Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 22, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
As I reflect on the way Jesus was the Christ—so different from earthly concepts of soverigns, I realize how much we have to learn about how to build community where we finally live as one.
Arts & Architecture
Stieglitz’s iconic photograph
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What is one step you can take to find your common humanity with someone you experience as an enemy?
Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”—Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King Sunday is the fairly recent invention of Pope Pius XI. In 1925, he decreed it in what is called one of the most misunderstood encyclicals in church history, a fact that gives heart to us clergy types.It’s nice to know that even when our efforts seem questionable at best, God can still bring some good.
The actual reason for the encyclical was to underscore that the foundation of our life is not any national or earthly ruler but a sovereign whose reign is based in humility and love. "'Christ,' he says, 'has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.'"
I’ve gone back and read this encyclical, called Quas Primas.I was fascinated to hear the pope of 1925 wrestle as we do with the role of Christianity in the affairs of humanity. He was writing to counter a rising nationalism and secularism, yet was careful not to write an overtly partisan piece. Clearly, however, his message involved several principles he felt were at risk: the worth of every person in God’s eyes, the importance of leadership that honors that worth, and the reign of God’s peace and justice. He turned the eyes of his readers to Christ and called upon Christ’s kingship above all earthly rule.
It is hard to imagine more timely principles to embrace in our national context.
I think we’re in a watershed moment regarding, specifically, how to honor the worth of every person, making room for each person’s voice and story, while remaining clear in our labor to usher in God’s peace and justice.
I struggle with this week’s gospel. The idea of Jesus damning the “goats” to eternal punishment while the righteous ones go as sheep to eternal bliss. I believe scripture contains unresolved tensions. For example, how do I square this message with, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32)? Or with John 12:47: “If anyone hears my word and does not keep them faithfully it is not I who shall condemn him, since I have come not to condemn the world, but to save the world.” Or—the plainest one of all—I John 4:8, 16—“God is love.”
We each allow ideas to constellate in our theological frames that preference certain sides of these tensions between punitive judgement and unconditional love in one way or another. Where we land has a great deal to do with our understanding of the story the bible tells as a whole—not any one part—but the arc of movement it contains. In my understanding, that arc does bend toward justice. And it also bends toward healing and the peace that passes our understanding.
Regardless of how you live with scriptural tensions about love and judgement, it’s clear that the work to which Christ calls us requires love of enemy. I do not understand love to entail approval or agreement with or denial of the other’s acts of harm, where those are present. I do understand it to include a choice to engage the other with curiosity rather than scorn, with the hope that a person can change—rather than the smug assumption that anyone is beyond the reach of another.
Building a capacity to bridge our significant chasms is a one-step-at-a-time prospect. It begins with a clear sight line to the “other” whom I have deemed my “enemy.” I cannot love that person without some curiosity about them. What motivates them? Where did that motivation come from in them? What wounds are they tending? Why have they done or left undone the things I see that have caused pain to me or others? These are the questions I hold about those who are difficult for me to love.
To follow a sovereign whose life was about relinquishing anything resembling earthly power is to give our lives to an enterprise with a very uncertain outcome. It is to give our lives to a way that guarantees us nothing we want in the face of an enemy: no safety, no vindication, no avoidance, no revenge. It is to give our lives to exactly what we need in the face of an enemy: a call back to our wholeness with those from whom we have become separated.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”—Matthew 25:40
Alfred Stieglitz’s iconic photograph, “The Steerage” (see today’s arts and architecture lesson) says it all. Those crowded like cattle in the lower deck; those enjoying the privileges of the upper deck—all on one ship. We may deny it for a season, but the truth is plain and clear.
The gospel proclaims we are one. What we do to the least of these, we do to God. God, our neighbor, our enemy, and we are one. Any lines we draw are just so we can manage the picture for a brief span of time. In the end, reality is watercolors flowing together, not a drawing done with a mechanical pencil. Lines blur, images bleed. The one you thought you could “other” is suddenly right in front of you. Or appearing in your dreams.
We are one. It is an unrelenting truth, a mystery, a challenge. Oneness. It is the path of our salvation.