A few years ago, we at Holy Cross began our quest for the Cosmic Christ on the last Sunday of the Church calendar; traditionally the festival of Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Our readings: John 1:1-6; Colossians 1:15-20; and Matthew 9:16-17. The sermon was the first in a series of sermons on our Quest for the Cosmic Christ which anticipates the season of Advent’s waiting and hoping for Christ to be born in us.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth onto an old cloak, because the patch will pull away from the cloak and the tear will get worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins—if they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out, and the skins will be ruined. No, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Matthew 9:16-17
My one and only experience with old wineskins was not a pleasant one. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m not exactly sure that the offending wineskins were old when I encountered them. They were however old-fashioned. Indeed, I do believe that if Jesus tried to tell this story in the in this century instead of the first century, he would have cautioned us against putting new wine into old-fashioned wineskins. Few people use old-fashioned wineskins. The only time I’ve ever come across old-fashioned wineskins was about 35 years ago when I myself wasn’t so very old. I was backpacking around Europe on a very tight budget. In order to extend our stay we had to stretch every penny. So, from time to time we camped out. I remember one particular night, after securing our campsite and pitching our tent, we walked back into the nearest village. I don’t remember the name of the village, I only remember that we were somewhere north of Florence, Italy. After a cheap dinner in a local taverna, we were wandering back to our campsite, when one of us, I don’t remember who, decided that we needed some more wine. When you are travelling in Italy on the cheap, some wines are less expensive than bottled water. So, I’m sure my travelling companion was just trying to save us some money, when he came out of the shop and encouraged us all to go in and take advantage of the great deal he had just bought. For not much money he had purchased two wineskins full of what promised to be a charming little vintage. I do love a bargain, so in I went to purchase my first and my last old-fashioned wineskin full of a very decent little chianti. The rest of the way back to our campsite, we speculated over the source of the wineskin, but as to whether sheep, goats, or cattle had given up the ghost for these skins, I’ll never know. I do know that we consumed a great deal of wine over our campfire. Sometime during the early hours of the next morning, most of us ended up down by the riverside, tossing the contents of our own stomach. Later in the afternoon, convinced that we were dying, some of us managed to drag our sorry-selves to a nearby clinic where we discovered that we were not hung-over at all; we were in fact suffering from a type of poisoning. Apparently, if wineskins are not cured properly, bacteria that are normally generated in the stomach of the animal, whether it’s a goat, a sheep, or cattle, morphs into some kind of poison, which can in some cases be fatal. My friends and I got away with about four days of hugging a riverbank in a kind of agony that some would say we deserved for trusting old-fashioned wineskins; something the locals are loath to do.
Today, nobody uses animal stomachs for wineskins. Today, we have these new fangled wineskins, all shiny and metallic that fit neatly into boxes. Wine keeps much better in these than it ever did in old-fashioned wineskins. Parables and stories provide us with all sorts of metaphors and today I’d like to use this particular metaphor to help us begin our quest for the cosmic Christ. Today, all over Christendom, the church is celebrating the festival of Christ the King or as we have learned to call it Reign of Christ Sunday. I’ve never been particularly fond of this particular day in the church year. I usually book my holidays so that I don’t have to preach on this festival; but Pastor Tom somehow managed to get this Sunday off for the second year in a row.
Christ the King or Reign of Christ is a relative new festival in the church calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius 11th who was trying his best to counteract the burgeoning fascist regimes with their rising dictators who fancied themselves as kings of the world. The irony of proclaiming Christ as “King” when the life of Jesus of Nazareth positively denies “kingliness” seems lost on the church.
