13 Jun 2012 12:08 PM

What Is This Thing Called Christ?

Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher on June 10, 2012

Just think of all the anniversaries being celebrated in this year of 2012! We're in the middle of the Civil War sesquicentennial, and in September will mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A key figure from that era - and one beloved by this congregation -- Clara Barton died 100 years ago. This week, a parade of tall ships and warships in Baltimore will kick off the commemoration of the War of 1812. And who can forget the 100th anniversary of that most famous shipwreck, the Titanic?

Just last week, we watched the pageantry of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. Our daughter, Annie, was one of the partygoers celebrating in the farthest corner of Britain's influence, with a bonfire on the beach in the Falkland Islands, with a glass of warm rum and snow flurries under a full moon. She said it doesn't get much better than that.

Coming up in a few weeks, June 29 will mark the 10th anniversary of the ordination of seven Roman Catholic women as priests, by an independent Catholic bishop in the middle of the Danube River.

flaming heartAll these anniversaries touch us with their heroism, with the ability of people to move beyond their perceived limitations.

Meanwhile, another 10th anniversary of a religious nature recently passed by, unnoticed. Ten years ago in May, our congregation adopted its mission statement: "We create a loving community for worship and service in the spirit of Jesus Christ. We welcome all and accept individual beliefs as we grow together."

"Worship and service in the spirit of Jesus Christ." Not just "Jesus", but "Jesus Christ".

Similarly, the Declaration of Faith recited earlier in the service affirms "the spiritual authority and leadership of Jesus Christ". Not just "Jesus", but "Jesus Christ".

Because our polity is congregational - the church community has total control over its own affairs - the mission statement and the Declaration of Faith are contemporary statements made by us, not handed down by some ecclesiastical authority. The mission statement was adopted in 2002, the Declaration of Faith in 2008, both after months of study and discussion. In each case, the issue was raised as to whether we should refer simply to the spirit and leadership of Jesus and leave Christ out of it. In the end, we kept "Jesus Christ" and that still seems fitting, for it leaves room both for the Jesus-follower drawn to the life and teachings of a first-century rabbi and for the Christ-follower drawn to a universal archetype - and, of course, for many shadings of belief besides these.

But what exactly is this thing called "Christ"? If you are new to the Christian path or simply curious about how the man called Jesus became something else called Christ, this is an essential question. I would like to start with the word and then engage with the symbol.

The title "Christ" in English comes from christos in Greek, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew word mashiach, or messiah. Both christos and mashiach are derived from verbs related to anointing with oil, a ritual used to consecrate someone to a religious or civic office. We can thus think of "Jesus Christ" as meaning "Jesus, the Anointed One".

To engage with this concept of "the Anointed One" at the symbolic level, I want to call on Father Sylvan to point us in the right direction. Father Sylvan was a mysterious priest whom the American philosopher and religious scholar Jacob Needleman, himself of Jewish heritage, encountered in his travels. Under very strange circumstances, Needleman eventually came into possession of Father Sylvan's rather provocative journal, which contains the description you heard in our second reading - that of a symbol as a token left by one of greater understanding as the record of an experience, a token left for our guidance. Many of the problems blamed on religion arise when these tokens are taken only literally and are not probed for their deeper meaning. Such understanding does not come solely through analysis, but also through engagement - as Father Sylvan explains, by becoming still and allowing the symbol to arouse echoes in us, and by then observing how it is acting upon us and how we are responding to it.

So, I invite you to take such a moment of stillness. Find a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes if you like, and hold before your mind's eye the idea of Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One in whatever form it takes for you. No one but you will know what form that is. Remaining in that place of stillness, now become aware of any echoes arising in you. Notice what attracts you, what you find repulsive. Pay particular attention to any bodily sensations, a sense of lightness perhaps, or a kink in your stomach, maybe tightness somewhere in your body. Do not judge what you are sensing, just notice. Gently, gradually open your eyes, and bring your attention back into the sanctuary.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that this little exercise may have been quite uncomfortable for some of you. That's what powerful symbols do - they act upon us, often in disturbing ways. Some we can tolerate only for a short while - if at all. Christ has been called "a stumbling block" throughout the ages, and our age is no exception, especially as we consider how the symbol of Christ carries the immense burden of all the harm done in the name of Christianity. However, as with a disturbing dream, if we stick with the symbol and don't run away from it, we may gain immense insights.

Besides, others have been confronted by this symbol before us, and we can learn from their experiences. I'm thinking especially of the post-Crucifixion events and wondering what in those events caused the disciples to magnify Jesus' name with the title Christ, Messiah, Anointed One. Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong suggests that even though the Church has chosen to celebrate what happened as three separate events - Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost - these reflect a single powerful reality, one which left the Jewish disciples - all of them dedicated followers of the One God - no longer able to conceive of God without also thinking of Jesus.My favorite among these stories is the Road to Emmaus, partly because I have this really nice icon that shows the two disciples as a husband and wife traveling together, as any typical first century couple might do. Only the husband, Cleopas, is named in the gospel account, but there is a "Mary of Cleopas" named as one of the women at the Crucifixion, and so it's no leap at all to imagine Cleopas and his wife, Mary, sadly walking home from Jerusalem. A stranger joins them and spends a few miles connecting the dots between the Hebrew scriptures and what they've just witnessed the great city. As evening descends, he apparently intends to keep traveling, but Mary and Cleopas invite him to join them for supper. As their guest, he blesses and breaks the bread, and in that moment, they recognize him as Jesus - and he vanishes. The couple rushes back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they've experienced.

