Proper 29A

November 20, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 25:31-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 100

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Ephesians 1:15-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    If you walk into most any Protestant or Roman Catholic church sanctuary, the likelihood is that the dominant symbol you will see is the cross, usually front and center.  But if you go into just about any Eastern or Greek Orthodox church sanctuary, you will be overwhelmed by a huge icon, or painting, of Christ Pantocrator.  This Pantocrator image is often painted onto the inside of the church’s vast dome or, if the church doesn’t have a dome, this icon will dominate the front wall of the church in the same place where a cross might be in other sanctuaries.

    “Pantocrator” is the Greek word for “Ruler of All” and it is an image of Jesus that emerges from Ephesians 1.  In just about all Pantocrator icons, Jesus stares directly out at you with wide and often rather stern eyes.  His outer robe is deep blue, symbolizing the majesty and mystery of God and the tunic he wears under this robe is red, symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood.  In his left hand Jesus holds a Bible, and his right hand is raised to give a blessing, with two fingers held up and the other three fingers held together, symbolizing the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    29a

    If you’ve ever seen one of these massive Pantocrator icons, then you know what a powerful effect it can have on you.  The majesty, power, and dominion of Jesus are depicted in ways that inspire awe.  Also, the sheer scale of some of the larger such icons dwarfs us.  Interestingly, I once learned from an Orthodox friend that in many Orthodox circles the sternness of the Jesus seen in larger Pantocrator icons is compensated for in smaller paintings by giving Jesus gentler facial expressions and kinder eyes.  So a smaller Pantocrator icon that you might see in someone’s home will still convey all the majesty of Jesus as the Ruler of All but it will be more personal, a reminder that Jesus is still also the gentle and good shepherd.

    Striking that kind of a balance between the cosmic Christ who rules all things and the more meek Jesus you meet in the gospel stories has been a perennial challenge for the church.  So how can we balance the idea that Jesus is now both the Pantocrator whose sheer power boggles our minds and the tender Savior who gently calls us to enter his rest?  In the run of the average day, what might it mean to know that the Son of God is at once a friend and also the fierce Ruler of All whose power is so terrible that it makes even the demons run for cover?

    To answer that question, I’d like to suggest that we take Ephesians 1 in reverse order.  That may seem an odd thing to do, but the punch of this remarkable passage may well get preserved better if we work backwards.  A first item to note is that this passage shows the apostle Paul on one whale of a verbal tear.  Most scholars believe that the original Greek of verses 15-23 is exactly one very long and very complex sentence.  English translation break this up into nine verses and five sentences but the Greek text has no stops whatsoever.  Paul here evinces a kind of breathless prose–the kind of verbal gush you sometimes get from a child who cannot get the words out fast enough to tell you about some great and fun experience he or she just had.

    The climax of all this exuberant rhetoric comes in verses 21-23 where Paul piles up the accolades for Jesus.  At the right hand of the Father, Jesus soars far above every other kind of ruler or authority.  Paul seems intent here on throwing in just about every word, title, and authoritative concept that he can just to make sure he has the bases covered.  He mentions rule, authority, power, and dominion.  His original words suggest that Paul is encompassing every kind of political structure here on this earth as well as all spiritual dimensions.  So whether you are talking about a Caesar, a king, a governor, a president, or a prime minister, Jesus outstrips them all.  Whether you are talking about angels, demons, spiritual forces, or even the devil himself, Jesus outstrips them all.  Also, you can throw in every honor and title of rank and respect you can think of, but not one of them could stand up to the title Jesus now bears as Lord of lords and King of kings.  To further cinch his case, Paul says in verse 21 that this is the situation not just for now but for all times, including any and all future ages yet to come.  Nobody will ever outrank, outstrip, or overrule Jesus.

    So if all of that is true, it is not surprising to find that all things are under Jesus’ feet.  He is the head of the Church, yes, but also of every creature, every person, every nation, and every far-flung corner of the cosmos.  The very last phrase of this exhaustive (and exhausting!) verbal binge is difficult even to translate as Paul is tripping over his own tongue.  In Greek it’s almost a tongue-twister because the words for “fill,” “fullness,” “each,” and “every” all start with the letter “p.”  Strung together they are pleroma panta pasin pleromenou.  Maybe we can preserve the tone of the original Greek if we paraphrase it this way: Jesus is the ever-filling fullness of filling for filling up each and every thing that can be filled!

