Harrowing Of Hell
November 21, 2021

Sermon Series #1 on Kingdom of God Intelligence – Christ the King

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning. This is the first sermon in a three-part series on uncertainty and ambiguity, and how we manage it with peaceful equanimity. Someone told me recently that they didn’t know what equanimity meant, so, if it is helpful, you can trade out equanimity for ataraxy,or maybe just calm self-assurance.

Last time I preached I laid the foundation for this series by introducing you to Kingdom of God intelligence. It is the type, if not the top type, of intelligence that allows us to best navigate the world as God made it. Kingdom of God intelligence is measured by our capacity to hold two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously; it is the capacity to sit with ambiguity and tension and uncertainty and anxiety with a sense of equanimity and ataraxy and calm self-assurance. Or, as we Epiphany Christians like to say; to sit within the peace which surpasses all understanding.

My intention today is to explore flexibility of thinking (flexibility is the word to remember today,or as Doug said in last Sunday’s sermon:  “The theme’s worth repeating”). Flexibility is an attribute of Kingdom of God intelligence, and we are going to examine this attribute by contrasting it with the rigid thinking too often witnessed in some corners of Christianity.

This rigidity of thinking correlates with Christian fundamentalism, which is a brand of Christianity that interprets scripture as black-and-white, unmovable and unchangeable, with the words meaning simply what they seem to mean, without any accounting for translation, let alone context, allusion, metaphor, or hyperbole.

Our response, as Epiphany Christians, to this rigidity is modeled by the apostle Paul. He is the one, as I reminded you recently, who links sin with death. Paul shows us how sin severs relationships between people, between a person and God, and even within the heart of a person themselves. Sin stops relationships from moving, and when something stops moving, as my dad likes to say, it is dead. Rigidity is death. The word says it all, coming from the Latin root rigidus, which has the same root as the word rigamortis, which means dead.

Flexibility allows for movement and movement is life. The Christianity we proclaim at Epiphany is an open ended, flexible way of life, that reveals the peace which surpasses all understanding.

And so, today I want to practice this flexibility of thinking through the scripture reading itself. We have the perfect text… the Book of Revelation, which is full of ambiguity; and in that regard perfect for our learning. We are a learning church, after all, which means we confidently, if not enthusiastically, grapple with the ambiguity found in Scripture.

And so, we read Revelation listening for echoes of the prophetic Old Testament, seeping Trinitarianism into God’s ever-unfolding cosmos, unlike our fundamentalist cousins who read it as some kind of weird, specific reality that will happen as written at some future point in time.

As a learning church we must be flexible, and not rigid, with Scripture itself, particularly when we meet  an image of Jesus with a scowl on his face, as evidenced on innumerable domes frescoes and wall mosaics the world over. Today’s scripture is the stuff of apocalyptic movies, and pulpit proclamations from fundamentalists preachers that people are horrible sinners who have made God mad…BUT what Epiphany Christians find in this text is an opportunity to engage flexible thinking as a practice that moves us toward ataraxy.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in our liturgical calendar year. This is a rather new holiday on the church calendar, instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the 11th as a frontal assault on the fascism he saw developing in Europe at the time. Pius created this feast day as an annual reminder that there is only one real king over all the world…known by Christians as King Jesus! Christ the King was meant to pop the authoritarianism bubbling up in Italy and Germany and Spain at the time. It was meant to remind people everywhere that this world was made by an all-powerful God; a God that can participate in the world in any way that God wants, and that we are accountable to this God, who will come again and hold us accountable.

This is the Alpha and the Omega, who was, and is, and is to come! God has no peer; God rules over all things singularly, utterly, absolutely, and completely. God was not elected. The Kingdom of God is not a representative democracy. We do not vote on God. God is God! God is king alone, and we are all God’s children, not one of us being greater in anyway than the other. And what that means is that this all powerful God made each one of us, and knows each one of us, and loves each one of us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. That is how powerful God is.

