When I was in seminary, I sang in the Harvard Choir. I sang with the large group on Sunday mornings in Memorial Church. I was selected also to sing in a much smaller group five mornings a week in Appleton Chapel.
Perhaps you have jumped ahead and already realized that this meant that I heard six sermons a week. Harvard being Harvard, there was a need to be very inclusive. So I heard sermons from Unitarians, Lutherans, Baptists and, of course, lots of Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and a few token Episcopalians.
After awhile, some of us who sang in this small group and were hearing all these sermons made up a little game. In the service leaflet, we would put our finger across the preachers denominational affiliation, listen to the sermon and try to guess her or his affiliation. We got pretty good at it. Some were easier to tell than the others—the Episcopalians almost always used the appointed Bible reading for the previous Sunday and quoting C.S. Lewis was a dead give away. Other preachers came back to certain themes over and over and some. Denominations that did not use a lectionary were usually easy to identify because they came back to the same biblical passages over and over.
I thought of that experience in seminary when I heard recently that the number of denominations in the United States continues to grow. I have heard estimates that there are today twice, perhaps even three times, as many denominations in this country as we approach the end of the twentieth century as there were in 1900. And of course, the new so-called “mega churches” have splintered even further; they are intentionally non-denominational.
We have been living in a century that splinters and fragments the gospel. Each group takes a few favorite aspects and creates an identity around them.
As the gospel has been splintered and fragmented, it has been re-organized around ethnic or racial or economic values and, especially in recent decades, around political values. The values are ours; Christ has been put in front to give them an authority they do not deserve.
The record of the gospels is clear: Jesus transcended every human category invented. He ignored the carefully drawn barriers, frequently sanctioned by the religious leaders of the day, of race, of gender, of age, of politics and even denomination, to use a modern word but applied to that ageless human habit of dividing ourselves into categories. He caused scandal when he made those who had the strongest prejudice against them the heroes of his stories. He shocked people when he put children literally at the center of his circle of followers and told his followers always to do the same. He set tongues wagging when he spoke to women with courtesy and respect. He seemed almost intentionally to reach out to those on the periphery of the crowds who came to hear, to see or even to touch him. Jesus even ignored the tidy divisions between righteous and sinners, which had been so scrupulously drawn and maintained with such force. Indeed, it was why he was executed. He gored too many oxen when he ignored all the barriers we deem of such importance.
And why? Was he just angry or a troublemaker? No. He was God! He said and did what he did because he was God!
And God transcends all of the neat barriers we have constructed. God’s love in Christ was absolute, complete, pure, all-inclusive.
In today’s gospel we are told something so unforgettable and, at the same time, so unfathomable. In the midst of his own suffering and pain and with only a few precious breaths left, he forgives a robber dying next to him. Are those the words, is that the dying action of merely a good man? Or would only One who is capable of love beyond any human experience be capable of such selfless forgiveness?
The church of Christ is at her best when she provides through her teachings and liturgies, her witness and her actions an introduction to a life-changing encounter with God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. No other entity has the power of introduction to Christ as the church. In that unforgettable phrase of the apostle Paul, we are “the stewards of the mysteries of God.” But even the church cannot contain or tame or inhibit Christ. Because he is fully human and fully divine, because he was executed on a crude cross under Pontius Pilate and because he is God, his love is for all persons, his sights are set on the whole creation. The church can lead you to Christ, but she is not a substitute for him. Sometimes, when preaching the full gospel, the church is playing with fire; we may be providing light, but we can get burned ourselves, too!
But declare the full gospel we must, the parts we like and the parts we do not like, the bits that fit our prejudices and the bits that shatter our biases, the teachings that we interpret to re-enforce our social and political values as well as those that clearly demolish them.
And what is the full gospel? What must be declared on this Feast of Christ the King, the next to last observance before the end of this splintering, fragmenting, denominating century? What can be preached about that haunting scene of Christ on the cross as depicted in today’s gospel?
I take us back to the beginning. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who died about the year 200, has been called the “first great catholic theologian after the New Testament,” confronted those who wanted to fragment the whole gospel of Christ in his day this way. Irenaeus taught:
If this infinite God is to be seen or comprehended, he will need, in some way, to become finite and measurable, because human beings are only able to see and comprehend things of definite shape and limited extent. Doubtless God could tell us about himself by means of angels and other messengers, but if he is to reveal himself, a limit will have to be found to his infinite being and a measure to his immensity. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth, is precisely this: God made visible and touchable, God who can speak to human beings and be heard by them, God searching out his own creation and carrying it home on his shoulders, God who can be tortured and murdered. On the cross, this Jesus, the unseen God who created everything in power, artistry and wisdom, and who carries it, holds it in being, is seen to be carried, held up, on his own creation. The divinity of Christ is not hidden by or under his humanity. On the contrary, it is revealed through it, because his humanity limits and defines the divinity ,allows it to be measured and comprehended. To see this human being is to see God made visible, to see what can be seen of the Father. His glory is, as the only Son of the Father, is made visible by his having become flesh, living among us human beings and being murdered by them. [ I am relying here on paraphrase of Brian Davies, OP.]
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God,” declares the writer to the Colossians in today’s epistle. If we believe that is true, then his teachings, his actions, his birth, death, resurrection and return to heaven are all one story. He functioned fully as God on earth when he opened his heart and invited us to open our hearts to all people. This is the full gospel, which no one can contain, tame or inhibit.
Starting next Sunday and continuing for the next six months, from the first Sunday of Advent through the Day of Pentecost, the church exercises her duty and privilege as a “steward of the mysteries of God” by conducting a pilgrimage through the mystery that Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. You are invited to join that pilgrimage. May we who will conduct the pilgrimage and any who join us be ready to have our hearts changed.