Identity Matters

Identity Matters

November 24, 2019

Gospel According to Luke 23:33-43

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Well, we can check another liturgical year off the calendar. 

Today is the last Sunday in the year, the liturgical year –  the timeframe that marks the seasons of the church as the calendar year marks the seasons of creation. And like the calendar year, the liturgical year features distinct seasons that mark the emphasis of our lives. Planting, sowing, growing, reaping, resting. 

The liturgical year starts in Advent when we wait. In ordinary time after Epiphany, we watch. In Lent, Jesus is fully human. In Eastertide, fully divine. And in Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended back to God’s arms, we are sent out to plant the Gospel in the long stretch of Ordinary Time….which ends today.

This Sunday sits on the precipice between all that we have experienced and become over this past year, and all that we might live into when we begin anew next Sunday….the beginning of a new liturgical year. 

It’s a good time to take stock of who we are. It’s a good time to think deeply about our identity, as Christians in an increasingly secular world.  It is a good time to dream about where God might be calling us from here. It is a time of remembrance and thanksgiving and hopefulness.

Next Sunday, the start of Advent, we begin the journey again. Although this year, we will begin in a way wholly different from any of our previous Advent seasons together. This year, Advent will be both a beginning and an end in a new way for us.

The liturgical term for this last Sunday in the church year is Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. In his 1925 encyclical, Pope Pius instituted this Feast Day, registering his opposition to the secularism that was challenging the authority of Christ even among Christians, even among Roman Catholics. And so this day is meant to be a reminder, in an increasingly secular world, using exceptionally secular language, that Christ reigns….still….as always. That Christ is, as we say in the vernacular of our political realm, the King.

Likewise, in our liturgical rubric, the Eucharist begins with a statement about God’s Kingdom. Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever, amen. But a couple of years ago, we in this community amended that language and changed the word Kingdom to Kindom. Because, we thought, the connotations of king and kingdom may not authentically express our understanding of God’s realm or God’s intentions for God’s realm. Because the language of king and kingdom seems to almost contradict the language of the divine. King and Kingdom denote genres of absolute authority that seem most appropriate to humanly constructed realms, not heavenly realms. A kingdom is a realm of this earth that requires allegiance to….well, a king. And as our Scriptures tell us over and over and over again, kings are not…. God. Not even close.

Kings, even good kings, says the Good Book, tend to be greedy and selfish and power hungry – and in the end, a king will take, take, take whatever a king can get. Only God is universally gracious. Only God is unselfishly generous. Only God is everlastingly just and righteous. Even a good king, says our scripture, even a king who is chosen especially by God, a king like say, Good King David is flawed and fractured and still only human.

King and God are fundamentally incompatible terms. Incompatible identities.

And yet here we are, along with every other Anglican and Protestant and Roman Catholic and Orthodox church in the world celebrating Christ with a title that, as it is defined by our culture, Jesus himself denied. 

Twice in this morning’s reading from Luke, Jesus is called the “King of the Jews.” It would have been a scandalous accusation in his time. It’s hard for us to imagine just how scandalous. More outrageous than calling any one of us the “God of Newton.” Because there is only one God, and we are not she. Or them. Calling Jesus the King of the Jews was tantamount to that. There was only one king and Jesus was not him. 

Even so, by some bizarre twist of theological irony, our Christian vernacular refers to Christ as King. Not just the King of the Christians. The King of Kings. And we justify this acclamation by explaining that Christ is a new kind of king. Thousands of sermons this very morning will proclaim that Christ is a different kind of king. That Christ turns the definition of king on its head! That Christ is a king who sits not on a throne but hangs on a cross. Whose head is not adorned with jewels but with thorns. Whose strength is found not in armies but in weakness. They will say that Christ the new definition of king.

I don’t think so. Saying that Christ is a new kind of king is like saying that Putin is a new kind of pascifist. But no. Putin is not any kind of pascifist. And Christ in NOT any kind of king. Not even with a definite article. Not even THE king. Christ is God:  Creator. Liberator.  Sanctifier. Not king. Not even a different kind of king. Any more than a pickle is a different kind of blueberry. Or a golden retriever is a different kind of turtle. Christ in NOT a different kind of King.

But Christ is a whole new kind of Creation

And identity matters. I think this description of Christ as King may well be among the most discouraging images of Christianity in our contemporary world. The identity of Christ as a King seems a poor response to the spiritual hunger that runs deep in our post-Christian culture. The depleted spirits of our time and place are not seeking a ruler of the universe, they are yearning for a personal connection with the Source of love, the Source of compassion, the Source of mercy, the Source of peace.

