Reign of Christ Sunday
Ephesians 1:15-23 - November 26, 2017
By Sam Kinsman, BUCC Seminarian
Less of me, more of you.
Less of me, more of you.
This mantra was the spiritual cornerstone of my young life. The prayer language I used as a Christ-obsessed teenager was somewhere between self-loathing and humble. As I hoped for Jesus’ transformation in the world, my inadequacy revealed itself around the fringes of the prayer. This language spoke to the strength and hope of Christ, but denied my presence entirely; it denied my body. As we allow wisdom of the text to speak to us today, may we also remember and honor those who feel stifled and smothered by these words, those who cannot live up to standards of the capital B Bible. Sometimes the Reign of Christ feels like it’s meant for someone else. Like a letter was mailed to the wrong person.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins with affirmation, with love that feels familiar. His assertion “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” creates a blanket of support for the suffering church in Ephesus. Whatever the church is going through at this moment, they are remembered. As we dive in, I want to acknowledge the strange and beautiful subjectivity in the text.
This letter, along with the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, is considered occasional -- they were written and intended for a specific community. One of the lingering questions that’s always sat with me is whether or not we are supposed to broaden the scope of these letters. They were intended for a small community, understood by a small community, and practiced by a small community by the early church. But what do we do with them, now? These pieces of our New Testament offer us an opportunity to step into the impossible question of how text gets canonized, how we can honor the limitations of a piece of text at the exact same moment we lift it up and create divine meaning. That’s no small feat. Shall we try, together?
As a young Evangelical, Jesus’ strength was both comfort and conviction for me. As we see in my mantra, I didn’t want much to do with myself. I spent 6 years in the closet following an incredibly sexy dream about my history teacher’s chest hair, I lived in the tension between what my body was pulled to again and again and my desire to be straight for Christ’s sake. For Christ’s sake! I learned from a young age that keeping my head down and “getting the answers right” was the path of righteousness. Sometimes the Reign of Christ feels like a test I haven’t studied for. Staring at the page hoping the answers will come, beads of sweat collecting around my brow.
Ephesians 1 verse 17 tells us the author’s hope for the Ephesian church: “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know more.” I missed that part growing up. Let’s look a little further – “So that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you.” I have a tendency to view Christ’s power with a passive gaze, where I am the recipient of grace and salvation, led along as a servant reaching for the hem of Christ’s garment. The language here strikes me as far more nuanced and active than that. The words “know” and “enlightened” imply agency and ownership over the church, that we have a stake and responsibility in the hope of Christ.
The author refers in verse 19 to the working of God’s “great power.” The second half of this passage goes into more detail about what that power could mean – in this occasional letter it means: raising Christ from the dead, seating him at the right hand of the heavenly places, and putting all things under Christ’s feet. The language here starts to feel constrictive, restrictive: phrases like “far above all rule and authority” still scare me a bit. My “Less of me, more of you” alarm starts ringing, I can’t possibly live up to the Christ that exists this far above, this Christ has nothing to do with little ol’ me. I forget to brush my teeth sometimes, I couldn’t possibly be worthy. *breath* Sometimes the reign of Christ feels like an army battalion, I can’t see Christ leading the way, but I know I have to march in line or I’ll get chewed out.
Yet. One small moment in verse 22: “And God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This moment in our text gives me pause. All things are under Jesus’ feet, yes, sure, but this next bit – the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. At first glance I’m not sure – does the church embody his fullness, or does Christ fill the church? I see this moment as either and both, that occasional-divine paradox we saw earlier in Paul’s letters. I grew up with a vivid picture of the church as Christ’s bride, pristine and white in her gown. For some reason I always wanted to imagine the beautiful flowing train, the veil, the pastel-POP of the bouquet. Sometimes the reign of Christ feels like we’re walking down the aisle, but the wedding march is playing too slowly.
Growing up it was easy to see Christ ruling over the church from on high. With lightning bolt judgments and fire-and-brimstone promises, the Christ I knew worked to make snap decisions about salvation based on ticking boxes of sin and vice. My idea of being connected to this ruling Christ was steeped in transaction -- as long as I stayed on the straight and narrow, I could sidestep the wrath and stay in Christ’s good graces. I don’t see that Christ in this text. I see Jesus appearing in lived community, speaking to this trembling church in Ephesus. This Jesus, this Reign of Christ involves knowing and the enlightening of our hearts. This Jesus allows the church to be not only Christ’s body, but embodied in our own right, living, breathing individuals with agency. This is not a hesitant first dance at the wedding reception; this is a different sort of dance altogether.
I’m not much of a dancer. I’ve studied a bit, my brief stint in a ballet class made me cry out of exhaustion and frustration. Dance is one of those art forms that WOWS me, I can’t speak to it technically, but I can name the beauty in letting it wash over me. Letting it work on me, rather than me working on it. Today I name the Reign of Christ as a pas de deux. A pas de deux is a French dance, literally translated as “step of two,” in which two dancers duet with one another, traditionally found in classical ballet, Alternating between solo sections and partnering, the relationship between the two dancers is key. Some pas de deux tell a love story, some are more fraught. Most have extensive lifts, where one partner lifts the other high overhead.
If you grew up like me with no natural grace to speak of, maybe you thought the partner being lifted had a plush job. We’ve all seen that Swan Lake where she moves effortlessly, exuding grace and pose, what is she even getting paid for? She’s just moving her hands while he does all the work! No way. She is a powerhouse – trusting in her partner, flexible enough to contort her body above his head, her core strong enough to exude beauty and grace as her entire body works to maintain the lift.
This is the reign of Christ I want today. I name Christ as our partner in this chaotic pas de deux, girding us, sometimes leading us as we forget the steps. But our bodies are here. We are a partner in this choreography; we must not be consumed by any false humility or stage fright. In this letter to the church in Ephesus, we are reminded of Christ’s strength and power, yet there is an invitation for us to enter into the dialogue as well. We’re not called to shrink or hide; it’s time for us to don our tutus and practice our pirouettes.
My chest tightens a bit as I think about the ways that Christ’s power has been used to subjugate bodies that do not fit. The church has a nasty habit of deciding who’s in and who’s out, and this polarizing, judgmental force within American Christianity seems to becoming more polarized every day. We at Broadway have been working on that, I’m so grateful for this community that invites people in where they are, rather than where they “should be.” As we consider subjective occasional letters and what Christ’s power looks like for our community, who we need to reach outside of these walls? Who are the people so bruised by church and the Bible that they can’t even set foot in this building?
I come back to my old, familiar prayer. “Less of me, more of you.” By naming Christ only above us, we do ourselves and our work a disservice. If we shrink our role in the dance and lean back to wait for Christ’s return, the work of Christ will never get done in this world. As the body of Christ we have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to enact the work of good, to seek justice and to flip tables when necessary. This work may look different for each of us, but we can strengthen one another through our common language and our love for one another.
As an alternative to self-loathing in humility, I offer up the pas de deux. The reign of Christ where we weave and create incredible art with Jesus as our partner. We have a lot of work to do – choreography to memorize, we could all stand to do some crunches and work on our core strength. And yet – Jesus stands in front of us with his hand outstretched. The orchestra swells and crescendos and it’s time for us to step onstage and begin to dance.