Sunday, November 26, 2023
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A Whole New Cosmos
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 26, 2023
Reading: 2 Cor. 5:16-21

Last Monday night we were honoured to host a gathering for prayer with three neighbourhood congregations—Grace Church on-the-Hill, Beth Tzedec Congregation, and Holy Blossom Temple. This sanctuary was full, with some 600 of the 800 people here our Jewish neighbours. It seemed every one of them thanked us, often with tears. They would say, ‘it’s been lonely. Thank you for your kindness.’ What we did was not hard: my sermon was short, Elaine’s conducting, and Stephen’s playing were simple compared to a normal Sunday. It was just what we do: Gather to sing and pray. But it meant so much to a people feeling very alone. We heard stories from rabbis Yael and Steve of how when other people are in danger, Jews go to bat for them. After the Quebec Mosque shooting in 2017, Holy Blossom offered to form a physical circle, holding hands, around a local mosque so their Muslim neighbours could pray in peace. That imam said, uh, my brother imams want circles too. Six more synagogues did the same for six more mosques. Seven houses of prayer for Ishmael’s children defended by Isaac’s children. Some say there can’t be peace in the world until there is peace between religions. Sometimes you realize—that’s already here. But after the horror of October seventh, rabbis didn’t get phone calls of support. No circles were offered. So Jewish folks were hungry for the slightest kindness, and we could offer that. One of the other Christian clergy from Grace asked me, “how come that was so much more moving than church usually is?”

It was more than just the tears and thanks, I think. For us Christians, Jesus Christ is God’s reconciliation. Paul says that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jews and everybody else. Monday night there was no dividing wall. We were just neighbours, friends, fellow worshippers of the God of Israel. It was a taste of the world to come.

We have another passage from Paul today. After last Sunday, one of you said, “I’m a little tired of Paul.” Uh, me too. He’s a difficult friend, but hang in there, he’s worth the effort. He’s usually neglected in mainline liberal churches like ours. But he’s good fiber in a diet not accustomed to it, our system will adjust. Today is one of Paul’s best. He says this: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (5:17). Now, you might have seen this verse before translated this: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.” Lots of more evangelical translations say this. But it’s not what Paul says here. That would suggest Christ came to the world to save individuals. To make new creatures. Now that’s true. But it’s not what Paul is saying here. God came in Christ to make a whole new creation. To do Genesis all over again. To remake every atom, every molecule, God bothered to create in the first place. So, what you heard earlier is close: “there is a new creation.” But this would be better still: “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! —the old has passed away, and see? The new has come.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is like God saying at the beginning, “let there be light.” The world is made new. And all there is, is possibility.[1]

We’ve had some new babies born among us recently. When they’re in here, they carry their radiance around with them. Little groups of people gather around and bask in their glow, like an open fire of goodness. More babies, please Lord. When a child is new you can stare at them, hold them, sniff them, tell them how beautiful they are, tell their parents how good they did. I don’t know when, but at some point, this is no longer okay. You can’t tell an adult stranger how beautiful they are. Or a kid. Or a child. Sometimes you can tell a toddler, but it’s getting creepy even by then. I wish we were crazy enough to tell total strangers how beautiful they are, but they’d lock us up. Paul says Christ makes the whole world an infant again. Nothing but radiance and newness.

Paul says our salvation is too small. Churches like ours once thought of Christian faith as something that lets you go to heaven when you die. We more often now think of it as a bit of psychological adjustment to cope with a difficult world. Some others use faith as a crowbar to cudgel people politically or socially. All too small. Paul says Christ brings a whole new cosmos. His resurrection is for the healing not just of us or others, but of the nations. This is too big for us to get our mind around. All we have are analogies. Try this one. We’re toward the end of fall now. Think back to September. And remember the first red leaf you saw? The very first one? It was a sign. More were coming. Millions more. So many it changes the landscape and sets it on fire. The resurrection is the first leaf. All the leaves are coming. All the world is lit aflame.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a Sunday where we evaluate all political orders—and see how far short they fall, because they all do. There’s a joke in France that Napoleon II was the greatest ruler they ever had. He collected no taxes, committed no corruption, started no wars. That’s because Napoleon II never reigned a day. Every human who reigns is more or less terrible. Christ alone is king—all other human pretense to power is false, however good or bad it might seem momentarily. When folks worry about Trump being re-elected, I worry along with them. Here’s what I should say: don’t worry, Christ is king, every other human ruler will be judged one day. When folks used to tell me what sort of hero Obama was, I should’ve said the same: calm down, Christ alone is king. I used to say about Trump that I’ll take a bad president in exchange for a good pope any day. Popes reign longer and influence more people, and in Francis we have one of the best. But Christ is king, even good leaders fade. Some conservative Catholics seem now to think now that Francis is some sort of anti-Christ. I want to tell them, uh, you don’t need the pope to follow Jesus: welcome to Protestant-land! Here’s a pledge card. What I should say instead is Christ is king, don’t be surprised when any human being disappoints you—however important their office. When we stand in line or wait on hold at the bank or Service Ontario or at any border, take heart, Christ is king, his government is not a soul-crushing bureaucracy, his reign is easy. Christ’s reign begins soon. In fact, it’s already begun.

