Sunday, November 25, 2018

King is such an indadequate word

Christ the king Sunday was celebrated this morning.  I heard a good sermon about how hard it is for modern day Americans to connect with the idea of kingship because it’s so antithetical to our democratic ways.  It reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when an enquirer gave up on becoming a Christian because she was unwilling to accept a God that was not the product of her own design and election.  No king for her.

Maybe we need to get at it from another starting point.  John’s gospel asserts that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, which to me to captures the meat of it.  Another way of saying it might be that Jesus is the human manifestation of such powerful love that through it all that is was brought into being. 

It’s not kingship in any ordinary way of understanding monarchs, by whatever name, but it is the declaration of ultimate authority through which, and by which, we exist.  I just finished reading Johnathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion.”  My brother in law had read it, and wanted to get into a conversation, so I read it too.  Haidt surveyed several ways to catalogue morality, noting that religious people have a strong sense of obedience to authority which they posit in gods of many kinds.  This deontological basis for morality didn’t have much appeal to him, mainly, I suspect, because he believes all religions share the same psychological and sociological processes, differentiated only by the names of their gods and the flavors of their rituals.  Besides, he claims to be a modern day utilitarian following in the path of Bentham and Durkheim.  

We Christians, following in the path of our elder Jewish kin, recognize God whom we cannot know, and cannot mold to our own tastes (not for lack of trying), but whom we we can come to know in part through God’s own self revelation.  As Christians, we are certain that in Jesus all the fullness of God that can be shown in human form has been made known to us.  It means that what he did and said has ultimate authority, and by that authority he made it clear that loving one another as he loved us is the way to abundant life. 

Maybe king of kings and lord of lords makes little sense to modern day Americans, but the idea that the ultimate power of the universe intends us to live life in abundance, and has told us how to do it, should have some appeal.

A member of the small rural congregation I serve several times a month asked the obvious question a few weeks ago.  If that’s true, why can’t we do it?  Did he goof up on our design?

Haidt’s answer, echoed by many others, is that we weren’t designed, we just evolved.  Our brains are not yet wired to live in love with one another, except in predictably limited ways.  Maybe they’ll never evolve to a higher morality.  My more sophisticated theological answer was, “I dunno.”  We Episcopalians don’t get hung up with questions about intelligent design.  We’re content to let science slowly reveal the processes by which we came to be without displacing God from the center of it all.

It brings me back to the beginning.   As Christians, following in Jewish footsteps, we have to admit we cannot comprehend God.  As an anonymous medieval mystic wrote, God exists within a cloud of unknowing.   All we can do is apprehend God as God is revealed to us.  To us God has said “I’ve shown you the way and demonstrated how to do it, follow where you have been led.  You asked how to live well, and I’ve told you and showed you.”

For all the reasons Haidt describes in his book, we’re not good at doing it.  But here’s the really curious thing.  God knows it, and has said that our life here is a waypoint on our journey to a more perfect one.  It’s through the gate of death.  We can get glimpses of it, but only glimpses.  

That’s way too much for many.  Silliness to the extreme.  A childish fairy tale.  Be that as it may, Christians are convinced of it by the evidence of those who bore witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Different denominations have different ways of understanding it.  Episcopalians tend toward the universal salvation side of things.  But my guess is that if you don’t want to go through that gate, you don’t have to.  Nobody’s going to force it on you.  


Now where were we?  King of kings and lord of lords.  I can live with that. 

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