Lectionary Commentary

November 22, 2009
Reign of Christ

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12
Revelation 1:1-8 (or 4b-8)
John 18:33-37

Many of us who are children of the sixties still remember November 22 as the day President Kennedy was assassinated; the day in which the dream of Camelot died with the the death of the President. Perhaps, it is appropriate that we also celebrate the Reign of Christ Sunday this year on November 22 amid the maelstrom of political and cultural changes and controversies we face on a daily basis. Solutions elude us and groups are tempted to polarize rather than come together for common cause, even within the church itself.

On Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ Sunday, we are challenged to ponder issues of divine and human power and leadership. Do our visions of divine power shape our images of human power and authority? Or, do our visions and practices of human power shape how we view God? Do we use our visions of God as justifications for our own power relationships? As I ponder these questions, I suspect our understandings of the relationship of divine and human power are symbiotic as they relate to issues of gender, sexuality, class, decision-making process, and foreign and domestic policy.

“The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me, God’s word is upon my tongue.” The passage from 2 Samuel 23 is peculiar is best. King David is giving his last will and testament, spiritually speaking; in the course of his prayer, he claims to be a channel of God, revealing God’s purposes for Israel and affirming God’s everlasting covenant with the nation. The oracle asserts that while God will always honor Israel, Israel must honor God, if it is to prosper. National prosperity depends on spiritual and ethical fidelity, on placing God first and following God’s laws.

The passage brings up a number of interesting points. First, in an era in which many Pentecostals claim to be “anointed” and many best-selling new age authors claim to “channel” the wisdom of spiritual beings, this passage raises the issue of revelation. Process theologians hold a high view of revelation and inspiration: if God is present and moving in all things, then all creatures reveal God’s vision in greater or lesser degrees, depending on their complexity of experience and openness to God. God is in all things as source and inspiration. Yet, while revelation is global, it is also variable. Whether due to personal openness or to divine choice, and process theology asserts that God also has volition, some persons seem to be more transparent and revelatory of Divine Wisdom and Creativity. The Prologue of John’s Gospel clearly states that God enlightens all; but, without negating the universality of divine revelation, it also affirms that the Christ, the Living Word of Creation and Healing, uniquely reveals God and is, indeed, spiritually one with God in the midst of time and place. Still, all divine revelation is concrete and historical and not the result of an atemporal and eternal divine decree.

A creative pastor, with a mystical bent, might invite her or his congregants to ponder where they have experienced divine inspiration, and how they might awaken themselves more fully to the movements Divine Wisdom and Creativity in their lives. This would present an opportunity to reflect on traditional Christian practices such as prayer, meditation, service, worship, and hospitality as open doors to God’s spiritual movements in our lives. (For a contemporary approach to spiritual transformation, see Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and The Power of Affirmative Faith as well as Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.)

Yet, there is a danger in claiming to be inspired by God. David’s own oracle describes a world of faithful and godless, favored and abandoned, persons. Too often, those who claim to be inspired by God are equally sure of those persons who are lost or make bold claims about their revelatory experiences as if somehow they alone are delivered from the limitations of mortality. While process theology claims a democracy of the spirit, it also claims that our spiritual insights are always finite and time bound. Inspiration relates to a concrete world, not an ethereal abstraction; within our concrete world are possibilities for error as well as insight. This applies to angels, spirit-guides, and ourselves, all of whom experience the universe from a particular and, therefore, limited perspective. Only God has a global vision and even divine revelation must take into account creaturely limitation. (Here I am assuming the possibility of paranormal experiences as well as the innate limitations of even our most dramatic spiritual and psychic experiences.)

Psalm 132 speaks of a “dwelling place for God,” a home for the “ark of the covenant.” Though God is not spatially located as a literal reading of the passage might imply, this passage naturally invites congregants to ponder their own sacred spaces. The Celtic tradition speaks of “thin places” that join heaven and earth, divine and human, and everlasting and temporal. Any place, chosen by God or revered by humankind, can become a thin place, transparent to the holy. The preacher might choose to ask congregants to consider the question: “Do you have a holy place? If not, where might you create a sacred space for prayer and meditation?” Another key question, raised with a degree of irony, either with adults or in a children’s sermon, might be “Where is God? How do we locate omnipresence?”

