(Ephesians 1: 15-23)
Thirty years ago on this Sunday, I was standing before a congregation of eleven people in Hiroshima Japan, telling them where I had met Jesus.
Some context is probably in order. A few months before, I had graduated from college. I had a job lined up and waiting for me come January. And so that fall I decided to do something I knew I wouldn’t be able to do once I settled into the working world. I signed on with an international non-denominational missionary organization and worked with a Japanese pastor and an American family who served as my sponsor. I taught English classes several times a week, concluding each with a short Bible study and an invitation to attend worship that weekend. Sundays rolled around and I found myself with some of those students, the pastor and my sponsoring family in their small living room, which on Sunday mornings became our sanctuary.
Earlier this week thirty years ago, the pastor asked me, through a translator, if I would like to give my testimony in church that Sunday. Being Presbyterian all of my life, I had no idea what he was talking about. Literally, I had no clue what he was asking me to do. A few futile attempts at explanation ensued, with efforts lost in translation both linguistic and ecclesiastical. It only began making sense when the pastor, through the translator, put it this way: just tell them where you met Jesus.
Where I met Jesus. Ah! Well, I can do that!
And so that’s exactly what I did. On this Sunday morning 30 years ago, I stood up in front of that congregation of eleven people and proceeded to tell them where I had met Jesus. I told them I had met Jesus in the back of a green Volvo station wagon as my Mom and Dad dutifully drove our family to church every Sunday morning, parked in the same parking spot, and walked the same route to our respective Sunday school classes and Sunday worship.
I told them I met Jesus in the Sunday school teacher who taught Bible stories like he actually cared about them and us; and in the pastor who ended every worship service with the same benediction.
I told them I met Jesus in the rolling mountains of North Carolina, the ones I could see off the porch of my family’s vacation home, and how quiet and peaceful it was far removed from the city’s hustle and bustle, and how it really did feel like you were lost in the wilderness, or maybe I should say found in the wilderness.
I told them I met Jesus in the hymn sings that would spontaneously erupt around the piano whenever my mother’s side of the family got together; my mom taking the lead and Aunt Diane carrying the alto. I told them I met Jesus every time I was with Granny, my Dad’s mom, who exuded mishpat justice and proudly stood on the side of the least, the lost, and otherwise left out.
I told them I met Jesus at a communion station in Anderson Auditorium at a Montreat Youth Conference, and the feeling that washed over that was new to me but not at all new to me, like an old friend reintroducing themselves, reminding me that they were right there as they’d always been; and that no matter what, it was all going to be okay.
After that service the pastor thanked me for my testimony and then gently offered up – and I felt sure this was coming from a faith tradition that tended to emphasize a single moment of conversion – that perhaps “sharing just one meeting of Jesus would’ve been enough.”
The scripture he preached on that Sunday was the same as ours today. It was Christ the King Sunday then, as it is now. Everything in the service was in Japanese so I didn’t understand a lick of it. But I do remember reading along in my English Bible as he read aloud from his Japanese one, this passage about the Jesus who “rules over all forces, authorities, powers, and rulers.” This Jesus who “completely fills everything.” And how knowing this Jesus cannot help but affect who we are; with, as the author so eloquently puts it, “the eyes of your heart enlightened.”
And I remember the sermon I heard in my head that day since I couldn’t understand the one actually being preached, and how I wondered if that was in fact what had happened all those times? All those times when I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jesus, all those times I’d get to meet him after? With the eyes of your heart enlightened – is that how one can hope to describe what it means to know Jesus?
Thirty years later and I am still figuring that out, because those things which are good and true and life-giving often take the longest to discern. I do think that’s what the writer of Ephesians was trying to get across in his letter to the church in Ephesus, which most scholars believe was a letter written more to the church universal than a particular congregation; a letter that in reality is more of a sermon, more proclamation than correspondence.
“I have heard,” the writer leads off with. The reputation of the church had grown over time and made its way to him. The church was doing what the church needed to do – this, despite the inherent challenges of being church in the world – in his time, the Jew/Gentile divide that had persisted throughout its early years. He addresses this head-on later – There is one body and one Spirit, he proclaims, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and through all and in all. But he prefaces that with what we find here, because the only way there can ever be one anything is if Christ “completely fills everything” and the eyes of our heart are enlightened to see it.
