And parts of it certainly are. Places like Antarctica with it’s frigid cold; the top of mountains with their thin air; deserts with their lack of water and vegetation; the oceans with their tidal waves, hurricanes, etc. – places like these are pretty inhospitable to human life.
But it’s not just these sorts of extreme places that are hard to live in. The regular parts of the world are tough too. We learn this as children. We start learn to walk and right way what happens? We trip and fall down on the sidewalk and skin our knees and bump our heads on rocks! We bang up against things and it hurts! Ouch!
Yet, God created this world and God said it was good when S/He created the oceans and the land, and all the rocks and creatures in it and God hopes we’ll love it, care for it, and think it’s good too!
But what God didn’t create and what God doesn’t love is the ways that we tend to run our societies. God doesn’t love it that we’ve created a world where we live by the law of the jungle, where “might makes right,” where we compete and hoard, where powers and domination systems place the overwhelming majority of humanity into abject poverty and misery.
The first major, massive scale, instance of this kind of human created system of power and might was the world’s first territorial empire, the Roman Empire. Rome conquered many nations through the means of military, political, economic, and ideological exploitation and domination.
They imposed a Pax Romana – a “Roman peace” – which meant that there was peace unless a nation dared to resist them – and then they’d be brutally squashed back into submission.
When Octavian defeated Anthony and Cleopatra, he changed his name to “Augustus” and the Roman empire took things to an even higher level than ever before. The Romans had just gone through 20 years of civil war and Augustus ended it. He brought peace – 40 years of peace! The people responded, “Thank God! Praise Augustus! He must be Divine!”
And then the Roman “Emperor Cult” was born which was the heart and soul of the Roman Empire. It created a unifying ideology which asserted that Caesar was God, that he was Son of God, that he was Savior, Redeemer, and Lord! And Rome expected all of it’s subject nations to call him those things too.
Well, God had quite enough of that! So when the next Caesar was in power, a certain Yeshua of Nazareth arrived on the scene. And this Yeshua, this Jesus, from a podunk town in a backwater province on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, had the gall to take on and defy that arrogant Roman ideology!
Some of all of this is bit like the story line in the movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, humankind has been relegated to serving as cogs in a system that they’re powerless to do anything about, as nourishment for a world run by machines. And yet there was a prophesy that a messiah would come along to liberate humanity from their oppressed state.
That savior came in the form of Neo, “the One”, Neo Anderson (meaning “Son of Man”). And it’s no accident that that’s the same title that Jesus referred to Himself as being. But unlike Neo, Jesus’ way wasn’t about fighting back and becoming even better at wielding deadly martial arts and the ways of the world than anyone else.
Instead, the way that Jesus taught was that of out-right, defiance and rejection of any powers that be, any powers or principalities that dare to usurp God’s power in God’s world!
Those false powers were the ones who really had the gall – the gall to create systems which put all of the property and farms into the hands of a few and oppressed the masses by turning them into tenant farmers or share croppers who ended up beholden to debt collectors; the gall to create a system where women had no voice or legal standing but were instead treated as the property of men; the gall to create a system where humans enslaved other humans; the gall to justify oppressing and exploiting the poor, and force young people to fight in wars of expansion; the gall to say worldly leaders and worldly powers are gods instead of God Herself!
But Jesus’ way was a nonviolent way. He didn’t use the world’s ways against the world. He simply said that the worldly powers are impotent – they have no power, that the real power is with God and in the Kingdom of God!
And then Jesus demonstrated that power by reaching out to the people who society had rejected; and He invited people to repent and to change their way of thinking and living so that they could break free from ways which collaborated with the Empire so that they could start living freely and abundantly in deep community and communion with one another – sharing all that they have and turning away from the domination system which sought to oppress them!
And then He went into the belly of the beast – right into the Temple in Jerusalem which had been collaborating with Roman imperial dominance and said “NO!” He condemned the corrupted Temple system which had been blessing the unjust status quo and colluding with the Roman Empire. Without hitting anyone with that make-shift whip of his, he knocked over the tables in the courtyard and boldly confronted the powers and called them out as frauds. He occupied and took back that house for God’s purposes – not Rome’s!
And then, …”the Empire struck back.” The domination system conspired against Him and it meted out the worst it could do. It had Him arrested, beaten, and executed. One thing the Powers That Be can’t tolerate is being rejected and so they rejected Him! They killed Him. As they say in Communist China, “the nail that rises up gets hammered back down.” Take that! End of story. And with that, Jesus’ disciples (at least the men) hid away in fear.
But then, something extraordinary happened. I’m anthropromorphizing here, but somehow God and the Universe said, “Uh, No. That isn’t the end of the story!” And though He was indeed good and dead, God amazingly and graciously resurrected Jesus – back to life! In the hearts and minds of his followers, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been delivered up by the chief priests and executed by Romans under Pontius Pilate, was alive again and on the loose!
