Sunday, June 14, 2015

Phil Kniss: What a threat we have in Jesus

Debugging the Faith: Domesticated Christianity
Mark 11:7-21; Ephesians 1:17-23

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A few months ago I began a sermon with a shameless boast
    about the clever sermon title.
    Hate to say it, but I may have outdone myself with today’s title.
    I’ve been waiting two years to use this one,
        “What a threat we have in Jesus,”
            which I thought of while working on another sermon.

Today, I finally have a sermon to fit the title,
    as I begin a 3-part series
        on some pervasive, and in-vasive, viruses
        that have entered into our Christian faith.
    Our focus today is on how we have domesticated our faith,
        attempted to tame Jesus,
        to remake him into our image.
    Of course, I am in no way suggesting we’re off-base
        when we say or sing,
        “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
            Jesus himself claims his followers as friends.
            It’s a gift of amazing grace to be called a “friend of Jesus.”

But what I am saying,
    is there’s a strong, overwhelming need within ourselves,
        and within our culture, it seems,
        to see Jesus only as friend.
    We want a Jesus who will be there for us,
        with the emphasis on “for us.”
    We want a Jesus who is on our side, regardless.
        Who will underwrite our agenda.
        Who will be gentle on us and on our tribe,
            and will put our opponents in their place.

    The very idea that our Jesus might be a threat to us,
        or to our people, our desires, or our agenda,
        seems completely unimaginable.

    It explains why the phrase,
        “What a threat we have in Jesus”
        does not appear anywhere in the universe of Google.
    It will in a couple days, when Aaron posts this sermon podcast,
        but not yet.
    And it’s really not because I was so clever to think of it.
        It’s a fairly obvious wordplay,
            that surely someone would have thought of,
            if people routinely thought of Jesus as a potential threat.
        It’s just proof that people don’t.
            We want a gentle Jesus,
                an affirming Jesus
                a cheer-leading Jesus,
                a “yes-man” Jesus,
                a “you-go-girl” Jesus.

It’s not hard to figure out why we’d want to domesticate Jesus.
    To tame Jesus.
    To see Jesus as our loyal ally.
    It’s because we prefer most everything domesticated.
        The natural environment.
    When something, or someone, or some creature,
        is wild, and unpredictable,
        we perceive it as a danger,
            something to protect ourselves from.

Domestication means bringing “under control.”
It’s taking something outside our control,
    and making it into something that will act on command,
        to serve our needs and purposes,
        to act in ways we can expect, anticipate, and prepare for.

What is it about “Jesus is Lord” that we don’t understand?
    Jesus is not our pet, our adoring and devoted companion animal.
    Jesus is in charge.

If you want to see how untamed, and untameable, Jesus really is,
    look no further than today’s Gospel reading from Mark.

This is an amazing story on so many levels.
Let me set the scene for you again,
    as I have many other times,
    including a couple months ago on Palm Sunday.
    Jesus is making his grand entry into Jerusalem,
        Judea’s capital, and the power center of Roman occupation.
    It’s where the brutal, violent, and pagan King Herod
        sits on David’s throne—
        the throne where they all knew God intended
            a Jewish King to be sitting, a descendant of King David.

    This, now, is the moment,
        when Jesus is moving in on Herod’s turf,
        and is about to retake the throne, and depose Herod,
            in a miraculous coup d’etat.
    That is precisely what everyone around Jesus
        thought was going on—
        everyone, including his closest disciples.

    Everyone thought this was the moment.
        That’s the chant they were repeating over and over.
        “Hosanna to the son of David.
            Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
        “Hosanna” meant save us.
            It was how a crowd normally greeted a conquering king.
    We misinterpret this story,
        if we think the crowds were offering up
            words of spiritual praise to God.
        They were not.
        They were chanting a political slogan,
            directed to someone who was on the verge of doing
                what no army or insurrectionist so far had done.
        Jesus would use his well-demonstrated miraculous powers,
            to save them from Rome,
            to rescue them from the disgraceful, blasphemous,
                and violent King Herod,
            and finally, sit down on the king’s throne,
                for which the Messiah Jesus was destined.

And then, as Mark tells the story,
    this wildly unpredictable and untameable Jesus,
    did what no person could have predicted.

    It’s ridiculous, in fact.
    I actually wonder if Mark intended his readers
        to laugh out loud when they read these lines.
    At the climactic point in the whole Jesus story,
        after he rides through the city gates,
            throngs of people shouting and chanting his victory,
            at the very moment everyone was expecting
                a miraculous overthrow of the occupation . . .
        this is what Mark writes, and I quote.

    “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts.
        He looked around at everything,
            but since it was already late,
            he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

What? . . . What?
    He rides into the city as a conquering king.
        And when he gets off his mount,
            he starts acting like a tourist.
        Instead of storming the palace,
            he walks into the temple,
                and takes a look around.
            Then glances at his watch.
                “Oh, look at what time it is!
                    Let’s go back to the hotel.”
            I guess it was just too late in the day to start a coup.

I mean, it was almost literally like that, according to Mark.
    “Let’s go back to the hotel.”
    Bethany, a mile or two outside the city,
        was his usual place of lodging,
        with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
            His favorite B&B.

    But as Jesus turned back toward his lodging,
        something was going on in his head,
        and in his emotions.
    What he had seen at the temple, steamed him.
        I think there was righteous anger starting to boil up in him.
        Oh, the injustice his own people were perpetrating in the temple,
            against each other, and against the Gentiles.
        The court of the Gentiles—
            the space built especially for non-Jewish seekers of God—
                was being filled up with merchants.
            Instead of providing a welcoming space for the seekers,
                they were profiting from them.
            It was a disgrace to the God who dwelt there
                in that holy place.

