Reign of Christ Sunday

November 9th, 2011

Celebrating the Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of Ordinary Time and serves as a prologue to the festivities of Advent. We celebrate Christ's role as Lord of all—the world, the church, and our lives. Thinking about the ways we know and experience Christ for ourselves, I was struck earlier this year when my Anglican friends observed the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. It’s interesting that these two titans of the early church would share a feast day because of the radically different way they each experienced and understood Christ. It is these differences that illustrate for us the inherent complexity of Reign of Christ Sunday, when we remind ourselves, once again, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Peter knew the human Jesus first; and through his experiences walking with, learning from, and participating in Jesus’ ministry, he came to know him as the Christ. In the Synoptic Gospels, we are told that Peter was out fishing one day with his brother, Andrew, and Jesus called out to them, prompting the brothers to drop their nets and begin following Jesus (Matthew 4:18-20). John’s Gospel suggests that since Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist, Peter knew at least a little bit about Jesus before dropping everything to follow him (John 1:41). But it was Peter’s experiences of watching Jesus preach, teach, and heal that led him to proclaim “you are the Christ, the anointed one of God” (Matthew 16:16 NIV).

Peter observed Jesus as a human being. He saw Jesus yawn when he got tired. He saw Jesus flinch when he hit his foot on a stone. Peter even saw the vein on Jesus’ forehead swell up in anger just before he lashed out at the money changers in the temple courtyard. So even after the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, even after Peter began to understand the cosmic significance of what God had done through this man, at the end of the day, Peter’s loyalty to Christ was rooted in his best friend, Jesus, a man with whom he’d laughed, cried, walked miles, and eaten hundreds of meals.

Paul, however, never knew the human Jesus. He heard all the stories about all that Jesus did and said from guys like Peter, but only after he was a committed Christian. Paul started out as Saul of Tarsus, a bright and zealous Pharisee who was determined to see this heretical movement called “The Way” wiped out. But God had other plans for him. On the way to Damascus to continue his grand inquisition, Paul was struck blind by Jesus and told to go wait for further instructions (Acts 9). He was baptized, took the name Paul, and spent the rest of his life traveling the Roman Empire, spreading the gospel—to Jews and Gentiles alike. Oh, and he wrote a big chunk of the New Testament in his free time.

Paul knew the cosmic Christ: the risen Jesus to whom all authority on heaven and earth had been given. While Peter went around telling stories about the time Jesus performed this miracle or told that parable, Paul went around speaking in high-minded philosophical rhetoric. He mined the Old Testament for metaphors to describe how God’s wondrous purposes were being fulfilled and the salvation of the whole world was affected through this one of whom God had raised to life in anticipation of the future resurrection of all people. Paul’s image was Jesus was that of the divine, cosmic redeemer who was drawing the whole of creation to himself.

In other words, you could say that although both Peter and Paul saw Jesus Christ as “fully human, fully God” (a statement issued by the Council of Nicea three centuries later but consistent with the beliefs of the early church), Peter leaned toward the “fully human” part, while Paul leaned toward the “fully God part.”

There’s no question this creates tension. We can’t even begin to wrap our minds around the idea that someone could be both fully God and fully human. We can only stand in wonder and awe at how amazing Jesus is to be able to fully embody both of these seemingly contradictory things. And that’s the entire point of celebrating Reign of Christ Sunday. We are entering into the expectation of Advent and anticipating the in-breaking of heaven to earth. We recall how time and again we fail to live up to the ways God calls us to be, and yet God never withdraws his grace.

On Reign of Christ Sunday, we celebrate that God’s reign in the entire universe has already been accomplished. At the same time, we anticipate the day when that reign will be accomplished in every human heart. Just as Peter and Paul illustrate the divine/human tension of Jesus’ person, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we remind ourselves of the already/not-yet tension of God’s reign over all creation. We pray, as Jesus taught us, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

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