26 November 2013

The Reconciliation of All Things

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Colossians 1: 11-20

Reign of Christ Sunday/ 24th November 2013

On Friday, this nation remembered that tragic day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was fatally shot in Dallas, bringing an end to Camelot.  Fifty years.  In the grand scheme of things, not very long ago.  And, yet, in many ways it was another age, another time, another world.  This past week the press took us back to remember that fateful day and invited us to imagine how the world could have been different if November 22 was just another ordinary day in 1963.  However, the press overlooked (for the most part) two other major figures who died that same day. One was the humanist, pacifist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), a leading intellectual of his day and author of the Brave New World, a novel written in 1931 that envisioned the world in the year 2540.  Brave New World was ranked among the top 100 novels of the twentieth century. Through an imaginary rendering of what the future will be. Huxley critiqued issues that faced Europe and the United States in 1930s, between the wars.

            The other notable figure who died fifty years ago on November 22 was Clive Staples Lewis—C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Oxford don, scholar, medievalist, author of children’s books, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, and many volumes of Christian apologetics, with well-known titles, such as The Screwtape Letters, God in the Dock, and perhaps his most famous theological work, Mere Christianity. In his memoir Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis told the story of his conversion from atheism to theism to his eventual trust and faith in Christ, calling himself “the most reluctant convert in all of England.”  On Friday evening downtown at the meeting of the American Academy of Religion there was a celebration of Lewis’s work and influence, led by N. T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, now professor at the University of St. Andrews. Wright has been been described as a kind of “Lewis” for our day writing about Christianity to a broad audience.  Wright is also one of the leading Pauline scholars in the world.  Wright just published what will surely be a landmark book on the letters of Paul, a work—at more than 1700 pages—that will shape biblical scholarship for the next fifty years.[1]

            More people are reading C.S. Lewis today than ever before.  Children of all faiths (and none) are still hearing about the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy venturing through the magical wardrobe into the land Narnia, the world of the White Witch, and the powerful, never safe, but always good, Aslan, a character who symbolizes Christ. 

            What an imagination Lewis had.  Lewis is a wonderful example of how imagination, particularly a Christian, that is, baptized imagination, images the world, figures and transfigured the world, envisions the world.  He created a marvelous world for his characters, for us really, and in doing so allowed us to reimagine our world, to envision what is possible.  By offering an alternative world he transfigured the way we see the world and our lives within it.  It’s all the more remarkable, really, given that one time in a conversation about faith with J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) over a pint of ale at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, Tolkien increasingly frustrated with Lewis—who was still a non-believer at this point whereas Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic—said, “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part!” Can you imagine telling C. S. Lewis that he suffers from a failure of imagination?

            My mentor at Princeton Seminary, James Loder (1931-2001)—who was also a huge C. S. Lewis fan, who sketched images of Aslan for his children—suggested that we need to make a distinction between the imaginary and the imaginative.  Something that is imaginary takes you out of the world, out of reality; it’s a flight of fancy, often escapist. An imaginative act, on the other hand, is an entirely different faculty.  It was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who understood imagination as the capacity instar omnium, meaning equivalent to all in importance.  As a faculty of the self, imagination has the capacity to create, order, and reorder the world.  The imaginative act, thought, or word has the power to put you more deeply into the world, into a world transfigured, into the real.[2]  

            What does all of this have to do with Colossians 1 or with the Reign of Christ Sunday? A lot. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church orders its Sundays and patterns its worship upon Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Next week is Advent and we begin the annual cycle afresh.  Next week we begin to wait.  This week we lift up a different, often neglected aspect of the Christian life: Christ’s reign over our lives, Christ’s reign over the world.  A text such as Colossians 1 lifts up a particular image of Christ and the Church and the world, of the world that is to come, but also the world as it already now is by God’s grace.  And Colossians 1, especially verses 15-20, is crammed with Christological significance—we could be here all day, all week, indeed, a lifetime unpacking what Paul is claiming here in this text that was probably written as a hymn to Christ.

