Chariots of Fire

Reign of Christ Sunday
Ephesians 1:15–23

There is a story in the sixth chapter of the second book of Kings that reminds me of the passage from Ephesians that we read earlier. It seems the prophet Elisha has done something to tick off the king of Aram, who sends his army to the town where Elisha is holed up. They come by night and surround the city. When the prophet’s servant gets up the next morning and sees the horses and chariots and infantry just beyond the walls of the town, he quails with fear and says, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” (1 Kgs 6:15). Elisha answers, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them” (1 Kgs 6:16). The servant must look at him as if he were crazy, because the prophet then prays, “‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant,” the writer goes on to say, “and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (1 Kgs 6:17).

The same sort of thing is going on in the letter to the Ephesians. The writer, who claims to be Paul but is probably someone writing in his name after the original Paul’s death, says to his readers:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of [God’s] great power” (vv. 17–19).

Like Elisha praying for his servant to be able to see what he sees, the writer is asking God to open the Ephesians’ eyes—or, technically, the eyes of their hearts, whatever that means exactly—so they can see what is real. He is pulling back a veil to reveal something beautiful where before nothing was visible. He knows it is there, and now he wants his readers to see it as well.

It’s not always easy to see with the eyes of hope. Like Elisha’s servant, we can become immobilized by fear when we see the forces arrayed against us. We live in a world that is unfriendly toward dissidents, yet that is precisely what we are called to be. Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve, calls us to follow him in his subversion of expectations and mores. When he bucked tradition and did things that flew in the face of conventional wisdom and practice, he earned the ire of the gatekeepers of religious, political, and social propriety. He encountered opposition when he healed on the Sabbath, when he shared table fellowship indiscriminately, when he welcomed sinners and collaborators, when he invited women to become his disciples, and so on. When he refused to back down but instead increased the pressure, bringing his confrontational message of God’s reign to the center of power in Jerusalem, he got what dissidents nearly always get: dead.

If you were to encourage his disciples during that devastating period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday to look at the world with the eyes of hope, they likely would have looked at you with the same expression of disbelief and indignation that Elisha’s servant looked at him with. They may have told you to take a long walk off a short pier. They may have turned on you in anger born of hopelessness and fear. They may have argued with you that hope no longer resided in the realm of possibility now that Jesus was gone. The powers had got him, and now the disciples had every reason to expect that they would be next. When they looked out the window they would have seen only the war horses and chariots of the king of Aram, and they would have concluded that despair was the most logical option going forward.

But the writer of the letter to the Ephesians would not have been daunted by their inability to see beyond the darkness of the present moment, but would have prayed for them to know the hope to which they had been called and to recognize the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. It would have undoubtedly sounded like mockery to Peter and the others, until God opened their eyes so they could see the horses and chariots of fire all around them. Or, to use a more appropriate, less warlike image, until God opened their eyes by showing them an empty tomb and a risen Savior.

That’s where the immeasurably great power the writer talks about comes into play: at the empty tomb. He writes, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (v. 20a). The resurrection of Jesus represents God’s final verdict. Whereas the powers—including Pontius Pilate, the chief priests, and all the representatives of the domination system from Galilee to Jerusalem and all the way to Rome—have declared Jesus guilty of rebellion, sedition, and disturbing the peace, and have sentenced him to death, God has overturned that decision in the supremest court of all. God vindicates Jesus and his message in the resurrection, simultaneously condemning those who condemned him. The cross and resurrection reveal the truth about the powers—that while they may look fearsome and may inspire terror when they roar, they are at the end of the day nothing more than paper tigers. They are like the armies of the king of Aram: loud and intimidating, but no match for God’s fiery horses and chariots.

But it doesn’t stop at the tomb. The writer goes on to say that God “seated [Jesus] at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (vv. 20b–21). The hope to which the Ephesians and, by extension, we are called is the hope that the one who was born in obscurity in a cattle stall and who died an ignominious death outside the walls of Jerusalem—just one more anonymous victim of the machinery of Empire—is in actuality the ruler of the cosmos. The hope to which we are called is that the armies of the king of Aram do not have the last word. Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas and Caesar Tiberius do not have the last word. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping and Donald Trump do not have the last word. God has the last word. God has not only vindicated Jesus and his Way but has also established Jesus as the ruler and judge of all those who set themselves up as his rulers and judges. The writer says that God “has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things” (v. 22).