And, it has always felt odd to me that we Christians rebel against secularism by assigning a totally secular, almost anti-spiritual, title to our Savior. Why are we using old images of earthly power and might to talk about the new grace that God is doing in and through Christ?….a thing grounded in humility and gratitude and kindness and caring. A thing not at all akin to a king.

The Incarnation calls us to this different paradigm of power. Not ruling power. But healing power. Reconciling power. A whole new way of being strong and resilient and transformative in the world. A way of life that denies both the hierarchies of this world that oppress and diminish us all, and the death that dooms us to the limits of this earthly life. 

Christ is not a new kind of king. But he is a new kind of power. Jesus shows us a way of life that turns the structures of authority and legitimacy in this world on their heads! That turns power into love and love into power. A way of life that reorders the patriarchal-sounding “Kingdom of God” into the relational “Kindom of God.” A realm that honors and lifts the kinship of all of God’s creation, here and now. That makes every creature of God kin to every other. Christ is not a new king to rule over the old world. Christ is a wholly new creation that comes to reorder and revision the old world into God’s new Kindom. To transformthe Kingdom. 

And we are not just talking about objectives, we are talking about identity. And identity matters.It is the starting point from which everything else flows. From which every relationship is built. From which every heart and hope is understood. Identity is at the core of who and whose we are.

Last Wednesday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Celebration, an annual observance that was begun 21 years ago when the life of a beautiful, vibrant, transgender woman, Rita Hester, was taken on November 28, 1998 in the name of horrific ignorance and unbridled hate. 

The now the annual remembrance celebrates those among us who are gender variant on a spectrum that seats most of us somewhere between the binary absolutes. It particularly remembers the many who have suffered for their non-conforming gender identities. It particularly celebrates and honors those folks whose inward existential and ontological core may not match the expected outward appearance. It celebrates those who may not seem to be who they truly are.

We need look no further than this morning’s reading from Luke to see how such an identity crisis relates to every Christian. Because it could just as well be a remembrance and celebration of the Incarnation; a child of God whose own self transgressed all of the boundaries of identity; Fully human and fully divine. A new creation. Not a new kind of king. A new kind of kin.

A child of God whose core identity crossed the boundaries of all understanding. A brother whose full flesh was pure God. Whose inward identity was never fully revealed in his outward appearance. And when he suggested that he was born with this special identity, this full divinity, he was either mistrusted by his community or rejected and reviled by the authorities and the establishment. Jesus was feared for his status-quo-busting identity as I suspect many trans folks are feared for theirs.

I am guessing that our non-binary earthmates can sooooo relate to the way Jesus must have felt carrying his fully divine identity within his fully human body. Because Jesus was a fully new creation. 

And the complexity and diversity and beauty of that and every creation of God is missed whenever we attempt to define the image of the divine within the limits of our humanly constructed language OR our human capacity for love. Whenever we allow earth to define heaven, we are in big trouble. That mystery is better left in God’s hands. Our work is to cross the borders and boundaries that we have culturally constructed, and which serve only to keep us from loving each other as we have been loved by God….those borders and boundaries that hold our allegiance to the kingdom and the king…..rather than the creation and its Creator.

Which is why we need a New Creation every year about this time. Another opportunity to start fresh; to reimagine our identity as Christians. Again, we get to cleanse our palates of our arrogance and our judgment of each other and our hatred and our impatience and our fear and give thanks for the breath of this life, and the companionship of our communities, and the love of a good and abiding God who will come to us in the flesh, again. 

Who will come to share our joy and our sorrow with a full-throated call for us to follow nothing more than faithfully! Every Advent offers us a fresh opportunity to flesh out our identity as Christians. Who are we? What do we value? What is at stake? And what are we willing to give up in God’s name? 

I think it is not too dramatic to say that in this post-Christian day and age the very life of this and every church hangs in the balance. Because identity matters.

And so on this last Sunday of our liturgical year, as we stand on the precipice of a new Creation, I want to leave us with the words of one of the founders of our identity as Protestants.  Words penned 500 years ago by Martin Luther from his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles. He wrote:

This life is…. not righteousness but growth in righteousness,

not health but healing,

not being but becoming,

not rest but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be,

but we are growing toward it.

The process is not yet finished

but it is going on.

This is not the end,

but it is the road.

Alleluia! Amen.

© November, 2019  The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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