But I digress. Kings really do belong to a bygone era. The concept of kings, or rulers, ordained by God or gods to rule over their subjects absolutely has being dying a slow and painful death for centuries now. The divine right of monarchs to absolute rule seems ridiculous to 21st century minds. But to first century minds surrounded by Caesars, of varying degrees of madness combined with power, insisting that Christ provides an alternative to the cruelty of a despot who is making your life a misery, makes a hope filled kind of sense. To go one gigantic step further and insist that Christ is not just sovereign of an earthly kingdom, but ruler of the world, and master of the universe meant that describing Christ as king of heaven and earth was not that big a reach. So, in their efforts to establish a sovereign to compete with Caesar Jesus became “Lord” “Master”, “King” of heaven and earth; none other than the Christ, the anointed king, the one chosen by God to rule.
That the early followers of Jesus hoped that he would lead a movement that would over-through the oppressive Romans and rid the Jewish people of the dreadful need to call Caesar King was clear from the hopes and dreams expressed by the disciples. When the Romans executed Jesus as an enemy of the state, Jesus followers were devastated. But the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would not die. The grave could not hold the good news of God’s love, which Jesus proclaimed in words and in deeds.
The dream of the reign of God’s justice burst forth from the tomb and lived in the hearts and minds of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth and the dream would very probably have lived in their hearts and minds for only a few years if it had not been for the work of a Johnny-come-lately, who never actually met Jesus.
Saul of Tarsus, was a skilled theologian, a Pharisee, an expert in the law and history of his people. Somehow, the teachings of Jesus were communicated to Paul in such a way as to transform this persecutor of Jesus followers into a leader of Jesus followers. He never wrote about it himself, but generation or so later the gospel writer known as Luke wrote of Saul’s experience on the Road to Damascus which legend has it transformed Saul the Pharisee into the Apostle Paul. We have a few of Paul’s letters; they make up a large portion of the New Testament. It could be said that in the bible, in Christian theology, tradition, and history the Apostle Paul’s hopes and dreams for the reign of God far exceed the influence of Jesus’ hopes and dreams for the Reign of God. The Apostle Paul’s theology permeates the church. Somewhere along the way Paul decided that Jesus of Nazareth was the chosen one, the one anointed by God to rule over the people with mercy, love, and grace.
Looking back into the sacred writings of his people, Paul found in the Hebrew Scriptures; especially in the work of the Prophets and the Wisdom literature the dream of his people for a Messiah, a Saviour who would lead the people out of their oppression and establish a reign of God’s justice and peace. This Messiah, the Hebrew word for the one chosen and anointed as King, translates into Greek as the Christ, the anointed one.
The Apostle Paul wove the hopes and dreams of his people with the life and teachings of Jesus and declared that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ the one chosen by God to usher in a new age of justice and peace. It makes sense that Paul would have described Jesus in this way. Paul was trying to move this fledging movement beyond the confines of Israel. In the life and teachings of Jesus, Paul saw a new way of being in the world. Paul didn’t want to overthrow the Roman oppressors; Paul wanted to transform them. Paul pointed to Jesus of Nazareth and the Reign of God based not on violence but on Jesus as the way to peace and Paul knew that this would require transforming oppressors into justice-seekers and peacemakers. Not an easy task in a world where might makes right and Caesars hold on to power with violence.
So, Paul set about the task of describing Jesus as the Christ the anointed one, greater than all the Caesars, not just the ruler of kingdoms, but ruler of heaven and earth; heaven and earth, the cosmos of the first century. Paul would have described heaven and earth as everything there is. First century minds understood reality as being comprised of heaven and earth. Hell, was not so much an issue in the first century. For the Greeks, Hades was off there across the seas, far away. For the Jews, Sheol was simply the land of the dead; the three-tiered universe had yet to take hold. The cosmos was quite simply heaven and earth….sometimes it would stretch to the heavens and the earth…but it was certainly a whole lot simpler than our understanding of the cosmos.
