Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Way of Peace is the Way of Love (Mark 11:1-11)

Our Gospel text today is Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem. Mark’s telling of the story implicitly alludes to Zechariah 9:9 (which Matthew makes explicit in his version). The passage in Zechariah reads: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The text doesn’t make any sense really. No king comes riding on a donkey. A king rides on a white stallion or in a chariot high above the crowd. The next verse from Zechariah clarifies the kind of king this is: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” Zechariah’s un-king is going to abolish all weapons of war. No more war, no more cruelty, no more violence. This no-king is humble and peace-seeking. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called the children of God.” The reason they are called the children of God is because they reflect the disposition and actions of God, who is all about peacemaking.

It’s clear from the text that this procession into Jerusalem was not a spontaneous event. Jesus planned and prepared for it. The instructions Jesus gives the disciples about where to find the donkey makes this quite clear. This is a staged event designed as both an act of protest and a proclamation of the gospel of peace.

It’s not hard to imagine the sort of people who would have made up this procession into Jerusalem: the formerly diseased and demonized whom Jesus healed and liberated; the poor – materially poor as well as those poor in spirit; the  marginalized and disenfranchised whom Jesus accepted and welcomed; Jesus’ closest associates – the Twelve; perhaps even a few people of means who supported Jesus’ mission. Jesus had to get financing for his mission from somewhere and Luke tells us about some women of means who gave to Jesus’ cause.

Now, contrast this procession with another procession coming from the west side of the city led by the Roman governor Pilot, who, of course, represents the imperial power of Rome. Pilate and his troops would have departed from Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and would have entered the city with calvary and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount. During these Jewish high holy days the threat of insurrection was always greater than other times of the year. So this was Pilate’s way of trying to squelch any thought of violent uprising, and just in case, he wanted to make sure that any actual attempt at insurrection would be met immediately with violent force.

So what we have here are two very difference kinds of processions that exhibit two very different kinds of power, symbolizing two very different kinds of kingdoms. The kingdom of God is not really a kingdom at all, in the way we think about kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms (such as the kingdom of Rome) operate on the basis of dominate power – often characterized by violence. Jesus modeled and taught the way of love and service which is the essence of spiritual power.

In talking about the kingdom of God Jesus drew from common language but invested the language with a radically different meaning. That’s the irony and the mystery. The kingdom of God as embodied and taught by Jesus was not a kingdom at all in the traditional, worldly sense. Some interpreters like to paraphrase it as the kin-dom of God. It’s about belonging and becoming.

Practically every story in Mark 10 just prior to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem are stories that emphasize a different kind of kingdom and power. Jesus rebukes the disciples for trying to stop the little children from touching him. Jesus says, “Let them come, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He takes them in his arms and blesses them.

He tells a rich man to give away all his wealth, and tells the disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus warns them that in God’s new order the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Then, still thinking God’s kingdom is like worldly kingdoms, and that Jesus is going to reign like earthly rulers, James and John want to sit on Jesus’ left hand and right, occupying positions of prominence and power. Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup he is going to drink or to be baptized with the baptism he will be baptized with. They say they are able, but have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Jesus tells them that in the kingdoms of the world rulers lord it over their subjects, but then he turns to them and says, “It is not so among you.” Jesus rebukes them and admonishes them that whoever among them wishes to become great must give up the very notion of being great, and become the servant of all. Then Mark tells us that the Son of Man par excellent, the fully human one, Jesus of Nazareth, did not come to be served, but to serve and give his whole life in service to God and others for the liberation of humankind.   

This is a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of power. Those who are truly led by the Spirit of Christ demonstrate this power.

The late biblical scholar and social activist, Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one of the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebeneezer Baptist Church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. “We are not fighting for our rights,” he said, “we are fighting for the good of the whole society.” That is restorative justice sisters and brothers – the good of the whole society. And this was at the heart of the gospel of Jesus who preached and embodied the kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness/God’s restorative justice.” Rev. Bevel said to those gathered, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.” That’s the only way any lasting change occurs.

This is a point that Dr. King tried to drive home repeatedly with all civil rights activists. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. Dr. King kept preaching that the goal was to turn their enemies into their friends.

