[Texts: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-6]
So far in 2015, in fewer than 280 days, we’ve had 294 mass shootings.
Two hundred and ninety-four.
No, not 294 victims of shootings. 294 shootings—294 discrete events in which at least four victims died apiece, according to the FBI’s definition of a “mass shooting”. (So, for example, three shootings in one day doesn’t mean that three people died; it means no fewer than twelve people died.)
After this most recent tragedy—the shooting on Thursday that claimed ten lives at a community college in Oregon—my best friend tweeted that she felt “undone” by the violence and pain in the world.
I’d say that describes how most of us probably feel, yeah?
With the exception of the writing I’ve done about Heather Cook’s situation, I have never written a blog post while choking on my own tears. Well, until today. Bear with me, please. My heart is heavy.
It’s Friday morning, as I’m sitting here writing this for the second time. I say “for the second time” because I wrote most of this week’s post yesterday. It’s generally my goal to get my Sunday lectionary reflection done on Thursday. I was mostly done with what I wanted to say—a fairly mild, predictable piece about what it means to bear the image of Christ in the world today, based on the reading from Hebrews—when I decided to take a break, go for a walk, and eat lunch. I planned to finish my blog post before the beginning of the Ravens game at 8:30.
By the time I got home, however, my news feed was blowing up with news of a campus shooting. The next few hours were spent following the coverage and hearing the awful statistics about gun violence in America. I was sickened. Another shooting. Another ten lives lost.
This morning, I finally sat down to work on my post again, and realized how trite it was. I was talking about being a Christian—a God-bearer—“in the world today” without giving much thought to what that phrase meant. In fact, I had been contrasting the world that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews—who may or may not have been St. Paul of Tarsus–was writing to, where a greedy, oppressive, violent empire reigned and Christians were being persecuted left and right, to the world we live in today, which is nothing like that. My premise was, how can we apply the author’s exhortations in a totally different context?
I have said this before and I will say it again: Christians are, in no way, shape, or form being persecuted, oppressed, or otherwise marginalized in any Western country in 2015. I stand by that.
But I was also wrong about other things. Aside from who is persecuting whom, I was wrong about the context of the Epistle to the Hebrews being so far removed from our own. We do live under the rule of an aggressive and needlessly war-mongering empire—it’s called the United States of America. We do live under a system in which money comes first and people come second—it’s called capitalism. We do live in a society where people are being murdered in droves—people of color are being gunned down in the street by racist cops who shoot first and ask questions later. Children are being killed at school, the place where they should be the safest, and often by their own peers—children themselves— whose mental and psychological struggles are only being given the time of day posthumously, after the damage has been done. Women are being murdered by their husbands and boyfriends. Mass shootings are being committed left and right, many by people who should have been denied the right to own a gun in the first place, based on the background check and psychological evaluation they should have been given before being allowed to purchase one. Not to mention, we as taxpayers sanction the almost-daily murder of inmates by the government in a system known as “capital punishment”, an egregious evil which really has no place in a Western democracy in the twentieth, let alone twenty-first, century—the same evil whose first-century victims included the man whom Christians claim to regard as the author of our faith and just about all of his original followers. But I digress.
We are not so far removed from the Christians to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written as we might like to think.
Do you know the origin of the word “Christian”? Did you know that Christians didn’t invent it? On the contrary, it was a derogatory term that originated in the first century, prior to the conversion of St. Paul.
Christians themselves– those who affirmed the resurrection of Christ and identified themselves as his followers–simply called their movement “ἡ ὁδός” — “the way”. ὁδός (HAW-dawss) is also the Greek word for a road or route; a means of getting somewhere.
We are told in the eleventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that Christians were first called “Χριστιανός” (chriss-tee-AWN-owess) by a group of pagans at Antioch. In other words, the early “followers of the way” were nicknamed “Christians” by those outside their movement. The moniker wasn’t meant to be complimentary, nor was it used in a kind way. In fact, it was an ugly term, used to express contempt for the weirdos who were running around claiming their leader had risen from the dead.
The word Χριστιανός appears three times in the Bible: the time we just talked about, which is Acts 11:26, plus Acts 26:28 and I Peter 4:16. All three instances of the word are derogatory.
