November 20, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Why don’t we pay more attention to life as we live it? Why do we miss so much? In Matthew 25 both groups, sheep and goats alike, say they didn’t realize that the poor of the world represented Jesus.
Both missed that connection.
Ever noticed that before? The righteous are not commended for spying Jesus in the poor, the hungry, the prisoners. They didn’t. They just treated all such folks with love.
But if so, then suppose that those who had failed to do ministry were to ask the King a counter-question. First they ask, “When did we brush you aside, Lord?” and the Lord replies, “You did it every time you brushed them aside.” But suppose these folks countered by asking, “Well, how were we supposed to know that? If we had known it had been you all along, Lord, why by jiggers we would’ve acted differently!”
Couldn’t the wicked say something like, “Well, dear Lord, why didn’t you tell us it was you all along? We would have done things different if we had known.” What might the Lord’s response to that be? (Sometimes you hear this from people who went to high school or college with someone who went on to become President of the United States—“If I had known that was going to happen, I’d’ve been his friend!!”)
“If we had known it was you, Lord . . .” the goats want to say. “Why didn’t you just say something!?”
If they asked that, maybe the reply would be along the lines of this: “You didn’t have to know it was me all along–the righteous didn’t either. It should have been enough to realize no more than that this other person was a human being created in the very image of God! If you had known no more than that (and you did!), that would have been enough. You didn’t need to know it was me. Had you simply acknowledged their humanity, their God-likeness, you would have been led to do the right thing.”
Just here is perhaps as much our challenge as anyone else’s in this world. Can we see the true humanity, the image of God, in the needy people of this world? Do we take care to remind ourselves of that fundamental, basic identity of the poor and the marginalized? It seems that too often we are content to talk in generalities–in broad strokes that conveniently lets human specificity fall away . We lump problems and people together: the homeless, the welfare class, welfare queens, the Third World, the mentally ill, the unemployed. There is scarcely a human face to be seen in any of those broad categories. (Or worse, there is at best the caricature of a face to stand in for the whole group. It’s like punching up “the poor” on Google Images—you’ll see lots of typical pictures of the category but no one whose name you’ll ever know, whose story you’ll ever hear.)
We summarily size up, categorize, characterize, and sometimes dismiss literally millions of people via a blanket label. We reduce all the homeless or all the unemployed to one basic sub-heading. We assume every person in a given category is more-or-less the same. But can we put a name or a face with anyone who actually lives in one of those segments of life? Or are we content with acknowledging no more than that this or that problem area of life exists? And if so, might it be the case for me and for many of us that we sooner or later start to forget that the people who are homeless really are people, God’s very image among us?
Someone once suggested that it would be a good spiritual discipline for all of us to go to a place like O’Hare Airport in Chicago or Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta (two of the busiest airports in the world), sit down somewhere, and just watch the people go by. You maybe know up front what you’ll see: you’ll spy the harried mom with three little kids under the age of 6. Two of the kids are hollering or begging to stop at the McDonalds even as the mom is snapping in anger and maybe even being a bit profane. You’ll spy the rather obese person who lumbers along the concourse short-of-breath. You’ll see the more well-to-do person waiting in a gate area, impeccably dressed and reading something off his iPad. You’ll see a little bit of everything eventually. But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.”
Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one; for that stressed-out mom and for that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone.
The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed to remember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Every dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later on in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way: all dollars and cents and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”
We Christians can do better than that: they’re God’s kids, chips off the divine block as surely as any one of us. Kozol also notes that he has run across people on the East Coast who spend upwards of $30,000 per child each year to send the child to an upscale private school. After giving speeches in which he has advocated for our pouring more resources into poor areas of this nation, Kozol has been asked by some of these people if he really thinks spending more money will solve the education problems of the poor. His reply is, “Well, it seems to do the trick for your children, doesn’t it?”
Jesus is not suggesting that we innovate excessively creative programs, that we do the social equivalent of a circus high-wire act or that we perform miracles. He simply asks us to see God (and by extension, Jesus) in the people around us. And so perhaps it would be a useful exercise for us to try, as often as we can, to say an actual person’s name whenever we are dealing with broad categories of social problems (as inevitably we will do).
If we take Matthew 25 seriously and more-or-less at face value, then we cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” We know that we are saved by grace, and not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 knows that, of course. It is his gospel, after all! But he seems to know also that the faith and the salvation that come from divine grace create new perspectives. Grace opens eyes to see things that we maybe would miss otherwise. Grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the end of all things.
Grace lets us know that if one day we ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus’ answer will quite probably be, “When not?”
