I have never been to a renaissance fair…excuse me…faire. You have to end that word with the required final “e” so you can make it look like Old English, not that anybody spoke Old English during the renaissance. As a matter of fact, they spoke what is called Middle English, which simplified the case endings of nouns inherent in Old English, aka Anglo-Saxon, and Proto Modern English, as spoken by Shakespeare and as used in the King James Bible. But I digress.
I have never been to a renaissance faire, and neither has anyone else. Those events, no matter what they call them, don’t really celebrate the renaissance as much as they do the Middle Ages. The renaissance (as if there were only one—ha!) lasted roughly from the 1500s through the 1700s. But at your typical renaissance faire you see men dressed in the armor of knights in battle and women in either gowns or in lovely peasant dresses with garlands of flowers in their hair, all of which more consistent with medieval times than of the renaissance. People laugh and play and dance and have a jolly good time feasting and carousing as if living during that time period were some lost age of innocence.
What fascinates me is that anybody would really long for those days. They weren’t particularly good. The average life span during that time period was thirty-five years. Of course, that’s an average. If you lived into your teens without dying of some dread disease or by billing hacked to pieces by some roving band of Vikings, you might expect to live into your fifties, if you were lucky. Sanitation was non-existent and the air was filled with diseases.
Only the very wealthy could cavort about like the people enjoying those renaissance faires. Most people were poor. They ate simple, monotonous meals of bread, cheese, and vegetables. Once in a great while, they might have meat.
For peasants life was one of toil. Most people in the Middle Ages lived in small villages of 20 or 30 families. The land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year two were sown with crops while one was left fallow to allow it to recover. Each peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox, so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to pull a plough. After ploughing, the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women planted peas and beans.
However life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy days (from which we get our word holiday). And there were lots of them. In fact, there were more Holy days than working days. During Holy Days, after going to church, the poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football.
This just goes to show the importance of the church. In those days the church was the ultimate institution. The church had more power than any earthly ruler. And you’d best not do or say anything that conflicted with the teachings of the church, or you may just find yourself being burned alive. But as much as you respected mother church, you trusted in your king.
You owed all allegiance to your king. Without your king, you had no protection, no land, no life. Your king owned the land upon which you dwelt. It was to the king you gave the lion’s share of all your hard labor, your crops, because the king never lowered himself to simple farming. The king provided you with protection from marauders. When the raiders came, you could hold up in the king’s castle. His army would protect you because you were too lowly to be allowed to take up arms. Your king was the ultimate judge of all earthly matters, and the church judged everything else.
We don’t really understand what that whole idea of kingship means. We have lived in a democratic society for so long that the thought of serving some kind of lord is incomprehensible to us. Imagine there being one person for whom you would be willing to lay down your life willingly, happily. You would do this because you owed yours and your family’s whole continued existence to him. If you were a man, your king even had the right of “first night” with your bride.
So it is almost funny to hear so many born again Christians talking about King Jesus. They have no idea of what a king is or what a king does. If they did, they wouldn’t be so keen on the idea of God being a king. We don’t understand kings. But the people back in the first century did. And so did Jesus. So in order to make his teachings understood, Jesus put things in a way they could understand. People saw governments in terms of kingdoms. The thought of a true democracy was foreign to them. Even the ancient Greeks did not practice true democracy.
This Sunday celebrates the feast of Christ the King, and it is the end of our studies in Matthew. So I will finish Matthew with a couple of portions which summarize that gospel’s view of the teachings of Jesus the Christ. Like anyone of that time, the author of Matthew depicts Jesus as a king and a judge. Note this portion from the twenty-fifth chapter:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘In truth, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
“Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
“He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’”
Remember that Matthew was written during a period of intense persecution of those people who had become members of the new sect of Judaism that followed the teachings of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. It isn’t easy to stand strong in your faith and believe while you’re being tortured and killed. These people needed some kind of reassurance that there would be some kind of eventual justice meted out to the people who were persecuting them. So comes the Judgement Day, Jesus is going to separate humankind into the sheep and goats.