Sometime, not long after the death of the Apostle Paul, the letters he wrote began to take prominence in the communities that followed the Way of Jesus. In time, Paul’s identification of Jesus of Nazareth with the Christ the longed for anointed one, was conflated and Jesus of Nazareth was given the title Jesus Christ. Today, the title has pretty much become a name, as most Christians refer to Jesus Christ as if Christ was Jesus last name. It’s sad, almost tragic that the concept of the Christ has been reduced to a surname; a surname that has had the effect of denying the humanity of Jesus himself who lived and died in ways that encouraged his followers to be more fully human. The conflation of Jesus and the Christ has in many ways diminished Jesus and the Christ. For just as surely as the human Jesus of Nazareth has been lost in Jesus Christ, the Christ has been lost in Jesus. The Apostle Paul teased out from his own religious tradition the notion of the Christ, the one who has existed from the very beginning of time.
Paul was certainly not the only Jew to see in Jesus of Nazareth the embodiment of the Wisdom of God, the Sophia, the one who danced with God at creation. The writer of the Gospel according to John recorded they hymn to Jesus that we know as the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the word.” Wisdom, Sophia, Logos, Word, Christ are all ways in which the Hebrew people describe an aspect of the Divine that has all ways been embodied in humanity; nowhere more so than in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In the conflation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ we have lost some of the power and the depth of meaning that our ancestors knew as the Christ. Traces of the Christ have survived, but they have been muted by the church and by our culture. They mystery that is the Christ, the aspect of God which is embodied in Creation since the very beginning has been lost to so many of us who call ourselves Christian. Jesus lived for about 33 years, the Christ has always been.
So, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we shall begin our quest for Christ who, is, was and ever more shall be the sovereign of the cosmos. As for the old ways of describing Jesus as the king of heaven and earth, just like old-fashioned wineskins that nobody uses anymore because they have the potential to spoil the wine, we are going to use new wineskins, new symbols, paradigms, metaphors, stories and theologies which are better able to preserve this fine wine that has been aged to perfection in casks that have served our ancestors well. As our understanding of the cosmos is ever evolving, so to our understanding of the Christ, the aspect of Divinity that has always been embodied in creation will evolve. For a long time now theologians have been using the term “cosmic Christ” to express more fully the concept of the One our ancestors have experienced in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the One who existed long before the birth of Jesus and who continues to live among us. Today, our quest begins again, as we look forward to Advent the season when we await the coming again, of the one who is, was, and ever more shall be, Christ in our midst.
We are going to spend the season of Advent, re-discovering the Christ in all Christ’s cosmic glory. Our quest for the Cosmic Christ, will take us back into the sacred scriptures of our ancestors where we will rediscover the aspect of the Divine that they called, Wisdom, Sophia, Messiah, Christ. And we will explore the cosmic stories that were carefully crafted by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth in order to express their belief that in Jesus they had experienced the Christ. Our quest for the cosmic Christ will offer us new wine to taste so it will need to be held in new wineskins, wineskins capable of holding the Wisdom we have discovered about our cosmos. I hope that as we begin to taste the new wine, we will learn to savor all that Christ can be here and now in this place and time.
I am convinced sisters and brothers, that in Christ we will discover an aspect of the Divine that is capable of nourishing, grounding and sustaining us in the magnificent cosmos in which we live and move and have our being. For now, let me caution you. This new wine is heading stuff. After all, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “Christ is the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation, for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, sovereignties, powers—all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.” This aspect of the Divine whom we seek lies at the very heart of all that is, was, and ever shall be.
The cosmic proportions of the One we seek have the power to make us drunk with the sheer magnitude of that which pours forth. So, we will need to help one another along the way. We’ll take our time. Sip slowly. But like all quests there is so much to be gained on the journey. My hope is that our Advent quest for the cosmic Christ will empower us to give birth to the One who has always been embodied in creation. Let us seek the cosmic Christ so that Christ may be born in us. Let our quest for the Cosmic Christ nourish, ground, and sustain us, so that the One Who, IS, Was, and evermore shall be, Creator, Christ and Spirit One may live and dwell, in, with, through, and beyond us.
Listen to the sermon here: