The Alternate Reality of the Other Ruler

Posted By 
Tue, 05/30/2017 - 10:30am

Ephesians 1:19-23, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 28, 2017, Ascension Sunday 

            When you walk into a Gothic cathedral, you are walking toward the sunrise. Ahead of you is an image of the dying Christ. Most likely there is a crucifix, but in the stained glass above your horizon Jesus is there again, on a cross, and perhaps with his disciples at the meal before dying. But when you turn to leave the church, you face a large rose window, the center of which is an image of this same Christ on a throne. It is a picture of the ascended Christ, ruling over the world.

            There are two ways to understand this. One is that before you go out into the world you need to be reminded that you will face the last judgment. You’d better be careful about the choices you make, because someday you are going to have Jesus as your judge.

            But another way to look at the image of Christ on the throne is to take hope in the fact that this same Jesus who died for you is now reigning in power. Before you go out into the world, remember that the Jesus is no longer victim or sacrifice but the Ruler of all. You don’t go out into a world where Jesus is now absent, but into a world where Jesus now rules.

            In the Orthodox Churches of the East, the most common image of Jesus is called Christos Pantocrator. “Pantocrator” means Ruler of All. The same word was used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the word “Almighty.” You’ve no doubt seen that picture: It’s Jesus from the waist up, with a rather stern expression on his face, serious but not angry; he holds the Gospels in his left arm and his right hand gives a sign of blessing with two fingers up as if to say “Peace, man.” In the Eastern church, this is the image of Christ. In some basilicas, you walk in and behind the altar there is a half-dome mosaic with this King Jesus facing you from the beginning.

            In the West, a version of that image is usually on the west wall, over the exit after the mass. They call it “Christ in Majesty.” It’s the same idea, but for some reason in the West, Jesus shaves and appears without a beard. He is seated on a throne; sometimes the throne is on a ball representing the world. In other churches, it is “Christ the Judge,” pointing some people up, other people down. In any case, the clarifying reminder is that Jesus is not dead; Jesus is not a memory; Jesus is not powerless in today’s world. On the contrary, it is Jesus who is in charge.

            The image of Christ as Ruler of All is always subversive. This is made explicit in our text from Ephesians 1: (v. 21) “Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things.” Wow. This is not a note we hear often enough today. Christ is above the King, above the Emperor, above the President—above all who claim authority and above all the powers of this world.

            What is the earliest confession of the church? Two words: Christos Kurios! Christ (is) Lord! That was deliberately phrased as an alternative to the Pledge of Allegiance required by the Roman Empire: Caesar (“Kaisar”) Kurios, Caesar is Lord. Who is the Ruler of All? Christians would bravely declare that it was not the Emperor but the Messiah, Jesus.

            When we pray “thy kingdom come” we are asking for regime change. “Thy kingdom come” means “may your empire replace the current one.” May you rule on earth as you already rule in heaven. May you bring true justice and peace and flourishing. Remember the strong line in the Hallelujah Chorus? “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!”

            So when a Christian leaves the church with a picture of Christ our King in her mind, it undercuts the authority of the earthly King or President. At the very least, it relativizes that authority. The worldly ruler’s authority is not the ultimate authority. He can be “over ruled” by Jesus. That, I think, is what the celebration of the Ascension is intended to say to us: “Don’t be freaked out by the behavior of earthly rulers, because our loyalty is to Jesus and in the end he will be completely victorious. Already he is ruling and bringing his kingdom to earth.”

            So, what about the Jesus in our window? He is clearly not Pantocrator or Judge. This is a 19th or 20th century Jesus; in a literal sense, he is a 1952 Jesus, just my age, but the depiction goes back a good fifty years before that. I think of him as the Welcoming Jesus or the Inviting Jesus. He says, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He seems to be inviting us into paradise, maybe, or to the shores of the Sea of Galilee as the Risen One with an Easter lily at his feet. I love him, but he is the “personal Lord and Savior,” and not a figure of authority like a Ruler of All. He represents a valid interpretation of Jesus primarily as the one who gives you inner peace and forgiveness and welcomes you into the church. But this version of Jesus has retreated from the public realm—the realm of power and governance and justice. You would not guess that he has anything to say to the government or any claim to be in authority over them.

            When we think of Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, we are thinking of Jesus ruling with God Almighty. The Ascension is about authority; it’s about power given to the risen Christ. What does it mean to us that the one who is our Ruler and Judge is the same one who loved us and gave himself for us? Our Ruler is one who taught mercy and peace and forgiveness. Our Judge is the one who is for us.

If Jesus brings in a government, what is that kingdom like? He has told us in many parables and declarations. The kingdom of God is a new order in which the first are last and the last are first. It is a social order in which the servant is the greatest, and upside-down kingdom where worldly values are reversed. Jesus’ kingdom is a government with room for little children, for lepers, for sinners and outcasts, and for women. It is a reign in which the greatest sin seems to be fake religiosity and hypocrisy. It is a government of inclusion, symbolized by a great feast to which all are invited, with special attention to those who never get invited to anything. It is a government in which healing for the sick and food for the poor are priorities. It calls for citizens who love strangers and enemies and serve their neighbors without counting the cost.

If we believe that Jesus was raised and ascended to the right hand of the Father, and if we understand that this is a place of authority, why do we not obey him? Jesus asks, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46). Good question.

