image’ in our reading, is the word eikwn. This phrase – that Christ is the ‘image’ of the invisible God – can accurately be translated to suggest that Christ is “the icon of the invisible God.’
There is good reason, as Protestants, to ponder the significance of that idea. The Protestant tradition has always emphasized the idea of Christ as the Word of God made flesh, based largely on the opening verses in the Gospel of John about the Logos, or Word who was in the beginning with God and who was God. As a result of this particular emphasis, anything which distracted a person from hearing the Word of God was treated with suspicion. For some reformers, paintings and stained glass windows were to be discouraged as they would draw the attention of the community away from the preaching of the Word; for others, the words for all of the hymns were to be drawn from the Book of Psalms. Everything revolved around the written Word, in Scripture, the function of which was to lead the worshipper into the presence of the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
But if we take the claim of today’s text seriously, we might ask whether there are things that we might learn from the Orthodox tradition’s use of images and icons in prayer and in worship. St. John of Damascus, a monk and priest who lived between 676 and 749, wrote an essay entitled, “On the Divine Images”, in which he stated,
Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. Since he who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.
What a fascinating line – “present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.” Is it possible that we should pay attention to the Image as well as the Word, the Icon as well as the Logos?
Which leads us back to this fascinating verse from the Letter to the Colossians. Christ is the icon of the invisible God. The claim of this thesis, as it is presented to us in Colossians, is really quite startling – that Jesus is the icon, the One in whom and through whom we might see the glorious, triumphant, eternal and unchanging mystery that we call God.
The Problem of the Crucified Icon
But there is a problem.
The problem is that it is hard to imagine a more complete antithesis to the glorious image of God than the image that is presented to us in our Gospel reading.
Since the beginning of time, we had been told that God was beautiful, wonderful, dominant, triumphant, and glorious. We had been told that God was the unmoved mover, the source and ground of all being, the One who was eternal and all-powerful.
But this is not the image that we are invited to ‘see’ in our Gospel reading.
Rather, the Gospel presents us with the image of a broken man, hanging on a cross; a man who had been brutalized in ways that most of us could not even stomach to watch, let alone experience. We are presented with the image of a man who had been betrayed and abandoned by his friends; a man who was such a loser that the crowds wanted a known criminal released in place of him. He was bleeding, gasping for breath, and would soon succumb to death by suffocation because his hands and his feet, which had nails driven through them, would eventually become so badly torn that they would no longer be strong enough to allow him to pull himself up to catch a breath.
And how did that supposed icon of God act in that moment of pain? Did he, as a powerful Creator, create some way to save himself from that painful experience? Did he act as judge, and justly condemn to eternal torment those who watched him suffer? Did he use his divine power to smite his enemies? No. He prayed for their forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” He comforted a man who was dying alongside him. “Truly, I tell, you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” There was nothing of the creative, triumphant, dominant, glorious surpassing, divine power on display that day.
It is when we ponder the anguish and the scandal of the cross that we come to realize that if it is true that Christ is the image of the invisible God, then the God before whom we bow is not the God that we had been expecting. In Jesus, humanity’s assumptions about God’s dominant power, inexpressible beauty, and glory were put to the test – and found wanting.
After all, if Jesus is the icon of God, then God can be broken; God can experience pain; God can suffer; God can be treated cruelly. While it must be noted that God extends forgiveness, comfort and strength to others, even in the face of cruelty and hatred, we cannot escape the fact that the God that Jesus reveals to us is not the God that we thought we knew.
Some icon. Some God.
Seeing the Reign of Christ
So what does all of this have to do with Christ the King Sunday?
I mentioned, at the beginning, that today is a day when we reflect upon the nature of the kingdom that Christ came to establish on earth; and a day to remind ourselves about the qualities of the king who we seek to serve.
If it is true that the crucified Christ is, in fact, not only our King but is the image of the invisible God, then we must ask ourselves where we might go to ‘see’ our king, and the kingdom that he came to establish. That is, if God was most fully revealed not so much in the peace, the beauty and the wonder of the world, but rather in a moment of terrible brokenness and pain, then we cannot help but ask where our King – and the kingdom of God – are to be found, even today. Where can we go to ‘see’ the reign of Christ?
Consider where Jesus, himself, suggested that his kingdom would be found. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that his kingdom was to be found among the poor and the poor in spirit; among the sorrowful; among the meek; among those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness; among those who choose mercy and seek peace in places of cruelty and conflict; among those who live with pure hearts in places where purity is not usually found; among those who are persecuted for doing good. In Matthew 25, Jesus suggested that he would be experienced when his followers fed the hungry and the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and the prisoner, and did such things to those who were deemed to be the least important in the eyes of the world. Our King gave us fairly clear directions to look for him, and for his kingdom – in places where people were suffering.
But it is not just to those in times of physical suffering that Jesus promised to be present. Jesus also reached out to those who were emotionally hurt; to those who were living with the threat of being overwhelmed in the stormy seas of life; to those who were struggling with their faith; and to those who, themselves were fine, but who had loved ones who were suffering. So often, throughout the Gospel accounts, the presence of Christ was known to those who were experiencing times of sadness and despair.
But, one might ask, isn’t too much talk about the cross, and sadness, despair, death and suffering distracting us from the good news that we are supposed to be celebrating? After all, what about the resurrection? What about God’s love? Wasn’t the cross simply a prelude to the resurrection, and isn’t the good news of the kingdom of God’s love all about Christ’s triumph over suffering and death?
But what we must remember is that the places where God’s love is most evident are in places where the pain of the cross is most apparent. And if we want to experience the joy of the empty tomb, we cannot allow ourselves to be too afraid – or too indifferent – to expose ourselves to situations where suffering is real.
If we want to see God’s kingdom, then we must respond to Christ’s invitation to follow him. It might be to the hospital bedside of a dying person; it might be into an unexpectedly meaningful conversation with a marginalized person living in a crowded Boarding Home; it might be over a cup of coffee shared with a homeless person who has just come out of the cold; it might be while walking out of a church sanctuary on a bright Sunday morning, and stopping to speak with someone who is going through a difficult time in their lives.
There is no way of knowing when we will catch a glimpse of the presence of the kingdom of love – but the best place to look is in places where hope is wearing thin; places where sadness and suffering, death and despair seem to be triumphant.
This past Friday afternoon, I went to visit an elderly man at Baycrest Hospital. He is a man who has been in a semi-vegetative state for almost six years, as a result of a complication that arose after a knee replacement surgery. As I entered the hospital room, his wife was dozing in a chair by his bed, her head serenely tucked on one of his arms. It was a beautiful moment. There, in that place of suffering, of pain and of frustration, sat a woman whose love had not been overcome by the struggles of life. During the six years that he has been hospitalized, a lot has happened in our world – wars have been waged, empires and kingdoms have collided, with devastating results. But, through all of those times, a woman has faithfully sat at the side of a hospital bed. And it is the presence of such love, even in a world such as this, that gives evidence that there just may be a different type of power, a different type of kingdom at work in this world. There is a power that is greater than suffering, and of death. And that power is the power of love.
If we want to find the kingdom of God, if we want to see the reign of Christ, then we have to be willing to open our eyes to such situations – situations where love is, in fact, triumphing over suffering and sadness. And when we catch sight of those moments of grace, we give thanks – for, in those moments, we are reminded of the One who revealed, in this world, the true image of the invisible God.
And that ‘true’ image was of a God who was willing to suffer for the sake of love.
May God grant us the courage to reshape our lives in response to that love, and in so doing, to allow Christ’s kingdom of love to be ‘seen’, even in us.