Do you know what Χριστιανός actually means? It’s related to the word χριστός (KRISS-tawss) which means “the anointed one” or “Messiah”. χριστός is the root of the word “Christ”.
If you’re familiar with the phrases “κυριε ᾿ελεισον” (KEE-ree-ay ay-LAY-zon) and “χριστέ ᾿ελεισον” (KREE-stay ay-LAY-zon), which are often used in worship, then you already know a form of χριστός. “χριστέ ᾿ελεισον” means “Christ, have mercy”, and χριστέ is a form of χριστός. (κυριε is a form of κυριος, which means “Lord” or “Master”, so “κυριε ᾿ελεισον” means “Lord, have mercy”.)
Χριστιανός, then, means “little χριστός” or “little Christ”. It’s χριστός plus a diminutive– an ending added to indicate that something is a smaller version of something else. We do that in English too–a piglet is a little pig, an owlet is a little owl, and a booklet is a little book. So, if the pagan contemporaries of St. Barnabas who came up with the word Christian had been English speakers, we might have been called Christlets. It’s the same idea.
Early Christians were nicknamed “little Christs”, which isn’t exactly flattering since most non-Christians regarded Jesus as a criminal, a lunatic, and a disturber of the peace.
And yet, today, we use the term “Christian” to describe ourselves. What are we saying when we call ourselves little Christs?
A phrase that really stuck out to me in today’s reading from Hebrews is found in the third verse. Jesus is called “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”.
In other words, the Son is the visible, tangible, audible, skin-wearing image of the invisible Father.
God the Father dwells, as the hymn says, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” while God the Son– Jesus, the Messiah, the χριστός– walked around first-century Palestine as a human being. But even though he was fully man, fully human, he was also still fully God. The fullness of God, the complete and perfect image of God– and, indeed God himself– lived among us. We are told in the same verse from the reading from Hebrews that Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, which is something we affirm every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed. Jesus is the perfect image of God.
Do you know what else bears God’s image?
In fact, just one chapter before today’s reading in Genesis, God announces that man– meaning humankind– will be made in his own image. We bear God’s image, all of us.
Of course, Christians are not unique in being God-bearers. This is true of all humans– and, in fact, the whole created order– not just us. We are all equally God’s children, and we all bear his image, regardless of what name or names we call the Divine or how we worship and understand it, or whether we believe in a higher Power at all. Christians are unique because our understanding of the Divine is Trinitarian, and because we affirm the bodily resurrection of the second Person of the Trinity. We do not have unique or special access to the Divine, or to ultimate Truth; nor are we the only ones who bear the image of God. We simply look through a unique lens to learn about Truth and the Divine and the big questions of life.
That lens is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the χριστός, and much of our identity comes from what we believe to be true about him. Much of what we understand about God comes from what we believe about the life of the man whom we affirm to be the second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. When we want to know what it means to be a God-bearer, we look to Christ, who was God with us– Emmanuel– God on earth, the invisible made visible, the Word made flesh.
So, as it turns out, the pagans at Antioch weren’t wrong when they dubbed our ancestors “little Christs”. We are little God-bearers. We are little, visible flesh-wearers imprinted with the image of the immortal, invisible God. We are little Christs.
So, let me ask you again:
What are we saying when we call ourselves little Christs?
What does it mean to call ourselves little Christs in a world where there are more shootings in a year than days in a year?
What does it mean to call ourselves little Christs in a world where violence is so common that we have almost run out of outrage?
What does it mean to call ourselves little Christs in a world where the despair of our brothers and sisters is so profound and widespread that we are literally killing one another?
What does the childlike faith that Jesus demands of us in our reading from St. Mark’s gospel even mean, in a world where children are not only the victims of mass shootings, but also sometimes the perpetrators?
How do we bear the image of God to a world where even children have forgotten how to be children?
How do we bear the image of God to a world that has forgotten how to see the image of God– in one another, in Creation, and especially in ourselves– to the point where murder has become a staple of life in this country?
I don’t have the answers, my friends. I really don’t. I have grief, anger, confusion, and exhaustion. But I don’t have answers.
I have nothing to offer but this prayer: