“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
Week #5: Christus Victor
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 18, 2018: Lent 5
As you may know, the worship services that have led us through the season of Lent this year, and the sermons I have preached each week, are the product of some of my most recent doctoral work. In a course in January I spent an entire week combing through the Passion Narratives in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, thinking carefully about what each has to say about Jesus. Each gospel and gospel writer has a specific image of Jesus that is announced on the first page of each gospel and carries through all the way to the end. It became clear to me in this study that the gospel writers used these images as a way to answer the question Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” By pulling from each gospel the unique image that each writer has of Jesus, I’ve tried to show the various ways Christ’s followers throughout time and space have named the One they seek to follow. It is important that we have an answer to Jesus’ question—Who do you say that I am?—because who we say he is helps us to understand who we are and what we are called to do as his followers.
Today it was my intention to focus in on the image in the gospel of John of Jesus as christus victor. Christus victor literally means ‘victorious Christ,’ and it is both a name for Jesus and a doctrine of Jesus. The doctrine says that Jesus was not the abused, broken, and bloodied savior that is so common in theologies of the cross. Sure, he was in bad physical shape when he went to the cross. But christus victor says that in his passion—in the arrest, trial, beatings, and crucifixion—Jesus was doing battle with the cosmic forces of sin and death. And won. When Jesus took his final breath, christus victor says that Christ jumped into a lock hold with evil like two wrestlers at the beginning of a match. In this contest, Christ wrestled evil until evil simply had no power to continue, rendering it utterly powerless over us and the world. Christus victor also imagines that Christ locked onto these forces, shot up into the air them, then took a spiraling nosedive towards the earth, where at just the last moment Christ pulled up and evil was smashed into pieces on the ground. Christus victor is a powerful image, a very powerful image.
But to be honest with you, I don’t really feel like doing this theology thing today. I’m not really interested in digging into the history and the theologians. I’m not interested because that’s not where my mind is right now. Right now, my mind, my heart, my body is with my family in Maryland. You see, this week my grandmother, my last living grandparent, suffered a severe stroke. I talked to Grandma a week ago on Sunday, just a few days before her 94th birthday, and we had a great conversation—she asked about Theo, she asked about Katie, she asked about Enid and this congregation. Then on Monday, one of her neighbors found her walking around in her front yard, totally unaware of where she was. She was immediately rushed to the hospital and the tests showed that she had suffered a temporal lobe stroke. The temporal lobe is the part of the brain that controls language, perception, memory, and hearing. Fortunately I was able to fly to Maryland on Wednesday night, and spend most of the day with her on Thursday and Friday before flying back Friday night.
I understand why it happened. Or, I at least understand why these things happen even if I don’t understand the anatomy of it all. I understand that Grandma’s age makes her vulnerable. I understand that Grandma has other medical issues that make it all very complicated. But what I can’t understand right now, no matter how hard I try, is how and why such a terrible thing happened to one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. It doesn’t seem fair…it isn’t fair. From pretty much my first day of school until well into my masters work at Princeton, Grandma was my tutor. She tutored me so that I could squeak through all my math classes; she read drafts of papers before I turned them in; she would prod and poke me to think deeper about ideas that she didn’t think were quite fully developed yet. She’s knit blankets and hats for just about every baby born in my hometown for the last 30 years, she never missed church, and she never missed a milestone, no matter how small. But when I walked into her hospital room on Thursday morning, she didn’t know me. And there isn’t a great outlook that she’ll ever get any of that back. I wonder how many family stories are locked away in her mind, stories that I’ll never be able to hear. I wonder if she knows what is happening and just can’t find the words to tell us. I wonder how much longer she will be with us.
To be honest with you, its by far the worst things that’s happened in our family in a good long while. I’ve been walking around for the past few days feeling like someone has punched me in the stomach and continues to do so before I can catch my breath. I know for certain that many, if not all of you, here today know that feeling. I want to cry, but I also want to scream; I have so many questions, but I also don’t know what to know too much. Even though I am a pastor, trained in theology and history and the Bible, the one that is supposed to be strong so that others can work through their stuff, I’m asking, “Why, Lord, why?” And so far I haven’t gotten an answer. So far, the big man or the big woman upstairs has been totally silent and that is absolutely maddening. I believe I deserve an explanation—why this type of stoke? Why did it happen right now when we had made so many plans for the near future? Why did it happen to such a godly woman who has lived a totally selfless life? Why, why, why?
As the plane lifted off the runway in Baltimore for the first leg of my journey back to Enid Friday night, I rested back into my seat, consumed by the questions and the ‘what ifs’ and the uncertainty. I feel helpless and guilty that I’ve left my family behind to care for Grandma. I’ll say it again—it doesn’t seem fair, and it isn’t. This is not the way things should be. It is awful and terrible and evil and dark and I want to know why and I want God to give a full account of the things that have happened.
