What do you recall being the primary reasons motivating the United State’s Declaration of Independence? These were deep political issues of the day that moved the leaders of our colonies to put their lives on the line for what they deemed a better future.
What do you imagine will be among the most important issues debated in the 2020 Presidential Election? If you were running for president, how would you land on the key issues? What is the reasoning behind your position?
My stomach turned as I watched a high profile pastor tell his congregation who to vote for in 2012, especially since I knew that a number of years before he would have singled that same candidate out as apostate, who could not be trusted given the faith tradition of which he was a significant leader. Other churches have invited politicians onto their stages to promote their flavor of partisan politics – both on the red and blue side of the aisle. I gladly join the chorus who want politics out of the church. In an eye-opening book entitled To Change the World, author James Hunter notes that religious groups have become the useful idiots of political parties: Evangelicals in service of the Republican party, and more progressive churches for Democrats. Recent polls regarding support of President Trump and Republicans in general certainly affirm his assertions. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stick to the Gospel like Jesus did?
In Luke’s remembrance, Jesus taught from the Prophet Isaiah to set the tone for his forthcoming ministry:
Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”
Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips. “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” – Luke 4:14-22 NLT
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, we read the following:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:23
And then a little later, basically the same thing:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. – Matthew 9:35
But then, at some point, John the Baptist – the guy who baptized Jesus and told everybody he was the guy to follow, began to wonder if he made the right choice, as the following verses display:
When Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples, he went out to teach and preach in towns throughout the region.
John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”
Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” – Matthew 11:1-6 NLT
What would prompt one like John the Baptist to question Jesus’ role? In a word, politics. What Jesus was doing and saying conflicted with John’s way of seeing the world politically. In fact, he probably thought Jesus was way too political, period. If we walked in his shoes, we probably would, too.
When we hear words like Gospel, Good News, and Evangelism, we might naturally think first of Jesus and the movement he started. In fact, however, he was stealing terms that already flooded the market. There was another group that used these same words when they rolled into town: the Roman Empire. What was their Gospel (which means Good News)? The Pax Romana. Want peace and prosperity? Put your trust in the Empire and in its Emperor (who liked to be called Lord and God). When Jesus’ audience heard him use phrases which included “Good News”, they immediately knew he was challenging Rome. Not only that, when he was calling himself the one anointed by God to bring the Good News, he was essentially calling the Emperor himself a fraud. When he invited people to follow him, he was in effect guilty of insurrection.
What would it look like if Jesus was engaged in his ministry years today, in Napa, CA? You might hear him say something like this:
I have been anointed to Make America Great Again! The Kingdom of God is here to bring liberty and justice for all.
Anyone who heard what he said would immediately recognize that he was challenging President Trump, and the United States of America. Any fans of President Trump and the United States would be immediately on edge, because Jesus’ words were unequivocally politically challenging and unsettling. If Jesus then went on to heal people – making it obvious that God was working in him – it made his threat legitimate.
But the Roman Empire and her emperor were not the only powerful presence to be challenged in word and deed. In what is considered his great sermon – the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus said some challenging things that don’t ping our radar: But I warn you – unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! (Matthew 5:20 NLT). And then he went on, using the phrase in different ways, “You have heard it said, but I say…” Do you know what Jesus was doing here? He was saying that he had a new interpretation of the faith. Do you know where he was saying this? In Galilee. Do you know who was ultimately in charge of interpreting the faith for Jewish people everywhere? The High Priest and his “court”. Do you know where they resided? Jerusalem. With his words, Jesus was directly challenging the authority of another political group: the Jewish leadership, who were given authority by the Romans over the people of Israel to carry out the religion and keep people in line. They even had their own courts and military-type presence.
Think about how it would fly if a catholic priest began gaining notoriety as a teacher, and then began boldly saying, I know the Pope said women couldn’t be priests, but I’m here to tell you God thinks it is fine. So is marriage for clergy. God has anointed me to tell you this. You might think he was nuts, of course, but then what if he follows his words with miracles – pulling off healing that only the Spirit of God could bring about. Now he has your attention. Returning to Jesus’ ministry, what if you were in love with the Temple and its traditional way of thinking and being? You would feel challenged, and maybe even threatened by Jesus’ politics. And the fact that God was obviously with him only made his presence even more troubling.
