Shuck and Jive

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not Of This World: A Sermon

Not Of This World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 22nd, 2009
Cosmic Christ Sunday

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
John 18:33-37
The Great Turning

If I were the king of the world
Tell you what I'd do
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the war
Make sweet love to you
Sing it now...
--Hoyt Axton

Today is the final Sunday in the church year. Next Sunday is the beginning of the new church year. Next Sunday will be the First Sunday of Advent. Advent means coming. Advent anticipates the birth of Christ. I think of the birth of Christ or Christmas as symbolizing the Divinity within all of creation. Words for Christmas are birth, creativity, incarnation, the light in the darkness. Advent is a season that proclaims this light is coming and coming soon! The axe is at the root of the tree. It is a season pregnant with promise.

That is how we begin the year. We begin that story next week, in the dark. It is in the darkness, in the via negativa, that the light of creativity will shine.

Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus, the historical person. No one knows anything about that. Christians adopted December 25th for the birth of Christ. At the Winter solstice when in the northern hemisphere the days are short and the nights are long, Christ is born. It is all properly mythological. We aren’t celebrating the birth of an historical person as much as the birth of Christ consciousness. The Cosmic Christ born in us.

I am getting ahead of myself. I’ll talk more about that during Advent and Christmas.

Today is the last Sunday of the year. This is the end of the story. This is the climax, the conclusion, the happy ending. Of course the end doesn’t mean there is nothing left to say. We start again. On this final Sunday of the church year, Christians proclaim that Christ is King.

Let’s mix it up. Christ is Queen. Christ the Goddess is King and Queen.
We have to shake all that sexism out of us.

Today is a day to honor the royalty. Today is a
via positiva day in the midst of a via negativa season. It is Cosmic Christ Sunday!

What is Christ the King? What or who is this Cosmic Christ? Perhaps what we should ask is, what does the Cosmic Christ do? The Cosmic Christ inspires us to treat one another like royalty. That is who we are. So none of that, “I’m such a miserable sinner,” stuff. Each of us is a royal being. We honor the Cosmic Christ in each of us.

The Cosmic Christ is known by many names.

I should say a few words about that. When we hear Christ the King we might hear male-dominated Christian extremism.
Our religion is right and yours is wrong. Our god is macho king and yours isn’t.
Let’s put that to rest.

As I see it, to say Christ is King or Jesus is Lord is an ancient Christian way of honoring the highest good, the sweetest song, and the beauty of the universe. It is a way of aligning my own life with the highest values I know and of those I don’t know. I give my life to justice, love, peace, hope, joy, mystery, life, and good tunes. To say Christ is King or Jesus is Lord is to say I want the blessedness of creation to live in me and I open myself to that.

While my default name, my home name for the Royalty of the Universe is Christ or the Cosmic Christ, and that the traditions surrounding Jesus point to and give content to that, I honor other names. Krishna, Buddha, Allah, Great Spirit, and on and on and on are other ways and names for the Mystery in which we all live and move and have our being.

In other words, if the religious symbol, the Cosmic Christ, meant my religion alone is true, then I wouldn’t use the symbol. I don’t think that is what it means.

There is a higher consciousness at work in the universe than my individual ego. I call that consciousness the Christ consciousness or the Cosmic Christ. It is a symbol that is rich with stories, narratives, hymns, practices, liturgy, and art. This symbol points me to a higher level of awareness. The Cosmic Christ invites me to become more aware, more conscious, to embody the higher values, to become a human being.

I want to experience a little bit more than I do normally that mystical union we call love. I want to love creation, my neighbor, and myself a little bit more. So Cosmic Christ can you help out on that score? That is what it means, as I see it, to confess Jesus is Lord. It expresses the desire to be more loving and Christ-like and to let go of my need to control how that will come about.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is before Pilate and he says:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
What does this mean?

Does it mean Jesus’ kingdom is in heaven on some other plane of existence as opposed to the world of trees, forests, oceans, animals, and people? Is he speaking of a spiritual disembodied world that we only get to after we die?

I heard a sermon the other day in which the minister said that we are only in the presence of God after we are dead. In this view the real world is the world that exists when we are free of these physical husks that entrap us.

I am agnostic about that.

I don’t think that is what the author of the Gospel of John is talking about here. In the Gospel of John, the word world appears 78 times. In Greek the word translated world is kosmos. Depending on the context it can mean different things. It can mean the physical existence of Earth. Mostly it means what we might translate as “system.”

More precisely, the Domination System. This is the embodiment of the values of the powers, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, that run things. Here is how Walter Wink defines it in his important book, The Human Being:
Domination System: a world-encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence in order to maintain them; in short, “civilization.” P. 270
Let’s try this sentence from the Gospel of John and change world to civilization.
‘My kingdom is not from this civilization. If my kingdom were from this civilization, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
Now it actually makes more sense. This isn’t a question of a physical earth vs. a spiritual heaven, this is about a contest of values on Earth. It is about how we will live and by what values will we live. Here is how the passage continues, again substituting civilization for world:
Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the civilization, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
John’s Jesus is the Cosmic Christ who has come to tell the truth about our civilization which from John’s perspective isn’t going so well. How do we know it isn’t going so well? Well, it killed Jesus. And he was a good guy. It is unjust, violent, oppressive, and unsustainable.

