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The Politics of Jesus 2: A (very) crash course in political discipleship

November 17, 2018

Luke 4: 1-13, Colossians 1: 15-17; 2:8-10, 13-15

 

Last week I talked about witness… in the face of a world, a system that hates us (Jn 5:18)… I talked about  protests among other things. About standing up against the way of the world in witness… because there is a kind of fallenness, distortedness, distorting going on in the world which is messing with our lives and our heads.

Today I want to take that a bit further… politics, living with the structures of the world… which in the language of the NT means living with the powers of the world.

But first point is going back to basics. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus. I don’t know if you agree with me on that definition of Christianity. I don’t know how much you have thought about this issue, the core matter of Christian faith. It’s so everywhere in our Bible that we almost don’t notice it. Being holy as God is holy, becomes in the NT being holy as Jesus is holy. Being like him in his mode of being in the world. Being like him in his character. Forgiving like he forgave. Loving enemies like he loved them. Being ‘in Christ’. Sharing in his death, being crucified with him, taking up our cross as he did, serving as he served. Suffering as he suffered. Having the same mind … and so on and so on.

Today I want to talk about being political like Jesus. I want to talk about Jesus relation to power.

Jesus began his ministry by announcing his political agenda. Jesus lived before democracy (at least modern democracy), he lived before voting, before political parties in the modern sense. But he clearly had an agenda for the political and social life of his time. He announces the arrival of Israel’s most deeply cherished hope – the year of jubilee – a time when debts are forgiven, when prisoners are set free, when the earth itself is left fallow to be restored in his fertility. Like pressing a reset button on your computer… to restore the original settings. It was profoundly political.

Like Mary’s (magnificat – the overthrow of the rich) and Zechariah (nunc dimitis  – the deliverance of the people from their enemies) and John’s the Baptist (purging of the people), but differently, Jesus is political. He announced what we can only call socio-political and economic restructuring… and he began to teach his disciples how to do it. Not restructuring from above (so to speak – by Rome or by religious leaders)… God’s restructuring from below. My favourite way of translating ‘The Kingdom of God’ is ‘God’s New Order’. Jesus’ good news was ‘God’s new order’ arriving in their midst’ to set them free. Why from below? The short answer I think is because he trusted God and the power of God’s suffering love and rejected the sword.

One way to look at this is to consider the temptations he faced. With such a major transformational socio-political agenda he was never really tempted to escape from public life like the Essenes in the desert, or the Pharisees to a degree. He was never really tempted to accept the status quo like the Sadducees or the Herodians. But he was tempted to lead a rebellion, a crusade. It was a temptation he resisted to the very end.

The story of the temptations in the desert capture it beautifully. He was tempted to go to the top. To take over the kingdoms of the world. To worship the Satan even. This is another way of summarising the same temptation… It’s not a temptation to some kind of private Satan cult. Satan represented the power behind the powers. The spiritual realities behind the political dominions. In our time we could say, Satan is the symbol of the spiritual dynamic behind the powers that be – the power behind the powers – a kind of parallel to Nathan’s phrase the word behind the word. Just as we need to discern the word within the word when we listen to scripture, so we also need to discern the power within or behind the powers that control our world. In refusing to bow to the Satan (the accuser) Jesus refuses to take the world by force. He refused the grand appearance at the top of the temple. This is his temptation at the beginning. It is also his temptation in the garden of Gethsemane at the end – he refuses the way of the sword. His political moment with the powers is the cross

I want to ‘do a Susan Blaikie’ and quote one of the theologians who changed my life (slide)

“There is in the NT no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus…Only at one  point, only on one subject – but then consistently, universally – is Jesus our example: in his cross.’ (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 95)

If you think about it, the focus all the calls to imitate/follow is the cross…  And those of us who believe in the resurrection know the cross as his victory Jesus great victory over the powers that control our world. Were it not for the resurrection it would be a completely invisible moment indistinguishable from defeat. For us who see God on the cross…  God confronting the powers… it is the beginning of the end for the powers that oppose Jesus.