The civil rights movement led by Dr. King was, I believe, the greatest spiritual movement, the greatest demonstration of spiritual power our country ever witnessed. And the sad thing, the thing that should break all our hearts, is that white evangelical Christians, and many mainliners, just stood on the sidelines. And you know why we stood on the sidelines? Because American Christianity became the religion of the establishment and became enmeshed in privilege and place and worldly power.

What should be our response to all of this? Repentance should be first on the list. Mark introduces the preaching of the good news of Jesus by saying, “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and trust in the good news.” We need to repent sisters and brothers. We need to change our minds and hearts and turn from our love of power and start living by the power of love.

It was the power of love that led Jesus to stage this peaceful march into Jerusalem countering the display of dominant power by the Romans. It was the power of love that enabled Jesus to confront and challenge the religious establishment of his day that set up a worthiness system determining who was in and out. It was the power of love that led Jesus to be the provocateur he was regarding Sabbath law and the laws governing the meal table. It was the power of love that compelled Jesus to take the side of the poor and the downtrodden proclaiming that they were the ones who were truly blessed. It was the power of love that inspired Jesus to not only be healer of the sick and broken, but to be a teacher of an alternative kind of wisdom that said, “Love your enemies, pray for them and do good by them.” It was the power of love that empowered Jesus to be a reformer and prophet who spoke truth to power. So, you see, it was the power of love that made his cross, his death, his execution at the hands of dominant power inevitable.

We need to repent, sisters and brothers, of how often we have resisted the power of love in favor of dominant power. We need to repent and join Jesus on his march to Jerusalem. The true king is not really a king at all in the worldly sense. He is the suffering servant who was despised and forsaken, beaten and rejected and hung up on a cross by those in the halls of power. He was made a scapegoat bearing the angst and animosity, the prejudice and hate of all those who love privilege and position and worldly dominance

All of us establishment Christians have a lot to repent of. When Dr. King was preaching his dream of a just society, we sat on the sidelines. Our parents sat on the sidelines. Our spiritual mentors sat on the sidelines. But even much worse, some of our parents, our preachers, our churches, even joined and cheered the forces of Sheriff Jim Clark.

Can we hear the good news of Jesus who says, “The kingdom of God has come near? Repent, and trust in the good news.” The good news is that we don’t have to keep living that way. We don’t have to bow or cower to those of privilege and prominence. We don’t have to share in the injustices of the establishment. We can repent. We can resist. We can change. We can overcome evil with good. We can be different. We can give up our love for power and surrender to the power of love. We can join Jesus’ rag-tag band of misfits as he makes his way into Jerusalem. It’s not easy. We have to count the cost. A part of us will have to die there with Jesus on the cross. But we can then join the Christ on Easter morning in joy and hope of a new kind of world where the royal law of liberty, the law of love of God and love of neighbor is written, not on stone tablets, not in a nation’s Constitution, not even in a holy book, but written on the heart and soul and human spirit by the Spirit of the living Christ.

O God, may those of us who have ears to hear, hear. And bear mercifully with those of us whose ears are still deaf. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Heaven Is Where Love Is

For most evangelical Christians (and not a few mainliners), salvation is about going to heaven or hell. Once upon a time I believed that too. I was wrong.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I believe in an afterlife. I believe there is more to this life than this life. And I am sure it will be good, because God is good – as the song says, “God is good, all the time.” I believe that.

If you believe that, then there is no need to worry about heaven or hell in the literal sense. God would not be good if God tortured people. Other people might torture us, and we might torture ourselves, but God won’t. While not literal, hell is still a reality though. And most of usually have to live through some “hells” before we reach “heaven.”

Heaven is where love is, now and forever. I love this passage by Wendell Berry in his book, The Lost World: “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven.”

I don’t know why, like the prodigal in Luke 15, we have to go through “hell” before we get to “heaven.” But such seems to be almost always the case.

Salvation in the biblical tradition is not primarily about the afterlife. It’s about a “way of life” not a “way out of this life.” It’s about the transformation of individuals and whole communities by love, in love, in order to love. To be transformed by love is to be transformed by God, for God is love. So wherever love is God is (see 1 John 4:7-12).