There has been some debate among scholars as to how to interpret Jesus’ reference in Matthew 25 to “the least of these brothers of mine” (vs. 40). The classic interpretation claims that “the least of these” refers to the poor and needy of the world, thus making this a good text for World Hunger Sunday or other services in which a focus on diaconal-like work is front and center.
But some scholars now wonder if the reference to “my brothers” may refer to the disciples (soon to turn into apostles) themselves. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is how the wider (Gentile) world received the disciples when they went forth to proclaim the gospel. If this is the correct reading, then it becomes clear that the ultimate fate of the wider world is determined not in terms of how they treated the generic poor and needy in their midst but more specifically how they received and treated the heralds of the gospel.
Although respected scholars hold to this viewpoint, it seems more likely that the traditional interpretation that relates “the least of these” to anyone who is needy or poor may be the better way to go with this passage. Since the sheep are themselves praised for their kind treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, it seems unlikely that those sheep would at the same time BE the hungry, thirsty, etc. Still, this debate is a good reminder that sometimes our approach to very familiar passages such as this one needs always to be scrutinized. Perhaps there are even ways to glean some possible implications from even the alternative viewpoint sketched above. Maybe we could by extension say that how we treat fellow Christians is also to be a hallmark of our discipleship.
Since the start of the holiday season is now just around the corner, it is likely that at least a few of us will soon watch some or all of the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the story, a man named George Bailey despairs that his life is so worthless that it would have been better had he never been born at all. In order to prove him wrong, Clarence the guardian angel lets George experience what the world would have been like had the man George Bailey never existed. As most of us know, George discovers that his seemingly humdrum life affected far more people than he could have guessed. A myriad of little, and not-so-little, things that George had done over the course of his lifetime combined to make his hometown of Bedford Falls a better place. George just never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.
A similar point is made in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. The play’s central character, Emily, is given a chance, following her death, to view a scene from her past. She is told that it cannot be some obviously important day but should be a fairly ordinary time from her bygone life–indeed, she is told that re-visiting even the least important day of her life would suffice to teach Emily something very important.
Emily chooses to re-visit her 12th birthday, only to discover a vast array of things about that day she had completely forgotten. More than that, however, she is stunned to see how fast life moves and how little she or anyone paid attention to what was happening when it was happening. In the end, Emily cannot bear to watch. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” she asks. The answer is no. Instead, Emily is told, for the vast majority of people, what it means to be alive is “To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
Emily didn’t realize. George Bailey didn’t realize. They simply were not aware of the larger meaning around them every, every minute of every, every day. A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats. Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in.
Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter . . .
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you are searching for things to include under the heading “The Oddities of Scripture,” you likely could do no better than perusing the various chapters of Ezekiel. The book opens with a vision so strange that not a few people in the last century concluded that Ezekiel witnessed a UFO replete with extraterrestrials. (Back in the 1970s I was caught up as a kid in the UFO craze and so remember being intrigued by the “Ezekiel Saw UFOs” headline!)
Elsewhere in this book—in order to convey the various messages God asked him to depict for Israel—Ezekiel performed the following curious actions:
— He dug holes in many of the walls of his house.
–He gave himself a sidewalk haircut.
–He laid down on his couch and remained mute and prostrate for a very long time.
–He built a scale model of the city of Jerusalem (Legos?) and then pretended to lay siege to it.
–He put a big pot of stew on his stove and then proceeded to let it boil and simmer until the whole thing was a burnt mess.
–And at one point his wife died but—at God’s own instruction—Ezekiel did not weep or mourn her and did not put on the attire typical for grieving people.
What’s more, before the book is finished—in the one scene from Ezekiel that most everyone knows—he is brought to a horrific valley of dry bones and then, in that place resembling the grim killing fields of Cambodia or the mass graves of Buchenwald, Ezekiel stands up to preach a sermon. The result of his preaching was even more remarkable than the fact that he preached to the bones at all: in a scene that the special effects folks in Hollywood would surely love to depict, Ezekiel sees a reverse process of decay as organs and sinews and muscles and then skin return, step by step, to every skeleton in the valley.
A most curious book indeed!
And yet nestled about two-thirds of the way into this odd book is one of the most lyric of all Bible passages. It is the Year A Old Testament lection for the “Reign of Christ” Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent begins the church year all over again. As texts that point to Jesus as King go, this one is lovely. In an era when the leaders of Israel did what political leaders the world over have almost always tended to do—namely, take good care of the rich and shove aside the weak and the marginalized—Ezekiel looks ahead to a day when a new Shepherd would come from the line of David and do the exact opposite of what the world does: he’d make extra room for the weak, he’d deal tenderly with the disenfranchised, he’d seek high and low to bring back those who had been scattered for whatever the reason.
