Bigger than That – Nick Utphall reflects on our politics and the eternal results of the Cosmic Christ.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Christ the King Sunday, Year C (2022, 2025)
The lectionary readings today start with a notion that our shepherds—i.e., our political leaders—mislead the people, are unconcerned about us, that we need a new shepherd, king, leader who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5).
Still coming out of election season, with its ups and down, hopes and despairs, Jeremiah’s words for this Christ the King Sunday call to mind lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie:
Let’s have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That you call the Nazarene
The only way we can ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in
O It’s Jesus Christ our President
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter on the seat
Way up in the Capital town
The USA would be on the way
(retrieved 10/30/22 from https://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Christ_for_President.htm, or hear a recording here)
I appreciate Woody’s lyrics for situating Christ in our present circumstances and also our own political system. Shepherds are likely not in the foreground of our social setting. Further, in spite of the coronation of King Charles III on our screens in recent months, we probably don’t live with (much less under) the concept of kings. Other than vague and removed notions, we don’t relate to whether kings are good or bad, helpful or harmful. We couldn’t define how they would interact with the pressing needs of our lives and our world, though maybe we’d presume they’d sit elevated on their thrones and removed from our reality.
Perhaps because of the out-of-touch or even oppressive sense, some congregations and traditions are uncomfortable enough with the apparently patriarchal terminology of kings that they have transitioned from language of kingdom to use instead kin-dom of God. The egalitarian and familial version of the relationship has much to commend it for how we relate in church and how we view God’s work in the world.
Still, when confronting systemic oppressions or existential threats to planetary health, I personally would prefer that Jesus weren’t just a member of my family but would have authority to confront the present powers and principalities.
For that confrontation, denunciation, and strong alternative, the prophet Jeremiah and his shepherd imagery may seem like ancient history, enough in the past that we could forget how his message from God also speaks of God’s will being done and God’s kingdom coming here and now. To expand the political dimension and implications of shepherding, we may extrapolate the imagery to understand that God wants to protect all the sheep of the flock, to retrieve the lost and strengthen the weak, to be sure they are well-fed in an environment with clean and not fouled waters, to have each and every one live and thrive. Indeed, such role and responsibility is more explicit in Ezekiel’s proclamation against the shepherding rulers in Ezekiel 34 (part of which is the Year A reading for Christ the King Sunday).
Returning, then, to Woody Guthrie, some concept of Christ as President reminds us of the very political reality that is being addressed, the challenges of engaging power structures, and even the policy demands. Christ as king or shepherd or president would have willpower to help “feed the ones who starve,” not to waste life in war, to build up civilization and care for the environment supporting the sheep. Those very issues and concerns have been part of discourse from politicians around us. This may invite us to attend to which leaders rightly share these concerns and to discern what is the will of God.
This may indeed be a particular time that understanding of God’s concerns or the shape of God’s kingdom needs to be spoken more clearly and loudly, including because there is a very different dominant and dominating vision of how God interacts with our nation. There is growing recognition of the threats posed by White Christian Nationalism. The Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, president of Sojourners, writes in a recent online article:
“The ‘us-versus them,’ zero-sum mentality that Christian nationalism often promulgates runs counter to the radical inclusion and love ethic that Jesus modeled throughout his public ministry. Claiming that the U.S. is divinely favored by God is a dangerous misuse of scripture that often leads us down the path of arrogance and triumphalism rather than humility and faithfulness. We must constantly remind ourselves and others that the Apostle Paul emphasized ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for we are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28), which means that God’s love and human dignity are universal and know no national or racial boundaries. When Christians distort this message of inclusive love into a false message of God’s unique favor for a particular nation, racial group, or political party, it discredits the Christian cause and alienates many of the same people the church is trying so hard to reach. . . .
At its best, the church should serve as a bridge between people of faith who are coming from different perspectives and a space where different viewpoints can even coexist. The Religious Right often acts as though they have a monopoly on how biblical values are defined and lived out, but this ignores the Christians who have a much more expansive list of biblical values — from fighting poverty, combatting climate change, promoting gender equality, to dismantling systemic racism, and more.
Now is the moment to show greater courage in denouncing the extreme perversions of Christian faith even as we demonstrate empathy to siblings in Christ who have internalized Christian nationalist beliefs, including in their more subtle forms. The threat of Christian nationalism is real and the solution is greater public courage, better dialogue, and deeper discipleship in how we can apply our faith to the messiness of politics.
(Adam Russell Taylor, “Do We Dare to Disciple People Out of Christian Nationalism?” posted on October 13, 2022 and available here.)
“How we can apply our faith to the messiness of politics” and countering a theology that “acts as though they have a monopoly…how biblical values” may begin with Jeremiah’s imagery of shepherd servant leaders, but it need not stop there. To remember and worship Christ the servant King requires some boldness and confidence on our part.
