Saturday, November 24, 2012

Not of This World

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (John 18.33-34)

Empire, Supremacy, and Legitimate Rule

This weekend, churches worldwide mark the end of the liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King (also known as “The Reign of Christ”). The official line on its origin holds that Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 to offset growing secularism among the Faithful, to remind them that Christ is the Sovereign Ruler and Lord of all. But numerous historians have suggested the feast was also born of political expediency. World War One effectively unraveled the last of Europe’s dynastic empires, in one case contributing to the overthrow of a monarch (Russia) and in others (Great Britain, Austro-Hungary, and Germany) reducing royal figures to ceremonial heads of state. As “anointed” rulers of vast lands, they had governed at the behest of their spiritual overseers. This paradigm would be no more. In addition to splintering the Continent into smaller, autonomous nations, the War augured the ascendance of a new world leader, the United States. Although Americans were far less consumed by secularism than their French cousins, both countries passionately upheld the separation of Church and State. There was no mistaking they signaled a wave of the future that would strip Catholic and Protestant prelates of power they’d exercised for centuries.

Pius XI’s declaration of Christ’s sovereignty over all nations and peoples was an easy purchase for Protestant bishops who typically ignored Vatican edicts. Few questioned its theological urgency. Rapid shifts in thought had thrown the balance of religion and politics off-kilter. Christianity’s role as Western civilization’s voice of justice and compassion was failing; God’s kingdom was losing ground. As so often has happened in Church history, there was more to the Feast of Christ the King than met the eye: the assertion of Christ’s Lordship doubled as reassertion of ecclesiastical influence. And its tension between religious and political power is instructive, since the same issues—empire, supremacy, and legitimate rule—bubble up in Sunday’s Gospel. (John 18.33-17) This time, however, belief threatens politics. A new wave of thought is taking hold, one that insists a Higher Authority trumps the power structure cobbled together by an uneasy alliance between Rome and Judaism. A new kingdom—mysteriously described as “not of this world”—is on the rise. And its Herald, the renegade Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, is called to account for allegedly treasonous ideology that could (and ultimately does) overturn the status quo.

Pilate on Trial

Familiarity with the scene—Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus—offers no help with deciphering its riddles. The bluntness of their exchange is deceptive, as each man harbors doubts about about the other’s legitimacy. Jesus is charged with heresy, a matter of no concern to Rome beyond its potential to destabilize the fragile balance of power the Empire has struck with the Temple establishment. Yet the high priests are reluctant to rule against Jesus, fearing a populist backlash that would demonstrate they’ve lost control of their people and render them useless to Rome. With acute cunning, they shift the burden to Pilate, accusing Jesus of professing to be King of the Jews, which qualifies Him as an insurgent worthy of death at Roman hands.

When Jesus stands before him, Pilate doesn't mince words. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks, to which Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (v33-34) With that, the tables turn. Jesus puts Pilate on trial. Has the Roman summoned Him because he wonders if Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews? (This possibility isn’t lost on either of them, since Pilate’s boss is also a self-avowed divine monarch.) Or is this merely a pro forma hearing to get to the bottom of baseless gossip? Neither option pleases Pilate. Genuine curiosity about Jesus’s identity would belie his faith in Caesar; investigating religious rumors would make him a puppet of the Temple elite. So Pilate deftly distances himself from the situation, admitting, “I’m not a Jew. I shouldn’t be expected to understand this stuff.”

The deflection opens the door for Jesus to assert divine authority. “My kingdom is not from this world,” He says. With daring sarcasm that brings a smile to the alert reader’s face, Jesus validates His otherworldly claim: “If my kingdom were from this world, My followers would be fighting to keep Me from being handed over to the Jews.” (v36) Since this obviously isn’t happening, the argument makes sense to Pilate. Still, its elusive nature doesn’t settle the matter. “So are you a king?” he asks again, dropping the Jewish reference. Jesus replies, “You say I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (v37; emphasis added)

Power to Seek the Truth

The Feast of Christ the King invites us to witness the truth of Christ’s Lordship—to embrace faith in a divine kingdom that supersedes human authority. Yet accepting this belief cannot happen by taking prelates and pastors’ word for it. We can only discover the truth by listening to Christ’s voice. And I’m persuaded this realization springs from the first question Jesus puts to Pilate: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?”

Our confidence that Christ reigns supreme begins with profoundly personal questions about Who Jesus really is—and how much real power we’re willing to cede to His Lordship. As it was in Pilate’s court, so it is in our lives. Faith in Christ’s kingdom demands humility born of understanding its mysteries can never be fully understood. It’s impossible to equate Christ’s sovereign rule with earthly powers, as the kingdom of God seeks no earthly power; it summons authority by granting us power to seek the truth of Who God and Jesus really are, who we really are, and the roles we play in a kingdom unlike any ever known. Pilate’s small-mindedness is exposed in his dismissal of Jesus’s challenge. He wants an admission of power that has nothing to do with the truth of Christ’s kingdom. Clearly, he’s not listening. And we benefit from his deafness, because it opens our minds to recognize the truth of Christ’s Lordship can never be told. To experience its majesty, it must be heard. Amid all the regal adjectives tossed around in this weekend’s liturgies, hymns, and sermons, I trust we’ll hear the voice of Jesus. Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?

