September Sky/River (photo by Martin Malina, September 2022)

In the Shaun the Sheep Movie[1], a sleeping farmer accidentally rolls into a trailer and into the city. And it’s up to an adventurous lamb to bring him back, with help from the rest of the flock. It’s a humorous animation, a spin-off of the Wallace and Gromit franchise. 

Much of the humor comes from role reversal: while the farmer, suffering from amnesia, mechanically operates clippers in a hair salon, the sheep wear clothes, shop, and try to escape being captured by animal control. In the end, both the farmer and the sheep learn that they need one another. They experience the joy of depending on one another in their role reversals.[2]

But they never would have come to this satisfying and fulfilling conclusion without having experienced this reversal. They would not have deepened their relationships without having suffered through the discomfort of having their original expectations uprooted. Reversals happen when our expectations are turned upside down. And who we thought and what we thought were true are turned on its head.

In the bible we find several images for God and Jesus. In the Gospels which tell the story of Jesus, the image of God we may long have believed is turned upside down. A radical reversal.

For example, the prophet Jeremiah from the Hebrew scriptures introduces both the images of the Messiah as shepherd and king. Here is one who will “deal wisely, and execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[3] These images are later attributed to Jesus, echoed again in the New Testament (i.e. the image of shepherd in John 10).[4]

However, most references to Jesus as king occur during the Passion story, such as in today’s Gospel from Luke. The main symbol of Christ’s “kingship” is not a crown but a cross. Which ought to alert us to what happens often in the Gospel when we imagine God and what Jesus is about—a role reversal.

Diana Butler Bass writes in her book, Freeing Jesus, about this reversal of understanding who God is in Jesus Christ. Butler Bass suggests we talk more about the kin-dom of God rather than the king-dom.She writes that Jesus “used ‘kingdom of God’ to evoke . . . an alternative ‘order of things’ over and against the political context of the Roman Empire and its Caesar, the actual kingdom and king at the time.”

Moreover, Butler Bass goes on to write that “kingdom” has become a corrupted metaphor, one misused by the church throughout history to make itself into the image of an earthly kingdom. Indeed, Christians have often failed to recognize that ‘kingdom’ was an inadequate and incomplete way of speaking of God’s governance. “Kingdom” is not a call to set up our own empire. In contrast, ‘kin-dom,’ is an image of la familia, the …family of God working together for love and justice.” ‘Kin-dom’ is a metaphor closer to what Jesus intended.

The “’Kin-dom’ metaphor echoes an older understanding, one found in [for example] … the work of … Julian of Norwich. Julian wrote of ‘our kinde Lord,’ a poetic title … summoning images of a gentle Jesus. But … the word ‘kinde’ in medieval English did not mean ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant.’ Instead … in Middle English the words ‘kind’ and ‘kin’ were the same—to say that Christ is ‘our kinde Lord’ is not to say that Christ is tender and gentle, although that may be implied, but to say that he is kin—our kind …

“Jesus the Lord is our kin. The kind Lord is kin to me, you, all of us—making us one.” He is for all of us our next-of-kin. “This is a [radical reversal] of the image of kingdom and kings. ‘The Lord is kin’ … [does away with] the pretensions and politics of earthly kingdoms. [Because] Jesus calls forth a kin-dom.”[5]

I must admit, it is often out of fear and anxiety that I want Jesus to be my magical savior. So it can be frustrating when we discover a very different Jesus. Instead of one who fixes everything in an instant, Jesus is the one who walks with us through the darkest valleys. He is our kin.

Jesus is the one who calls us to lives of service—and again and again as we care for the needs of others we discover the face of Jesus himself in the lost, the last, and the least.[6] He is our kin.

On the cross, God is one who is revealed in weakness and vulnerability. God is one who comes to us in our sufferings and imperfections. The Reign of Christ Sunday this year can be of great help, in encouraging us to reframe our expectations of what it means to be the Body of Christ, the church. 

Who we are together, and anything we do together, are not validated in glory, majesty and spectacle. When we gather for worship, work together for the cause of helping others or even pray together—these activities are not validated because there are large numbers and it feels good. Rather, even where two or three are gathered, even when it doesn’t feel “like it used to”, even when the situation is anything but perfect—that is when and where God is revealed to us.

So let’s not give up on meeting together, even when numbers are small. Let’s not give up doing what little we can to fulfill the call of Christ in our lives. Let’s not give up dreaming and striving towards the future of God for us all. Because the Reign of Christ is upon us, soon and very soon. Christ Jesus comes to us in the humble moments of forgiveness, mercy, love and grace.

[1] StudioCanal, 2015

[2] “Day Resources”, 20 November 2022, Christ the King / Lectionary 34, Year C from Sundays and (Augsburg Fortress, 2015)

[3] Jeremiah 23:1-6

[4] John 10:1-21; Luke 23:33-43

[5] “King, kind, kin” December 12: Advent Calendar, from Freeing Jesus (Harper One, 2022) by Diana Butler Bass in The Cottage

[6] “Day Resources”, ibid.

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