Monday, November 26, 2007

muscular christianity

The one who takes upon himself
the humiliation of the people
is fit to rule them;
the one who takes upon himself
the country’s disasters
deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical.
Tao te Ching #78

The spiritual life is full of paradoxes and seeming contradictions. For example, the Hindus teach that even though God pierced the senses to look outward, the wise look inward, and it is there that they see the deathless Spirit. My favorite example of paradox is the Tao te Ching, that ancient Chinese book of wisdom. It teaches things like (#63): Practice non-action; work without doing; taste the tasteless … reward bitterness with care. The demands of the Gospel are just as paradoxical, too; as I like to say, they are like swimming upstream: love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; give to those who cannot pay you back––things like that. Everything about Jesus’ royalty is as paradoxical as the Tao te Ching. (By the way, the Tao te Ching was written as a kind of instruction book for rulers, so very a propos to quote it in this context.) The Tao says, Great straightness seems twisted; great intelligence seems stupid; great eloquence seems awkward. Jesus says, The greatest among you is the one who serves, the one who lays down his life as ransom.

Some time ago I heard someone on the radio offering a commentary on the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, making comparisons to our own day and age. There was a lot of talk in that era about a “muscular Christianity,” and that the reason we were involved in certain military conflicts in the world was to “Christianize” those parts of the world with our muscular Christianity. It was a disaster in that time for complicated reasons. But the very term “muscular Christianity” made me wince a little, when I see it against the context of the Gospel portrait of Jesus. Jesus categorically rejected violence as a means of accomplishing anything for the kingdom of God. Peter writes that (1Pet. 2:23), When Jesus was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; and Paul says (1 Cor 1:25), God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. What Jesus ultimately conquered was death itself, and everything that leads to death, and all forms of death, and any form of violence or anger or retribution or vengeance or retaliation or exclusion that leads to death. Death, he said, has nothing to do with God––this is a God of the living!

When we get some kind of image that we can really hold on to, we hold on with all our might! Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, another one of those feasts we can really grab on to. After all the demands of the Gospel, all the paradoxes and non-sequiturs, after all the fuzziness of mystical theology, we can finally breathe a sigh of relief: now here is a God we can understand: Christ the King! It conjures up images for us of a “muscular Christianity.” Even for we Americans who have not been raised with royal blood lines, we still can conjure up images, like the Kennedy family or the Bush family, or rock stars, movie stars, sports figures. Jesus Christ Superstar! I think right away of the great churches in Europe, either the huge frescoes on the ceilings of basilicas, or the mosaics in the apses of the churches that were influenced by Byzantine Christianity––huge Christ figures, holding banners, flanked by angels and people falling to the ground overcome by his majesty and power, trumpets and timpani.

This could be kind of a muscular feast, Christ the King. Do not be fooled by it; let’s not think like the world. Let’s not be seduced into any kind of triumphalism. This feast may help us conjure up an image of a sleek and strong Jesus, which gives us a certain comfort. But Jesus is not sleek and strong in the Gospel we heard today. Jesus is the suffering servant hanging on a cross. Behold your king, the soldiers jeer. Behold your king comes, John’s Gospel quotes the prophet Zechariah when it tells the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem quoted on Palm Sunday, riding on a donkey. Behold your king, Pilate says to the Jews, beaten and crowned with thorns and a mock purple cloak. Only the criminal, the scum of the earth, recognizes that this is actually where the real power is.

Jesus was put to death not because he was a rival superpower; he was put to death by the political super-power because he chose to be powerless. Jesus wasn’t put to death because he was upholding some kind of an objective code of moral or ritual behavior. He was put to death because he refused to condemn sinners, because he chose mercy over sacrifice; Jesus was put to death because he said, Be merciful, as your Father is merciful. Jesus was put to death because he said, Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. “The world,” the “rulers of this age” couldn’t and can’t stand to hear that, just as we can't stand to hear it when we think in the way of the world.

