Sunday, November 22, 2020

Reign of Christ

 Ephesians 1.15-23

15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

If you know me, you know I like a good metaphor.

A good metaphor can change the way we think, it can alter our sense of the world around us, and it can even direct what we do. A good metaphor can reveal hard truths, it can mobilize people into action, and it can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction. In other words, a good metaphor may not be good at all—but it can be extremely effective.

Case in point: In 1964, Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty, a comprehensive response to the poverty rate in the US approaching twenty percent. Now, to our war-weary ears—having lived through “wars” on drugs, cancer, and terror—calling to mind the War on Poverty doesn’t have the same impact as it had in 1964. Back then, just nineteen years after the Second World War, using the war metaphor was highly effective.

You see, the war metaphor creates a mindset. Nations at war must band together, confront a common enemy, and make sacrifices. The appeal is obvious, and in 1964 it led to the creation of numerous social programs as well as a general sense of concern for something that was often hidden. The shadow side, of course, can be seen in the War on Drugs, an effort that took hold in several countries and led to criminalization of addiction, militarization of the police, and the disproportional targeting of racialized communities.

Most recently, we have witnessed the use of the war metaphor in relation to the pandemic. It is perhaps the closest parallel to an actual wartime situation, where the public is urged to make sacrifices for the sake of safety, warned against hoarding, and generally urged to “do our part.” One foolish man in Washington even declared himself a “wartime president,” before losing interest in the whole thing.

Again, there is a shadow side to the use of the war metaphor in the context of disease. There is no “front” in this war, with the virus lurking everywhere. It has led some to cast blame on the people and places the disease began. And it can lead us to celebrate sacrifice, especially among frontline heroes, without always asking what they truly need, like better hours, paid sick leave, or greater access to PPE. And then there is the question about disease generally: is it something you conquer or something you learn to live with? We need to handle our metaphors with great care.

Along with great care, we also need to lend metaphor great respect. In the realm of scripture, we know that when seeking to describe the sublime, we often reach for metaphor. The Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Alpha and Omega. These are things we can see and touch, used to describe that which we struggle to comprehend. We try them on, we adopt a favourite, and it transforms our understanding.

St. Paul, master of words, is also busy giving us figurative language to try on. And he’s pretty transparent about it, famously admitting “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9) Some have cast “all things to all people” in a negative light, but for Paul it points to his concern—bordering on desperation—about the state of our soul. And so we read these words today:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Again, metaphor. Having eyes on your heart would be awkward—but in the poetic realm, it’s magic. He could have simply said “open your eyes to the hope he has given you” but he chose to add another image instead. And before we really dig into this image, I want to point out one more thing. Metaphor is a literal “rabbit hole” when you consider these two short verses.

You can’t see hope, unless you use imagination. 

The riches of this glorious inheritance can’t be taken to the bank, they live inside us. 

There is no outward sign that we are holy people, but God can see it.

We are given “incomparably great power,” but it’s not the power that the world would recognize.

The richness of symbolic language only works if you set aside the literal meaning of these words and enter the world that God has made, the “realm of God” where these words have power.   And with Paul as our guide, we can truly appreciate what the eyes our heart might see. To do this, he might have us open our Bibles and go back, way back, to see where all this began.

An early version of the “eyes of the heart” might be found in Genesis 6, where God is confounded by the creature God has made, and tries to understand. The author reaches for the word yetser, meaning “thoughts of the heart” (Gen 6.5) or “what is framed in the mind” (BDB, 428a). In a word, this is imagination. And in Genesis it’s generally about the mischief we can get into when we really put our minds to it. Still, it frames this idea of imagination, and it begins in the heart.

Likewise, the Greeks, when pondering imagination (what could be more Greek than pondering imagination?) gave us the word phantasia—literally things that appear. Obviously, we don’t have to go too far out on a limb to see what Paul is conflating for us: thoughts of the heart and things that appear come together to give us the “eyes of the heart.” Here is Paul, all things to all people, bringing together his Jewish self and his Greek thought to help us see God. You need the eyes of our heart to see the glorious inheritance God has given us through Jesus Christ. Full stop.

To conclude, we need a final metaphor, and that would be Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, whichever you prefer. It takes considerable imagination to make Christ the king of your heart— with all your mind, and all your soul—but once you do, the riches of God dwell in you. Put another way, we can “put on Christ,” (Rom 13) and be transformed. Whatever metaphor you choose, Christ becomes the Lord of your life, and the eyes of your heart will open.

I want to give the last word to Charles Wesley, words from a hymn that first appeared in the wonderfully named collection Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption (Bristol, 1747) I think that describes all of us! And I think his words best describe the Christian hope, when the eyes of your heart are open:

Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart.



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