The guards who’d been posted at the tomb ran to tell the chief priests what had happened. Their lives were in jeopardy for failing to prevent the tomb from being opened. To break the Roman seal that had been placed at the entrance to the tomb was against the Emperor’s law and punishable by death. So Jesus’ resurrection was an act of civil disobedience. God was breaking Roman law!*
Jesus showed Himself (in a way that I can’t fully explain) to those disciples of His who had run away in fear and when they experieneced Him and recognized the nail marks on His hands, they came out of hiding! Until they encountered the Risen Christ, they viewed the world the way others did. The central reality of their lives had been the power of the system and their own powerlessness in it.
But when they saw Him risen and alive, they unlocked the doors, came out, and began turning the world upside down! At last, they were finally and truly converted! They knew another reality that was bolder, truer, and stronger than the powers that had been paralyzing them with fear. Jesus had risen! And Jesus was Lord – not Caesar!
They saw that all that their rabbi had been teaching them about the Kingdom of God and how it’s ways are better than the world’s ways is true! And that no matter what, even if the worldly powers dish-out the worst they can, even if they end up getting killed too, that even death has lost its sting! Even death can’t stop the truth of God in God’s world!
(<– ancient political graffiti perhaps by a soldier, mocking the early Christians for following a “donkey king who was crucified.”)
(<–ancient Christian political graffiti)
They took to the streets and started preaching the Gospel of the Grace and Good News of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of a rabble-rousing peasant and community organizer from Nazareth named Yeshua ben Yoseph – of Jesus the Christ!
The Empire tried hard to stifle their efforts – and thousands of Christians ended up on crosses or being eaten by lions or killed by gladiators in Roman coliseums. But the more they were persecuted, the more their movement spread. And it spread like wildfire! Until, eventually, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and the Empire itself was dissolved!
Today, the living resurrected Christ stands before us. He knows us and He knows our fears. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing chasm between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, between people of different nations, we’re afraid of a drift toward an American way of endless war, and we’re afraid of a Church that’s become co-opted and corrupted by the ways of Empire. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones.
Like those first disciples, we’re afraid of the power of the systems of the world with their armies, their courts, their prisons, their threats. Like them, we fear our own powerlessness, weakness, and sense of inadequacy. We’re insecure, frightened by our emotions, and wary of trusting one another. We feel both the guilt of our sin and the vulnerability of our broken places. Above all, we fear pain, suffering and death.
We too are hiding behind locked doors and are afraid to come out. Jesus knows our fear and wants us to know His resurrection. He says, “Go, tell my disciples that I have risen and that I’m going before them!” Whether we view that resurrection as a physical one or as a spiritual one, the risen Christ tells us not to doubt but to believe!
Jesus lived and died to liberate us from our sins, our doubts, our fears, and the addictions we use to medicate and numb ourselves from the oppression and exploitation of the world. God raised Jesus to new life to show us that death doesn’t have the final word and to confirm the truth of all that Jesus had been teaching and living. God raised Jesus to show us God’s victory over the worldly Powers That Be and to set us free from their power. And now, Jesus calls us to boldly pick up our crosses and follow Him. That’s right! He wants us to follow Him into harm’s way! But He wants us to do so knowing that no matter what, God’ll make things right in the end.
So, what about you and me today? Do we still doubt that Jesus’ way of love, that His “way of the cross” and “via dolarosa” (way of suffering) makes much sense in this modern, competitive, get them before they get you, dog eat dog world? Do we think that that kind of “suffering servanthood” can make a difference or transform our world of new empires and huge and powerful systems and institutions?
Well, those early disciples felt overwhelmed by the powers and forces that ruled their day, but they were converted! They had become people of the resurrection. They began living lives filled with the fruits of conversion. Friends, we too can know the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Like those first disciples, we need to come out of hiding and see the risen Lord. Seeing is believing, and believing is knowing that we must turn and follow Jesus – not “believe the right things about him” – but follow him. The resurrection exposes bogus powers and restores us to right community and to who we really are. I’m not “Roger: a slave to the system!” I’m Roger – free in Christ! Liberated to advocate for justice and to serve God’s people and meet their needs – and nothing’s gonna stop me! And the same is true for you!
Every time we act upon Jesus’ lordship, every time we follow His teachings, we’re demonstrating His victory. Every time we refuse to be controlled by a political or economic system; every time we deny the absolute authority of the state; every time we claim Christ’s freedom over our fear; tear down the walls of race, class, sex, and sexual orientation; love our enemies; stand with the poor; forgive those who’ve wronged us, and resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace, we’re demonstrating the victory of Christ in the world!
His victory and God’s kingdom is present wherever it is claimed and acted upon. Friends, let’s dedicate the rest of our lives to claiming and acting upon this victory and living in that kingdom!
Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
* Wait. There’s more. Some contend that God doesn’t really intervene in the world in ways that violate the laws of physics such as literally resuscitating bodies back to life or rolling away heavy stones from tombs. Such persons can still celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as a human-made act of civil disobedience and resistance against Empire. By continuing to follow a peasant who’d been crucified on a garbage heap and claim that his teachings and Way are true and that the Empire’s ways aren’t. Collectively saying that “Jesus lives!” and that “Jesus is Lord – and Caesar isn’t!” – and that following Jesus’ Way is what provides assurance, wholeness, peace, and salvation – not Rome’s – is a resurrection. It’s an Insurrection of a Resurrection.
Jesus lives! Long live Jesus!
Rev. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity