Nov. 24, 2019 Perception
The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
“Grandma,” my seven-year old unchurched grandson asked, “where’s your mean picture?”
“Mean” picture? Our house is full of photos, paintings, prints, icons – but I couldn’t conjure up a single “mean” picture.
“I don’t know which one you’re talking about,” I finally told him.
So we went on a hunt. “That one!” he finally said, and I was stunned. It was my icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
“But what’s ‘mean’ about it?” I asked.
“Look how he’s holding that sheep around his neck by the ankles, just to keep himself warm. That’s mean.”
Jesus as animal-abuser: now that was a new perception. Granted it’s been pretty cold, but still…. So I explained the parable of the lost sheep, and how I see that icon – that picture – as a tender image, not a mean one.
I share this story here because I want to talk about the variety of ways that people have perceived – or misperceived – Jesus over time, and how that connects to today’s celebration of Christ the King Sunday. I mean, how on earth do we celebrate Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords? And if we call him our King, why is it that the cross and not a crown is the primary symbol of our faith?
I can’t remember if it was at coffee hour here or during lunch at Convention that I overheard someone talking about a child who had asked, “If Jesus is someone you care about so much, why do you have so many pictures of him being hurt?” Good question.
This is a complicated feast day for a whole variety of reasons. Christ the King Sunday itself was only created in 1925 in response to the rise of non-Christian (or nominally Christian) dictators throughout Europe. Pope Pious XI established the day to celebrate Christ’s regal authority, to reclaim Jesus from the twisted attempts of European dictators who were seeking to destroy or to manipulate the churches. He wanted a day set aside to claim Christ as our sovereign Lord, our King.
How people throughout the centuries have perceived Jesus, from king to suffering servant to personal savior — is usually dependent on cultural reality, as was the creation of this particular feast day. For example, writing in the second half of the 20th century, Episcopal priest and writer Robert Capon insisted that the ordinary American view of Jesus was actually Jesus as Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.” If that isn’t popular christology,” Capon goes on, “I’ll eat my hat.”
As true as that might once have been, I don’t think it works any more as our cultural icon of Jesus. I wish our current American Christology were that innocently misguided. I much prefer “Jesus as Superman” — or even Jesus using a sheep as a neck-warmer — to the current image of Jesus perpetrated by those who claim to be Christian, but who unabashedly hate the stranger, denigrate women, deny health care and even food to needy children—who turn Jesus not into Superman but into a xenophobic misogynist, an anti-Christ. They want Jesus to represent kingship in its most politically powerful connotation – after all, Paula White, the president’s purportedly Christian pastor, has actually called the White House “holy ground” because of its current inhabitant. I’ve seen her video.
But Jesus had no desire to wield political power. He never attempted to woo his followers by playing on their anxieties or their susceptibility to psychological manipulation. His vision wasn’t of conquest, power, and greed – not a dictatorship or oligarchy or secular kingdom – his kingdom was one of “authority grounded in service, of power legitimized in mercy.” After all, he told his followers that it is how we tend the sick, feed the hungry, visit the incarcerated, and welcome the stranger that will give us access to his kingdom.
And yet, in another paradox, his kingdom welcomes everyone. In case we missed that message during his years of active ministry, he provides a final lesson as he hangs dying on the cross. He forgives the political and religious authorities responsible for his death – and he welcomes a confessed criminal into Paradise, letting us know that whatever wickedness a person has done doesn’t have to be a barrier for acceptance into his kingdom.
Our responsibility, or course, is to say yes to the invitation. Consider the second criminal. He has no time for a lengthy confession – he simply accepts his guilt and his earthly punishment, turns to Jesus, and calls him by name – something almost nobody does. He is Lord, Teacher, Master – but this criminal addresses him as “Jesus.” It is a surprisingly intimate moment. (An aside: the only people who call Jesus by name in Luke’s gospel are lepers, a blind man, those possessed by demons, and this condemned criminal; the one time we hear his mother speak to him, she simply calls him “Child…”) The criminal doesn’t even beg forgiveness; he only asks to be remembered: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus responds not with a promise to remember, but with a promise of Paradise.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we need to say out loud that Jesus is not a despotic ruler, despite the way professed Christians in this country distort his message of love into one of hatred. Nor is Jesus, despite my grandson’s reading of the icon, an animal abuser. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, if we read and follow his actual words and example, then we can perceive that Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched to embrace the world – that really is the perfect image of our King, our God, our Savior.