Let me tell you how I’ve misinterpreted this kingship before. I became Christian at a Baptist camp. The basic view of faith there was to get saved, get everyone else saved, and then make sure you don’t drink or smoke or fool around with girls, and vote Republican. I jest, but only a little. In college I went to work at a Presbyterian camp. Different crew. So, one night a kid asks to pray with me, I introduce him to Jesus, and the next day I come in expecting high-fives from my fellow staffers. ‘Hey guys, a kid in my cabin accepted Christ last night!’ They all looked at me coolly, like I’d broken wind. ‘Uh, that’s great man.’ I didn’t realize in Presbyterian-land accepting Jesus is not really the goal. The goal is a whole new social order that’s Christian: every part of the world, not just individual hearts. Presbyterians stay too cool about everything. My Methodist forebears would have said that’s great that kid met Jesus. Now, is he still walking with him, wherever he is, in his 40s now? When he comes to die, hopefully as an old man, will he be full of nothing but love of God and neighbour? Our United Church forebears would ask is he agitating for justice for the oppressed? You see? Each one had a bigger view of salvation than I had, more in line with Paul’s here. Lots of people who call themselves Christian or have prayed that prayer or been baptized and are mean as snakes. He took step one of many. Some Christians have this debate: do you convert people who then behave differently and make the world more just? Or do you work to make the world more just, never mind the conversion bit? Evangelicals do the former, liberals do the latter. You know what Jesus says? Converting people is good. Justice is fine. And both are too small. The world, not just individuals, the world is already made new in Christ. And justice is not up to us. It’s up to Christ, whose reign is begun. We who know this live it out now. One day everyone will.

Every old way has past, Paul promises, the new has come. An example. In World War II, Coventry Cathedral was bombed, one of the great ancient houses of worship on the planet destroyed. Some wise soul decided to let the shell stand. There it is. And they rebuilt a new cathedral right beside it. And here’s the thing, you have to pass through the old to get to the new. From destruction to new life. The old is passed away, not erased. It leads to the new, the world of Christ’s resurrection. Christ reigns everywhere. Sometimes you can see it clearly.[2]

The World Wars were mostly Christian countries obliterating one another. In response, Mennonites, peace churches, whom all the others had persecuted, have a modest proposal: let the Christians of the world agree not to kill one another. Some react with outrage: only Christians? The Mennonites reply, well, you have to start somewhere. If Christ’s peace can’t change us Christians, how’s it supposed to change anybody else?

On Christ the King Sunday, I find myself reaching for martial metaphors. We often reduce Christianity to individual hearts. God expands it to include the nations, the cosmos. One of my teachers says this, the church is “God’s beachhead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world.” A D-Day image. June 6, 1944, D-Day, when the allies invaded Europe. That was the beginning of the end for Nazism. Both sides knew the end was not in doubt. It was just a matter of when and how much blood would be spilt first. The church is after D-Day, before VE day. Things are still treacherous. But the end is not in doubt.[3]

The other night I asked Rabbi Yael about her kids’ faith. We Christian preachers ask each other whether our own kids believe or go to church willingly. And she looked at me, with kindness, but a little patience, and said, “you know we Jews don’t talk like that. You Christians do. I’m not sure what my kids believe in their heads. But they get the peoplehood bit.” Judaism is about God repairing the mess we’ve all made of the world. Paul is Jewish too. He gets the peoplehood bit. He says Christ’s resurrection is that repair of the world already begun. And that’s true whether we or our kids believe it or not.

More geo-political images. In 1988 no one knew the Berlin Wall would fall and European communism would end a year later. But they did. And the world was new, for just a moment. In 1993 no one knew Apartheid would crumble in South Africa the next year, but it did, and Nelson Mandela took power and forgave his enemies. There are vast histories behind these events, but no one can explain them fully. But they show Christ is king. And his peace breaks out from time to time. No one thought that wall would fall, or apartheid would vanish, without massive bloodshed. Christ’s reign of peace is present even in the ceasefire in Gaza and return of some prisoners. Christ’s reign in real time. More of this please Jesus, we are desperate for it.