It is this centering of everything in Christ that enabled the church to grow over time, survive persecution, travel to other lands, increase in influence, all the way to a congregation of eleven on a Sunday morning in Hiroshima thirty years ago, all the way to this congregation joining together virtually today. It is what has empowered a faith to not only survive the past two millennia, but thrive. Indeed, on this Christ the King Sunday we boldly proclaim with confidence and gratitude that Jesus Christ is king and lord of all.
Although I do sometimes wonder if we really know what it means to do that. If we understand what kind of Jesus we’re proclaiming. Truth be told, “King” language can be more than a little troublesome if we’re not careful with it. The worst of the image is domination, supremacy, triumphalism. A Jesus who rules by force rather than love. I look around today and sometimes wonder if that is the kind of King Jesus most people see.
I see this Jesus in churches that put a greater emphasis on Easter celebrations at the expense of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I see this Jesus in followers who are more concerned about individual salvation than corporate transformation. I see this Jesus in congregations that continue to meet in person during a global pandemic, with zero masks and social distancing, and pastors who brashly proclaim from their pulpits that their faith in King Jesus will protect them from Covid harm.
As one scholar puts it:
We have fallen in love with the loud, the muscular, and the aggressive, and forgotten that the only power Jesus ever wielded on earth was the power to give himself away.
The writer of Ephesians is here to remind us of the kind of king we give our lives to – a king who entered humanity red-faced and crying, a king whose greatest displays of power included riding on a donkey, washing dirty feet, hanging on a cross, and frying fish on a beach for his agnostic friends; a king who roots everything he does and all he is in sacrificial love, and calls us to follow suit.
Beloved, this prayer in the first chapter of Ephesians “is not a victory dance for those who have arrived but a clarion call to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. In other words, because God’s saving work is not finished, neither is the task to which believers—old and new—are called to as the body of Christ.” We are empowered to expect great things from ourselves and this church, and expect great things from God as well.
That is what Christ the King Sunday needs to be for us – meeting Jesus where we are, a Jesus who compels us to both lift him on high as king and lord of all, and a Jesus who leads us into a deeper relationship with both him, each other, and the world. A Jesus who, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, enables us to simultaneously acknowledge his ascendence over all principalities and powers – over elected leaders, over a virus – while also leading us into a way of life that honors deep humility, persistent gratitude, and unconditional love. It is that Jesus that we need to make a habit of meeting.
There’s an old story about a monastery which had fallen on hard times. Only four monks remained – the abbot and three others, all over seventy in age. In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut where a rabbi lived, and over the years the abbot and rabbi became friends. So one day the abbot went to visit the rabbi to ask if he could offer any advice on how to save the monastery. “Only this,” the rabbi replied. “Look for the Messiah among you.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered what the rabbi had said: “Look for the Messiah among you.” Could he possibly have meant that the abbot would bear that revelation? He had, after all, been there the longest. Or maybe he meant one of the others – Brother Thomas was respected by everyone, Brother Eldred was compassionate and kind. And Brother Philip was always there when you needed him. Maybe it was one of them.
As the monks contemplated all of this, looking for the Messiah among them, something began to happen. They began to treat one another with the utmost respect; and that attitude and atmosphere became contagious – so much, in fact, that it drew the monks closer to each other and started to bring visitors to their monastery. People from far and wide wanted to get near the place because the aura of love and grace was so compelling.
So outsiders came to the monastery to rest, to play and to pray. And they brought their friends, and those friends invited their friends. Within a few years the monastery, which had almost died, became a thriving community – all because they had looked for the Messiah among them and had most certainly found it.
Beloved, where have you met this Jesus in your life? Where have you been looking for the king and Lord of all? With the eyes of your heart enlightened, people of God, may you never forget the Jesus who meets you where you are, who fills your heart with hope, who lets you know who you are and most importantly whose you are. For our faith is in Jesus and our hope is in the future. May this be the case, on this Christ the King Sunday and on every day.
In the name of that God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation
Featured image from https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/11/lectionary-blog-christ-the-king/