Once again, this week, I am suggesting that we modify the lectionary readings to encompass Revelation 1:1-8 (rather than 1:4b-8) in order to address the issues of inspiration and revelation, raised in the Hebrew Scripture readings. God sends an angel to John in order to reveal the divine vision in a difficult time. This revelatory moment opens the door to congregational reflection on angelic experiences, exploration of the existence of guardian angels, and consideration of the question of authority in revelation. Many congregants have encountered narratives of “channeled” experiences in texts such as Conversations with God, A Course in Miracles, and the Urantia Book, as well as through the work of psychics such as Sylvia Browne and authors such as Shirley MacLaine. To some persons, even within congregations, these revelations carry the same or greater weight, than scripture in charting their life courses.

The passages beg the question, “Where do we receive our authority for our insights?” One traditional and insightful answer is the Wesley quadrilateral – scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, to which I would add the impact of culture (literature, science, medicine, other faiths, etc.) on our experiences of God. Other persons speak of direct encounters with spirit guides or guardian angels, or God. This latter alternative is not excluded by the Wesley Quadrilateral. Still, we must use wisdom and common sense when evaluating revelatory experiences. To paraphrase David Spangler of the Findhorn Community: if our neighbor made the same claims as a psychic or channeled spirit, what would we think? How shall we relate non-Christian revelatory narratives with the wisdom of scripture and the Christian tradition? While we must assume, contra Barth that there is always a “point of contact” between divine grace and human spirituality, we must question any view that assumes all revelatory experiences are of equal value. Revelation is a dynamic “call and response” in which our spiritual experiences emerge from our encounter with God in our time and place.

Purporting to be the words of the Holy One, Revelation looks toward a day of radical transformation. Dominion and glory belong to Christ’s forever. When Christ comes there will be both joy and wailing, the author claims. The question of wailing is of interest: For what will we mourn when God is revealed to us? Will Christ’s coming be like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when we are reminded of the impact of our life on others and penitent for our lack of spiritual awareness? Or, will we be made aware of the wonders that would have occurred had we been more attentive to God’s presence in our personal and corporate lives? Will our experience be of our sins of omission or commission? Still, we may ask:  Is this like the “life review” of near death experiences, that is, an opportunity to look at your life through loving, yet perceptive, eyes? Judgment, from this perspective, is an opportunity for repentance and growth, and not condemnation. Wailing, from the perspective of a graceful and caring God, is always the prelude to repentance, transformation, and celebration.

The Gospel Passion reading from John’s Gospel raises post-modern, pluralistic theological questions such as: “What is truth? Which visions of truth can we affirm? Which ones should we judge as unhealthy, limited and divisive? How can we decide between the various revelations and spiritual experiences of humankind?” Very few of us today affirm the notion that truth is only found in the Bible or Christian tradition. Still, we must try to discern, in a pluralistic age, which “truths” we can live by as healthy and life-transforming and which “truths” (dare we say “falsehoods”) are harmful to persons and the planet.

The issue of power also emerges in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate: Jesus asserts that his realm is not of this world. This is not a call to escape embodiment or social involvement; but to recognize that the way of Christ and Caesar, and Jesus and Pilate, differ. One of my Claremont teachers Bernard Loomer spoke of human and divine power in terms of the contrast between relational and unilateral images. We might also speak of the contrast between liberating and coercive power. Jesus’ power is grounded in divine values of grace, transformation, and relationship, not destruction and domination. Healing power enhances unity, interdependence, creativity, and freedom, whether this power reflects divine or human initiative.

Jesus’ vision of power encourages relationship and interdependence rather than one-sided domination. These scriptures invite us to ponder whether or not our visions of power, truth, and revelation also condition one another. They invite us to explore types of power that heal rather than destroy, include rather than exclude, and inspire rather than dominate. Power is inevitable and we must not abandon our responsibilities as agents of transformation in congregations and in the social and political order, but we must consider ways to include others in the creative use of power just as we seek to expand the circle of revelation to include others.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church, a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the trilogy on ministerial spirituality and faithful excellence, Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout, Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness, and  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.

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