The power of God to save is the power of love. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). Again he says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (5:6). And once again, in the same letter, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14).

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says that of the three great principles of the Christian religion, faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In Ephesians he says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1-2). 

This is from one who formerly, prior to his encounter with Christ, was driven by the anti-human forces of prejudice and hate under the guise of religious zeal and fervor. Not much has changed has it? Being a Christian doesn’t mean diddly squat unless we love.

In a little book I wrote about progressive Christianity I said this: “The journey of personal redemption is a journey from the selfish ways of childhood to the adulthood of self-giving love. It is a journey from the partial to the complete, from immaturity to maturity, from brokenness to wholeness, from the false self to the true self, from egoism to compassion, from exclusive focus on our own suffering to an inclusive solidarity with the suffering creation, especially our disadvantaged sisters and brothers within the human family. Each journey is unique. Each has its own twists and turns, defeats and victories, setbacks and advances. None of the ‘hells’ we each pass through are exactly alike. But I am convinced that the God who has come to us in Jesus, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who calls us ‘dearly beloved,’ will bring each one of us to final redemption.”

Salvation, however, is not just about our own personal growth in love and transformation by love. It’s also about the transformation of our families, communities, organizations, institutions, and all of society. It’s about confronting injustice, as we stand with and advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised (that would especially be the undocumented who are now living in fear of deportation, and minorities who are often mistreated such as our LGBTQ sisters and brothers). It’s about God’s will being done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. It’s about praying, serving, and working for a just, equitable, peace-full, grace-filled world.

It’s common sense really. What would a God of love want for and from God’s beloved daughters and sons? God wants us to love and care for each other because we are all one people and one family. Authentic faith is nothing less than trusting in and being faithful to the way of love as it was so beautifully incarnated in the life of Jesus. 

(This article was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)

Monday, March 12, 2018

John 3:16: What does it really mean?

In The Lord of the Rings there was the one ring to rule them all. If there is one Bible verse to rule them all it is John 3:16. If you learned just one Bible verse as a kid in Sunday School or VBS I guarantee it was John 3:16. We see that verse most often on billboards and held up on cardboard signs at sporting events. I haven’t watched a baseball game in quite a while. The thing that drives me crazy is when I’m watching a baseball game and the camera angle switches to the view almost directly behind the pitcher, and there behind the catcher in the stands you see this guy holding a cardboard sign with John 3:16. Then, when he realizes from the monitor that he is on television, then he starts waving it all around. That is the one time I could easily become a bible thumper, that is, I could take a great big bible and thump it over that guy’s head. But since I don’t believe in violence I wouldn’t actually do that. Did you know there is a fishing lure company called 3:16 lure company. It’s a small company operated by a man named Mickey Ellis who had a pretty dramatic conversion experience. He makes some really good swimbaits. One’s called the mission fish. And the one I really like is called the rising son. I’ve caught some good bass on those baits.

So what does this most popular verse in the Bible mean? I want to unpack this by asking three questions related to this passage and its larger context. First, what does John mean when he talks about being saved? Second, what does John mean when he talks about eternal life? And third, what does John mean when he talks about believing in Jesus?

First, what does John mean when he talks about salvation. Now, you probably are aware that the word does not actually appear in verse 16, but it is used in verse 17 where John says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This word as used by John doesn’t mean exactly what it means in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but there’s a lot of overlap. In both John and the other Gospels one common meaning is healing. To be saved is to be healed. The physical healings in the Gospels are “signs” that point to God’s work of healing in our lives which can  take many forms. The Greek word for “healing” and “salvation” is the same word. In this very passage we could easily translate this: “in order that the world might be healed” or “made whole” or “restored.” Any of these renderings would be a reliable translation of the Greek word. Healing can be physical, but often it is emotional, or psychological, or relational. God is interested in healing our bodies, our souls, and particularly our wounded and broken relationships with God, with others, and with the earth itself.   

Another meaning, which I have talked a lot about lately, is liberation. To be saved is to be liberated from our sins and the destructive forces and “isms” that take root in our own personal lives and in the systems and structures of society that we are part of.

