Proper 29/Christ the King (Reign of Christ)

November 25, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Reading 3: 
Colossians 1:11-20
Reading 4: 
Luke 23:33-43
By Russell Pregeant

The readings from Jeremiah, Colossians, and Luke provide material for an interesting take on the theme of the Reign of Christ. Colossians 1:11-20 includes a hymn (vv. 15-20) that embraces a number of themes: Christ’s pre-existence and status as the one in whom all things cohere; the resurrection and exaltation; Christ’s role as the head of the church; and Christ’s work of universal reconciliation through his death on the cross. Although the crucifixion is mentioned, the emphasis is clearly elsewhere—not only on the positive results of Christ’s death but on his cosmic status. It is a figure of awesome power and standing that we meet in these verses. The gospel reading, by contrast, depicts the crucifixion itself and thus gives us a glimpse of the vulnerability and human qualities of the one who will be raised. He is ranked with criminals and subjected to mockery by both the passers-by and the agents of the Empire. The passage from Jeremiah connects with the triumphant notes in Colossians by virtue of its vision of a future Davidic king who “will execute justice and righteousness in the land” (v. 5). And it complements the Lucan reading by virtue of its critique of the religio-political leaders who have led the people astray that describes precisely the kind of failure of conscience that led to Jesus’ arrest and execution. In combination, then, the three passages tell us a story of how God enters into a world of crass injustice and brutality to reconcile all things and reinstitute the harmony originally intended for the universe.

The Hebrew Bible and gospel readings, however, also remind us that this harmony exists only fragmentarily on the earthly plane. Jeremiah still looks to the future, and the scene in Luke 23 is pre-resurrection/exaltation. And of course even if we read Luke-Acts to its conclusion, we still find that the gospel message—although it is prospering—has an unredeemed world as its field of mission. Insofar as Christ reigns, then, this is fully so only on a transcendent plane; the reign on earth is only proleptic, still a matter of hope.

The theme of reconciliation in Colossians also connects with that of forgiveness in Luke. When Jesus answers the criminal’s plea for mercy with a promise of future blessedness, he echoes the emphasis on “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” that pervades the entire narrative of Luke-Acts. Not only does Jesus dispense forgiveness (5:20), but he makes the call to repentance and offer of forgiveness a central component of his ministry (15:1-32). This theme is also central to the message of John the Baptist (Luke 3:3) and the post-resurrection missionaries (Luke 24:47). And it is particularly noteworthy that in Acts the opportunity for repentance is offered even to those responsible for Jesus’ death (Acts 2:37-42). We thus have an image of ultimate and universal reconciliation, parallel to what we seen in Colossians 1:20.

Process thought can be of particular value in elaborating two aspects of the passages in question. The image of Christ as the one in whom all things cohere (Colossians 1:17) is suggestive of an organic universe in which all things are internally related to all other things and therefore responsible for the common good. And the radical notion of a forgiveness extended to those who put Jesus to death is a stirring example of creative transformation. The Christ who reconciles all things also has the power to transform all things—that is, to draw out of them their potential for living as parts of a greater whole rather than as selfish and isolated bits of flesh under the destructive illusion of self-sufficiency and self-importance.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).