This would be a profoundly Good Shepherd whose very presence would bring Psalm 23 to life and then some. He’d be the kind of person who could and would look clean past a whole gaggle of celebrities and “beautiful people” so as to spy the lost and lonely one on the fringes of the crowd. He’d be the kind of person who would not only seek out the marginalized and the disenfranchised but who would be just as much sought out by such lonely and overlooked folks. He would be a magnet for those whom the world shoves aside as losers and ne’r-do-wells and those who are deemed to be of no account.
If we want to celebrate the Reign of Christ, then we must do so by remembering the kind of king Jesus is but also the kind of king he adamantly and repeatedly refused to become. Jesus wanted nothing to do with power, glitz, glamour, or privilege. He did not want a throne as much as a place—any place would do—where he could simply be with the poor, the sad, the sick, the lonely, the misunderstood. And when he was with them, he said things and did things that re-made their whole world. He treated them with a love and a grace that made those who had been of no account suddenly realized they did count. Those who had been lonely found a friend who felt, oddly enough, that he might just be an eternal friend. Losers were made to feel like winners after all and the invisible people whom everyone else routinely overlooked came to realize that Someone did see them, notice them, and was interested even to find out their names and to hear their stories.
That is the kind of Shepherd Ezekiel foresaw, and that same Shepherd is now also the cosmic King of kings. He reigns, he rules, his kingdom knows no bounds and will one day be all in all. But it will be a kingdom unlike any we’ve ever known. Because it won’t have a single lost sheep in it. It won’t have a single invisible or marginalized person, any lonely people, any people who will have even a moment’s cause to wonder whether or not they count.
“I, the LORD, will be their God” Yahweh said to Ezekiel. “I the LORD have spoken.”
Yes, he has. Long live that King!
In the New Testament, whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself—in fulfillment of passages like Ezekiel 34—the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations which do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards. So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world which looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it. We just don’t love every single sheep near enough. But that is only one-half of our modern-day problem with Jesus as our shepherd. The other difficulty is that in a world of so-called “self-made individuals,” many people are not exactly looking for someone else to lead them around.
Instead, ours is a time where we expect others to meet us where we are. The customer mentality has now taken over everything from college campuses to church sanctuaries. “I want it my way right way (and by the way, I alone will determine what ‘my way’ is.”) Even our concept of a pastor has changed. Of course, the very word “pastor” means “shepherd” but as many observers of the American church scene have noted, pastors today don’t lead so much as they follow. What people want in a pastor today, David Wells claims, is a pollster who holds up two moist fingers to see which way the congregational wind is blowing. He does not take the congregation anywhere but instead goes to where people already are so as to meets their felt needs. What kind of worship service should we have? What kinds of topics need to be addressed in sermons? Well, take a survey and then design liturgies and sermons around the poll results.
So the imagery of shepherds and of sheep, of being led so that we do not scatter out into our own little individual directions: all of this kind of language seems like an echo from another time, another world. It’s a little like what you hear whenever a teenager says he is going to “dial” his friend’s phone number. Because in truth very few people under the age of 18 have ever used a rotary phone that you really do have to dial. To speak of “dialing” a phone is to employ a linguistic anachronism–that phrase is an echo of a bygone world that did not yet know about touch tone phones and digital keypads.
Maybe good shepherds are too. But as the Bible makes everywhere clear: we still need that shepherd. Probably now more than ever.
Author: Stan Mast
It is interesting that the Lectionary begins and ends Ordinary Time with Psalm 100. We looked at this beloved Psalm back on June 18, the second Sunday of Ordinary Time. Now we return to it on this last Sunday, when we celebrate the fact that Christ is King of all the earth. If you preached on Psalm 100 back then, you might choose another of the Lectionary readings for this celebration of Christ the King. I mean, how can we say much new just a few months later? Besides, isn’t Psalm 100 a bit of an odd choice for this day? It never uses the word “King” at all.
Why did the Lectionary compilers choose this Psalm for this day? Well, it is traditionally seen as the last of the songs of Enthronement that begin with Psalm 93. All of them claim that Yahweh is King not only of Israel, but of all nations and all peoples. Psalm 100 seems to be the capstone to those Enthronement Psalms, raising the claim up a notch when it commands “all the earth” to “shout for joy to Yahweh.”
Further, there are hints of royalty in the language about entering his “gates” and “courts.” Clearly that is a reference to the Temple, but the Temple was the earthly seat of the King of the Universe. And that reference to Israel as “the sheep of his pasture” echoes Psalm 23, where David picks up on the ancient Near Eastern idea that Kings are the Shepherds of their people. So, there is good reason to use Psalm 100 in our celebration today.