I’ve never been one to experience visions from God or hear the voice of God as if God is standing right next to me. I know those things happen, and happen often—I have just experienced God and heard God’s voice in different ways that are a lot less direct. But do you know in that moment, in that consuming moment of fear and grief and anger as the plane lifted into the air, I think I heard the Lord. Words echoed in my mind over and over, “I am victorious. I am victorious.” The word ‘victorious’ has been taken over by those folks who think that God will write them a big, fat check if they learn to pray the right way, but that isn’t what I was hearing. No, when I heard the word ‘victorious’ I found myself at the cross, watching as Christ wrestled with the power of death.
So I guess I do want to do some theology today. That image of Christ wrestling with death, the truth that Christ is victorious in the battle, has brought me a lot of comfort these past few days. It has brought me a lot of comfort because Grandma’s stroke, as if I needed a reminder, is a reminder that the nature of life is entirely unpredictable. Her stroke has reminded me that we have no worldly idea when we wake up in the morning what is going to happen to us before we put our head on the pillow at night. The past few days have been a reminder to me that life is an unfathomably complex thing, a delicate dance of life and death, beauty and pain, joy and heart-breaking sorrow. The idea that Christ has been victorious over death, those words “I am victorious,” are so comforting because if Christ has wrestled with sin and death and tragedy and suffering and has exhausted them, they can never again claim me and determine who I am. Yes, they are still around—they still have the ability to weasel their way into the life God has given us. But they are not the end, they are not the final word, they do not and cannot determine our ultimate reality. If Christ has taken on these powers and has won over them, it means that no stroke, no cancer, no suffering, and certainly not death, will ever pry us away from the mighty and loving hands of God.
I know that sounds really good—a real pie-in-the-sky type thing. But I know I’m not the only one here today who needs this good word. I know I’m not the only one here who has watched a family member become but a whisper of what they were. I know that I’m not the only one here who has sat back on a plane or in the car or in the hospital waiting room and asked God ‘why.’ I know that I’m not the only one here who has prayed so much that there are literally no more words to pray, and then heard nothing but silence on the other end. I know that I’m not the only one here who has looked death in the face and cowered away in fear and trembling. I know these things because each one of us here today is fearfully and wonderfully made. I know these things because I’ve walked with many of you through the valleys shadowed with death. I know these things because I’ve prayed by your hospital beds and in your living rooms, asking God for a better day, a healed body, a more hopeful future.
So listen to the good news of the Gospel, all of you here today. Our Lord Jesus Christ is victorious—not has been, or was, or will be. He is victorious. All those years ago, this man named Jesus came into the world to show us how to love and live peacefully with God and one another. This Jesus healed and preached and revealed the hypocrisy of many. He ran into a lot of trouble, especially when he told the powerful that they were not doing enough to help the powerless. These folks banded together and raised such a raucous that the government of Rome got involved. Jesus was sentenced to death after a false trial of false witnesses, and he was made to carry his cross to the execution place on the dump hill outside of Jerusalem. In that terrible place, he was crucified between two criminals as the guards gambled for his clothing and the crowds mocked him. When all things had be fulfilled he uttered his final words—“It is finished”—and he gave up his spirit. He gave it up. He gave up his spirit—no one took it from him—because even to the last moment, Christ was in control of all things. He is victorious.
And because Christ is victorious over all those things that would claim our lives, his arms are wide open to receive us. The picture on the front of your bulletin today by Salvador Dalí depicts Jesus and his disciples at their last meal; it also shows a torso and arms open in welcome. Art historians imagine that this was Dalí’s understanding of God, open and welcoming. They also point out that this image is like those that were commonly painted on the ceilings of ancient houses of worship. These paintings are called christus victor. They show Christ, enthroned and wearing a crown, sitting above everything on earth and below the earth. They also show Christ with open arms. That is really what christus victor is about. The power and struggle and victory stuff is good, but the real power of Jesus is in how he said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heaven burden, and I will give you rest.” This Jesus, this victorious one, this Son of God stands ready to embrace or catch or scoop up anyone that comes.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is good news for all of us. If you find yourself today, like me, in a place of sorrow or pain or suffering or confusion, you are not alone. You are not alone and you are not expected to put on a strong face and act like everything is OK; you do not have to get all gussied up to come before the Lord, and you don’t have to get all gussied up to be a part of this worshipping community. You’re alone. It is OK. If you find yourself in a place of peace and joy and clarity today, the rest of us need you. Those of us who find ourselves on the underside of life right now, we need you. We need you to sing when we can’t sing, we need you to pray when we’ve run out words, we need you to praise God and remind us of God’s presence when we feely entirely alone. We need you to testify to the fact that surely better days are coming, and then stick by us until that new day dawns. We promise that when the roles are reversed, we will be right there with you. Not one of us can do this alone. Christ has triumphed over the grave, death has lost its sting, and now only God can say who and what we are. The best way to live into this good news is if we do it together, and I for one am awful grateful that you are my companions on this journey.
As the season of Lent comes to a close, and we begin the long, slow decent into Jerusalem and the cross, may we all be reminded that Good Friday is only a day, that death is only a moment, that darkness and pain and suffering is flimsy and fleeting. Easter Sunday lays just on the other side for us, new life is always breaking through, and joy comes with the morning. Because great is God’s faithfulness—to me and to you. Amen.