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Texts for Christ the King or Reign of Christ, Year C (Nov 17, 2019)

Texts: OT – Jeremiah 23.1-6; Canticle – Luke 1. 68-79; NT – Colossians 1.11-20; Gospel – Luke 23.33-43

All biblical quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

Texts cited: 

Texts For Preaching: Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCain, James D. Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – cited as TFP 

“The Letter to the Colossians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” Andrew T. Lincoln, in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, pp. 553-669 – cited as TNIB

Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) – cited as RS

Ralph P. Martin, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philemon. Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991) – cited as GEP

Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018) – hereafter MG

The passages for this Sunday all reflect the nature of kingly power, in one way or another. Although they are each speaking to different contexts and approach the topic differently, each reading addresses, in one way or another, the nature of God’s power and majesty. The OT Lesson from Jeremiah 23 begins with a scathing critique of Israel’s leaders – their “shepherds” – who use their power not to nourish and nurture the people, but to scatter and destroy them. God, however, promises a messiah, a ruler from David’s line. God will raise up “a righteous branch” (v. 5) who will rule wisely and use his power to do what is “just and right in the land.” Christians will tend to interpret this as a prophetic reference to Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. The Gospel from Luke 23 directly addresses the goal of Jesus’s kingship, narrating a crucial part of Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Here we find both those crucifying Jesus, as well as one of the criminals crucified with Jesus, mocking him as lacking power to save himself: “If you are the king of Israel, save yourself” (v. 36); “If you are the Christ, save yourself” (v. 39). Jesus response, though, critically reorients the nature of his power and his kingship (v. 43) – Jesus does not use his kingly power to save himself but to save others.

I want to focus more, however, on the NT Lesson from Colossians 1.11-20. This reading is a panegyric on the cosmic nature of Jesus’s kingship – or simply his “supremacy” as our text puts it (v. 18). While the text does not give Jesus the title “king,” it does refer to him as ruling a kingdom, “the kingdom of light” (v. 12). In this lection, the nature of Christ’s exaltation is not for him alone, but is set out as a “reconciliation” of all things, in heaven and on earth (v. 20). There is a remarkable reversal at the very core of Christ’s rule, which stands earthly kingdoms and earthly powers on their head: Jesus’s power to bring peace and to reconcile is not exercised through the bloodshed of his enemies and the powers that oppose his rule, but through his own blood shed on the cross. But we’ll return to this below.

The first thing to note is that this lection is excerpted mid-stream, so to speak, as it falls within the middle of an opening prayer and discourse giving thanks for God’s action on behalf of the Colossians and their effective response of faith to that action (in short, Paul recapitulates the Gospel that was preached to them and they believed). Some (namely Ernst Käsemann) have even speculated that it is part of an early Christian baptismal liturgy (GEP 104). So our lection is a fragment of something larger.

The second thing to note in this lesson is that, as we have mentioned earlier in the year when this passage came up in Propers 15 and 16, is that it is highly polemical and designed to counter the “philosophy” of the counter-teachers at Colossae who (apparently) are giving prominence to the cosmic powers (the stoichea) as independent beings who deserve worship in their own right (2.8, 18, 20; cf. GEP 106). So Paul is here emphasizing that through baptism into Christ, Christians are (1) part-owners of and participate in “the kingdom of light” (v. 12), (2) rescued from the realm where evil powers hold sway (v. 13), and (3) transformed morally through the forgiveness of sins (v. 14). As TNIB (594) summarizes, Paul produces a counters the false philosophy by assuring the Colossians that in Jesus they already have access to heaven (and therefore do not have to go through lower intermediaries), and that God has already qualified them to have access to heaven (and therefore do not have to purify themselves).

We should also note that Paul asserts the priority of Jesus and this in no uncertain terms. Jesus is: (1) the visible image (ikon) of the invisible God, (2) the firstborn of creation, (3) the means and end of creation, (4) prior – both temporally and logically – to creation, (4) holding all things together, (5) the head of the church, and (6) the firstborn from the dead. To sum it all up, Paul asserts that in Jesus’s physical body, God was pleased to have all of God’s fullness dwell. Each of these has special significance: (1) Jesus shows us what God really looks like, (2) Jesus shows us what we really look like and what true reality is, (3) knowing Jesus is the most important thing because he is the key to life and creation, (4) Jesus is in control, (5) we owe Jesus our allegiance, and (6) Jesus is in control of our future state as well. As TNIB recaps it: “Christ’s pre-eminence is not simply because he happened to be one individual whom God raised ahead of time but because he is a particular individual with a unique relation to God’s work of reconciliation” (599).

In terms of what we learn of Jesus's kingship from this assertion of Jesus's supremacy in Col 1, they are several (cf. Ziegler's treatment of Christ's royal office in Romans 8.31-39 in MG 50-51): (1) Jesus's rule, his glory, and the exercise of his divine power is never disassociated from the cross, his humanity - his flesh and frailty, his execution. It is "from under the cross" (Col 1.20; in MG 50, Ziegler uses this apt phrase to explain a dimension of Jesus's royal office in Romans 8.31-39) that Paul - and we along with him - proclaim and praise Jesus the King, as the one who "has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom" and brought us "forgiveness of sins" (Col 1.13-14). (2) Jesus's kingship is spiritual because it is an eschatological reality that even now is actively invading the the world to redeem, reclaim, sustain, and guide God's people and "reconcile  to [God] all things" (Col 1.20). (3) Jesus rule and reign is a concrete political fact in the world today for Christians in that for us Jesus is the true Lord of the world and is supreme over all the powers of this age. Jesus is Lord over every aspect of our existence, as Käseman says, "over body and soul, heart and mind, disciples and demons, this world and the world to come" (cited in MG 51). And (4), faith in Jesus's kingly rule shapes the lives of his saints so that they are "strengthened with all power" (Col 1.11) and can joyfully witness to God's grace to us in Jesus and that Jesus has won the victory for us over the powers of this age.