Another meaning that is common in John’s Gospel is enlightenment. To be saved is to be enlightened, to be able to see what really is. Often we can’t see what really is because our prejudices, biases, and sins get in the way to distort our vision. We can’t see the larger picture because we are too trapped in our own ego and our little selves. Our vision can be distorted by any number of things.

Enlightenment is a theme introduced in John’s prologue as a major theme in the Gospel. The living Word and the true Light of God, that became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, dwells in all of us, but many of us rarely access that light. John says that the true light enlightens everyone coming into the world. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that the true light has the potential and capacity to enlighten everyone, because the light is inside of us. But too often the light has been darkened and hid by our greed or pride or self-centeredness. The light begins to shine when we open our hearts to God’s grace and truth and love.

Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was an encounter with light that enabled him to see God, to see himself, to see others, and to see all reality in a new way. Thomas Merton’s mystical experience in Louisville on a busy intersection enabled him to see in a new way. In Merton’s case, it may have been truth he already knew, but his experience drove it home. With new, enlightened eyes Merton was able to see the dignity and divinity of each person. He could see this in total strangers he had never met. He could see that we are all connected. We all belong. We are one family in God. Merton realized that the life of God is in each of us, but normally we are blind to its radiance. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time . . . There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” To be saved in John is to be enlightened to the light that is in every person.

And then finally, to be saved in John is to know and experience eternal life. The Synoptic Gospels speak more about the kingdom of God than they speak of eternal life, so this emphasis is somewhat unique to John. And this brings me to my second question. What does it mean to have eternal life?

Let me say what is obvious first. Eternal life is eternal. It is forever. It’s like the energizer bunny – it goes on and on and on. And about all we can really say about it is that it will be good, because God is good. The story I love to share at celebration of life services is the story of the little grub that lived at the bottom of the swamp. Some of you have heard this little story numerous times, so I will abbreviate it. The little grub gets the urge to swim to the surface, climbs out on a lily pad, and goes to sleep. As she sleeps the carapace of that little creature breaks open, and out emerges this beautiful rainbow colored dragonfly. She opens her wings and begins to soar in this bright new world. We can call this bright new world heaven, we can call it life after life, we can call it a new space/time continuum – it doesn’t matter what we call it really. It’s enough to know it will be good and glorious.

But there is a sense in which that little story is not a completely accurate image of eternal life as that phrase is used in John’s Gospel. Eternal life, in John’s Gospel, is a reality we enter into now and we get a taste of now. The little grub living at the bottom of the swam never gets a taste of that bright new world, but we do. We partially enter into this reality now. Eternal life is not just a quantity of life, it’s a quality of life that we access now by consciously and intentionally opening our hearts and lives to the grace, truth, and love of God that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Eternal life is life in God, and in relationship with all that God is. It is the life of receiving and dispensing grace. It is the life of being blessed and being a blessing. It involves both the inflow and the outflow of the Spirit of God.

One image John uses to convey the meaning of eternal life is the image of living water. (Spiritual truth, enlightened truth can only be communicated by symbols and myths, by parables and metaphorical stories. That’s how religious language works). Flowing water is a symbol of God’s life that we participate in.

Brother David Steindl-Rast illustrates the life of blessing that is the essence of eternal life by observing the flow of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon pouring out its blessings as if flows – living water, life-giving water for parched soil. Nowhere is the richness of life it brings more evident than by the Sea of Galilee. The shores around the lake are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. The water in the lake is clear, teeming with fish. It’s all full of life. There’s abundant life in the water and around the water.

Now, from the lake of Galilee the Jordan river meanders down to another body of water called the Dead Sea. What a contrast! The water is a salty brine. Several years ago I was able to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. We spent an afternoon at the Dead Sea and its surroundings. We went swimming in the Dead Sea. Actually we went floating. The water is so dense with salt, you can’t sink, you float. The shores of the Dead Sea are dead; completely barren. Desert all around. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea, which, of course, is why it is called the Dead Sea. Its water is even unfit for irrigation.

Now, it’s the same water that feeds the Sea of Galilee. But here’s the difference. In the Sea of Galilee, the water flows in and then flows out again; the Dead Sea does not pass its water on. It just gathers in one place and stagnates. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse.