Political powers eventually killed Jesus. They saw Jesus as a threat, and they took care of business. If only Jesus hadn’t been so political… Why did he touch that third rail? Didn’t his mom and dad teach him never to talk about politics or religion? Or was Jesus’ death the cautionary tale that gave rise to the social-setting advice?
Jesus wasn’t trying to play politics. He wouldn’t sink that low. While he surely used words in his teachings that were provocative, he wasn’t interested in playing on the field of the Roman Empire or even the Temple. He had a higher source that guided his steps, what he called the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven). Whenever he spoke of it, he was referring to what things were really like in God’s mind – what really mattered, what values were most important, etc. In one passage he said, “I only do what I see my Father doing” (John5:19). If he were here in the flesh among us today, he would be the same. At times both political parties would cheer him on, until he pointed out the corruption in both. He would not endorse a candidate either, because his allegiance is to something and someone much more important than the President of the United States, the Pope, the American Flag or the Christian flag. It is the Kingdom of God that drives him, and always will, which at times will lead to new interpretations of long-held, time-honored traditions, and including people who once were excluded. The Spirit of God flows from the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t worry a lot about Rome or Jerusalem because neither were his home or goal. He really did march to the beat of a different drummer, playing a totally different rhythm that Rome and Jerusalem couldn’t pick up.
This, my friends, has implications for any of us who dare call ourselves followers of Jesus.
The first implication has to do with our primary allegiance. The Temple fell at the hands of the Roman Empire in 70 C.E. Eventually the Roman Empire fell, too. We don’t have those two powers in our face these days. But we do have our country, the United States, and we do have the Christian religion. Both are modern day empires in their own rite, wielding power for good and ill all over the world. Do you love your country? Do you love your religion? I bet you do if you’re reading this. Do you love the Way of Jesus? Which is primary for you? One quick way you can know is whether you’ve seriously asked yourself where Jesus is at odds with your political party, faith tradition, or its leaders. If you’ve never asked, you have, by default, made something else primary.
The second implication I want to have us consider has to do with the “So what?” factor. Is it possible that we have been on auto pilot regarding our primary allegiances, and on what Jesus’ Way is all about? If we have been, my call to us is to WAKE UP! Discover what the Way of Jesus entails and follow. This will require curiosity on our parts. If you don’t know whether the Way of Jesus conflicts with your political views or religious views, this simply means you are asleep at the wheel. So, again, WAKE UP! Jesus didn’t do everything he did so we could nap our lives away – he did it all so that we would experience the transformation that the Spirit of God brings to our lives, and that we would get further transformed by helping others experience restoration individually and collectively.
You probably know your party’s and religion’s position on a range of issues. What does your thoughtful, prayerful study of Jesus’ Way lead you to believe would be the Kingdom of God position on the critical issues of our day, which may or may not include the key election issues undergoing debate? Surely the following would be on the list (and I encourage you to add more):
· Immigration of refugees, asylum seekers, and hopeful workers.
· Nationalism, capitalism, globalism, and the US’ role in each.
· Climate change.
· Military: defense spending and our international involvement.
· Denuclearization of North Korea and Iran
· Gun control and violence.
· Equality and equity for all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
· Income inequality and disparity.
· Foreign influence regarding US intelligence and elections.
· Transparency and freedom of the press.
· Character and demeanor of our highest elected officials.
· Taxation: who gets breaks and for what purpose?
When we begin to discover where Jesus departs from our chosen political and religious leanings, it is at that point that we have a choice to make about who and what claims our highest allegiance. And once we have a picture of that – and if we choose the Way of Jesus – it will necessarily lead to appropriate attitudes and behaviors that will conflict with your religious and political parties. Faith isn’t simply about inner peace. Our spiritual practices are meant to renew our minds, transform our hearts, and give us vision from the heart and mind of God so that we what we do with our lives is rooted in the same way as it was for Jesus. Discover anew the Way of Jesus. Prayerfully process the important issues of our day. Then, taking the lead from Jesus, do something with your new understanding. May you be a voice, a presence, for the things that mattered to Jesus and God. May your hands and feet go places and do things like Jesus did. May you be known for your deep and abiding love that permeates everything you do and guides your thoughtful steps.