And it is interesting to note that judgement rests not on what rules we follow, what rituals we perform, what words we say, but rather, on what we do NOT do. Those who are to be condemned are those who do NOT feed, do NOT comfort, do NOT nurture one another. You will notice that there is nothing in there about those who sleep around or who are homosexuals or who get divorced. You want to hang out with God? Play nice. Be nice. Be kind. Love one another. Because whatever you do to each other, you do to God; you are an extension of God. You are divine. You are sacred. You are holy.
At the end of Matthew, in the twenty-eighth chapter, the now risen Jesus has called his eleven remaining students to meet him on a mountain. This is no doubt to parallel the story of Moses who goes up to the mountain to talk to God after bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt. But here, instead of Moses, a prophet, going up the mountain, it is a group of common people, people like us, who go up the mountain to meet with the divine. We don’t need a prophet to talk to God for us. We can talk to God ourselves. Here, on the mountain, Jesus gives his students what is called “The Great Commission.”
“Then Jesus approached and said to them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make students of all races, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit, teaching them all I have told you to do. And perceive that I am with you until the end of the age.”
The account says that the eleven remaining students (Judas was gone by now, remember?) went up the mountain and when they saw Jesus they bowed down, but that some of them doubted (the Greek word also means to hesitate—so they hesitated). So, even after all they had seen and done, they still doubted. Even after seeing Jesus himself, risen from the tomb, they still doubted. Doubt is the prerequisite for faith. You cannot have faith unless you first doubt, and then conquer doubt.
In the very beginning of Matthew, which I shared with you a year ago, I pointed out that Jesus came out of the wilderness after many days of fasting and prayer, teaching that the people of Judea had to change their way of thinking. God was not some magic guy in the sky waiting to reward you or punish you according to how well you followed the rules, but a loving creator-parent whose very nature is to love and nurture. He taught that God is with us, a part of us. He taught that faith is the medium by which we connect to that divine spirit. We are divine. We just have to believe that it is so.
And in the end, we will judge ourselves not by what we did, but by what we failed to do. He taught us to let ourselves be ruled by love, to be loving people. We are the hands of God. And so God is not interested in empty prayers and praises. We praise God with every kindness. And in his final great commission, he tells his students that there are no chosen special people. The divine is present in all people, all races. Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me. We are the brothers and sisters of Christ.
There are many scholars who believe that the portion about baptism in the trinity (father, son and spirit) was added later by early church fathers to cement the idea of the Holy Trinity and the ritual of baptism. But I suspect that Jesus would, at the very least, approve of these words. For what is baptism but an act of faith, a ritual that is an action based on a belief? And faith is essential to connect with the divine. And there is nothing so terribly odd about the idea of the trinity. God (or whatever you want to call God) is present in the creator, present in human flesh, and present in the energy spirit of all living things. The words “Holy Trinity” are only words, after all, just spoken written representations of an abstract idea that most likely is beyond any human understanding.
This has been my purpose in writing these Sunday blogs. It has been very popular, especially among the young and hip, to discount all religious ideas as irrational and outmoded. We tend to view religious people as Palin-Bush-Falwell-Robertsons, a bunch of hateful, judgmental, superstitious hypocrites, people for whom the world is simple and life is in black and white, for whom there are clear cut rules. And so I have asked you all to judge the Christian faith not by the people who claim to be Christians, but by the teachings of the man upon whom the faith is based. There is a reason Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Imagine your life with no anxiety and no fear, filled with love and hope.
And especially, in these times, when it seems as though our world is falling apart, where uncertainty seems to be around each corner, it seems that it would be a great comfort to know and believe that we are not facing these challenges alone. I find great comfort in the words of the 23rd psalm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” I know I do not walk alone. As long as I reach out in love to those around me, I am never alone. And, in the end, as I face the daily unknown, I remember those final words of Jesus to his students, and to me, “I am with you, even unto the end of the world.”