While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
The Lamb Upon the Throne
I blatantly stole my sermon title from the second line of the hymn: “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”
I have sung this hymn for decades and I’ve always liked its power and enthusiastic tone. It could probably be described as “triumphalist”. The music almost feels a bit military in nature, which is a bit of a problem, as that approach to Christianity is often tied to the way we sent out missionaries to build our empire: to “conquer the world for Christ“.
But it wasn’t until this year as I looked at the recommended scripture lessons for today, which is called the “Reign of Christ” Sunday, that I realized how challenging and even absurd the first lines of this hymn are.
The readings are all about shepherds gathering together their sheep. The idea of a shepherd as king is challenging to begin with. Shepherds aren’t warriors; they do fight to protect their sheep but they aren’t necessarily going to invade the next pasture over, kill the other shepherds and oppress their new sheep as they build their empire of sheep.
The shepherd image sets a tone for leadership, a tone for royal rulers that such people would be wise to remember and follow:
a shepherd wouldn’t exist without sheep;
a shepherd is dedicated to protecting a flock; and
while the flock benefits the shepherd, you know that the sheep are in the shepherd’s care, not under the shepherd’s thumb.
Ezekiel shows us God as the shepherd, who gathers a scattered flock together and brings them safely home. It’s a wonderful and reassuring message for a people in exile, and is based in real life experience.
Shepherds often let their flocks graze together and were skilful at separating their sheep because they had a relationship with the animals: the sheep really did recognize and respond to their voices.
Matthew shows us a different vision where the shepherd has divided up the flock between sheep and goats. This is less reassuring for some, although I have pointed out in the past that there is no real Biblical bias against goats.
The shepherd image is abandoned. The Son of Man is called a king. The king welcomes some people and rejects others and all of it is based on the question of justice: where one lives a life in which they help others, show mercy, care for the poor and oppressed. Those are the ones who are rescued and embraced, very much in keeping with Jesus’ teachings all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.
You can imagine a king sitting in judgement, as the Son of Man is shown doing, so that kindly shepherd image for the king could fit the Reign of Christ theme, although rejecting so many because they don’t belong is uncomfortable. The people are simply facing the consequences of their selfish lives: no one made them live that way. But the image of the shepherd king breaks down a bit here when faced with the need to deal with human self-centredness.
But look: our hymn goes past shepherds into a new image: “The Lamb upon his throne!” That image is absurd. Lambs are not known for their good judgement or their power or their ability to defend the flock from predators. Lambs are the most vulnerable part of the flock, not a standard image for someone who reigns!
Of course, the idea of Jesus as the lamb is portrayed in several books of the New Testament. He is said to be the sacrificial lamb; the Passover offering to ward off the angel of death. That image has been embraced over the centuries: a picture of a lamb holding a staff with a cross at the top and a banner or pennant with a cross was sometimes used by medieval knights on banners and tapestries. They not only wanted to prove their piety, but also wanted some protection against death, or at least reassurance that they would go to heaven when they died.
Once again, we encounter that absurd combination of the image of a vulnerable little lamb tied into a very military vision of Christianity. Why do we keep doing this? Have we not listened to ourselves over the centuries? Have we not looked seriously at our own symbolism?
The idea of rule in human history is often tied into violence and military might to such a large degree that we have imagined the Kingdom of God in the same terms. This is terrible, because it overturns the very foundations of the teachings of Jesus.
We don’t have to look all the way back to heresy trials, crusades, witch-burnings, or the many other atrocities committed in the name of Christianity. We just have to look to our more recent Canadian history: to the residential schools where the church cooperated with the government to impose religious and cultural values on indigenous children, using our power to force change on the most vulnerable.
One of the truly sad parts of that process was that so many of the people doing it felt justified and really thought it was a way to further the kingdom of God: “it’s for their own good”. Some people still think that way. The CBC broadcast – “White Coat/Black Art” recently broadcast a story of a First Nations medical doctor who leads workshops for doctors on cultural sensitivity – she got an anonymous note from another doctor: “Residential schools worked: you’re educated”. That happened just a couple of years ago.
Whenever we get an image like the “reign of Christ” into our heads and let the traditional ideas of “reign” influence our thinking, we become unmoored from our foundations. We lose sight of the real meaning of Jesus’ ministry, which was about sharing the truth, not imposing it.
I understand the attraction. If you’re someone who is at the bottom of the ladder and you see powerful people getting away with crimes and you can’t do anything about it, then the image of Christ stomping in and taking care of all those unrighteous people in a powerful judgement day must be very attractive.
But it’s not the way to live. It’s not the way to relate to others; not if you want to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus taught, and healed, and shared, and called out corrupt leaders. He had no army. He had no legislative capacity and yet he changed the world.
More change is needed: principals of help and caring, sharing and lifting up the weakest and poorest actually do have a place in our discussions in the world and can influence policy profoundly at times. The teachings of Jesus have gained a foothold in the secular world.
But the voices of those who want to promote fear and hatred, who justify selfishness and greed, are still strong. Whenever we let them persuade us we betray the principles at the core of Jesus’ ministry: where the first shall be last; and
the weak shall be strong; and
the meek shall inherit the earth.
Let’s keep our heads on straight and resist the temptation to force others into our ways. The teachings of Jesus have been described as a treasure; something we can share, and offer to others. How much more profound will be the change in the world when people believe these teachings because they choose to, not because they have to?