The Gospel of John has nothing to do with other heavenly realms. It had to do with changing the world--changing the system—changing the civilization--to make it more just. Here is how Walter Wink puts it:
The Gospel of John does not disclose heavenly secrets. For John, the gospel reveals “this world” (kosmos) as the Domination System. The gospel inaugurates an alternate reality, the Reign of God. John likes to call it “eternal life”—life in a new dimension, which begins the moment one encounters the son of the man. To “believe in the Human Being” is to affirm that this new reality that Jesus incarnates and reveals is from God. To “believe” is to join the struggle against the authorities and powers that seek to extinguish this new revelation. P. 203
To say Jesus is Lord,
to say Christ is King,
to worship the king O glorious above,

is to “join the struggle against the authorities and powers” that deny our humanity.

For John, civilization or world is not a bad thing. It is not a hopeless thing. It is not a thing that is to be destroyed or abandoned. It is to be transformed. Listen to this familiar passage with new ears.
‘For God so loved civilization that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into civilization to condemn civilization, but in order that civilization might be saved through him.’
Let’s try it again with new eyes for the familiar words believe and eternal life.
For God so loved civilization that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who affirms and joins the struggle on behalf of the new reality Jesus incarnates may not perish but may have life in a new dimension.
It is a bit wordy and not as poetic as the King James, but we get a very different sense of what is being said. Jesus came to transform our Earthly lives, not provide escape from them.

We might think of civilization as the human project. It is a good thing. I know some have said that the world would be better without human beings. I disagree. We are inheritors of a theology that says human beings are totally depraved. Again, I disagree.

Human beings are the consciousness of the universe. We are the eyes, ears, the thought, the Word, to use a metaphor from John’s Gospel. The universe becomes conscious of itself through us. Civilization is the unique gift that human beings bring to the universe. It is the way we participate with one another and with Earth.

But it is also broken. Unjust, oppressive, violent, and unsustainable.
  • When 1 percent of humanity controls 40 percent of the wealth that is unjust.
  • When we use the gifts of Earth in such a way that our descendants will be paying for our debts, we are not living sustainably. We are not living justly.
  • When we uphold these economic disparities by having standing armies all over the globe, we are not living as human beings.
We cannot survive long like that. We will perish.

John’s Jesus is the archetypal human being. The one who testifies to the truth. This is why he tells Pilate:
My kingdom is not of this civilization. If it were my people would be coming down on you violently, just like you are doing to me. But that isn’t the way I roll. The kingdom I am testifying to is non-violent. It doesn’t need violence because it is just. It is about harmony and peace.
My interpretation of Jesus is that he as the Cosmic Christ symbolizes the consciousness and the conscience of humanity. We are human beings for crying out loud, not consumers, not slaves, not products, not market demos, not mercenaries, not statistics, not abusers of Earth and of one another, not exploiters, not exploited.

We are the consciousness, the Word of God, the Royalty of the Universe, the blessing of creation. So be it. Why settle for less?

For the record I am in favor of civilization continuing. Returning to hunter/gatherer status and eating nuts and berries may sound romantic, but it is not likely to work for six billion people.

If there is a message for people of conscience, for which the Cosmic Christ is a symbol, it is to be a transforming presence. For the human project--that is for civilization--to continue, it will necessarily become sustainable which is another word for just.

What is exciting is that creativity is exploding all over. There is no more exciting time to be alive than now. Frightening? Absolutely.

In the midst of all of this, we might ask what can I do?

I suggest two things:

The first is to discover your passion. Discover your vocation. Spend some time and energy doing that which gives you joy.

Frederick Buechner defined vocation as the place where our deep joy and the world's deep hunger meet.

I receive emails everyday from groups of people, some organized some semi-organized, right here in the Tri-Cities who are following their passion. Whether it is healthcare reform, creation care, cooperation between religions, building bike trails, working to stop sexual violence, you name it, creativity is exploding. Do your joy.

The second thing is to trust. To honor the Cosmic Christ is to trust that something in the universe is larger than I and in control where I am not. It is trust that the creativity of the universe is beyond our consciousness.

It is a trust in the goodness and creativity that is unseen. We see only the tip of an iceberg. 90 percent is under the water. 90 percent of our awareness is unconscious. Even as we cannot see we trust that we will find what we need when we need it.

We live our joy and we trust and in so doing we become human.

That is all that is required.


  1. I assume there are no comments because everyone has been blown out of the tub.

    Fantastic. I love transforming "Christ the King" in all its militant orthodoxy to Cosmic Christ. A transformation indeed.

    One teeny tiny criticism ("teeny" in terms of your sermon, significant in other ways): I have become highly sensitive to the anti-semitism in John's Gospel, largely through a couple of encounters with A.J. Levine, (Jewish) professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt, and a very busy lady on the lecture circuit with Crossan, et al.

    I have also become sensitive to the less obvious but still there anti-semitism in the rest of the gospels (not so much in Mark). So, if I had been you, I would not have quoted "the Jews" as you did from John, but would have said something like "religious collaborators with Rome" or "collaborators with injustice" or some other phrase that makes it clear we are not talking about a specific religion that disagrees with us, but a way of life, or a way of death/fear that cannot recognize the Cosmic Christ.

    Or something along those thought lines.

    I am really looking forward to your Advent/Christmas/Epiphany/ Lent, propers with Luke (or any other way you do the rest of Year B).

  2. Thanks for the good words and for the critique. That is really important. In the sermon itself I skipped "the Jews" and ended it at handed over...

    A few sentences of explanation and a change to "religious collaborators with injustice" would have been a huge improvement.