Plus, it gives us a fresh angle on that celebration. As I read and re-read Psalm 100, I began to hear it as a protest song, a counter-cultural protest song against the negativity of our culture. We are a clamoring culture, filled with competing choruses of criticism and complaining. Anger and sorrow, pain and braggadocio, black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, Trump and anti-Trump—we are a people divided. Add to that the suffering caused by natural disasters and the fear caused by saber rattling nuclear powers. There are a million reasons for all the unhappiness that grips the United States and our world, but at the root of it all is the fact that so many are worshiping the wrong king.
Psalm 100 calls us to sing a new song to the real King. Its predominant tone is joy and gladness, because it is focused on a particular name. All day long every day of every week, we hear “Trump, Trump, Trump,” or “Kim, Kim, Kim,” or “Putin, Putin, Putin.” With those names drummed into our brains 24/7, it is tough to find joy and gladness, thanksgiving and praise. Psalm 100 beats the drum for a different name. “Shout for joy to Yahweh, all the earth. Worship Yahweh with gladness. Know that Yahweh is God. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise…. For Yahweh is good….” Psalm 100 points us again and again to the real King.
As I reflected on those words, I was reminded of Paul’s soaring words in Ephesians 1:20-22, where he speaks of the power of God that “raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church….” Shout for joy and sing with gladness because Jesus Christ, Yahweh incarnate, crucified, and risen is King over all things for the sake of his people.
Psalm 100 highlights two reasons to celebrate the reign of Christ the King. He is God and he is good. After the opening command to shout for joy and worship with gladness (verses 1 and 2), we hear that first reason. “Know that Yahweh is God….” In the Hebrew, there is a little particle, hu, which emphasizes that Yahweh alone is God. Against the background of polytheism, Psalm claims that all of those “gods” are not truly God. There is only one true God, and his name is Yahweh.
Knowing that will bring great joy and deep comfort. The Hebrew word for “know” goes far beyond intellectual knowledge. Just knowing about Yahweh’s sole divinity will not bring us comfort and joy. We need a more personal knowledge, an intimate knowledge, a relational, covenantal knowledge. Not accidentally, the word “know” in Hebrew was often used to describe sexual relations between husband and wife. (“And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore a son.”)
Indeed, the words immediately following the command to know that Yahweh is God are covenantal. “It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” That is a reference not to the creation of all humans, but to the creation of Israel as God’s special people, his covenant people, the flock he shepherds as the Divine King. Jesus incorporated all this pastoral language into his own understanding of his ministry in John 10. Thus, we can sing for joy and sink into comfort because Jesus our Shepherd King is God, and we belong to him body and soul, in life and in death. “This is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).”
After the second command to approach Yahweh with thanksgiving and praise (verse 4), we are giving a second reason to live in a positive way even in a negative world. “For Yahweh is good….” There are multiple ways to approach a King. Think of all the power figures that reign in our world today. You might want to approach some with fear because they are cruel, and others with great care because they are complicated and unpredictable, and still others with fawning adoration because they are so narcissistic. We are encouraged to approach Yahweh/Jesus with praise and thanksgiving simply because he is good.
What does “good” mean? It might mean that he is morally pure, never doing anything wrong. Or it might mean that he is beautiful, heroic, noble, aesthetically pleasing. Or it might mean that he speaks his mind, stands up for what he believes in, always does the right thing, doesn’t worry about political correctness. But here the goodness of Yahweh is defined in terms of his relationship to his covenant people. We know that because the Psalmist uses the two most common words for God’s covenantal relationship with his people: chesed and emunah, love and faithfulness.
We can live positively in a negative world, offering thanksgiving and praise no matter what goes wrong in the world, because “his love endures forever [and] his faithfulness continues through all generations.” We never know what will happen tomorrow, except that tomorrow will bring unexpected change. But we know that two things will never change. Our King is always God and our King is unchangingly good, showing love and faithfulness to every generation of his people. That should make our celebration of Christ the King an occasion filled with comfort and joy.
Perhaps I hear Psalm 100 as a counter-cultural protest song because I just finished watching Ken Burn’s magnificent (and horrific) documentary on the Vietnam War. I lived through those terrible times, but I had forgotten the ferocity of that war and of the protests against it. Seeing those pictures of Americans protesting the war made me think of the way Christians should be protesting the war against the reign of King Jesus (cf. Psalm 2). But our protest does not have to be violent and bloody, contrary to what some Christian militants might think. Psalm 100 calls us to live with joy and gladness, thanksgiving and praise. That kind of living in this kind of world is eloquent testimony to the truth we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday.
Whenever the President of the United States enters a great gathering, a band plays “Hail to the Chief.” Psalm 100 invites us to enter the presence of the King of the Universe. “Come before him with joyful songs. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise….”
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.
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.
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.”