    This is indeed a classic biblical text on Christ as Pantocrator, Ruler of All.  The picture here could not be grander.  And so here is a view of Jesus that maybe we do not often ponder.  This is a Jesus who spans the galaxies.  This is a Jesus who is behind every single speck of matter in the known universe but this is also a Jesus who could hold the entire cosmos in the palm of his hand the way you or I would hold a marble.  The sum total of all the light that emanates from billions of galaxies is just a twinkle in Jesus’ eye and yet the details of that universe are known intimately by this same Jesus.  This is finally a Jesus beyond our ability to grasp, a Christ beyond our reckoning.  How can you be bigger than the entire solar system and yet still have your eye upon the sparrow?  How can you be mightier than the sum total of every president, king, queen, prime minister, dictator, and ruler on the earth right now and yet at also be concerned for the welfare of the widow and the orphan?

    Indeed, what would prevent a person from seizing on exactly Paul’s zestful rhetoric only to conclude that it is simply ludicrous to think that any of us matters to this cosmic Lord?  He’s too big, we’re too small.  If last night before bed you prayed to God in Jesus’ name to heal your daughter’s broken arm, can you seriously believe that, given the grand sweep of everything this Jesus encompasses, a busted humerus bone would even register for him?  In fact, while we’re at it anyway, take the sum total of your life so far, highlighting especially the finest work you’ve managed to do: aren’t you still so puny in comparison to this lofty comet-thrower and planet-spinner as to be finally a nobody?

    Of course we know that this is certainly not the conclusion Paul wants us to draw.  But what prevents it?  The answer comes in the first part of this passage and the answer is faith.  Paul starts things off by saying that he has heard about the faith of the Ephesian Christians and because of the good report he heard, he has not stopped giving thanks for them ever since.  These people have a faith that has led also to great love.  Such faith is itself a gift of God, and so Paul wants to see God the Father add to that gift.  “I am praying that the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus will give you the Holy Spirit so that your hearts will be filled with wisdom and revelation.  Because then you will know God even better with eyes and hearts wide open to take God in.”

    Here is all the mystery of the gospel in a single line.  Yes, Jesus holds all the galactic marbles.  Yes, Jesus has a power and an authority and a dominating rule of all that is finally so much bigger than any one of us as to be ridiculous.  But here is the good news: somehow Jesus is able to compress and compact all that power so that it can fit inside your heart and my heart!

    Have you ever seen one of those Hoberman Spheres?  A scientist by the name of Hoberman figured out how to make an amazing thing called an “icosadodecohedron.”  It is a round ball made up of hundreds of rods, each one of which is multi-jointed to others.  Some years ago at a science museum in New Jersey, my family and I saw a giant one of these in the museum’s great hall.  When that particular Hoberman Sphere is fully expanded, it is a ball that spans probably thirty or forty feet in diameter–it’s quite huge.  But when it is compacted and all the parts of the sphere are collapsed in on each other, the whole thing shrinks down to something not much bigger than a beach ball.  You can see a video of this here.

    Jesus’ galactic power as Pantocrator is rather like that: it is every bit as huge and all-consuming in its sweep as Paul describes at the end of Ephesians 1.  Yet by a miracle of God’s Holy Spirit, it can collapse down into something shaped just like the human heart and that can fit right inside the human heart, too.  And when by faith that power is inside of you, then you know that God’s might is always in service of love for God’s children.

    Illustration Idea

    In a poignant moment of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” the children at one point walk into what appeared from the outside to be no more than a shabby little building.  But once they step into it, they discover a vastness they could not have guessed at before.  “Why,” Lucy exclaims, “it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.”  “Yes,” another character replies, “something like that once happened on earth.  In a place called Bethlehem there was a tiny stable whose inside was bigger than its outside because that stable contained the whole world.”