Last week, I spent five days in Topeka KS serving on the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Our task was to interview candidates for ordination. I was on the team that asked the theological questions. One question that we asked very early in our interview time: “Who was Jesus?” The candidates replied with various phrases: “Son of God, Lord and Savior, Lamb of God, Fully Human Fully Divine.” Then we asked a follow-up, “What does that mean to you?” We wanted to know how they understood the ‘stock answers’ of our faith. What does that phrase mean to you? There are certainly many ways to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus. The images and metaphors are not exclusive of one another; each add to our understandings and paint more depth into our relationship. The many responses are like the facets of a diamond. As I have reflected on the answers the 25 candidates for ordained ministry gave us to the question who was Jesus, I realized that no one answered, “Jesus was a social prophet, a movement founder, a political figure of the first century.” Maybe some thought that, certainly not all. Maybe those who did were concerned that that answer might be beyond what they thought the Board of Ordained Ministry might accept. Maybe not.
To speak of Jesus in political language—a community organizer, a social prophet, a revolutionary, political liberator—is startling, even offensive for some people. Some may take offense because their theology views Jesus in terms of personal salvation but not social transformation. Some may take offense in putting Jesus alongside politics based on the example we see of some people who are vying for political office these days. I try to be careful to speak of Jesus as a “political figure” not a “politician” for that reason. In curiosity, I looked up Merriam-Webster’s definition of politician, which read, “A person experienced in the art or science of government; especially: one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government.” The dictionary continued to a second definition, “A person primarily interested in political office for selfish or other narrow usually short-sighted reasons.” Wow, was Merriam or Webster having a bad day when that last definition was added, or are the editors just calling it as they see it? I certainly am not proposing that Jesus falls into the category of seeking political office for selfish or narrow or ‘short-sighted reasons’. Quite the contrary. He does not seek office at all; he avoids it. His political activism is not for selfish but selfless reasons.
In the first text we hear today, “the crowds want to ‘take Jesus by force to make him king.” What has inspired this response in the crowds? John has just told his rendition of Jesus feeding the multitudes. John tells that about 5,000 people sat down on the grass. Jesus gave them all bread and ‘as much [fish] as they wanted. Everyone ate to their content. There was food left over.’ The people realize Jesus is amazing, and he can do great things for them—hail Jesus as king. Look what this guy can do for us. Look what he can do for all—feed the world! He must be from God. He must become our king, the crowds insist. Only Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t give an acceptance speech and thank them for their support. He doesn’t start measuring the palace for new drapes and make plans to move in. He doesn’t summon a tailor and have a king’s robe and crown fashioned. The text says, ‘he slips away quietly and goes up into the hills alone.’ He will not be king according to the existing systems of power and authority. He offers his gift of food for all, but he rejects the worldly power they seek to give him.
The second scripture we heard today comes from near the end of John’s gospel. The last day, even hours, of his life take place in a “courtroom” scene where he is charged with being that very thing which he avoided, “Are you king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. Following a kangaroo court, which is a total travesty of justice, Jesus is executed by the state. Jesus was not slain by the priests on a religious altar of sacrifice to appease a blood demanding God. I call Jesus a political figure because he was executed by a government on a political cross of treason.
Our friend, the late Marcus Borg, calls Jesus a “Spirit Person,” a mediator of the sacred. By this he explains, “Spirit persons are people who have vivid and frequent subjective experiences of another level or dimension of reality.” Not only do they know, in an experimental way, the sacredness of Otherness, which we call God, but they become mediators of the sacred as well. Borg writes that most central to Jesus was Spirit and Compassion. “For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue…” Compassion for Jesus was political. Jesus advocated what Borg calls, “a politics of compassion.”
Prior to the rise of the Religious Right in the political arena, people perhaps even more so than now, liked to compartmentalize faith and politics. Politicians didn’t wave Bibles and quote (or misquote) verses to garner votes. If anything, religious practice of candidates was hidden not flaunted. Politics are messy. People don’t want Jesus caught up in the messiness that we see in party politics today. Political systems most often reinforce people of wealth and power at the expense of the last and least. So, let us spare Jesus from the tarnish of politics, some propose. But, Jesus was a political figure who was captured by Roman soldiers. He was subjected to the political process of his time. He was brought before the Roman sanctioned ruler to respond to interrogation, “So, you are a king?” There could only be one king, one ruler of the people. The Emperor of Rome claimed that title. No one else could. “So, are you a king?” Pilate asks Jesus. Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
What is the truth? What is the truth, which lies beneath the political rhetoric and campaign speeches? What is the truth, which exists in the world? What is the truth to which we belong?
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us shows us the way of truth, justice, mercy, and grace.
Jesus lived a life of compassion aligned with God of Israel. He understood that God (the power of the Universe) cares for the marginalized and brings liberation and justice to those bound in political systems of oppression.
The teachings of Jesus, empowered by God’s Spirit, gives us a template to consider the political, economic, religious, conventional systems of beliefs and attitudes that we allow to dominate our nation in rhetoric and law. We have the reason and responsibility, God-given brains and intellect to weigh what we see happening in our country against how Jesus understood God’s will on earth and to choose who we will follow, who we will empower to shape our discourse, and who we will crown modern day ‘king’ to lead us into a future of compassion and care for all God’s beloved.
May it be so.