For me, just like talk about snow and winter and sleigh bells can totally distract us from the real meaning of Christmas, I think all those images of Christ as King can distract us from how Jesus is the King of the Universe. In contrast to those images of royalty, blue blood and superstardom, let’s remind ourselves again of the images of how Jesus was and is a king. He was born in a barn (that used to be the way my mother scolded me when I acted rudely in the house, “What were you born in a barn?”); no wife or family; he seemed to have been a wandering beggar, at least a mendicant preacher. But these teachings, those are what really give us insight into the kind of king Jesus was, those same paradoxical teachings we mentioned above, but add to that things like, “The greatest among you must be the ones who serve,” which we hear over and over again in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Mark, because the disciples just couldn’t get it. Jesus had to keep telling them over and over again (and so he tells us!), “Whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” We imagine a king having servants and slaves and everything he wishes for and yet Jesus says of himself, “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many”; what kind of king is that? Then in the passion narratives––some kind of king!––at the last supper he takes off a cloak and wraps a towel around himself and washes his disciples’ feet. Some kind of king! What a disappointment! And it was therefore that God raised him on high and gave him the name above all other names. And then of course the greatest image right around the passion itself. The whole thing was a sarcastic mockery: the purple cloak, the crown made out of thorns, the sign over his head on the cross proclaiming him king, and offering no resistance as the thief next to him notes sarcastically. This is what the church would have us remember today, why she asks us to read this Gospel––because this is the kind of king Jesus not just was but is. Because, to follow up on that, when he comes back from the dead, if that were one of us, the first temptation would be to climb to the top of that parapet and say “Who’s king of the mountain now?” and reek a little revenge. But no, he comes back without revenge, without anger and says, “Peace.”

This is where Jesus is really a Taoist master: #78 says, The one who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them; the one who takes upon himself the country’s disasters deserves to be king of the universe. The truth often sounds paradoxical. Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians which we just heard, In him all the fullness was pleased to dwell. This is a marvelous word in Greek, pleroma, the fullness of divinity. But the only way to access that fullness, this source of the universe with which Jesus was filled, was emptiness, utter poverty. And it is because of that emptiness, poverty, total availability to the Spirit in thought word and action, and acceptance of the whole of the human condition, with its joys and griefs and pain and death shames and disasters, without offering any resistance to it, that Jesus was the king of the universe. That’s the kind of king Jesus is.

Ilia Delio in her book “The Humility of God” like no one else has pointed out to me not only how Jesus shows us what God is like (as Jesus says to Phillip in the Gospel of John, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father!”), but specifically what Jesus is witnessing to us is the humility of God, God’s choice to be powerless among us. When we look at Christ crucified we are learning something about God the Father as well. Ilia writes that “God is most God-like in the suffering of the cross.” What is shown to us in the cross is that the power of God is the “powerlessness of God’s unconditional love.” This is a love that “cannot be overcome by human power” and cannot “be conquered by human force.” God’s unconditional love, as shown to us in the weakness and powerlessness of the cross, is the power to heal and, beyond that, the power to transform death into life. (Delio, p. 96) And then she quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing before he was martyred about how the humility of God is such that he even allows “himself be pushed out of the world on the cross.” God on the cross “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.” The Scriptures point us precisely to God’s powerlessness and suffering, because God can only help the suffering.

At the end of the church year, we fix our minds on the last things, and we start to look forward to how Jesus will come again. Let’s not waste too much time staring in the sky waiting for a sleek and strong Jesus to come riding in his Hummer; more important is to do what Jesus has said to do now, and to realize that Christ is here now as he said, not in any sort of muscular way, not in the sleek and the strong. God, in Jesus, is still here among us, not beating anybody up, but rather seeking out the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, healing the sick. Christ is here, as he himself says, in the hungry, in the thirsty, in the stranger, in the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus is here whenever the fruits of the spirit are being manifested: wherever there is charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, modesty evidenced in our relations with the world. Mother Teresa to me is a better example of muscular Christianity, gnarled up toes from walking the streets of Calcutta, beat up fingers from spending her days wiping filth and excrement from the filthy bodies of people dying in the streets, and calloused knees from hours of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament; and, as we have come to find out, going on despite years of spiritual darkness. That’s muscular Christianity, and those are the same muscles we should be developing. And the muscle of our brain, our mind, letting it be transformed by the Gospel. This is how we are meant to triumph.

Let’s remember that this feast is also about us: our Baptism anoints us to be prophets, priests and kings (and queens) in Jesus’ image. Do you remember the famous hymn of Lucien Deiss (of happy memory) that was sung so often some years back that was taken from the first letter of Peter? “Priestly, people, kingly people, holy people!” I love to remind people of this when we celebrate Baptisms that at our Baptism we were anointed along with Jesus, prophets, priests and royalty, that we use the sacred chrism on the infant, the same oil that is used to anoint prophets, the same oil that is poured over a priests hands when he is ordained, the same oil that is poured over a queen or king’s head when they are anointed (as we heard in the story of David’s anointing from the book of Samuel). Just as we share in the prophecy and priesthood of Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, so we share in his royalty. That’s why the church has us listen to St Paul letter to the Colossians on this feast also, to remind us that this feast is not just about Jesus: we give thanks because God has made us fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light, and transferred us into the kingdom of Jesus. Paul says that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily, and the Gospel of John begins by telling us that from the fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:16). So let us pray that we too would be royalty as Jesus was a king––broken and poured out––so that we can exercise our dominion in the world in the way our king does, from the cross, the greatest as the servants, with the towel around our waist washing each other’s feet.