But to get back to the business of following. It is not just his victory. For those who follow, it is the model for our political life. To understand this we have to think more about the powers.

What do we mean by the powers?

  1. The NT is full of this language… Interestingly when it does so it links the structures of the world with spiritual realities (lumps them together). Cities had their angels and usually fallen angels. The chief among these spiritual powers went by various name including Satan the Devil and Lucifer. Although it’s probably never stated I strongly suspect (particularly in Revelation) that the Satan (the Accuser) is understood as the Spirit of Rome. But in the language there is this link between what we might think of as the Spiritual and the Structural. Powers are structural, systematic, patterned realities. So the powers are both visible and invisible. Where we tend to separate social structures and forces from spiritual realities, the ancient world lumped them together.
  2. According to Colossians the powers are created and necessary for our life. God created them

“In him (Jesus) all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (subsist = are systematised)” 1 Colossians 1:16-17

We can’t live without the powers that structure the world, in all their mystery. So the writer to the Colossians sees them as being created, like all the world, in Christ – systematised within the mystery of Christ and God.

  1. In spite of this, mostly the NT talks of them as fallen powers (Rom 8:38) they are among the things that want to separate us from the love of God: ‘angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers’. Ephesians 2:2 mentions (probably Satan) as the ‘ruler of the power of the air, the Spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’. [Remember Satan, in the story of temptation, claiming to have authority over the kingdoms of the earth]. Colossians and Galatians talks about us being in bondage to the ‘elemental spirits of the universe’.

As we said before… it is these powers that Christ confronts and defeats on the cross.

“Erasing the record that stood against us, he removed it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; stripping the rulers (archons) and powers, he exposed them in the open, leading them prisoner along with him in a triumphal procession.” (Colossians 2: 14-15)

As fallen powers they are evil… but never entirely… they are necessary evils (‘distorted’ might be better) in need of redemption. They tend to control us. To bind us, to claim our allegiance. We get lost in the structures. The powers… we can’t live without them, we can’t live with them (at least not well).

But before we move too quickly into our modern world, what are we to make of this ancient cosmology. Let me offer a suggestion. The ancients lumped the spiritual realities and the social powers together. They tended not to distinguish the way we do. They were all mysterious. In the modern world we tend to ignore the spiritual mysteries and think that political life is a simple matter of voting and laws… kind of simple and transparent and analysable.

One of the things I think we might acknowledge in our time is that there is always more going on in the world than the sociologist can see. There is an invisible dimension to every political and social structure. We see the buildings of the university and the teachers, but the university itself is a dynamic process, more than the sum of its parts. We see the architecture of Wall St and the screens of stockbrokers and so on, but there is a process in which the financial markets shape our lives which is invisible, but no less real. Even in our work places we see our colleagues and our offices and our church buildings but there is a spirit which is more than the individual people and all of these. Perhaps we can become aware that no amount of sociological analysis will tell us the whole story. Mystery remains.

So if we can’t live, with or without them… The Christian political life is going to be critical engagement with the structures… with these powers. They make up the very cultural air we breathe. And yet we need to have critical perspective. We need to ask about what is the dominant power in our world… perhaps so dominant that we take it for granted as if there were no alternative?

And finally we need to live in the alternative! We need to live into the alternative. Only then can we, like Jesus, expose the powers that hate the way of Jesus.  One final passage from the NT about the powers. In Ephesians Paul writes that his job is:

‘to declare to all what is the plan of the mystery hidden since the ages in God who created all things; so that the multi-faceted wisdom of God should from now on be made known by means of the church to the principalities and powers in heavenly places

 

To be different is not to withdraw. It is to testify politically

Conclusion: Three Dimensions of Christian Political Discipleship

  • Like Jesus we need to discern the spirits
  • Like Jesus we seek to restructure the world from below… non-violently.
  • Like Jesus we need to expose the powers, this demonstrating the difference … i.e. being church

As I said last week… To testify is our first job

For God so loves the world… that he enters into our world to set us free from the powers that enslave us, so we who trust in him might not perish, but live in God’s new order.

Thanks be to God for the gospel!

 

 

 

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