Posted by: smstrouse | November 22, 2016

The Divine Commonwealth of Christ


This is a difficult day on which to preach. There were at least three things feeding into my reflections this week. First, it’s the last Sunday of the church year, the day traditionally known as the Feast of Christ the King, but here at First United known as Christ Anointed. Second, it’s the third Sunday in our Season of Remembrance, as we widen the circle out to honor those throughout the world who are victims of violence and oppression. And third, it is the second Sunday after the election apocalypse.

All of these do actually do fit together because they all have to do with how we want to be governed and how we are governed. Of course we don’t have a king; that was the reason for the War of Independence after all. And within the church, many of us have problems with the ‘king’ language for other reasons. Some have changed the name of the day to the Reign of Christ to eliminate the gender issue. But you still have the feudal language that implies a hierarchical order of power. But don’t take it from me. Let’s watch a short documentary about the problem with kings.

Watch Monty Python’s “The Annoying Peasant”

 Arthur’s Britain wasn’t the only place where having a king was problematic. The reading from Jeremiah is also a rant against a king, probably Zedekiah, the last of great King David’s dynasty. It was Zedekiah’s actions that had brought about invasion, siege, destruction, and finally exile to Babylon, so his popularity rating was zilch. I imagine the prophet Samuel laughing from the Great Beyond. Because although Samuel had long ago anointed Israel’s first king, Saul and later David and Solomon, he’d tried to talk the people out of their desire to have a king at all. He warned them:
“He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots for him to ride in luxury. He’ll take your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and give them to his friends. He’ll tax your harvests to support his extensive bureaucracy. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you’ll cry in desperation because of this king you want so much.” And so it was.

But what’s really important about this warning is that is an expression of the class tension (shades of Monty Python) between prophet and ruler. Remember: the prophets of ancient Israel were not predictors of the future or foretellers of Jesus; they were critics of the government, thorns in the side of kings, emperors, and other officials of both church and state. Which is still the role of prophets today.

Which brings me back again to this dilemma over Christ the King and its companion, the Kingdom of God because language really does matter in the face of oppressive regimes. “Basileia tou Theou”(Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But “basileia” is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Many New Testament scholars, including the Jesus Seminar are calling it the “empire of God” – the rationale being that Jesus’ major agenda addresses his major antagonist, the “empire of Rome.”

Others aren’t so enamored. Process theologian John Cobb, who describes the “basiliea theou” as a counter-culture based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day, prefers to call it the “divine commonwealth.” And the Inclusive Bible that we use calls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind “empire of God,” I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to “kin-dom” or Cobb’s “divine commonwealth” because they get us away from limited feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the “divine milieu” of early 20th century scientist-priest Teillhard de Chardin. In this “divine milieu” Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ.

For Teillhard, Christ is not just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops in consciousness, like living cells in a huge organism. With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teillhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He also shows, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, how we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king. But it is a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of the Total Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

If that sounds too far out for you, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. In the words of Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are Christ’s body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

You may still prefer the king and kingdom language. It is, after all, the familiar and that is perfectly OK. My intention is to open up some other ways of thinking about it because it really does have implications for how we see our governing bodies today and our role as people of faith in support of and in opposition to those bodies.

Which brings us to our focus for the Season of Remembrance. We are remembering the oppressed of the world, both living and dead, who have suffered and continue to suffer under policies of governing bodies that deny any or all of their basic human rights. Today has been designated as the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, for the 87 people murdered this year alone. We light a candle for them. And for the people of Aleppo. Tonight we join with communities around the world in “A Light for Aleppo, A Light for All: Offering a light in the darkness, to show those who face daily conflict and starvation that the world is spreading out beacons of vigilance and hope.”

As our concerns grow that some members of our communities may be denied some or all of their rights by our government, we remember. Which then brings us back around to the call to be prophetic witnesses. The words of the prophets are still being written on subway walls and tenement halls, as Simon and Garfunkel sang 50 years ago. But now also on Twitter feeds, email blasts, and Facebook walls. And they are calling on us to join our voices, to join forces. For example, the latest message from Faithful America is: “Every church that is faithful to Jesus Christ must now become a sanctuary for those coping with violence and degradation.” 

How do we do that? I spoke last night at an early Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the Pacific Institute. It was packed; in fact they’d had to turn people away who had RSVP’d too late. Muslims, Jews, Christians of assorted denominations, and a smattering of Buddhists joined together both in expressing gratitude for being together and in resolve to continue working together for peace and justice. This past week, in Washington, DC, interfaith leaders met at the Nation’s Mosque to pray and to send a strong statement of interfaith solidarity with the Muslim community. At an anti-Semitism conference in New York, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League said, “If Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”

I sent an email yesterday to the leaders of the other congregations who meet in this space, as well as Middle Circle, to see if there might be a way that we can show our solidarity. There seems to be support for that, so we’re looking for ways to embody it. Your suggestions are welcome.

 What can we take away with us today from all this? We take our grief. Our mourning for the dead and for the oppressed does not end. Our mourning for our country’s decent into dangerous political waters does not end.

But we can also take with us an awareness of the hugeness of the divine milieu in which we live. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem to big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in the body of God or the commonwealth of God or the kin-dom of God, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year. So go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, knowing that you are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we will take action.



Jeremiah 23:1-6
In every age political and religious leaders have often created difficulties for those for whom they had responsibility. This text makes abundantly clear that ancient Israel was no exception. It is likely that these oracles were pronounced against the advisers of King Zedekiah of Judah (597-586 BCE). Placed on the throne as a vassal of the Babylonians, he was the last of the Davidic dynasty to reign. His rebellion against his overlords brought about the invasion of the kingdom, the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile of the king and the nation’s leading citizens to Babylon.

 It is written . . .

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep in my pasture!” declares YHWH. “Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who are tending my people: You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds, declares YHWH. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their own pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds who will look after them and pasture them. They will no longer be afraid or terrified nor will any by missing, declares YHWH.

Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH,
when I will raise up for the house of David
a righteous branch,
who will reign as a true ruler and act wisely,
and do what is just and right in the land.
In those days, Judah will be saved,
and Israel will dwell securely.
This is the Name on which they will call:
‘YHWH, Our Justice.’”

Second Reading from America, America by Saadi Youssef (translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)

We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God’s soldiers…

We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods,
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song…

We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of farmers’ ribs
and bright,
and raises heads up high…

America, we are the dead.
Let your soldiers come.
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him.
We are the drowned ones, dear lady.
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.

Luke 1:68-79
Known to Christian tradition as The Benedictus, this psalm may well have had Jewish origins long before the birth of Jesus. It is composed of a series of familiar Old Testament phrases taken chiefly from the Psalms. It became an early Christian hymn and was incorporated into Luke’s Gospel as part of the poetic narrative of the Messiah’s birth.

Zechariah’s words portray a similar theme as Jeremiah’s. The Savior to come will guide us in the ways of peace. The new order will be characterized by grace, healing, and mercy.

 It is written . . .

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel-
for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us
of the house of David,
as you promised through the mouths of your holy ones,
the prophets of ancient times:
salvation from our enemies
and from the hands of all our foes.
You have shown mercy to our ancestors
by remembering the holy Covenant
you made with them,
the oath you swore to Sarah and Abraham,
granting that we,
delivered from the hands of our enemies,
might serve you without fear,
in holiness and justice,
in your presence all our days.
And you, my child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High,
for you’ll go before our God
to prepare the way for the Promised One,
giving the people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”



  1. […] As I wrote in The Divine Commonwealth of Christ […]


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