Seen through the prism of Pilate’s interrogation, the truth of Christ’s Lordship emerges as thing that cannot be told. It must be heard to be understood.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saying Grace

Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony… And be thankful. (Colossians 3.14-15)

Hassles and Anxieties

Last Sunday, our pastor showed us a scene from Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller, hoping to impress his future in-laws, offers to say grace at the dinner table. The results are less than sterling.

She followed the clip with a few questions about why we often feel so awkward when praying aloud in the presence of others—why the desire to sound sincere tends to backfire, and our words quickly become stilted and grandiose. Her observations about prayer “performance anxiety” got me thinking about how the Stiller clip will replay itself at Thanksgiving tables around the country. For many, this will be one of very few times that families will fellowship around their tables. For many more, it may be the only day of 365 that they pause to express gratitude for goodness they’ve received. And while I know of no hard data to support this suspicion, I’m thoroughly convinced the erosion of both traditions—family dinner and saying grace—significantly contributes to social decay we currently wrestle with. Conceding the “inconvenience” of spending time around the table subjects us to more inconveniences than we realize. How much harder our lives have become now that orchestrating family dinner is too hard and taking 30 seconds each day to give thanks demands too much! The hassle of family dinner and performance anxiety associated with saying grace are nothing compared to hassles and anxieties that have grown up in their absence.

Universal Compulsions

So I wondered, where do the customs of eating together and saying grace come from? While other species gather for meals, by and large, proximity to one another and ready availability of food shape their communal dining habits. Humans are rare—if not unique—in their concept of “breaking bread” as a social necessity. Until very recently, the family table was indispensible. It was where family conflicts were resolved, milestones were celebrated, cohesion as a household and membership within the larger community were secured, the lore of identity and kinship passed from one generation to the next, moral character was established, and futures were assessed. In other words, humans have always approached the family meal expecting more than nourishment. We bring big questions to the table, which get answered indirectly through the behaviors and conversations that transpire during our eating rituals. (The first Christians certainly recognized the power of sharing a common meal, which is why they placed a table—rather than an altar or idol—at the center of their worship.)

Thus it seems our compulsion to break bread together is hard-wired and can only be overridden by conscious neglect. But pairing times of nourishment with expressions of gratitude also appears to be a universal human compulsion. Virtually every world religion endorses the practice of giving thanks at mealtime. In all of its forms, “saying grace” boils down to what it sounds like: taking a moment to rehearse examples of unmerited grace and undeserved favor. No prayer more clearly captures the purity of this impulse than one we learn as children: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food.” To say grace is to invite God’s goodness to our table—to lay the gifts of life-giving food under the canopy of God’s supreme love and care for us. Saying grace isn’t a religious obligation. It’s an intentional act that makes God’s abundant presence felt in our lives—a sacred opportunity to confess faith in our Maker and Provider.

Four Thanksgivings

As Christians, we inherit grace-saying from our Jewish forebears. In Judaism, Birkat Hamazon (“Blessing on Nourishment”) is comprised of four thanksgivings: for the food; for the land of Israel; for the holy city of Jerusalem; and finally, for God’s goodness. We typically collapse this structure into a single statement that focuses on the first and last parts. (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.”) Yet, whether preparing our hearts for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast or simply reaching for words before a daily meal, the Jewish blessing can be very useful in easing anxieties about giving thanks to God aloud. We do this by expanding on the Jewish prayer’s basic principles.

Let us thank God not only for our food, but also for being alive and healthy and able to digest it; for the gift of labor that supplies our tables; for senses that relish what we eat; for fellowship occasioned by gathering at the table.

Let us thank God not only for where we live, but also for freedom to make that land our home; for the security of having a place in the world; for the wealth that grows out of belonging to families and communities that strive to live and prosper in peace; for the traditions and heritages that enrich our lives together.

Let us thank God not only for our holy places, but also for the promises they house; for hope that will not surrender to pessimism; for spiritual sanctuary in a world governed by greed and injustice; for beacons of righteousness that shine forth from the citadels and steeples of God’s dwelling places.

Let us be thankful, not only for God’s goodness, but also for the unmerited love and mercy it contains; for relentless blessings we enjoy and too often overlook; for daily guidance and protection given to us; for awareness that if it were not for God’s grace, we would be lost.

I pray a meaningful and rich Thanksgiving Day for all who celebrate the holiday in the US and an equally abundant blessing for those outside the States—reminding all of us of the wisdom imparted in Colossians 3:14-15:

Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taking a Breather

Hello all,

With Thanksgiving on its way and Advent around the bend, I'm taking a breather this weekend. I'll have something fresh for Thursday's holiday and we'll be back on track next week!

Many blessings to all of you,

Vincent van Gogh: Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet). 1890.