Build your kingdom all your life
And say goodbye
– J.J. Heller –
I wish more Christians would spend time noticing
all the people in the gospels to whom Jesus and his work
was very bad news.
– D.L. Mayfield –
Caesar was the gospel for a lot of people.
In 9 B.C.E., an inscription celebrates the birth of Caesar Augustus. His birth is “εὐαγγέλιον,” (“gospel,” or “good news”) because Caesar will “end war and arrange all things.”
And Caesar was very, very good news.
He was good news for Roman citizens and people used to a certain standard of living. He was good news for people who liked a safer world with more armies and less physical threat. He was good news to everyone looking for a win at the expense of the people next door. – the people next door who weren’t Roman citizens, who were working their way out of slavery from a war or poverty, neighbors from different cultures with different traditions that didn’t have the benefits of full legal protection from their new country.
Caesar, the Bad Guy from the New Testament, was gospel.
Empire is also gospel.
Every bad news is good news, the Gospel, to someone.
We never get tired of using the Triumphal Entry as an object lesson to stroke our own egos.
These silly people wanted a Conquering King, not a Suffering King, so they turned around and killed Him. The people cheering one week were crucifying Him the next, because they didn’t understand His kingdom like we do.
But here we are, in 2017, trying to force Jesus up onto a white horse, just so we can have an excuse to saddle up our own war horses and ride into battle and claim that we were only following Jesus all along.
Christian “gospel” looks remarkably similar to Caesar’s these days. Our kingdoms look the same.
The accumulation of power. The accumulation of fame. Christian subculture is filled with competition, violence, glorification of winning and succeeding. We buy votes, we sell books, we maintain hierarchical structures in our marriages, we use our social media feeds to remind people who is In and who is Out.
We wield power over our significant others and we wield power in our churches. We baptize our acceptance of violence and war as redemptive, and baptize our greed with a few cherry-picked verses about wealthy ancient kings.
Blessed are the winners!
Blessed are those who conquer!
Blessed are the ones who come out on top!
Blessed are the ones with kingdoms!
Blessed are those who have succeeded!
Jesus rode in to singing and praise in Jerusalem, and we want to ride in to that, too.
But Jesus’ story doesn’t end with palm branches and landing tenure.
Jesus got killed.
Jesus got killed.
By every standard of success and failure that we’ve ever used, Jesus’ kingdom failed. Jesus failed by the standards we use for church plants, for new ministries, for our Monday mornings, for our small groups and publishing houses and small businesses. Jesus did not win. Jesus lost.
Blessed are the losers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that lose.
Blessed are they that aren’t known.
Blessed are the unpopular.
Blessed are the secret ones.
Blessed are the failures.
We keep trying to create a version of Christianity where Jesus doesn’t die, because if Jesus doesn’t die, maybe we won’t have to either.
We keep putting Jesus on a war horse, where he can look down at us and applaud the business savvy capitalists in the temple and give a sermon called “Blessed are those who Follow Their Dreams!” while finally establishing a country built on Christian Values. We’ve been trying to put Jesus on that horse for a long time, since the ragtag bunch of losers following a Rabbi on his cross-country preaching trips bickered about who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
From the Triumphal Entry through Constantine through the Crusades through, yes, the city on a hill of America, Christians have been trying to build an Empire of Winning on the backs of the people who will inevitably lose.
But Jesus is not just a New King of a Better Empire.
Jesus came to dissolve the idea of Empire itself.
Jesus comes to us, and bids us come and die.
Jesus comes to us, and bids us to die by the sword before we pick up a sword to defend ourselves.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Jesus sits on a work animal and watches his fans cheer as they get ready to make Him ruler of an empire. Jesus walks into the temple, full of people tending their tidy kingdoms of success and calling them religion.
And Jesus flips over the tables of their empire, because Jesus is not just opposed to the Empire of political power but the empire of a Church that would bleed the people dry before it opened up the holy places for the people on the edge of society.
And then Jesus got killed before he would pick up a sword.
