Jesus – Enemy of the State

This sermon was originally preached for an online service of American Lutheran Church Burbank on February 28, 2021.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

via Patrick Fore on Unsplash

On April 3rd, 1968, in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

He was killed the next day.

Young Black Panther, Fred Hampton, gave a speech in a church before he was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department in cooperation with the FBI in a coordinated attack as part of what we now know as the illegal Counter Intelligence Program of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, where he said to the multi-racial coalition of people that he was building:

I believe I’m going to die doing the things I was born to do. I believe I’m going to die high off the people.

He told the crowd:

You can kill the revolutionary. But you can never kill the revolution! 

And Archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out against the exploitation and violence against the poor of El Salvador, in 1980, only a few weeks before he was assassinated while performing the Mass at his own church said:

If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.

This week in Mark’s Gospel is more of the same. After Jesus builds his own rainbow coalition of followers, after he puts on the 1st Century Palestinian equivalent of the Panther’s Free Breakfast Program and the People’s Medical Clinics, healing and feeding the masses,  Jesus and his disciples traveled on to Caesarea Philippi where he tells his disciples in no uncertain terms:

The Son of Mortals must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the religious leaders, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Revolutionaries often predict their own deaths.

In Jesus’ case we can say that we believe he had some kind of divine insight to be able to see what was coming. But even if he didn’t have some kind of godly wisdom telling him what was next, most visionaries – even the purely human ones – are able to recognize the signs. Because they have felt the tension rising. They have heard the threats. And they have chosen to press forward, no matter what the cost.

Jesus was quite clear about the risks of his ministry. In fact, when Peter tried to downplay what they were facing, Jesus had strong words for him.

And then Jesus turned to the crowd gathered with him and told them, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must take up your cross and follow me.”

I grew up hearing this phrase, “Take up your cross and follow me,” in an incredibly individualistic context. The churches of my upbringing framed this “cross” as our individual burdens, our “crosses to bear.” I was told, for example, that for those of us who were bisexual, like me, or for any of us who are LGBTQIA+, that this “internal struggle” with our attractions was something we were doomed to fight our entire lives if we were to be faithful. We were to deny ourselves, deny our identities, deny our love, deny who we were, no matter how painful it was.

But Jesus is not talking about individualistic morality here. He is not talking about sexuality or any other struggle or identity. He is not talking about an individual at all, really. The context of this phrase, “Take up your cross and follow me,” comes directly after he clearly and openly predicts his own death at the hands of the empire, in collusion with the religious leaders who have cozied up to its imperialism for the sake of their own protection and power.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” the cross here is not a metaphor for him. He is talking, specifically, about what happens to people who resist Empire. He watched the same thing happen to many others, most notably his own cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, who initiated Jesus into this work, who spoke out against King Herod and was subsequently targeted, arrested, and executed.  Jesus is reminding the crowd, the people in his movement, the reality of the cost of their work. He was keenly aware how threatening Empire finds this movement of collective Love and Liberation.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” it isn’t allegorical.

He is talking about what literally awaited him and many of his followers.

Death by Empire.

Execution by the state.

A cross. 

We as a church have failed to tell these stories faithfully. We have hyper spiritualized these stories of scripture, stripping them of their political and material implications.

Jesus didn’t just come to make sure people went to some faraway Heaven in the sky after they died. The Roman Empire wouldn’t have even noticed that, or cared. It was the way that Jesus empowered people and instilled them with a sense of dignity and improved their material reality here on Earth that scared them.

Jesus was killed as an enemy of the state precisely because he was a threat to the state.

And so in this speech to his followers, at Caesarea Philippi, he is saying, “I know what is coming. I know that if I continue to build this movement, to fight for Love and Liberation, that they will kill me. And I am making a choice, on purpose, to continue. I am marching right towards our freedom, which means I am marching right towards that cross. And if you are with me? You better be ready to march towards your own cross too.” 

The location of this conversation was important. Caesarea Phillipi was a site that was fraught, being overtaken by various superpowers until the revolt of the Maccabees, a Jewish rebellion. But during the Roman period, King Herod was given control of the area. He turned it over to his son, Phillip. King Herod and Phillip were supposed to be Jewish, like Jesus and his followers. But they betrayed their people and sold out to the Roman Empire. Phillip named this place Caesarea in honor of the Roman Emperor. He put the emperor’s face on a coin to commemorate the re-founding of this city. 

By standing at Caesarea Philippi, predicting his own death, and challenging his followers, “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus was naming that he was a different kind of Jewish king. He was not like Herod and Philip who would bow to the Empire and collaborate with their oppression. 

He would resist it. To the death.

Throughout all of history we, the Church, have had a similar challenge in front of us. We have had a choice:

Do we allow ourselves to be co-opted by the Empire for our own power and protection?

Or do we resist Empire for the sake of the people, for the sake of love and liberation?

The Church has made various choices throughout history. We have cozied up to Empire during the crusades. We weaponized the Church via the imperialism of colonialization, leading to the genocide of indigenous people all over the globe. We used our sacred texts to excuse slavery, subjugate women, and oppress LGBTQIA+ people. Many of us continue to use it to prop up white nationalism in this country.

But there has always been a faithful remnant of resistance in the Church, too. There are people whose names are known to us, like Peter and the other disciples who would go on to be killed by the Empire. But there are even more people whose names are unknown to us. In most cases, resisting Empire doesn’t get you money or power or fame, because like Jesus said, resisting Empire, if you are doing it right, gets you killed. 

In this season of Lent, a time for self reflection, I find myself asking myself why the Empire doesn’t feel more threatened by my witness, by our witness. Why the Church doesn’t feel dangerous to the death-dealing status quo.

We are in a time of great strife and struggle. It can feel impossible to get organized and band together to care for our neighbors and build a better world. We are overwhelmed and exhausted and barely hanging on. And that is by design. Empires then and now keep the masses sick and hungry and exhausted on purpose so that we will be too weak to fight back.

But take heart, beloveds, because we are not alone. In every time and place God has given us faithful witnesses to lead and encourage us. We are covered in the prayers of a great many saints who came before us, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , like Archbishop Oscar Romero. We walk in the footsteps of revolutionaries like Fred Hampton. We have these freedom stories of our spiritual ancestors in scripture to remind us of the way, to remind us of the cost, to remind us that it is worth it.

And more powerful than anything else, we have God with us. We have Jesus, who has been there, who does not make us march towards our crosses alone. Jesus felt every fear, every ounce of pressure, every anxiety, every pain, and Jesus’ resurrection promises us that even when it seems impossible, Empire and its oppression will. not. win.

These are not individualized crosses for us to suffer alone. We, the body of Christ, do this work together. Accompanied by the saints. Fortified by the promises of a God who knows the cost.

Thanks be to God. 

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