A Beautiful Execution

Jesus was a revolutionary–a political dissident who was executed for his subversion of the Roman government. I know, it’s a bit unsettling to layer modern legal terms over stories that took place ages ago in another world. Crucifixion? Yep, we’ve been using that term long enough that we’ve desensitized ourselves to its true meaning. Execution? That sounds more like something that happens today…to criminals.

And yet there it is, in the Bible and serving as the foundation of our faith—Jesus was executed as a political criminal. God raised him from the dead three days later as a witness to God’s existence, Jesus’s identity, God’s power and triumph over death, and God’s promise to raise us one day too.

We prefer to focus on these truths rather than the ugliness of a death sentence and execution. But he was executed. And before that, he was arrested, imprisoned, and beaten. This was all legit because legally, the government had a case against him. He *was* teaching things that sounded like resistance to Roman rule. When faced with the government’s questioning, he didn’t defend himself.

Of course we know his trouble had more to do with the religious authorities than the government. When the religious leaders were fed up with his critiques, outrageous claims, contempt for some of their rules, and the ways in which he was leading others astray, they turned to the government to end this once and for all.

Those words printed in red ink in Bibles, verses we hold so dear and put to lovely melodies, phrases we memorize and cross-stitch on pillows—those are the words that got him killed.

I mean basically, if you were wealthy or powerful–middle class on up—and you weren’t helping others, Jesus had some harsh words for you. He criticized your traditions, called out the way you spent money and hoarded possessions, and questioned your loyalties. He didn’t have you singing “what a friend we have in Jesus…”

Jesus’ tenderness was for the poor, the one whose neck was trapped under the boot of oppression. His kind words were for those society said “no” to: the one with disabilities, the one whose only means of earning a living was by selling her body, the one infected with an incurable disease. To all of these he said “YES. The kingdom is for you. God is for you. I am for you. All those labels and divisions and hierarchies—rubbish. God’s kingdom is for everyone and you’re the first ones there. I’m here making God accessible to all.” And that got him killed.

But that was Jesus. And this is us. That was then. And this is now.

I mean, yeah, we want to be like Jesus, but… that doesn’t mean we protest in ways that might bring us harm, right? That doesn’t mean we speak truth to power and get ourselves slaughtered metaphorically or literally, right? We don’t have to go befriend or help those who are lower than us in society, do we?

Consider again that these are the things that Jesus did. These are the ways in which God’s eternal, transcendent kingdom crashed into time and space in the person of Jesus. Injustices had to be called out and corrected. God’s truth busted out and set records straight left and right. And God’s love bowed his head, breathed his last, and submitted to execution knowing that through his death, all would have life. Through these ashes would come beauty like the world has never seen before.

Friends, if we find ourselves in positions of wealth or power, we are called to wield those in ways that bring healing, kindness, and love to the world. We are called to submit in ways that bring life, wholeness, and peace. In this way, may the light of Jesus shine brightly through us and illuminate a beautiful new world before our eyes.

How [Not] To Be Christian: Part Two

Bigotry, hate, homophobia, hypocrisy, misogyny… abuse, power, politics…excusing or ignoring or dismissing unChristian behaviors. These are the words we talked about last week, the ones frequently associated with modern Christianity. They all have the same root: fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear that turns to hate. There’s the fear of not being in control, fear of losing power or privilege, and fear of others learning ugly truths. These fears are real, and we all struggle with them to different degrees.

Although we know Jesus was fully human, we might lean too heavily on his divinity and miss the fear that he certainly felt. But Jesus didn’t give in to fear. Every time he was faced with fear-inducing situations—from public accusations of wrong-doing, public shaming, and attempts on his life, to close friends deserting, denying, or betraying him—every time, he chose faith.

Of all humans who have ever lived, Jesus truly could have flaunted his power, position, and privilege to make the world right, to make the world submit to God’s kingdom. Instead, in careful listening and submission to God’s leading, he let humility drive how he used his power, position, and privilege. Refusing to coerce, manipulate, or lord over others, he moved to the margins, giving voice to the silenced, bringing healing to the suffering, and speaking truth to power.

He chose faith in the God who called him to a particular way of being in the world. He chose faith in the self-giving God who demonstrated the life of self-sacrifice that defines the God’s kingdom. Trusting that God would never leave him, he continued his painful journey with ears inclined to hear God’s leading. Choosing faith over fear, he embodied God’s kingdom and modeled a way of life for all of his would-be followers.

Fear is real. May we admit it, examine it, deal with it, and choose not to be led, owned, or paralyzed by it. When we are tempted to fearfully label and mistreat others, may we be encouraged by Jesus who stands with the oppressed. When we want to lash out at the oppressors and give them a taste of their own medicine, may we remember Jesus who, with the power of the universe in his fingertips, let them drive nails through his palms–never returning their violence with violence. When we fill the chill of hatred oozing through our veins, may our hearts, minds, and words be softened and emboldened by Jesus, who had every reason to hate those who accused, denied, betrayed, beat, and killed him–but instead, through faith, chose to love.

May we choose faith over fear. May we choose faith in Jesus, who experienced the range of fears just like we do—from social fears like public ridicule to the threat of mortal danger, yet still chose faith. May we lean on his faith as we find our own.

When I say “Christian,” you say…

In 2018, what words come to mind when the average non-Christian in America hears the term Christianity? Bigotry, hate, homophobia, hypocrisy, misogyny… abuse, power, politics…excusing or ignoring or dismissing unChristian behaviors? We’re familiar with the research, not to mention many headline-making high-profile cases, that demonstrate this, right? (Some of the studies are discussed here.)

I confess at times I’ve been hesitant to tell someone I’m a minister, embarrassed by the legitimate reasons Christianity has a mixed reputation.

As much as I want to identify with the great heroes of faith, I also have to reckon with the uglier parts of our ancestry: those who perpetrated the crusades, those who bought and sold people, those who engaged in ethnic cleansing – to name a few. Sadly, it’s not all in the past. We’re currently living in a time when (white) American patriotism is conflated (and thereby confused) with Christianity.

In this era, there are pockets of Christianity in which you could expect your Christian convictions to be called into question should you appear unpatriotic, express “liberal” points of view, or question those in authority.

Interestingly, this is what led to Jesus’s trouble with the law, his arrest and execution. Ushering in God’s kingdom, he challenged the authority of the Roman Empire. Claiming to be the son of God, he challenged Caesar’s claim to the same. Leaning away from legalism and towards grace, he challenged the Pharisees’ approach to the law.

Jesus didn’t worry about labels, and was always pushing boundaries. He immersed himself in God’s kingdom vision of shalom—wholeness, peace, fullness, harmony. And his rumbles with religious leaders were rooted in their denial or departure from that shalom when they were excluding or mistreating others, and being hyper legalistic. He boldly proclaimed “woe to the religious leaders who make religion too hard for others to follow…” (Luke 11.46)

If we find we’ve been a bit exclusionary or legalistic–corporately or in our hearts–perhaps we can hear Jesus’ “woe” for us and shift course. If we find that we’ve been on the other side of the exclusion or legalism, may we feel Jesus’ inclusion and unconditional love for us.

He said—wherever you find yourself, whatever color of skin or family you’re raised in, whatever language you speak and gender you identify with—seek the kingdom. Love God, love others. Love God by loving each other. Love each other by loving God. Go all in on these things, full speed ahead.

Yeah, let’s be those kind of people.