I don’t want to get killed.
I don’t want my sandcastle empire to get washed back into the sea.
I don’t want to be a peacemaker, because I want to fight back. I don’t want to be poor, because I want to build a tiny capitalist kingdom in the temple courts. I don’t want to be meek, because I want to ride in on a war horse, and I want to keep telling myself that it’s OK, because these people are really terrible, which is why I need to slice them down.
Put down your sword, says Jesus.
But Jesus, you can’t really understand what it’s like.
And Jesus looks at Peter and shakes his head, and heals the ear of the man who came to kill him, when Jesus’ own disciple, in a passion for justice and protection, drew blood.
What kind of a Bad News Gospel is this.
Jesus is terribly bad news to all of us who are trying to feed our craving for Empire and power and call it “religion.”
Jesus is terribly bad news to everyone who is looking for security at the expense of the dignity of others.
Jesus is bad news to the winners, the people who hold power, the rich, the ones with well-stocked trophy cases – whether they’re stocked from the State or the Church.
Jesus’ birth is bad news for everyone to whom Caesar’s birth is gospel.
This is Bad News Gospel for so many of us.
“Who then can be saved?”
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is Gospel for the ones who’ve been left behind.
Jesus is Gospel for ones who’ve had been crushed by the State and by the Church.
Jesus is Gospel for people who waste their perfume trying to show how sorry they are, how deep the ache in their heart is.
Jesus sees the people who aren’t making it
Jesus sees the ones who look like they’ve been winning, but they’re so desperate and have been lying for so long to themselves that they’re leaving their dignity behind to scamper up a tree to try to see Someone who could rescue them. Jesus walks under the tree, and looks up at them, and tells them that they’re the one that he wants to get dinner with.
Jesus sees children, kids, unvalued, not the precious treasures of post-Victorian society, but a rabble of noisy and sticky family property, and he laughs and gathers them up and sits down on the ground to play with them.
Jesus sees Mary, who doesn’t want to be a hostess, who wants to be a disciple and follower of the Rabbi like a man would get to be, and Jesus is delighted to buck the culture and teach her.
Jesus felt it in his body when the woman with chronic illness touched his cloak in a crowd.
Jesus heard it when a man who was homeless called to him for mercy from the side of the road.
Jesus sat on the edge of a dirty watering hole outside of town, burnt out and thirsty, and found time to swap stories with the ancient equivalent of a stripper, knowing everything about her but never shaming her.
Jesus stayed up until 3am with a religious “winner” who was scared and unsure and curious, and Jesus didn’t shoot him down, but stayed up late on the roof, probably sharing a drink and talking, talking, telling, welcoming, inviting.
Jesus doing the dirtiest work, on the ground cleaning people’s filthy feet, because he loved them, and because somehow he wanted to explain that this is what Jesus’ kingdom would look like.
You can’t explain that. You can only show it.
When Jesus got on his knees to clean shit off his disciples’ feet, he showed them that the palm branches and the empire religion and the “winning” was never why he came. It was for this. This was why he came.
My Gospel is foot washing and dirty kids. My Gospel is feeding people who have no bread, no food, no money. My Gospel is touching people with communicable diseases. My Gospel is looking up into the trees where the ashamed and afraid are hiding. My Gospel is riding in on a servant’s pony instead of an Empire horse. And yes, my Gospel is even healing the cut-off ear of my enemy, when my friend was the one who cut if off to protect me in the first place.
Perhaps the Gospel is very bad news for you today.
But if right now, right here, you feel like the gospel of Caesar is better news to you and how you’ve oriented your life than the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ – remember Zacchaeus. Remember Nicodemus.
Because the Bad News is that you can’t keep the gospel of Caesar and still have the Gospel of Christ.
But the Good News is that it’s never too late to scamper up that tree, your money bags hanging off the side of your belt. It’s never too late to knock on Jesus’ door at three am, after a long day spent arguing theology for the sake of popularity in the temple square with the religious Empire of your day.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.