Finally, the great reversal that Jesus’s kingship enacts, which reconciles all things in heaven and earth to God and that transfers us into God’s kingdom, is accomplished through a cross – the shedding of Jesus’s blood on an instrument of the state for political torture and execution. Looking at Rome, Terry Eagleton notes in RS (16) that civilized society is founded, is grounded, and propounded by bloodshed. However, “[o]nce it is established…civilisation [sic] by no means provides respite from the bloodstained narrative that went into its making.” There is “a higher form of barbarism, so to speak, under the name of law, empire, and universal order” that is crucial to the ongoing perpetuation of civil society; there is a “violence of the law” and “the final guarantee of civility is state-sanctioned death” (16-18). In other words, bloody sacrifice, the letting of innocent blood, is essential civil society.

Eagleton identifies “a radical kernel” (RS 8) to the practice of sacrifice that may shed some light on the great reversal enacted through Jesus’s crucifixion. “Sacrifice,” Eagleton tell us, “concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power. It marks the movement from victimhood to full humanity, destitution to riches, the world as we know it to some transfigured domain. To make an object sacred is to mark it out by investing it with a sublimely dangerous power. If sacrifice is often violent, it is because the depth of change it promises cannot be a matter of smooth evolution or simple continuity” (RS 8). What we find when we dig a little deeper, is that sacrifice is about not about death at all, but about life; it is really animated by “the mystery by which life springs from death” (RS 16). And what we find is that the human propensity and inclination to offer sacrifice is really just a hankering for the source of life, the meaning of it all (or “the Real,” if you will), which we never, really, can ever capture for ourselves – in word or thought or any other way.

The question that often comes up for me, though, is what is happening on the cross? What sort of violence is being committed and why? What is being revealed – about violence, among other things – on the cross? (Ok, that’s more than one question. Sorry!)

What is utterly significant (to me, at least) is that the violence enacted on the cross is not, as Eagleton notes (quoting Roger Hamerton-Kelly), “‘divine violence at all but rather human violence dissembled [that is, cloaked or disguised] by mean means of the sacred will of the idolised gods’. Jesus death is, as Jean-Luc Nancy declares (which might be proffered as a summary of The Letter to the Hebrews), “ ‘the sacrifice of sacrifice.’ (RS 28).” Jesus’s death unmasks the institution of sacrifice as barbaric and brings it to an end. But even more that that, Eagleton finds that the revolutionary character of the death of Jesus is figured first and foremost in its laying bare “the barbarism of the ruling powers” (RS 26). “The purity of the victim is no longer that of doves or calves, who are innocent only in the sense that moral concepts have no bearing on them, but is that of the blameless just, on whose heads a virulent political aggression is unleashed. What is not at stake is not the placating of the gods but political murder” (RS 26)”

I’m going to leave off commentary at this point and simply quote Eagleton, RS 26-29:

"In a strange dialectical turn, then, one of the most savage actions (human sacrifice) reappears in the guise of [p. 27] martyrdom as one of the most sublimely ethical ones. Calvary is a scene of carnage, like that of the bloodstained altar, but it is also a site of supreme value. …It is Jesus’s dedication to justice and fellowship that delivers him up to the cross. …In the person of Jesus, those whom Paul calls the filth of the earth are in principle raised up to glory. So it is that an act of state brutality also signifies a symbolic undoing of political violence. Power is now, in principle, in the hands of those whom it has traditionally spurned as so much refuse and garbage. If the founding act of civilisation [sic] involves a gesture of exclusion, this new regime reverses that repression, as the slab rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone of a new dispensation. …Authentic power is at war with the status quo, given that its source lies in solidarity with weakness. In the ‘victorious defeat’ of his death, to steal a phrase from Nietzsche, Jesus lives our as free decision the destitution into which others are forced by dire circumstance. …[p. 28] What is at stake on Calvary is an Aufhebung [sublimation or recontextualization] of sacrifice rather than a simple negation of it. The practice is both consummated and annulled. …The cross stands in an ancient tradition of sacrifice while also spelling out its demise. If it consigns ritual slaughter to the benighted past, it is itself a matter of bloodshed and barbarism. …The Letter to the Hebrewssees Jesus as having entered into the forbidden precinct of the Temple, a place reserved for the priestly caste, and in doing so dismantling from within that hallowed enclave the very distinction between sacred and secular, thus consigning the protocols of this venerable site to the ashcan of history. A bloody political murder now occupies the place of the Holy of Holies. Sacred times can places are now at an end… [p. 29] Having entered the Holy of Holies, Jesus will offer up not animals but himself, replacing the Temple (meaning the apparatus of priestly and political power) with his own flesh and blood, and in doing so bringing ritual sacrifice and to a finish."