    So on the way out of the city, Jesus was stewing.

    And the next morning, he made his way back toward Jerusalem.
        Without the crowds. Just his disciples, this time.
    I think his anger only built up overnight.
        He probably didn’t sleep well.
    So as he walked along, he was angry and hungry—
        bad combination for a poor hapless fig tree along the way,
            that happened to have no figs on it.
    When Jesus went to get some figs, and found it empty,
        he cursed it,
            “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
        Wasn’t really fair to that poor tree.
        Mark even sympathized, when he wrote,
            “It was not the season for figs.”

    Jesus went back into the temple,
        and his righteous anger boiled over into decisive action.
    He overturned the tables of the money-changers,
        and sellers of doves.
    Sent everyone scurrying, and then he set to preaching,
        “Don’t the scriptures say,
            ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’?
            But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
    The law provided a specific place in the temple
        for prayer for all nations—the Court of the Gentiles.
        The people had let it become a marketplace for profiteers.
    And the wild, undomesticated Jesus exposed this travesty
        for all to see.

    Nobody saw any of that coming.
        Less than 24 hours earlier, people were proclaiming him
            the new King of Judea.
        Now, he was practicing his kingship,
            just not in the way people assumed he would.

It’s not too surprising that this dramatic turn of events
    put the authorities into high gear,
    they went into protection mode.
        This man was wild, they could see.
        He was unpredictable.
            And therefore, dangerous.
        He needed to be done away with.

Exactly as Mark described in the next verse.
    “The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this
        and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him.”

Jesus, of course, is still among us today,
    as we experience his presence through the Holy Spirit,
        sometimes called, the “Spirit of Jesus.”
    And I suggest to you that Jesus can no more be tamed today,
        than he was in Jerusalem that day.
    Jesus is still as likely to turn his attention,
        and piercing gaze,
        and righteous anger,
        toward us, his own people,
            and all the ways we have corrupted his agenda today.
    This is true, all across the political and theological spectrum.
        Neither right nor left is any more or less apt to tame Jesus,
            and remake him into one who always
                affirms us where we’re at,
            instead of one who threatens our assumptions, our lifestyles,
                our beliefs, our practices.

    We don’t seek a Jesus who confronts us
        and so we rarely have encounters with that Jesus.
    We’ve created an alternate Jesus we can handle easier.
        A Jesus who is not really “Lord,”
            in any tangible, authoritative way,
            but one who lives in our heart,
            who blesses and encourages us in our interior selves.

    Yesterday morning at the Virginia Conference Bible study session,
        we were reminded of a quote from Brian Zahnd,
            given at a Missio Alliance conference
            some of us attended last year.
    At that conference, Brian said, ever since the days of Constantine,
        the church has “demoted Jesus from Lord . . .
            to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.”
    Trying to tame Jesus is not a recent development in Christianity.

    “Domesticated Christianity” is a virus that has thrived in the church,
        at least since the third century,
        when Christianity changed from being a marginal movement,
            to being part of the establishment.
        The more we find ourselves at home in the establishment—
            whether civil establishment or religious establishment—
            the more likely we are to be carriers of this virus.

As soon as any of us think we have Jesus figured out,
    he is likely to make a surprising turn,
    and may just aim his challenge toward us, his subjects.

Worshiping Jesus truly,
    will open us to being surprised.
Worshiping Jesus truly,
    will expose our hypocrisy,
    will overturn whatever tables we’ve set up in the temple,
        where they don’t belong.
Worshiping Jesus truly
    begins with making a radical claim.
    The same claim that got the early church into trouble—
        the claim, and confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
            Not Caesar, not the American Empire,
                not the entertainment culture,
                not the consumerism that drives our economy,
                not the military-industrial complex,
                not anything, or anyone.
            Jesus Christ, alone, is Lord.
            Jesus is the one we answer to.
            Jesus is the one to whom we hand over
                our right to self-determination.

        Jesus loves us, yes.
            Loves us mightily.
            Loves us unconditionally.
        But Jesus doesn’t love us like our pet dog loves us.
        Jesus loves us with the fierce and unstoppable love of a parent,
            who has accepted responsibility for our well-being,
            who has been given authority,
            who can, and does, expect obedience.
        Jesus loves us so much, he will do anything to get through to us,
            and move us toward God’s will for our lives,
            toward what he knows God desires, for our lives to flourish.

        That love and authority is never forced upon us.
            It is not coercive.
            It will let us go, if we so choose.
        But it won’t let us go easy.
            And the obedience that love demands will not be tamed,
                or shaped to our personal preferences.

    Yes, I admit. That’s a far cry from the tame Jesus
        so many of us thought we were worshiping.
    But the domesticated Jesus is a Jesus of our creation,
        who doesn’t really exist.

That’s not the Jesus we heard described by Paul in Ephesians 1,
    who God “raised from the dead
        and seated . . . at his right hand in the heavenly realms,
        far above all rule and authority, power and dominion,
            and every name that is invoked . . .
            in the present age [and the age] to come.
    [Who] God placed all things under his feet
        and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,
        which is his body, the fullness of him
            who fills everything in every way.”

    To worship that Jesus is to be in awe.
        It is to bow in submission.
        It is to obey because we want to, and because we must.

Yes, it’s true what we sing,
“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
    [and] what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”

But it’s also honest to admit,
    “What a threat we have in Jesus.”
What a threat to any of us who claim God fights on our side,
    or blesses our agenda,
    or underwrites our truth claims.

Let’s be honest about God’s authority,
    and humble about our own.

—Phil Kniss, June 14, 2015

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