Maybe it’s because we accepted Nice Jesus into our lives rather than accepting King Jesus. Were you asked to believe in a Jesus who would make you feel good or a Jesus who would remake the world as its Ruler? I got to a point more than midway through my ministry when it began to dawn on me that for many Evangelicals who have “received Christ,” “Christ” is a content-less word. It’s an empty shell you can fill with whatever you want Christ to be for you. That Christ died for you, yes, but otherwise he is disconnected from the Jesus of the Gospels who actually proclaimed the kingdom of God and told us how to live.

If Jesus really meant what he said, he brought God’s reign to earth in his own person. He initiated something which took its next step when he ascended to share that reign. If Ephesians is to be believed—and this is the witness of all the apostles—Jesus is reigning over the world right now. The principles of that reign must be in line with the ones he taught while he walked the earth: loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, forgiving those who have offended you, not seeking worldly security, choosing God over money, abstaining from retaliation. Things like that, which seem to be the opposite of the human government we have. Are we living under Jesus’ rule? Or are we living under the powers of this world who operate by the law of the jungle, “might makes right” and “money is power”?

I want to propose that Christians live in parallel universes. In one universe, we are living in human society under the authority of the government. But we also live in an alternate reality.  You could say that “living in an alternate reality” is what the Bible means by faith: living as if that other world is real. We live in a reality nonbelievers may not see, in which Jesus Christ is reigning now, in which all creatures are praising him, a universe in which peace is real and justice is complete, for everyone. We do not live in one universe at a time, but in both simultaneously.

“Alternate reality” and its synonym “parallel universes” are real scientific terms, but we know them mostly through science fiction. For example, in one Star Trek episode the crew landed on a planet with a civilization exactly like earth, except that the Roman Empire had not fallen, so they watched gladiator fights on TV (before that became a real thing on this planet!) and they still had slaves, although they gave them health insurance and pensions. One change produced a different universe, as the Resurrection-and-Ascension produces ours.

In our present life on earth it may be helpful to think of the kingdom of God as an alternate reality. During the early Christian centuries, many theologians used the ideas of Plato, who said that there was an ideal realm above, where things actually exist, and this shadow realm below where we spend our lives, where things are less than real. Rather than seeing the world as two levels operating in parallel, I think it’s more useful to see our situation as the intersection of two realities. We don’t live at any moment in the heavenly realm or the earthly realm but rather in both—or at the point, now, where they intersect.

Many Christians—at least from Martin Luther on—have argued that there are two kingdoms or two governments: one for spiritual matters and one for worldly justice. This is one way to look at the idea—that we have two citizenships which have differing responsibilities. But I think this sells the Ascension short. It sells Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God short. The kingdom of God is more than a heavenly or spiritual reality; it in among us, operating on earth. The same Paul who notoriously said in Romans 13 that worldly rulers were put in place by God also said in Philippians 3:20 that “Our citizenship is in heaven.” That citizenship is primary in all things, so that sometimes we say with Peter and John, “We must obey God rather than human authorities.”

Let’s assume that we are caught at the point of intersection between two universes—one in which Christ rules, and one in which Caesar rules. It seems to me that believers can decide which universe to live in. We can discern what belongs to Caesar—like currency—and what belongs to God—like human beings, like our very selves. Even if we have to live in both realities for now, we can choose which to give our heart to.

The Gospel of John has nothing in it about the Ascension, except for Jesus saying over and over that he is going back to the Father. But the Gospel of John makes a lot of the idea that Jesus was really a King. Think about the Passion narrative. In chapter 19, Jesus is dressed in a robe like royalty and given a mock crown made of thorns. Then the soldier bullies say to him, “Hail, King of the Jews,” their anti-Semitic nonsense, just before they beat him up. Pilate, the Roman governor, says to the Jewish leaders, ironically, “Behold your King!” They reply, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answer, “We have no king but Caesar!” So Pilate crucifies him, but insists on placing a sign over his head that says “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

That a Jew would say “We have no king but Caesar” shows how far they have given in, caving to the pagans in order to get along. It is the core of Israel’s theology that the Lord is King (Yahweh is King). Initially the Lord did not want Israel to have a human king at all, but when they insisted on a monarchy and a standing army like their neighbors, Yahweh made clear that the earthly king did not replace God as King. The human king was his “Son,” serving on his behalf to advance the Lord’s rule. “We have no king but Caesar” means “We have given up on the idea that God is the true King of the world.”

The story of the Ascension—and the creeds that derive from it which place Jesus at the right hand of the Father—force the question of “Who’s in charge here?” It’s easy to give up and say, “This is Caesar’s world,” the politicians’ world, the war-makers’ world, the corporations’ world. But the Christian conviction from the very beginning has been that Jesus was raised not only from death to life but from a humble servant life to the highest place of authority. He was given the name that is above every name—Kurios, Lord—that every creature must bend the knee before him, on earth and under the earth and in heaven, saying Jesus the Messiah is the Ruler of All. Is that the reality we live in? Or have we chosen to live in an alternate reality?

Do we actually believe in any practical sense that Jesus Christ is Lord?

Do we actually believe in any practical sense in the Kingdom of God?

If we believe, we can rejoice in hope. I say it again: Rejoice!