This cosmic view of salvation is why we in the United Church in 1925 tried to dissolve denominations. Just have one United Church of Canada. If Christ dissolves all division how can there be churches competing with one another? We tried to include the Anglicans too, but they said nah, we like our bishops. We did not try to include the Catholics. They were our competition—our union was partly to resist fears of a Catholic Canada. Our peace in this world is so, so poor, even when it seems to succeed. Again, that’s why Monday night was so sweet: Jews and Christians together but not the same, honouring our differences. The dividing wall broken down. Christ’s peace is the answer even when the church is barely there. Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs are often at one another’s throats in India. Christ reigns there too, his non-violence the key to life. And a rugged Christian minority is there to show it. Anywhere you see reconciliation, however small, claim it. Christ is king. And the more you look, the more evidence you will see. One more glimpse: a Christian prime minister of Canada met with indigenous Christian leaders once, and privately asked, how can you still be Christian after all the church has done to you? Cheryl Bear said, uh, because Jesus is God. The truth of the gospel isn’t reduced to the failures of colonialism, sir. Christ is still king.

Paul calls us, of all people us, ambassadors of reconciliation. Ambassadors. There’s a church in Paris on embassy row, the South African embassy right next door, the Senegalese on the same block. And the church’s door has a humble little nameplate that says, “embassy of the kingdom of God.” An ambassador of a country is to be treated as if she were that country’s sovereign. An embassy itself is a bit of that country’s soil in another country. You and I, friends, are ambassadors for Christ. We represent him. We show the world his peace, here and now. We have a South Korean consulate on Avenue Road five minutes’ walk from here. And when I see its proud flag, I think of my Korean students and friends, their strong families, their great tech sector, their wonderful food, their vibrant church (I don’t mention their last four presidents who’ve left office and gone directly to jail), and I give thanks for all of it. Well, when folks see our church, may they think wow, God’s peace is coming. Look—in that place it’s already here! And it’s spreading! More of this!

Now, there was a time when the church thought we would just grow and grow till all the world was ours. We didn’t realize homogenizing the world doesn’t make you a church, that makes you an empire, a dealer in violence. It’s why we fought Muslims in the crusades, why we persecuted Jews in our midst. This is our world, everyone conform! A violent distortion of Christ’s reign. In the last 150 years or so there’s been a new take on this from mostly fundamentalist Christians in the US, also influencing us here in Canada. It says the world will get worse and worse until then Christ comes again. So don’t try and make anything better. If you see chaos or violence, you rejoice. Things are worse! Christ must be coming! Uh, no, that’s wrong too. Christ’s peace is here in the church and is loose in the world. That second fundamentalist misuse of faith usually considers the church a mistake, a deviation, plan B. Nope. The church is Christ’s embassy for peace. So, his peace, his kingdom, is not linear. It doesn’t just grow till it swallows the world, that’d be a violent empire, more Rome or Babylon than the resurrection. And the kingdom is not a last-minute saviour of a rotten world—let’s increase violence so Christ will come! No, that’s called nihilism, blood lust. Christ’s kingdom is more like this.

In the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a Hutu majority attacked their previously ruling Tutsi minority and killed 800,000 of their neighbours in just a few short months. Canada’s role as UN peacekeepers in that conflict was heroic, just not enough. And this was not an ancient conflict—these two peoples had lived together in peace for centuries before Europeans came and introduced the idea of race with junk science, the superiority of one race to another, a European idea. Many people died in churches. They thought churches would be safe. They weren’t. They were places to die. What peace could there be in such a hell? I’ll tell you where. Muslim homes. Daughters and sons of Ishmael. Less than one percent of Rwandese people practice Islam, yet they disproportionately took in the endangered and gave shelter. They said we know what it’s like to be a minority, in danger, so we will risk our lives to save you. As Christians we say that’s Christ’s peace, demonstrated through the children of Ishmael, bless them. They wouldn’t call it that of course. And when the church is unfaithful, God will raise up a witness from some other people. In Rwanda today Tutsis are back in charge. And it’s illegal to say the words Hutu or Tutsi. Freedom of speech and expression are sacrificed for understandable reasons. It’s a fragile peace. Christ’s peace is one where difference is cherished, where we can meet across difference and befriend, even marry, make life together. Oh, and if the Christians of the world agreed not to kill one another, that genocide couldn’t have happened.

Here’s the point. Christ is king. His reign is one of peace. Here’s what I want you to do. Point it out where you see it. And work for it where you don’t.

Hail king. Long may you reign. Make this world the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ where he will reign forever and ever. And make us ambassadors, our church an embassy of a kingdom of peace with no end. Amen.


[1] This translation point is Richard Hays’.

[2] I take this from Peter Gomes.

[3] Hays again.