            The honest question before us is this: is this text imaginary or imaginative?  Is it just wishful thinking, a fancy of what the world might be?  Perhaps. Or is it a baptized imaginative rendering of reality rooted in the person and work of Christ, what he accomplished, what he continues to offer the world?[3]  Colossians casts a vision here for us and it’s up to you and me to decide: imaginary or imaginative?
            Paul’s answer is pretty clear.  It’s imaginative.  In fact either Paul or the writer of this hymn wants us to pay attention to the image that shapes our imagination.  For the hymn says Christ was the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The Greek here is ikon.  We could also translate it as “symbol.”  Christ is the ikon, the symbol, the image of the invisible God.  It’s important to remember that Paul understood an ikon or symbol as sharing in the reality it represents.  That’s what a symbol does, it participates in the reality toward which it points.  A sign, by contrast, refers to itself, indicating a way or sharing a message (such as a Stop sign).   A cross is a symbol, not a sign, because it represents, points to, and participates in a whole reality that stands behind it.  Christ as ikon makes the invisible visible. He represents that deeper reality, the deeper truth, even as he participates in it.  Christ, therefore, is a manifestation of something else because as ikon he participates in a deeper reality and that deeper reality is God. We see through him and see God.  We see through him and discover God’s intention for the world. We see through him and discover God’s plan of redemption and resurrection in the heart of all things.  We see through him and discover that God’s intention in Christ, as it was from the beginning of time, is to reconcile all things through Christ and in Christ.

            All things…ta panta, in Greek,…every order of the universe, every level of reality, every principality, power, authority, throne, and dominion. From the micro to the macro level, the work of Christ on the cross was to reconcile, to make peace with and among all the powers of the world, in order that every principality and power and throne and dominion might yield its authority and serve the benevolent intentions of God.  Christ’s life and ministry and resurrection together mark the “beginning” of this work and his life and ministry, resurrection and ascension show us that it’s God’s desire to fill “all things” with Christ’s presence.  To fill all things.  To dwell among us.  To fill every aspect of our lives with God’s presence. Christ sums up God’s intention for the entire cosmos: to fill all things.  There is nothing and no one outside the scope of Christ’s presence and power. That’s the goal. That’s also the claim for reality, right now, because of the resurrection.

            Now, you can say all of this is imaginary theological mumbo-jumbo, a flight of fancy.  Perhaps. Or maybe it’s a baptized imaginative recasting of the world that, even now, the Spirit is crafting in order for us to see and feel and know that right now this new world is both here and on the way.  This imaginative rendering of reality put Paul and the early church more deeply into the world, engaged with the world, sent Paul traveling all over his world.  They all knew that reality was different because of Christ.  Indeed, reality is never the same when one is in Christ.  We come to see that all things are held in Christ and when we know this, trust this, indwell this truth, then everything changes.  That’s why Christ is the beginning of all things, the arche (Col. 1:18), and in him all things become new.

            Paul lived in a world transfigured by the presence of Christ.  And Paul extends that invitation to us, to see the world from that perspective, to see ourselves as already participating in the power and presence of Christ, to be en Christos, in Christ, as Paul loved to say, to exist in Christ.

            And this is the claim of the early Church: to be in Christ means that we exist in the midst of the Christ who has already reconciled us to God, who has already reconciled every wayward power and principality in the universe.  Not some day.  Not one day.  Right now, we are reconciled.  We live in a world that is no longer at enmity with God.  Right now.  In him all things hold together.

            Now, you’re probably thinking that I’m completely detached from reality, that this is an imaginary flight of fancy.  This isn’t the way the world is.  This is ludicrous.  Perhaps. Or maybe this is an imaginative rendering of the world as it is and is becoming.  It’s a rendering of reality in the light of Christ that helps us to see what the world was created for, through which we understand the meaning of Christ’s life, that helps us to discern the shape and scope and meaning of our lives.  Through this imaginative rendering we realize that we are not where we will be and so we begin again the process of waiting and hoping for Christ to be born yet again into our lives, so that our lives and the life of  the world might conform to that image, that ikon, that vision that we find in Christ.

That’s that goal, which is already here and on the way.  I’m not making this up.  It’s how Paul describes the Christian life.  It’s the imaginative vision that transfigures the here and now; we are on the way to becoming what is already true.  Now and then. 

            I know, it all sounds abstract.  Perhaps C. S. Lewis is helpful here.  This is what he wants us to imagine, imaginations baptized, to see what Christ has done and is doing in us, through us, for us.  Lewis wrote:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it Himself.”[4] 

Our lives a palace—expansive and large.  For “Once a King [once a Queen] in Narnia, always a King [always a Queen].”[5]  And so the work continues.   For truly God intends to come and live in us.

[1]On Tuesday, November 26, 2013, I attended a fascinating session at ARR, “Reflections on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of C. S. Lewis,” presided by my friend Robert MacSwain.  Four papers were given by leading theologians and philosophers assessing Lewis’s writings and his relevancy today.  See also Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds., The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). See N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).
[2] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 24ff.  Loder on C. S. Lewis, 131ff.  On Loder’s use of Kierkegaard see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011).
[3] The notion of the imagination baptized is taken from Lewis in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), 181.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 174.  Lewis borrowed this analogy from George MacDonald (1824-1905).
[5] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 186.

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