Yesterday I met with two members of the church with whom I’ve been doing spiritual formation for a couple of months. We have been reflecting on the trinity, and yesterday we focused on God the father, and the image of God, which is in Jesus and in us according to Colossians. If God is father, four things are true about us: all creatures are brothers and sisters; all creation exists as a gift for everyone equally; and to work is to exercise the image of God as creator.
These implications of being daughters and sons in the image of God impacted me a lot. In the days following the election, these qualities are not being universally respected. In that environment many are questioning and judging those who voted for the other candidate, as well as the direction the new administration will take the country.
It reminds me of a conversation I once had with someone about the role of judgment in human relations. The person was arguing that honesty in a relationship requires judgment. If someone does something wrong, she deserves to be judged. If I think the wrong is serious, it’s natural that the person would lose my respect. If she corrects the wrong, she could earn back my respect. We have to admit that there is a time for judgment and a time for forgiveness; a time for protest and a time for giving the benefit of the doubt. How do we balance all of that in the midst of such important differences that we are facing in this country?
There were also a lot of different opinions about what was happening in the scene of Jesus hanging on the cross between two criminals. Most people in the scene agreed with my dialogue partner that it was a scene of judgment and lack of respect. The State had judged Jesus guilty, and the punishment was to die on a cross. The criminals hanging with him had also received that death sentence. Everyone present expressed their judgment on what was happening. The leaders scoffed: He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s chosen one! The soldiers joined in: If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! Finally, one of the criminals in a panic threw insults at him: Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself; and while you’re at it, save us! The other criminal asked to be remembered but still didn’t expect anything but judgment. We see all of these ways of seeing things in the current political moment in our country.
Only Jesus demonstrated an alternative view. “God, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Even Jesus’ followers were thinking, “Come on, Jesus; they know damn well what they are doing.” The powerful who heard Jesus offer forgiveness got distracted by theology: who has a right to forgive? They say “only God.” But Jesus was offering a new way for human beings to be in the world – a way by love and forgiveness rather than power and judgment. The contrast we find in Jesus isn’t between the divine and the human but between how to act in ways that are divine and human.
The mission of Jesus, crystallized into a single moment in this scene, was to usher in the Reign of God, increasing the number of people who offer forgiveness rather than judgment. The church hasn’t done very well in understanding that message. It did fairly well for the first few centuries as the story of Jesus swept the world over which Caesar held sway, because it spoke intimately to those whose throats were under Rome’s heel. The Gospel took root in the soul of powerlessness, which is why it beckons the dispossessed in ways it does no other group.
But then in the fourth century along came a Roman emperor named Constantine, who became a Christian. That sounds like really good news. The only problem is that it changed Christianity more than it changed Constantine. Constantine transformed the cross from being one Christian symbol among many – a sign of suffering – into the dominant symbol of Christianity – now a sign of power in the world.
That change had negative consequences for several groups, The early church had made great strides against the patriarchal culture of the Roman Empire. But under Constantine patriarchal culture was strengthened in the church. It has only been in the past fifty years that the church has begun to restore the mind of Jesus on women’s equality. The symbol of the cross also became a lightning rod that increased enmity between Christians and Jews, leading to persecution that reached all the way to modern days. Finally, the impact on the Muslim world is known through the Crusades. In all of these stains, the hand of Constantine can be seen.
So, when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we can’t allow the familiarity of a scene like Jesus on the cross between two criminals to lull us to sleep. It needs to wake us up and call us to conversion. What Constantine did to the cross and to Christianity still impacts the church and the way the world views the church. It also impacts the way people view the country. Jesus has been co-opted by those who understand the Reign of Christ to be not about the supremacy of Love but about obedience to the right laws. The king whose throne was a cross and whose dying words were My God, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing has been replaced with a judge whose message is My God will not forgive you unless you were born in the right place and are doing it the right way.
It’s time for the church to find its voice and reclaim the faith we inherited: to pro-claim the Good News of the Gospel of grace whenever and wherever we can; to challenge those who preach the Jesus of Judgment to serve instead the King of Love. Every time we try to make Christ’s reign into a rule of law rather than of love we crucify him again. Every time we choose the institution of the church over the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we grieve the heart of God. Every time we hold our tongues and allow the strident voices of the all-too-certain ideologues of the Religious Right to claim moral values as their sole and private preserve, we fail in our call to shepherd God’s people, to calm their fears, to gather them in. (Susan Russell, Christ the King)
Jesus embodied the best of Jewish values: not causing fear, not causing terror, not causing exclusion; practicing wisdom, practicing justice, and doing what is right. Jesus has had a liberating and healing effect on a wide variety of members of God’s family. Jesus was a king, but not an ordinary one. Jesus was a leader, but not an ordinary one. Jesus was the leader of fishermen, of tax collectors, of Samaritans, of prostitutes, of blind people, of demoniacs, of cripples. Those who followed Jesus were a rag-tag bunch: women who now leaped with joy, a Samaritan leper with a heart full of gratitude, a crippled woman who had been unable to stand straight with dignity for 18 years, and a blind man who had followed Jesus all the way from Jericho. (Culpepper, R. Alan, Luke, The New Interpreters’ Bible, p. 370)
Our ultimate calling is to live our lives in such a way that those who otherwise have no hope can be in a new community along with us so that all of us are healed by hope and love, which are are the only things that can put fear in its place. My friends, this is the conversion the Gospel calls us to this day. There are so many hopeless and lonely people in this city. Some are already in this congregation. Do they – do we – experience the healing of hope and love? Or are we so full of judgment or apathy that people can’t find healing here? How do we become a healing community of forgiveness?
A good starting place is to see ourselves loved by this love, because until we do, we can’t love others with the heart of a shepherd that looks at wolves in their sheepliness. The challenge isn’t to recognize people who are wolves dressed as sheep. It is to creatively imagine wolves that are in some hidden part of their lives like sheep, and to love them as such. In order to respond like that we have to learn to be less concerned about our reputation and more concerned about love. Jesus’ love is for the persecutors, the scandalized, the depressives, the traitors, the finger pointers, and for all those they are pointing fingers at. Jesus’ love will not be party to any final settling of accounts. It seeks desperately and insatiably for good and evil to participate in a wedding banquet. (James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 187-8)
Dorothee Soelle was a German theologian who taught for a long time at Union Theological Seminary in New York. One day she was walking by a construction site in New York City and asked a construction worker, “Excuse me, do you happen to know what time it is?” He replied with a kind of good-humored mockery, “Am I Jesus, lady?” His answer was so strange that she was completely speechless. But she hasn’t been able to get his question out of her mind. For him, Jesus is a heavenly being who has nothing to do with us, who sees, hears, knows and can do everything, but is removed from us. Churchy language calls him Messiah, Lord, Son of God, and the Christ. The effect has been to remove us from Jesus.
She concludes, “Today I would answer the worker at the construction site by saying, ‘Yes, you are Jesus, man – what else would you want to make of your life?’ Being yourself, alone, isn’t sufficient; you know that already. You, too, are born and have come into the world to witness to the truth. So don’t make yourself smaller than you really are. Just imagine, you are Jesus and I am Jesus and your mother-in-law is Jesus and your boss is Jesus. We, together, are Jesus. And if we are Jesus, what would change? There is something in every one of us of God.” So to the question, “Am I Jesus, lady?” The answer can only be “Yes, shouldn’t I be?” (Dorothee Soelle, Theology For Skeptics: Reflections on God, p. 88)