I have found that when times are difficult either globally or nationally, there seems to be an uptick in evangelism. It’s not always the most healthy evangelism, but evangelism nonetheless. This usually presents itself in the form of well meaning pictures of flags waving, bald eagles flying, kids with their hands over their hearts, and other types of photo stock images with the words “bring Jesus back into our schools” or “make Christ the cornerstone of your lives.” It can also be presented by well meaning (or maybe not so well meaning) well known evangelical pastors being interviewed on television (they never interview pastors like me) saying things like “now is the time for people to let Jesus into their hearts” and other such things. Part of me agrees. I wonder how this country and world would look if we actually took to heart the things that Jesus spoke about, taught about, and preached about. But, part of me disagrees. We humans are so full of ourselves to think we even have the slightest bit of power that would be able to keep Jesus out of any place.
Today’s reading in Matthew asks some questions directly of Jesus. The authorities are, as usual, trying to set up Jesus to fail. They are already trying to catch him in the act, so to speak, so that they can start to build the case against him. These questions they are asking is what ultimately leads to his crucifixion. And this little game of cat and mouse goes on and on for chapters upon chapters in all of our gospel stories. Jesus always gives the authority just enough to confuse them and just enough to encourage them to come back and ask more questions. So the questions asked of Jesus in today’s readings are “by what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” And really what the chief priests and elders are asking is “Jesus, who are you?” and “by what authority do you preach, teach, and lead?” I want to argue that when the elders and chief priests ask these questions, what they are also asking (its implied) is “so what does that mean for me?”
As Christians, we often claim Jesus when Jesus looks, thinks, speaks, or acts like us. We are comfortable when the messiah does things or says things that can benefit us and/or the people we love. Yet too often we mess this up and get this wrong. We like to decide who is in and who is out and when we start to draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves on the side of the persecuted instead of the one doing the persecution. Author Anne Lamott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The questions of “who are you” and “by what authority” weren’t just questions that the chief priests and elders asked, they are questions we still should be asking of Jesus and ourselves today.
And as we ask those questions, it naturally leads to another question (or, at least it does in my opinion) of “why does that matter?” When we speak of who Jesus is for us and why we believe what we believe, the question that seems to get us stuck is that “why does it matter?” When we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, what does that mean for us and our lives? For me, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord means trusting in God completely and totally and if I am going to be honest, that is really frightening. If we are going to proclaim that Jesus is Lord then that means nothing else, absolutely nothing else, can serve in that capacity. This means that power, money, time, status, nothing else is Lord. But, oh how often do we make those things our lord. How often do we bow to the pressures of money, power, time, status, and what not? How often are we pledging our allegiance to the things that during Jesus’ time would be considered the empire?
When was the last time you thought about what Jesus means for you? And I don’t mean that in a hypothetical, passing thought kind of way. I mean when you think about the role that Jesus plays in your life, how does that shape every single thing in your life? And are you projecting your own expectations onto Jesus, or are you gladly taking on Jesus’ expectations of you? Those are two very different questions, my beloved. Why or how is your life different because of Jesus? Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. That grace is a gift and it changes our lives. Yet we do everything in our power to deny that because we don’t think we’re worthy of God’s grace or love. Maybe we are scared to think about who we are and what it means for us to declare that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.
So maybe what you need to hear today is this, my beloved. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that nothing and no one has ever or will ever be forgotten. This includes you. If you feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely, forsaken, that is simply evil trying its best to whisper unworthiness in your ear. Because God’s grace doesn’t forget anyone. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that love is a lavish commodity that never runs out. This means that you can be, will be, and are a recipient of God’s obnoxious love. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, or what society tells you that you should feel about yourself, God loves you, all of you, more than you can ever know. Jesus showed us that love by emptying himself on the cross. When the empire wanted Jesus to prove who he was, he did exactly that by loving the world with no exceptions.
Maybe what you need to hear today, my friends, is that declaring Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that your suffering has not gone unnoticed. Your times of hardship have not been spent alone. Your darkness has not been without a small amount of light from Christ. Your tears have been counted. Your sleepless nights have been tallied. When it feels like the world has given up on you, Jesus is still there, right by your side, because there is no place that is too dark or too desolate for God.
When we are clear about who Jesus is for us, we can also be clear about who Jesus is for the world. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord of all, we must mean all. If we declare that Jesus is love, we must mean that all are loved. If we declare that Jesus is forgiveness incarnate, then that forgiveness is for all people. And that kind of love and forgiveness is messy and it isn’t easy and thank God, it’s not up to us. In a time when governments show authority with money, military power, and, God forbid, nuclear power, it is strange and even counter-cultural to proclaim that we love and serve a God whose power comes in the form of a cross. We love and serve a God who instead of stockpiling love and forgiveness, passes it out like candy at a parade. We love and serve a God whose power comes from death and resurrection. So sure, we always need more Jesus in this world. But we need Jesus that denied the empire, not bowed down to it. We need the Jesus that shows preferential treatment to the poor, not the Jesus we’ve created in our minds that favors the rich. We need the Jesus who opens the doors of heaven to tax collectors and prostitutes first before any of us self-proclaimed self-righteous are allowed to enter. Most importantly, we need the Jesus with love for everyone; a love that is wholly unfair and yet, a holy relief.