The Gathered Meeting and the Christ
April 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Toward a “Theology” for Liberal Friends, Part 7
As I wrote in the last post, the experience of gathering in the gathered meeting is a psychic bonding of the worshippers in a shared consciousness of presence, unity, and joy. The worshippers are present to each other, aware of each other’s presence, and we share a unity of mind and spirit. And the knowing and the sharing fill us with a sometimes marvelous joy.
This shared consciousness, this meeting of the worshippers’ consciousnesses, this intimacy between our minds and our spirits, this being conscious of each other’s intention, creates a super-consciousness—a living synergy of mind and spirit that is greater than the sum of our individual consciousnesses. This “greater-than-ness” suffuses us individuals with a fullness of mind, a fulfillment of spirit, and a transcendental joy. At least, that is how I have experienced it.
This synergy of the gathered meeting, the psychic sharing, the oneness that is greater than the sum of the one-nesses—what is this? How shall we name it?
Suppose we name it the Christ. (Let’s put aside for a moment the relationship between the Christ and Jesus—just for a moment.) I say “the Christ” because “Christ” is not a name but a title. In the Greek of Christian scripture, “christos” means anointed. (In the Hebrew of Hebrew scripture, “messiah” means anointed. Christos is the word the Greek-speaking evangelists used to say “messiah” in their gospels.) This word means a lot of things in a lot of different contexts. Let me try to describe what I think it means in the context of the gathered meeting.
First let me define the Christ in terms of consciousness, working from the testimony of scripture. Usually we define Christ as the person Jesus, in his aspect as God’s son, almost as though “Christ” was his surname. (I want to get more deeply into what “God’s son” means in a later post.) I will therefore most often speak of “Jesus the Christ” rather than of “Jesus Christ”. But here, let’s think about what “the Christ” means in terms of consciousness. I want to approach it from two different angles—the meaning Jesus himself gave to his role as the Christ, and the meaning that the tradition has given—and I want to put them both in the context of the gathered meeting.
The consciousness of the Christ—as Jesus defined it
“Christ-hood”, “messiah-ship”, as Jesus himself defined it can be found in Luke 4:16-30. This is the only place in the synoptic gospels in which he explicitly defines his role as the Christ, and this makes it, in my opinion, the most important passage in Christian scripture.
Luke emphasizes this importance in several ways with the structure of the narrative. These are the first words Jesus utters in his public ministry in Luke’s gospel. Luke puts these words in a formal setting: Jesus has just emerged from his sojourn in the wilderness after his anointing of the spirit at his baptism and his testing by the Adversary in the wilderness, and it is a homecoming—Jesus has returned to his home town to make a formal pronouncement about his mission, much as a modern politician will declare her or his candidacy in their home town. He sets the vignette in Jesus’ home town synagogue, a place dedicated to worship and teaching, to proclaiming God’s world. And the words themselves are formal—he first reads a quote from the prophet Isaiah, then makes a formal pronouncement that he is fulfilling the prophecy here and now.
Because of their importance, I quote at some length (Luke 4:17-21):
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: “The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because he has anointed me [‘christ-ed’ me, ‘messiah-ed’ me]; he has sent me to proclaim [evangelion, the root of our word evangelism] good news to the poor/oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors” [the year of Jubilee mandated in Leviticus 25, in which all debts are forgiven, all debt slaves are released, all families that have lost their inheritance to foreclosure are returned to their family farms, and all fields are to lie fallow].
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Note that the text I have quoted Jesus as reading comes directly from Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2); it is not the text given in Luke. Luke, a Greek speaker, was working with the Septuagint, an early translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek. But the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus has been invited to be a guest rabbi and read the Torah would have used a Hebrew text, not the Greek. The text reads slightly differently in Hebrew and Greek and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I prefer the original Hebrew.)
Jesus has just declared that he is the one who has been promised by Isaiah, who has been anointed by God’s holy spirit. “Christ-hood”, as Jesus defines it in his own case, is an anointing of the spirit. Christ-hood is a consciousness. It is the anointing, the inspiration, of the Holy Spirit, which has imbued him with the spiritual authority to proclaim God’s kingdom on God’s behalf, with the knowledge of the kingdom’s essential elements (its contents, if you will, his teachings), and with the charismatic power to implement it, to heal, teach, convince, and forgive in God’s name.
This consciousness was personal—it was Jesus’ consciousness. But it was also collective—it could be shared. Jesus could raise it up in others, as he did for Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration, and when he healed people or persuaded them with his preaching. And the community shared in this consciousness when the community itself was imbued with the Holy Spirit, as it was at the Pentecost, as it was when it met for the common meal, for community teaching and distribution of poor relief, as we see in Acts 2 and 4, and when it met to decide on Paul’s Gentile mission (Acts 15). The Transfiguration, the Pentecost, the lifestyle of discipleship that we see glimpses of in Acts—these we could describe as gathered meetings for worship.
“The Christ” (among other things) is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, in which the worshippers are imbued with the same spirit that anointed Jesus as the Christ.
Now this has all been my interpretation of scripture, just the kind of top-down, ideas-driven handling of our legacy that I said at the beginning of this series I was not going to rely on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it, only that I would not rely on it as the starting point or benchmark for my project of Liberal Quaker theology. Instead, I resolved to rely on experience, which we know to be true because we have experienced it. I diverted to this kind of theologizing in order to establish a context for what I will say in a moment. But first, let’s focus for a moment on the more common and traditional definition of the Christ—as savior. From there we will segue into the experience of the gathered meeting.
The consciousness of the Christ—as the tradition defines it
“The Christ”, according to traditional Christian theology, but here restated in somewhat new terms, is the consciousness raised up by God in Jesus for the salvation of God’s people, for their redemption, for their healing. It is the consciousness that saves us from the Adversary—from our tendency to do wrong and from the conflicts that prevent our unity. “The Christ” is the consciousness that redeems us from our debts (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”), in which we are forgiven because we forgive each other for our failure to give each other what we owe each other—that is, love. The Christ is the consciousness that makes us whole as a worshipping community, and in doing so, it also makes the individual members of the community whole, if only for a moment. The Christ is the consciousness of those who live in the kingdom. The Christ is love.
That’s also a description of the gathered meeting. “The Christ”—among other things—is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, in which the worshippers are reconciled to God and made one, made whole, set free from the captivity of the self.
I am reversing the vector of semantics here: Instead of defining the gathered meeting as the work of the Christ, I am defining the Christ as the spirit of love, unity, and joy that we experience in the gathered meeting.
The gathered meeting is an anointing of the spirit, an ascent, if you will, into Christ-consciousness.
But where does Jesus the Christ fit into this? I will explore this question in the next entry.