Three things happen in this story that may help illuminate our understanding of Christ:

  • A stranger joins the two disciples, someone they don't recognize, and tells them what he knows that's relevant to their recent experience in Jerusalem.
  • Later, they recognize this stranger as Jesus, in a sudden moment, while he is doing something quite ordinary at the dinner table.
  • Finally, after that recognition - and only afterwards - they are able to give a name to the deeper experience they had on the road, the one that made their hearts burn.

If I were to put myself in that story and express those three events against the background of my own experience, they might sound like this:

  • I take in a lot of wisdom, but much of it remains like a stranger to me, just so many dry sentences, no matter how cleverly argued.
  • Occasionally, though, often in the midst of some quite mundane activity, I glimpse a flicker of Truth, but then just as quickly, the moment passes before I have a chance to ask any questions of it.
  • In the most grace-filled of these showings of Truth, I feel the glow of understanding that illuminates past events and brings them into an unexpected wholeness. I realize that this understanding is possible only because I have let go of the concrete, literal meaning of what has happened.

This is the experience that Father Sylvan was describing in our second reading when he wrote, "The symbol is meant to guide the arising of the unifying force within ourselves, the force which can bring our aspects together, the force called "the Heart," the holy desire."

What makes our hearts burn is Love, not just any kind of love - but the love that transcends all barriers, all stumbling blocks - even death, the love that has the potential to save the whole world, the love that makes it possible to live out the gospel, to live out our Declaration of Faith: "In faith and freedom, we are called to give hope and healing to the world." Life-giving, unconditional, healing love.

Nothing like this had ever happened before to these first-century Jesus-followers. No word existed in the language to describe it. Maybe Christ or Messiah was the best description they could devise, one that made sense in their first-century world of kings and emperors and prophets. With our knowledge of psychology and of the commonalities among the world's religions, we surely would choose a different title today for a comparable experience. We could call it the Highest Self - the one who lives at such a level of conscious self-knowledge as to touch the divine Being. Or, in the words of the new Common English Bible translation, we might choose to call this an experience of "The Human One" - the one in whose full humanity is lived out God's creation of humankind in the divine image, the one who - in Deepak Chopra's words (p. 12), shows us that "being human is mysterious". Canadian spiritual guide John Philip Newell suggests yet another description. For him, Christ is our memory, Jesus having come into the world to awaken our inner memory of God. Harkening back to the original metaphor of anointing, Newell asks us to consider Jesus, the Christ, as the oil itself, the balm, the very substance of healing that can soak through our skin and fill us with the sense of unity in God's presence that is contained in so many of the statements of Jesus and his disciples:

  • From Jesus: "Abide in me, and I will abide in you." (John 15:4)
  • From Paul: "It is not I that lives but Christ in me." (Galatians 2:20)
  • From John, as inscribed over the altar here: "God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him." (1 John 4:16)

I am very proud that our congregation has maintained a conscious connection to Christ without feeling compelled to offer a definitive answer to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" To box up "Christ" in king's robes and a thousand image-filled walls, as Rilke put it in our opening words, is to miss the point and to lose access to the Christ symbol's power to make our hearts burn until they open to God's love.

But to keep Christ and not just Jesus requires us to address the truly radical implication of the Road to Emmaus experience - that the stranger walking with us may indeed be Christ, the bearer of God's life-giving love and being. This is the meaning of the gospel that awakened the Universalist spirit. It found expression also in the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, which states that "all guests who present themselves [at the monastery] are to be welcomed as Christ". All. Unconditionally. To John Shelby Spong, this is the essence of Christian faith: "The God who is love cannot be approached in worship except through the experience of living out that unconditional quality of love."

To live out that love is our task. How we manage to do it is the work and prayer of a lifetime. But here, I think is one way to begin:

Use whatever term works for you - Christ, the Highest Self, Unconditional Love, the Human One, the Holy One, the indwelling Spirit - and act as if that presence is in the one that you meet on your own road to Emmaus. In other words, strive to see in every person the Christ, the divine spark that dares to call God "Abba", "Father".

Let's try that together right now. We greeted each other in welcome earlier in the service. I invite you to rise again and greet the one or two people nearest you with a handshake, looking them in the eyes, seeking the light of the Anointed One shining from within.

Finally, if you dare: Try to imagine - and accept - that others can see the Christ in your very own face.

May ours be such a Christology of recognition, and may that seeing be a blessing both to the one who is seen and to the one who sees. Amen.


Call to Worship, from Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours (I, 4):

We must not portray you in king's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you llike a thousand walls. 
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

1st Reading: Luke 24:13-32

2nd Reading: "From The Journal of Father Sylvan" in Lost Christianity by Jacob Needleman

A symbol is a token left by one of greater understanding to record what he experienced. Through his compassion and exact psychological understanding, the Founder leaves just these symbols and no other for our guidance. The symbol is meant to act on us as we are, in our condition of mental, emotional and bodily rupture. The symbol is meant to guide the arising of the unifying force within ourselves, the force which can bring our aspects together, the force called "the Heart," the holy desire.

The symbol obliges us to begin by recognizing the low level of our own inner state and understanding. Our work in front of the symbol is to become still and allow the symbol to arouse echoes in us and to observe how it is acting upon us.

Suggested reading:

Deepak Chopra, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York: Harmony Books, 2008).

Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).

John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

Posted by Sue Mosher at June 13, 2012 12:08 PM
Posted to Sermons