Sunday, May 28, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Pantokrator: The Almighty"

Revelation 21:22-26

I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. 23 The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. (Common English Bible)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Six

If you remember the horrific terrorist attack at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, you’ll recognize that this past week’s tragedy in Manchester bears some disturbing similarities—both targeted massive events held at stadiums in large metropolitan areas, both were claimed by the Islamic State, and both inflicted massive human pain upon people who want only to live in peace and experience some joy alongside one another.

But there were, believe it or not, some heartening similarities to both as well. Both tragedies elicited stories of genuine heroism and human compassion from the people on the ground. As with the Paris attack with its “portes ouvertes,” or “open doors” campaign, Manchester residents immediately threw open the doors of their homes to concertgoers stranded by the attack in a social media campaign centered around the #RoomForManchester hashtag.

Also in Manchester, two shelterless men, Chris Parker and Stephen Jones, began pulling nails and shrapnel out of the limbs of the wounded, wrapping up the wounded in t-shirts and elevating them to prevent them from bleeding out, and even cradling a dying woman during her last moments of life. And Ariana Grande herself has reportedly offered to pay for the funerals of each of the twenty-two souls who perished in the attack at her concert.

Circle back to the Manchester residents opening their doors to terrified and vulnerable strangers—that is hospitality of the oldest sort, hospitality that comes straight from Scripture (and probably from before Scripture as well). And it is precisely the sort of open welcome to those in need that exists in the kingdom that is ruled over by God, specifically, in the image of God as presented by John of Patmos here in Revelation 21, God the Almighty, or the Pantokrator.

This is the conclusion to a sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, which is one week from today, and commemorates when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents for us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we have been using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

As a part of this series, we have talked about some of the earliest images of Jesus like the Good Shepherd and, last week, the Christus Victor, or the Victorious Christ, and we remain in the realm of much older images of Jesus with one of the most profound of all: the Pantokrator, or the almighty.

That image of Christ the Pantokrator was what greeted me from the frescoed ceiling when I set foot inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands on the traditional site where Jesus is said to have been crucified, but is so contentiously governed by the differing factions of Christianity that lay claim to it that the task of keeping the keys and gates to the church is in fact entrusted to a local Muslim family, whose members have handed down this sacred responsibility from one generation to the next stretching all the way back to the 1100s.

So we Christians clearly need to work on our gatekeeping skills. Or, we could embrace the image that John of Patmos puts forth here in Revelation that in God’s kingdom, gates are not even a requirement—that the gates to the kingdom will always be open during the day, and since there is no night, the implication is that the gates will be open around the clock, 24/7.

As the scholars Justo and Catherine Gunslaus Gonzales put it in their commentary on Revelation, “The gates are never closed, which is understandable, both because there is no need for defense and because there is no night, the time when the city gates were normally closed. There is no night because the light is the glory of God, and God does not depart from the Holy City.”

The kingdom that is under the rule of the Almighty, the Pantokrator, then, is one in which the glory of God is never extinguished, and precisely because God’s glory is never extinguished, it is safe enough and secure enough to not ever need to close its gate.

You may remember from the message on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on John 10 a few weeks ago that in the same discourse that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, He also refers to Himself as the gate through which the sheep go. There again is the imagery of the Almighty juxtaposed with something as humble as a gate, in order to prove a point that it is not we who determine who gets to pass through the gate and who does not, but that it is God who chooses.

Which is, after all, the purview of the Almighty. The “original sin” of Adam and Eve wasn’t really about the apple, but what the apple represented: taking from God that which belonged to God—namely, the capacity to determine good and evil. Which means that I don’t get to say that someone else isn’t a Christian. Neither do you. Neither do any of us. Christ as the Pantokrator is that gate which determines such soul-sized matters, not us.

Instead, like in the wake of the Manchester attack this past week, and the attack by an Islamophobic white supremacist on two young Muslim women and the three men he then stabbed when they rose to protect the teenaged girls, we open our arms to the possibility that Christ-like actions can come from those we may not think of as Christian—or who do not identify as Christian themselves. Indeed, that white supremacist's last name is Christian, but his acts of racism and terror most surely are not.

I have seen photographs of Muslims praying alongside Jews at the blast site—to me, that is Christ-like. The stories of heroism from homeless men like Chris Parker and Stephen Jones—to me they are Christ-like. The offer from Ariana Grande to finance her fans’ funerals—Christ-like.

And the offers from hundreds of Mancunians for much-needed shelter for a night for thousands of traumatized concertgoers? Christ-like in the most Biblical sense in the term, because here in Revelation, we learn that under God Almighty, and Christ the Lamb, that the doors to sanctuary are always open, just as they were in Paris after the Parc des Princes attack, and just as they are now.

It is Christ-like because it takes from Christ those things we are called to emulate—the humility, the hospitality, the openness—rather than the things we are not, that are best left to the Pantokrator because of our own limitations—the sovereignty, the judgment, the power over life and death.

Part of acknowledging the role of Christ the Pantokrator in your life is to acknowledge that you cannot and will not ever be as mighty as He was, and to surrender such godlike tasks to Him. And as I’ve preached before—and will continue preaching—there is freedom that comes in that surrender. It should be a weight off of your shoulders, and mine, to not have to hold the final determination of a soul’s ultimate fate.

Indeed, the fate of any soul, including yours, is still first and foremost up to you personally. Terrorists cause God to judge them by their actions. God may judge you by your actions as well, but it is you who get to choose what acts you will be judged by based on your choice to perform them or not. Give aid and comfort to a dying person, even if nobody else is there to see it? God sees it. Give of your time and money to charity and the church? As Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, even if you do so in secret—and you should—God, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Even if you may struggle with the notion of an almighty God or an almighty Christ, the truth is, we need such a God and such a Christ at times, if only to surrender to them the tasks that we are not equipped for.

In short—be Christ-like, and God will see it. But be the Christ that you are capable of being, not the Christ that only Jesus Himself is capable of being.

Do thusly, and there is yet, and will always be, hope for humanity after the next tragedy, and the one after that, and the one after that.

For hope, too, is a fundamental image of the living Christ—one that we cannot ever afford to lose sight of.

So treasure that hope. Protect it. Bear it. And share it.

And that image of Christ will be what helps bring God's divine healing to a bleeding world that aches for such grace and reconciliation in the face of violence met with still more violence.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 28, 2017

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