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“Total Recall”: What to ‘Unforget’ about the Reign of Christ: Sunday, November 20, 2022

Reign of Christ/Christ the King:
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

I see in the crucifixion the message ‘punishment must end.’ In my schema, revealed to me… [t]his whole sin-punishment system is a smokescreen for our enslavement…. The crucifixion story says, ‘they punish you and they kill even spotless God who couldn’t be in any way sinful — and that is wrong.’ The story proves you don’t have to be sinful to get maximum punishment (death.) (And humiliation.) (Disgrace.)” [And think of the verbs we heard in the gospel story: “scoff,” “mock” and “deride.”] “It shows there is no connection between sin (or imagined sin) and punishment. This is the lesson of Calvary.*

That’s not from one of the usual suspects: a bishop, or monastic, or Biblical scholar. That’s Philip K. Dick, one of the most prolific science fiction authors of last century. You probably know something of his work, if you’ve seen Blade Runner, or Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone in Total Recall. Or on Amazon Prime, the series The Man in the High Castle, about an imagined alternative universe in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. All of those based on his novels or short stories.

The story goes that in the winter of 1974 a young woman delivered a package to his home, and she was wearing a Christian necklace, with what we’d call a ‘Jesus fish.’ (Other versions say that it was a Christian bumper sticker taped to a window; this story is not without its issues.) Light bounced off the symbol and into his eyes, and it started a couple of months of strange happenings to him (or in his mind). In which he believed God, or an angel, or his recently-deceased Anglican bishop friend, communicated with him, even cluing him into an unknown birth defect in his young child, that led to life-saving surgery. And not only that, but he described this moment of the light bouncing off the fish symbol as leading to “anamnesis,” the word that Jesus used at supper with his friends: “do this in anamnesis of me.” Meaning “remembrance,” or more literally, “not/un-forgetting.” And the thing that he ‘unforgot’ was something like we are (or at least he was) living in 1st century Rome; the Roman Empire is still very much a thing; and not a benevolent thing. He described our situation of being in a “Black-Iron Prison” of illusions in which we don’t realize that we have been saved and freed by Christ.

NOW, as good as a science fiction thinker as he was, Philip K. Dick has no binding or official authority for us, even though he ran in some Anglican circles. Let’s hold onto all of this gently. The truth is, he had a history of wrestling with his mental health. He regularly took recreational drugs (on top of his prescriptions), and he had just had badly-done dental surgery that necessitated a cocktail of opiates on top of whatever else he was consuming. He may have just been imagining things. But it doesn’t hurt to hear him when he says that this imaginary prison “warps every new effort at freedom into the mold of further tyranny.”** And, “Rome is always the same: Rome in USA 1974… in A.D. 45…. [this prison] constantly repeats…. So in a real sense it is dead; more precisely it is a reflex system of some kind, recirculating forever… warped into an orbitting [sic] circle — it has us.”***

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.” Both the prophet Jeremiah and the author Phil Dick identify and name our conundrum: there are forces that press upon us, getting in the way of our flourishing. Whether circling around us, pressing us in, or scattering us, keeping us apart… “Rome is always the same,” whether it’s the Rome that put Jesus to death, or Babylon, or the contemporary state or institution. There are imprisoning thrones and dominions of this world that don’t like the idea of the lordship of Christ, and don’t understand the paradoxical throne of the Cross.

And whether or not we trust our unreliable and admittedly intoxicated science fiction narrator, Dick is right that the ancient Christian symbol of the fish (as I said a few weeks ago, telling us how we’re ‘born in the water’ of baptism), is an anamnesis — a remembrance — that we’re actually free. Free because God, in Christ, experienced the worst of what we and the world have to offer, and still chose to be present to us, to be with us, in that.

So if God is there with us in what we would expect is the farthest thing from God (death, pain, shame, accursedness), then we have hope, and freedom to live in the mess with that hope. That message of hope is what we call, as shorthand, The Gospel; “the inheritance of the saints in the light” that we share, as the Letter to the Colossians puts it. “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of [the] beloved Son, in whom we have redemption…. For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

That is the message for us to remember, or “unforget” as Dick translated it: that deep down we are free. Free to love like Jesus did. The forces of the world, he said, are like circling, orbitting arms, entwining us. Or like Jeremiah wrote, like bad shepherds, striking out at the sheep. But the alternative lordship, and alternative existence we’re given in Jesus is one of vulnerability and self-giving: arms outstretched on the cross, loving his own to the end. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, Eds. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 347-348.
** ibid., 346.
*** ibid., 352-353.