I was affiliated with a church once where the largest group in the church was a Bible study group that met as a Sunday School class, and usually through the week for some kind of special Bible study. We would keep going to this group for help. We had some new, young families with children attending, and not enough workers to help teach and care for them. We went to this group: We need your help. No response. The senior group needed some help with some homebound members. We went to this group again. We need your help. Here’s how some of you can be a blessing. Here’s an opportunity to serve others. No response. And whenever someone within the group thought about serving the children or the senior adults or in some other capacity in the church, they got pressure from the leader and the rest of the group to stay put.

They were more like the Dead Sea than the Sea of Galilee. Inflow but no outflow. They wanted to get the blessing, but seemed to have no interest in passing the blessing on to others. More complaints came out of that group than any other group in the church. I spent a great portion of my time just trying to pacify that group.

Whenever we bless someone, whenever we offer encouragement or give of ourselves in some way to enhance life, to show love and kindness, to make life better for someone, we are simply returning what has been given to us as a gift. Life is not bought or earned, it’s received and given away. It’s all grace and gift.

I love the way Brother David Steindl-Rast expresses this reality in a prayer: Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time / This new day, in this place, is your gift. / Make me live gratefully. / This day is opportunity / To receive your blessing in a thousand forms / And to bless. / To listen to your word in all that I hear, / And to respond in obedience of heart. / To drink deeply from your life, / And to make others come alive. / By radiant smile, by cheerful answer, / And by a secret blessing.

We are blessed as we bless. We receive as we give. The eternal life of God, which is now and forever, flows in and out of our lives like living water. We step into the flow and participate in the eternal life of God when we bless others.

Now, this brings me to the third question, What does it mean to believe in Jesus? For Christians, for you and me, believing in Jesus is the way we appropriate and experience salvation. It’s the way we participate in the healing, liberation, enlightenment, and eternal life of God. It’s not the only way. We don’t have all the truth or all the answers. But it is our way.

Let me suggest first what believing in Jesus doesn’t mean. It’s doesn’t mean believing mentally or intellectually propositions or doctrines about Jesus. Believing mentally is just one component and it’s not the most important. Obviously, if we are going to follow Jesus we must believe that Jesus is worth following, we must have enough confidence that the way of Jesus will lead us into participation with God. But believing stuff mentally is not the main thing. Otherwise, people who are mentally challenged would have no hope of experiencing the life of God.

To believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the life Jesus lived and the values he embodied. Jesus is the pattern for our lives and relationships. In other words, to believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the love and grace and truth Jesus made known to us as the Living Word of God. By trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus we step into the flow of God’s life. We learn from Jesus how to give and receive divine love. We learn from Jesus how to be a blessing to others.

I wish all parents and Sunday School teachers who teach their children John 3:16, and all those who hold up signs at sporting events could realize this is what John 3:16 is really about. Who knows? Maybe they will.

Gracious God, you have showed us just how much you love the world, and that means all of us. Your light is within each us. Let us have eyes to see and ears to hear. Because too often, Lord, we listen, but we don’t hear. We see, and yet we are blind. May our lives become full and running over with your love and grace. Let us be inspired to give, so that we might receive. Compel us to bless others, so that we will be blessed with the joy and peace of your Spirit. May our lives become fountains of living water.  Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Wisdom that changes lives (1 Cor. 1:18-25)

The wisdom of the domination system, the wisdom of the world can come to us disguised as the wisdom of God, and we can go a long ways and a long time thinking it’s the wisdom of God.

For a good number of years my dominant image of God was that of a Judge who presided in a heavenly courtroom and demanded payment from his human creation for breaking his law. The God I imagined was bound to the law and intolerant toward sin. God demanded punishment. And not just any punishment. Punishment by death. So God sent Jesus, God’s unique Son, to die, so that God’s justice would be satisfied, and that God would be free to release the rest of humankind from the penalty and punishment they deserve for having transgressed God’s law and offended God’s justice.

