Reflection: November 26

Published on Nov 27th, 2017 by Robin Murray | 0

The Face of Christ

Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23 & Matthew 25:31-46

When did we see you, Lord?

I recently read a story about a minister who was starting a new job at one of these big ten-thousand-member evangelical mega-churches down in the United States and how on the Sunday he was to be introduced to the congregation, he chose to dress up in the sort of clothes you would find on a homeless person living in the streets.  He came in quietly through the front doors with the rest of the congregation and was greeted with a smile by three of the ten-thousand. The rest ignored or looked scornfully at him.  He walked up to take a seat at the front but was quickly asked by the ushers to sit at the back.  So, when the search committee got up and excitedly announced the arrival of their new minister, he had a good long walk up the aisle for people to get a look at him.  Their cheers quickly turned to silence, as he walked up to the pulpit and said the words, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

Now, I don’t think this is the kind of entrance I would make into a new congregation, but I have a feeling it was the sort of street-theatre type action that Jesus would have approved of during his earthly ministry!  You see, during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the idea that someone important, especially a king, could be poor or hungry was simply outrageous! Privilege and wealth were what defined a king.  Not only that, but privilege and wealth were signs that a person had the favour of the gods in the Roman Empire.  If you were poor and powerless, you obviously deserved it.  So, when Jesus tells his disciples the story of the Son of Man sitting on his throne passing judgement on those in his realm, this was familiar imagery for a king.  This was how things worked in their world. But then Jesus turns it all upside down!  The king then claims the poor and the marginalized for his own!  He claims that not only do these people not deserve what they get, but they deserve royal treatment from those around them!  They deserve the respect you would show a king.

In contemporary times, we sometimes struggle with the language of “king”, “kingdom” and “Lord” found in the Bible.  The “Reign of Christ” doesn’t always resonate in our world, where Kings and Queens are merely figureheads, and real power is in the hands of elected officials, or perhaps more often, big corporations.  In our reading from Ephesians, today, there was quite a bit of that sort of imperial language, even with the attempts of the “Inclusive Bible” translation to tone it down – “glory”, “inheritance”, “sovereignty” “power” and “dominion” are still words suggestive of empire.  But this is the world the people of the church at Ephesus were steeped in.  We know from archaeological digs, that the Roman Empire invested heavily in public art that glorified Caesar and the conquest of surrounding nations.  Paying taxes wasn’t enough.  People were expected to go and worship the Emperors at special temples as well.

Some of you may remember from history class at term called “Pax Romana” which translates as “Roman Peace.”  That peace was achieved by conquest, or pacification.  Basically, once they decided to include an area as part of Roman territory, they killed anyone who fought back, and it seemed to work.  How’s that for peace? Since success was seen as evidence of divine favour, if you were a conquered people, you must be inferior, less loved by the gods, and therefore you deserved what you got.  So, can you imagine what a radical and dangerous thing it was to stand up and say to the dominant culture, “you’re wrong”?  Imagine the incredible hope it gave people in Ephesus to hear Paul and writers like him, name the truth that real peace looks very different from the peace achieved by conquest and that God had other plans for the world than the violent oppression in which they lived!

So, if Paul were writing a letter to us today, what do we think he would say to us? We don’t see the Roman imperial image in public art, buildings and coinage the way the Ephesians did, but we do see a barrage of consumer advertising and corporate logos crop up everywhere in our day to day lives.  We do live in a culture where your worth as a person is measured by your buying power and how much you own. We often use the purchase of consumer products as a way of defining relationships and making meaning in our lives.  Recently I heard a five-year-old run up to his mother and say “Daddy just bought me that toy I wanted.”  To which his mother replied without thinking, “Wow! Your Daddy really loves you, doesn’t he?” As if love had anything to do with new toys.  But this is the challenge of the culture we live in.  This is the message we get all the time – we need to buy things to have love and be happy.

Lost in all this, are the people in poorer countries who work for little money to make these consumer goods that we in more affluent countries enjoy (preferably bought at a bargain price).  Lost are also some of our neighbours, whose inability to purchase the clothes, or the home or the car that would command respect and make them feel like successful members of the community.  Instead, no matter how much friendship and love they bring with them, they are made to feel inferior, ignored or scorned and asked to take a seat at the back. 

We like to think we are a more fair and just society than was the Roman Empire under the rule of the Caesars, after all, we have elected governments, not inherited kingships. (At least we do in the developed world.)  We like to think we have come a long way since the first century, and in some ways we have.  But a classmate of mine pointed out that one major difference between the Roman Empire and our current Economic Empire is, that now if we wanted to, we could solve world hunger.  The Romans didn’t have that capacity, but we have the technology and transportation to do so.  We just choose not to.  So, which is worse?  The overt violent oppression of the Roman Empire, or the silent maintenance of a system that deliberately keeps some people in poverty while others grow rich from their suffering?

Jesus was pretty clear on how we should respond to the suffering of others in our passage from Matthew. Christ, the king, does not take the best for himself and leave the lesser folks to get by.  Christ joins the hungry and the naked, he lays in hospital beds and in prisons. Unlike his earthly counterparts, this king empties himself of power and privilege and becomes the poor and oppressed in order to show us what it is the God values – not money, not property and possessions, but love. It is the loving acts of kindness to others that matters to this king – acts like feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming a stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the trapped and lonely.

The writers of the Gospel of Matthew and the letter to the Ephesians used the imperial language of kingship and turned it upside down to try and convey the radical good news of Christ. What language could we use today?  The word that came to my mind was “shareholder”.  I ask, in the corporation of God’s creation, who are the shareholders?  They are not privileged folks holding pieces of paper that claim their ownership of creation in stocks and bonds.  The shareholders are each person and each creature alive.  Imagine if corporate profits were measured in the well being of their workers and the environmental health of the land affected by their operations, instead of the dollar amount of the dividends given their investors!  There would never be a discussion about whether or not we could “afford” to meet climate change agreement standards. Everyone would know that we can’t afford not to! 

So how about if instead of Christ the King, we have Christ the CEO?  Only this CEO doesn’t use the profits of the company to wrap himself in luxury.  This CEO chooses to be down on the factory floor.  This CEO chooses to live in company housing and to drink the water downriver from mill.  This CEO even eats at the hospital cafeteria.  And when it comes time to evaluate your performance at the end of the fiscal year, this CEO isn’t going to look at the amount of money you stockpiled for the company, but he’s going to look at how well you used your personal gifts and skills for the benefit of the whole corporate team and all of its partners.  So, let’s not be measuring ourselves and our neighbours based on our buying power or our financial net worth, as the larger culture does.  Rather, let’s follow the way of our CEO and instead, try to embody the love of God.  And when we do buy stuff, lets buy it as if we knew that the hands that assembled it at the factory, or the grower whose hands planted and harvested it, were the hands of Jesus Christ.  Would you still seek the cheapest deal, if you knew it was Christ who was the worker trying to live off of pennies a day in wages to produce your stuff?

But when, Lord?  When did we you see you labouring without adequate health and safety standards? When did we see you homeless because the climate where you lived became too extreme? When did we see you left languishing in a refugee camp when war tore your home apart?  The faceless strangers on the news are neither faceless nor strangers.  They all bear the face of Christ. As do we.  Let us love, then, as if love was all that really mattered in this world.

May it be so.


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