Hope – Reign of Christ, Nov 25, 2018
Years ago in a theology textbook, I read about an apocalyptic novel titled In the Country of Last Things. I was so intrigued by the way the novel was discussed theologically that I ordered it. It’s a story written as a letter from a woman named Anna Blume. It begins: “These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up. I don’t expect you to understand.” (1) She goes on to tell about the world she lives in… it’s a world where everything is broken and death is all around. The most reliable job is removing bodies from the streets each morning. It’s a world where destruction comes at a frighteningly fast pace. Anna finds meaningful work for a while at a house that is not yet used up and broken, offering respite to the residents of the city. But that place of refuge too is eventually forced to close and it seems like there is little hope for anything other than certain death.
As the end of the story approaches, we discover that Anna’s spirit for life is not yet used up. There is no hope where she is, in the city, and so she and a few companions decide to leave. It is the night before they will head off when Anna writes: “Everyone else is asleep, and I am sitting downstairs in the kitchen, trying to imagine what is ahead of me. I cannot imagine it. I cannot even begin to think of what will happen to us out there. Anything is possible, and that is almost the same as nothing, almost the same as being born into a world that has never existed before. Perhaps we will find William after we leave the city, but I try not to hope too much. The only thing I ask for now is the chance to live one more day. This is Anna Blume, your old friend from another world. Once we get to where we are going, I will try to write to you again, I promise.” (187-8)
The book ends there. It is left up to our own imagination as to what happens next. What is amazing about the book is how this story where nothing ever actually gets better, indeed, a story where everything only ever gets worse, is a story that ends with hope… crazy and irrational, against all odds… hope. When the end comes, all that is left is hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that suffering will end, that war and oppression and poverty will end… hope that fear and hatred will end. Hope for new possibility. Hope for new life.
Today we celebrate just such an end with the Reign of Christ. It is the last Sunday in the church year when we look ahead to that time when Jesus Christ will return in glory. It is the day we look squarely at the end of the world as we know it. We imagine that the end has come, and all we are left with is hope. Traditionally, it is named “Christ the King” Sunday to reflect the image of Jesus as the ultimate leader, not just in an abstract spiritual leader in a supernatural sense, but a real world leader with real power. We celebrate Christ the King… political ruler, economic driver, military commander. These are the images from our Gospel story today.
On this last day, we hear a Gospel passage from the middle of John’s Passion narrative. It is a small part of Jesus’ trial, after his arrest and before the sentence of death by crucifixion. The Governor Pilate summons Jesus and asks him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” In the Roman world, Caesar was, of course, King. Any other claim to kingship was treason. It meant overthrowing the government, displacing the rulers, changing the seat of power… and that cannot be allowed to stand. Chaos will result. Pilate asks: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus does not, of course, answer directly… at least not immediately. As always, Jesus speaks in a way, and about a kind of king that Pilate, and nobody else, could understand. I’m not sure we get it yet. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says, “… my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus uses the potently political language of the time. Kingdoms are the realm where kings rule with military might. Kings use coercive power to maintain their position. Kings are rich, living in palaces paid for by the hard labour of peasants paying crushing taxes.
Jesus uses this potent political language, but twists it around. “My kingdom is not of this world.” The kingdom about which Jesus speaks is different from what we know. The reign of Christ is not about military might or coercive, dominating power. In the kingdom of God, the rich don’t live in palaces paid for by the hard labour of peasants paying crushing taxes. Even now, so many years later, we can barely imagine what Jesus means. Our systems of military, political and economic rule are different than in Jesus’ time and yet even as the systems have changed, too much has remained the same. Power is still exercised in ways that keep some people down through crushing poverty and oppression of all kinds. Regular people are still threatened and displaced by the violence of those fighting for control.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says. Throughout the Gospel stories, Jesus preached and taught about a different way. Jesus performed acts of healing and mercy, based on forgiveness. Everything about Jesus’ life and ministry points towards something different… a different kind of order and a different kind of rule… a rule marked by sacrificial love. This kingdom of God is the world we look to today. It’s the promise of a better tomorrow. It’s the vision of a time when suffering will end… when war and oppression and poverty will end. It’s the vision of a time when fear and hatred will end. It’s the vision of new possibility. It’s the hope for new life.
One of the contemporary nonfiction ways this idea, this hope, has been expressed is in a book titled The Art of Possibility. It’s a book about transforming our personal and communal lives by opening ourselves up to a world of possibility. The Art of Possibility begins with the premise that “It is all invented.” It’s the idea that the world as we know it is a world we have created… we invented it. And if we invented it, then we can invent it differently. We can re-create and re-invent. More, we believe in a God who creates and re-creates, who is so committed to abundance of life for all that even death can’t win in the end. It’s the Spirit of this God who dwells within us, and so the re-invention and re-creation of our world, our community, our lives, is limited only by our imagination and our faith. “My kingdom is not of this world” Jesus says, re-defining kingship and encouraging us to see differently, to live differently.
Bringing about such positive, life-giving change is the core goal of community organizing, as Dick and I heard early this month at the Foundations for Community Organizing training. As part of the introduction, we were encouraged to identify some of elements of “the world as it is”… our reality, our society, our community, our lives… as we know them. “The world as it is” is about radical observation of what is actually happening and how things really are. We were then asked about “the world as it should be” or “could be”… our dreams, goals, vision for our society, our community, our lives. “The world as it should or could be…” is about hope… hope for a better tomorrow. Community organizing lives in the space between. It is rooted and grounded in both “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be,” for the purpose of bringing about positive, life-giving change. Community organizing provides a framework and process for putting flesh on the the bones of hope.
Today we celebrate the end of the year that was, the end of the world as it is, so that a new world can be born. This end makes way for God to be born again into a world that has never existed before. Our entry into this world, the kingdom of God, is limited only by our imagination and our courage to leave what we have known and set out for it… the kingdom of God where the hungry are filled, the lowly are lifted up, the oppressed are set free. When the end comes, all is left is hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that suffering will end, that war and oppression and poverty will end. Hope that fear and hatred will end. Hope for new possibility. Hope for new life. And so we pray: Lord Jesus, come soon, and incarnate hope in us.