It’s as Mr. Beaver said to Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when she asked about Aslan, wondering: “Is he dangerous?” To which Mr. Beaver responded, “Of course, he’s dangerous, but he is also good.”  This is why it is written in the book of Proverbs: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7). To not be afraid of the God that made all things and is all powerful is absurd. That said, the only way to live with this reality without being utterly petrified, if not driven insane, is to trust that this God is also good and full of love.

It also requires that we understand and own the reality of complete human equality; that we are all children, and that no one is going to grow up and take over the job of God. Jesus has already done that, which is why we call him King Jesus. Our response to King Jesus is to live in unity, as children that play well together. Our role is to honor God and manage God’s world, so as not to provoke God’s judgment when God comes again.  

And so, Pius’s thinking went, faithful people, believers if you will, would naturally reject fascism and support democracy as the best option of governance in a world where God is king and we are all God’s children equally. One person, one vote to best reflect our human equality under the dominion of God. And so, Pius’s purpose in the institution of the feast of Christ the King was in response to the rising tide of fascism in defense of democracy.

AND YET, the church waffled and acquiesced. Under the very next pope, Pope Pius the 12th, known by many as Hitler’s Pope, a blind eye was turned to the holocaust, and many Christian symbols were twisted into fascists symbols, as unnatural human hierarchies were created around bad science, with Arians on top (whatever that meant) as God’s preferred children, tasked with carrying out the wrath and judgement of Christ the King, as his surrogates,as his soldiers.          

What Pius 11th intended, Pius 12th let become completely perverted, allowing evil do what it does best, severe relationships, leading to death, in this case by volumes as never before seen.

And there we have it, one idea, Christ the King, split into two distinctive realities: one that differentiates and divides, the other that seeks unity and equality among all people. And we must own both sides of this, if we are to unveil the good that is there. We must accept any discomfort that arises from the ugliness of this history, and also acknowledge that in many quarters of Christendom, even today, this ugliness continues on. Which means it is our duty to articulate, to own, the reality that Christ is King. To stand up and say what this feast means and why it matters.  And by doing so, we stand against fascism in all its perversions.

Saying a law is not just, just because it is a law; standing against shortcut certainties that disguise racism; explicating moral panics fueled by people seeking to sustain their own power; seeking equality of opportunity for all people, always starting with the youngest among us… These are just a few examples of how we live as followers of King Jesus.

And so, we return to the word flexibility now. I’d like to introduce you toa spiritual practice that might help increase your flexibility in thinking theologically; for this is how we get better at tapping into the peace which surpasses all understanding; so as to create greater equanimity in “here,” to better face the “ambiguity” out there.

So, start by picking a Jesus story out of the Gospel. Any story will do, but make it specific, one that has a beginning and an end. Read through the story once and review it in your mind. Then read the entire story again, backward. Backward, again story entire the read then. It would sound something like that. Then ask yourself, what just happened? What did your mind do? And then, whatever comes to mind, write it in your journal.

You will see words in new ways; phrases will be cut out and called to your attention offering new meaning and insight. Yes, this exercise does force your brain to think differently, offering a new plasticity that your neural synapses have not had to navigate before.

And that is good, but what I think is more important is that this exercise locates scripture, even when it is confusing and unintelligible, within the body of Christ, within the story of Jesus, within the realm of God’s sovereignty. When we read scripture backwards it promotes flexibility, because it takes flexibility to read a story backward word by word that doesn’t make sense. But in doing so, I hope we stumble upon the revelation that Kingdom of God intelligence is more about love than about knowledge acquisition. And that we can be in a state of ambiguity and tension and uncertainty, which this backward reading provokes, even while maintaining equanimity and ataraxy and calm self-assurance, because this is still God’s world, and God will always be the king.

And so, this exercise prepares us to encounter the confused and unintelligibility of life knowing that it all still remains under the sovereign rule of God. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, who was and is and is yet to come, and will return to judge the world with a judgment that reflects the reality by which all things were made… with love.

And it is love that fires and inspires the Kingdom of God intelligence we practice here at Epiphany.