But then, at some point on my journey when I gave myself permission to question and even doubt, I began to wonder why God’s unique Son would have to die such a cruel death by execution in order to satisfy some broken law, particularly since God is the one who makes the law in the first place. God can change a law anytime God wants to, I reasoned. So why would God require this sort of tit-for-tat justice that would demand the sacrifice of a human life? I began to wonder how this  arrangement was that much different than what primitive peoples did when they offered up human lives and then later, animals to appease the anger of their god?

These questions led to more questions. So I started down that slippery slope. In one sense it was and continues to be a liberating ride, sort of like the kid who finally gets up enough nerve to ride the roller coaster and afterward wants to ride it over and over again. But in other ways it was and continues to be a painful ride, because of friends who do not understand my journey and get angry with me when I talk about it. But anyone who has traveled this path knows, as some of you know, that once you give yourself the freedom to question, and once you discover new truth, there’s no going back.

As I read and reflected on the stories of Jesus with new eyes and understanding I wondered how I could have missed the central message that makes the good news good news. I began to see that Jesus’ dominant image of God in the Gospels was not a God who sits upon a judgment throne far above his subjects demanding punishment for breaking the law. Rather, Jesus’ dominant image of God was that of an “Abba” – a loving father or mother who is intimately aware and engaged in the life of his or her children. I realized then that Jesus considered all people to be children of God, worthy of love, and all people are invited to come as they are.  
God, of course, wants us to grow beyond where we are, but we are welcomed to the table as we are.

Jesus spoke of a God who forgives huge unpayable debts, not in order to satisfy some divine form of justice or broken law, but simply because God is “Abba.” God is love and grace and truth, and wants more than anything in the world to be in relationship with us. When Jesus was criticized for eating with all manner of people, tax collectors and other “sinners” whom the religious leaders thought disrespected the law, Jesus said, “Go learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea. A wisdom that challenges the sacrificial system can be found in the Psalms and the prophets.

Maybe you have seen the billboard that’s on highway 27 by-pass. The caption is: “Real Christians, love their enemies.” I don’t know what Christian church or group is responsible for that sign. But how different is that? When I first saw that billboard I thought, “Wow, finally, the gospel of Jesus.”  

The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of unconditional love and forgiveness. Why does God forgive us? Because God loves us unconditionally. God wants us to live free of our grievance stories, and free of our need for revenge and retaliation. If we can’t let go of our grievance stories, we do harm to both others and ourselves. God wants us to find spiritual and emotional healing. And God wants us to live together peacefully and lovingly.  

Forgiveness is not about broken laws and punishment, but about restored relationships and letting go of grievances. It’s captured best in the parable of the waiting father in Luke 15. The father has already unconditionally forgiven his wayward son, so when he sees him in the distance returning home, he runs out to embrace him, weeping tears of joy, and he throws him an extravagant welcome home party. The gospel of Jesus is about mercy and restorative justice. Not retributive justice. Not tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye justice, but restorative justice. As Luke makes clear in Luke 4, it’s about good news for the poor, freedom for captives, liberation for the oppressed, sight for the blind and spreading grace like scattering seeds.  

This message of the cross is the message of love your neighbor as yourself. It is the message of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is the message of forgive others just as your heavenly Father, your Abba, has forgiven you. It is the message of do not judge, lest you be judged. It is the message of love your enemies and pray for them and do good by them. It is the message of deny your little self, lose your false self, so that you will gain your true self, and you will be free to love freely, completely, and unconditionally.

The message of the cross is a message of inspiration and courage and hope that saves us from our sins. Not from the penalty of our sins. Not from divine punishment. We don’t need to be saved from God. God is on our side. God is with every single one of us. God knows the number of hairs on our heads. God suffers with us and rejoices with us. We don’t need to be saved from God. We need to be saved from our actual sins – our selfishness and contrariness, our lust for honor and glory, our misuse and abuse of power, our lack of forgiveness and thirst for revenge. We need to be saved from the sexism, racism, egotism, materialism, classism, nationalism, and consumerism of our age. That’s what we need saved from, sisters and brothers.

