Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2020 || Reign of Christ A || Ephesians 1:15-23
When I first started writing novels, I did not plan for writing fiction to become one of my primary spiritual disciplines. I had no idea my novels would help me better envision God’s relationship to all of creation. And I definitely did not expect my hours and hours and hours of fantasy world-building would grant me a deeper understanding of what we celebrate today, the Reign of Christ.
Of the people I know who are watching this video, I know of two people who have also written novels, and I’ve spoken at length with both of them about the phenomenon I’m going to describe in this sermon. For the rest of you, I trust you’ve read a novel before, so I’m inviting you into a vicariously imaginative process as I describe what happens while writing fiction. We’re discussing this today because one of the main questions that gets asked about God has to do with the concept of God’s providence. If God is all powerful, all knowing, and all encompassing then how do we also have the free will that our faith tells us we have?
This is a big question – too big for an eleven minute sermon – and my plan is not to answer it. My plan is to provide a metaphor that helps us understand our place within God’s providence, or to follow today’s theme, our place in the Reign of Christ. It all begins with the word “Authority.”
As the One who reigns over us, Christ is our ultimate authority, but we encounter trouble when we link Christ’s authority to the paltry earthly authority we encounter on a daily basis. Certain people have authority over us based on their roles. Teachers and principals have authority over students. State troopers have authority over motorists. Judges have authority over those indicted of crimes. This earthly authority has its roots in a punitive system, where citizens cede a portion of their personal sovereignty to certain offices in order to make the society function more smoothly, at least for some people. The citizenry recognizes that if they break the rules of the society – whether or not those rules are just – the Authorities have the ability to punish.
We use the same word for Christ’s authority, but Christ’s authority is of a wholly different sort than the kind we encounter in our principals, state troopers, and judges. Far from being punitive in nature and bound by office or title, Christ’s authority arises from Christ being the author, the writer of the great script of creation. Author. Author-ity. We see this authorship in the poetic opening verses of John’s Gospel, where Christ the Author is also the Word: “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people” (1:3-4, CEB).
Christ’s authority is creative, not punitive.
Think of it like this: before J.R.R. Tolkien put pen to paper, Middle-Earth had no ability to capture the imagination of readers. But over half a century, Tolkien authored story after story, character after character, slowly building a world of dark forests and misty mountains inhabited by elves and hobbits and wizards. Tolkien is the authority behind Middle-Earth because he authored the fantasy world into existence in the minds of his readers.
Again, the author is the authority not because of an ability to punish but because of an ability to create. And not just to create but to inhabit creation as the One who binds all things together. This is what we proclaim when we say Christ reigns. Theologian Richard Rohr invites us into this thinking by posing a series of questions about the Christ. Rohr asks, “What if Christ is a name for the transcendent within of every ‘thing’ in the universe? What if Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love? What if Christ refers to an infinite horizon that pulls us from within and pulls us forward too? What if Christ is another name for everything – in its fullness?” (The Universal Christ, p. 5)
With these questions, Rohr evokes several passages of scripture, including our passage from Ephesians this morning. The writer says Christ is above and beyond all thought of power and dominion and instead “fills all in all.” Another translation says Christ “fills everything in every way” (CEB). Christ put pen to creation’s paper and God continues to read the story into life.
As the author of all things, Christ has reigned since creation began. And the manuscript of creation continues because Christ has never stopped writing. And now Christ has authored our lives into being. We are small stories that help make up the great story. At the end of the Gospel according to John, the narrator concludes: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What the narrator doesn’t say is that all the other things Jesus did have been written down. Christ, the author of each of us, wrote those things down in us. We are the books that the world itself cannot contain.
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, writing novels has helped me imagine how God relates with God’s creation. Here is the metaphor that helps me understand human free will in the context of Christ’s reign. As a novelist, I create the world, the setting, the story. I also create the characters. But this is where it gets weird. Even though I made up the characters and I’m the one typing out all their actions and all their thoughts and all their dialogue, my characters still manage to surprise me all the time. As the story progresses, they will do things I don’t expect, they will desire things I don’t expect, they will fear things and love things I don’t expect. Even though I’m the one writing. And so my job as the novelist is to listen well enough to the characters that I have created to let them be themselves. To not force them down the path I thought they would go when I outlined the plot. The novel-writing process is a combination of planning and discovery, of direction and improvisation, of mutual creativity between writer and character. And that’s how I imagine God’s providence invites us into our own lives, as we participate in the reign of Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien authored Frodo and Gollum and Aragorn. I authored the characters in my fantasy novels. And Christ authors us. Today, we proclaim that Christ reigns in each of us as our author. The author has written the words of life within us, the special words unique to each of us. When we begin to seek for those special words, when we look inside ourselves and begin to read the story of how Christ reigns in our lives, we unlock the authentic paths God yearns for us to walk.
As the author of each of our stories, Christ has penned a work about God’s movement in the world, a work which we proclaim in the living out of our stories. Open up the book of your story. Read your pages to the world. There is far too much love and grace in the pages of our lives for us to waste them by staying closed. There is far too much beauty to bring to the world for us not to let the author spill the words of life from our stories into the wider creation. There is far too much that Christ is doing for us not to participate in Christ’s reign.
How does Christ reign in you? What words has the Author of each of us written in your hearts? Or, to use the words that close Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
Check out my novels on my new website adamthomas.net.