As I mentioned earlier, however, it’s not always easy to see with the eyes of hope. I don’t think I’m revealing any state secrets when I say that. When we look at the world it is sometimes hard to maintain even a smidgen of hope that God is in charge, that Christ is on the throne. It looks instead to all appearances as if some kind of demonic power is in control, propping up the lesser powers from behind the scenes and pulling strings to make the world dance to its diabolical tune. When we insist on despoiling the earth to satisfy our avarice; when we rush headlong into war and violent conflict at the drop of a hat; when the strong take advantage of and dominate the weak; when those with a degree of power use it to intimidate, harass, or assault vulnerable persons within their sphere of influence; when racial and ethnic divisions put us at enmity with our neighbors and cause us to live in suspicion and fear; when we set up an economic system in which, in the words of songwriter Mark Heard, “the rich get richer and inherit the meek”—when all this is true of the world we see before us, it’s well nigh impossible to muster the faith it takes to look with eyes of hope. The immediacy of the armies outside our gates blinds us to the reality of the fiery chariots coming to our defense.

That’s why the writer of the Ephesian letter prays that God will give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation, and that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened. There is a deeper truth that lies behind the visible world, and it can only be seen with the eyes of faith. We must therefore pray for God to enlighten the eyes of our heart, and to train and discipline those eyes to see that deeper truth. All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Jesus, not Caesar, not Xi, not Trump, sits on the throne of the world, and his Way—the way of redemptive suffering, of sacrifice, of serving instead of seeking to be served, of humility, of love for the enemy, and all the other counterintuitive notions Jesus taught that put him at odds with the way of the world—will win out in the end.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday or, in earlier parlance, Christ the King Sunday. It is the culmination of the church year and the day we set aside to celebrate Jesus’s universal lordship. But in reality we acknowledge that lordship every time we gather for worship. Every Sunday we ascribe to God the kingdom, the power, and the glory, and we pray for the coming of God’s reign and the doing of God’s will on earth, just as it is done perfectly in heaven. When I pray those lines of the Lord’s Prayer, I always make a point of emphasizing the words “thy” and “thine,” as in, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and, “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” I do this to remind myself not only that God reigns, but also that no one else does.

In the Ten Commandments God tells the Israelites to worship no other gods besides God, and these lines of the Lord’s Prayer make the same point. If God reigns, if Christ is on the throne, then nobody else can be. When we offer our allegiance to God, we withdraw it from all other claimants. Jesus himself says that no one can serve two masters, and so if we declare Jesus to be our Lord, we can no longer play that role ourselves. Neither can our country, or family, or church, or career, or political party, or anything else that might try to claim our loyalty. The yes we say to God is a simultaneous no to every other would-be god or lord. Thine is the kingdom. No one else’s. Thine.

Are we ready for this kind of commitment? It’s not something to be taken lightly. When the first few generations of Christians made the primal confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” they understood the risk involved. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not, and therefore one could no longer offer the pinch of incense to the Emperor in the pagan temple. To refuse to do so marked one as a troublemaker, a traitor, a threat. It was no simple thing at that time to declare one’s faith in the reign of Christ; in fact, it could turn out to be a matter of life or death.

It’s not the same for us—we don’t generally face persecution for our religious commitments. In this country there tends to be a live-and-let-live mentality. That is, until those religious commitments spill over into public life in threatening ways. We can believe anything we want, but if our beliefs translate into actions that go against the grain of the culture, look out. If our commitment to Christ the king and his way leads us to refuse to fight in or pay for our nation’s wars, look out. If it leads us to take unpopular stances on issues of the day, look out. If we take the way of Jesus so seriously that we take to the streets to demand civil rights or oppose police brutality or defend undocumented immigrants, look out. In such times Jesus’s warning that to follow him means to take up one’s cross takes on a new meaning.

This day demands that we answer some hard questions. Is Jesus my Lord or not? Am I willing to put all my eggs in the basket marked Christ the King? Am I prepared to throw caution to the wind and take up my cross to follow Jesus? Am I willing to put my reputation and social standing and career on the line in commitment to his way? Do I really mean it when I say, “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory?” Do I have the courage to look at the world with the eyes of hope? And finally, when I look outside will I quake with fear to see the armies of the king of Aram surrounding the city, or will I see instead God’s chariots of fire?

Robert TurnerComment