The message of the cross is the message of welcome and inclusiveness. The power of the cross is the power to confront injustice and challenge systems of meritocracy. The wisdom of the cross is the wisdom of unconditional forgiveness that bypasses holiness codes and brings to naught worthiness systems. The saving power of the cross is the power to liberate us from our destructive addictions and false attachments. This is the message, this is the wisdom, this is the power of God that heals and restores and makes us whole. To the world this is foolishness. To the domination system this is weakness. But to those of us being saved, it is the wisdom and power of God.

When Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian it was not because he embraced nonviolence and inclusiveness and the compassion of Christ. It was his way of unifying the Empire by bringing all these different factions together. And when he blended together the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the domination system, Christians soon became no different than anyone else. It wasn’t long before the domination system hijacked the sign of the cross. The emblem of the cross, representing the nonviolence and unconditional love of Christ, was plastered on swords and on shields, and Christian soldiers went off to war on behalf of God and country. And not much has changed since Constantine.

In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly Campbell tells about a conversation he had with his friend P.D. East. P.D. had long since deserted and disavowed his upbringing in the Methodist Church of his foster parents, had tried being a Unitarian, had taken instruction from the local rabbi, and was considering declaring himself a Jew. He referred to the Church as “the Easter Chicken.” And every time Will Campbell would see him, P.D. would say, “And what’s the state of the Easter Chicken, Preacher Will?” He was trying to goad Will into an argument. Will figured he would wait him out. Well, one day, P.D. decided just to let him have it anyway.

P.D. said, “You know, Preacher Will, that church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.” At this point Will interrupted, noting that white was the liturgical color for Easter. But P.D. ignored him and went on, “That Easter chicken served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one heck of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.

Will said, “I think I see what you’re driving at P.D.” P.D. retorted, “No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.” So P.D raved on. “Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like heck. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man it would fight back, peck the heck out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”

Will knew P.D. wanted to argue, so Will said, “Well, P.D. the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?” That’s what P.D. wanted Will to say. P.D. said, “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that?  And the Rotary club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs” (Continuum, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed., 218–20).

As much as we hate to admit it, P.D. makes a very good point doesn’t he? What is the difference between those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus and the rest of society? Are we living by the wisdom of God – the wisdom of the cross – or are we living according to the wisdom of the domination system – the wisdom of the world – like everyone else?

How many of us Christians don’t seem to express any concern at all for the undocumented who live in daily fear of deportation, many of whom have been here most of their lives? How many of us Christians want revenge and retribution – an eye for an eye? How many of us are against using tax money on programs and training for the disadvantaged? How many of us would like to impose our faith and beliefs on our schools and the institutions of the land, disregarding the freedom of others? How many of us would like to deny civil rights to certain groups like our LGBTQ sisters and brothers? How many of us would like to keep women out of leadership, especially the pastorate? How many of us are just as hungry for power and position and possessions as anyone else? Is this reflective of the loving, compassionate, inclusive, generous, and courageous wisdom of the cross or is this the wisdom of the world often dressed in Christian clothing?

So instead of being the light of the world and the salt of the earth, the salt has lost its savor and the light has went out. All the purple has bled off the Easter Chicken and the Easter chicken acts just like all the other chickens in the pen, yes sirree bob.

But we don’t have to be like that Easter chicken. We don’t need a color coating. We need to immerse our whole lives deep into the wisdom of the cross. We can choose to love our neighbor and bless our enemy. We can decide to be welcoming and inclusive, not condemning and exclusive. We can be kind and generous and honest and forthright. We can pursue peace, dispense mercy, and work for social and restorative justice for all people. We can respect the dignity of every person. So that the law that will rule our lives will be the royal law of liberty, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, the new commandment where Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is how people will know we are followers of Jesus. And when the powers in control say, “You’re foolish.” And when the gatekeepers say, “You’re weak.” We will say, “Amen and Amen.”

Gracious God, may we not be blinded by our ego or duped by our selfish interests into thinking that what is really the wisdom of the world is the wisdom of the cross. Help us to see that you do not operate on the punitive principles of retributive justice, but on the principle of amazing grace and unconditional love. Help us to see that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice of love offered up out of commitment to doing your will on earth as it is in heaven, not a sacrifice you required or demanded, because you desire mercy, not sacrificial victims. Inspire and empower us to follow the wisdom of the cross. Amen.