Regarding the notion of bold theology, I was surprised during a recent Confirmation project where students were presented with a variety of possible images of God. They didn’t much like Warner Sallman’s calmly pastoral white Jesus as a shepherd carrying a white lamb. More, when it came to images of earth and scenes of creation, they reacted that their belief told them we had to be responsible for caring because God left it to us and wouldn’t be involved.
The God of White Christian Nationalism is certainly more dedicated than that, with more authority, and more concrete vision how God is shaping our culture. So if we want to counter it, we must not abdicate our God’s position.
Thankfully, Colossians offers a direct application of our faith with an enormous vision of how we stand in relation to God in Christ. It may be a helpful complement to Jeremiah’s serene shepherd. Colossians declares that Jesus “is the visible representation of our invisible Creator. All that the Father has belongs to this Son. He existed before creation and is above all created things. For it was in him that all things in the spirit-world above and on the earth below were created, all things seen and unseen. Yes, even governments, rulers, powers, and authorities were all created by him and for him. He is the one who is in first place and the head of all things. It is in him that all things come together and find their full meaning and purpose” (Colossians 1:16-17, First Nations Version).
Besides pairing with such texts as Proverbs 8 and John 1 and informing Trinitarian theological development, these verse from Colossians are also at the center of giving us the notion of the Cosmic Christ. Almost as if he could be anticipating my confirmation students, Richard Rohr writes, “perhaps more than ever, we need a God as big as the still-expanding universe, or educated people will continue to think of God as mere add-on to a world that is already awesome, beautiful, and worthy of praise in itself” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. New York: Convergent, 2019, p. 17).
Leah D. Schade further explores the implications of the Cosmic Christ in introducing one of her sermons on this Colossians passage. With that, she references Joseph Sittler, a prime proponent of the value of the understanding of the Cosmic Christ for the early ecumenical movement. Sittler addressed the World Council of Churches meeting in New Delhi in 1961, and part of his speech—also tied to Colossians—is included as Schade writes:
“I drew on Joseph Sittler’s interpretation, which contains seeds of an early ecofeminism in that he identifies nature as ‘God’s sister’:
‘We must not fail to see the nature and size of this issue that Paul [sic—nu] confronts and encloses in this vast Christology. In propositional form it is simply this: a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of the doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is God’s home, God’s definite place, the theatre of God’s selfhood, in cooperation with God’s neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature, God’s sister.’
While the ontological implications of such a relationship between God and nature (i.e., If they are siblings, who is their parent?) are worth exploration at another time, what I wish to highlight is the way in which Sittler expands a salvific Christology to be inclusive of Creation.”
(Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1995, p. 84)
This exemplifies the reign of Christ and the work of Christ far exceed the doors of our churches or the borders of a nation, far surpass our selfish interests or tribal prejudices. Redemption in Christ is for all creation—of necessity, according to Sittler.
Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat help us apply this enormous outcome of faith against imperial powers that would counteract Christ’s work and claim authority as their own. They write:
“In the space of a short well-crafted, three-stanza poem, Paul [sic] subverts every major claim of the empire, turning them on their heads, and proclaims Christ to be the Creator, Redeemer and Lord of all of creation, including the empire.
He does all of this in a poem composed with the goal of providing alternative images for a subversive imagination. If the allusions involved in Paul’s employment of the metaphor of fruitfulness [Colossians 1:5-6 & 9-10] were subversive to those who had ears to hear, then this poem [Colossians 1:15-20] constitutes a frontal assault on the empire. While rich in echo and allusion—image, firstborn, creation and reconciliation all have clear echoes in the Torah, the Prophets and wisdom literature—this poem leaves little in doubt as to who is sovereign in creation, who images the invisible God, who holds the cosmos together in peace and who brings about the reconciliation of all things. And it isn’t Caesar!”
(Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004, p. 84).
They go on to a poetic modern paraphrase of Colossians which includes these lines:
“In the face of a culture of death
a world of killing fields
a world of the walking dead
Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade
transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy
giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party…
this is the dance of the new creation
this is the dance of life out of death
and in this dance all that was broken
all that was estranged
all that was alienated
all that was dislocated and disconnected
what once was hurt
what once was friction
and is made whole…
whatever you can imagine
visible and invisible
mountains and atoms
outer space, urban space and cyberspace
every inch of creation
every dimension of our lives
all things are reconciled in him.”
(ibid. p. 88)
As you find yourself with the rest of creation in your Shepherd’s embrace, or as you rise and spring up to join the dancer, looking to the fullness of all creation held with you, may you find confidence that is bigger than imperial imaginations and false messiahs around you, but somehow will be reconciled into the goodness of this kingdom.
Note: I disagree with Sittler and Walsh/Keesmat referencing Paul as the writer of Colossians, so have marked those [sic]