Sacrificial Lamb or Enemy of the State?

Text – Matthew 21:1-11  

Six months ago, on the morning of September 11, 2001, aerial assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killed thousands of innocent men and women and left even more innocent children, widows, and widowers forever scarred by their killing. When the diaries and plans of the terrorists were found, it was discovered that they were absolutely convinced that they were on a righteous mission in the service of a holy God who demanded the death of the enemy and their own ultimate sacrifice.

When plastic explosives attached to a Hamas suicide bomber ripped through the gentrified Ben Yehuda shopping mall in Jerusalem in September, 1977, the blast damaged not only lives and property, but also the confidence with which most people viewed the world. When the shy young man grinned into the video camera the day before he was to become a martyr, he proclaimed "I am doing this for Allah." (1)

"It was ‘a cold February night’ in 1984 when Rev. Michael Bray and a friend drove a yellow Honda from his home in Bowie to nearby Dover, Delaware. The trunk of the car held a cargo of ominous supplies: a cinder block to brake a window, cans of gasoline to pour in and around a building, and rags and matches to ignite the flames…. ‘Before daybreak,’ Bray said, ‘the only abortion chamber in Dover was gutted by fire and put out of the business of butchering babies.’" And this was only one of 7 such abortion facilities he and two others destroyed. Rev. Bray is a born-again Christian who formed what he called the Reformation Lutheran Church. "Bray is convinced that if there were some dramatic event, such as economic collapse or social chaos, the demonic role of the government would be revealed, and people would have ‘the strength and the zeal to take up arms’ in a revolutionary struggle"….to establish "a new moral order in America, one based on Biblical law and a spiritual, rather than a secular, social compact….According to Bray, Christianity gives him the right to defend innocent ‘unborn children,’…even if it involves killing doctors and other clinical staff." (2)

There is a dark alliance between religion and violence. Whether it be "among right-wing Christians in the United States, angry Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, quarrelling Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, [or] indigenous religious communities in Africa and Indonesia…Religion is crucial for these [violent] acts, since it gives moral justifications for killing…religion often provides the mores and symbols that make possible bloodshed – even catastrophic acts of terrorism." (3)

The very Holy Books that each of our religions hold sacred are filled with images of a violent God. One Biblical scholar has found 600 passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, 1000 verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, 100 passages where God expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason. Violence…is easily the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible." (4)

"And so to the end of history," G.B. Shaw wrote in Caesar and Cleopatra, "murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until at last the gods tire of blood and create a race that can understand."

Is God really as violent and vile as these Biblical writers say? I say, "Absolutely not! God is not like that." The troubling truth, though, is that our religious absolutism and its’ violent personal and national zeal, are rooted in human images of God that are widespread within the Bible. We need to confront and challenge them, not only in the light of modern Biblical scholarship, but in light of Jesus’ own faith, and Jesus’ images of God.

I believe that for Christians, the event we celebrate today – Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey – can be for us a starting point for the end of religion-based terrorism and war. If God is a warrior-king or a blood-thirsty deity, then the final week of Jesus’ life makes no sense. But if God is a Being of infinite love and compassion, then Jesus’ life and death are, for us, "the way, the truth and the life."

Did Jesus die because he was the Sacrificial Lamb of God "slain from the foundation of the world." Or did Jesus die because his words and his actions so threatened the powers of institutionalized evil in his day that he was killed by those powers as an Enemy of The State? I believe that the God whom Jesus reveals refrains from all forms of reprisal. God does not endorse holy wars or just wars. God does not sanction religions of violence…As 20th-century mystic Simone Weil put it, "The reign of God means the elimination of every form of violence between individuals and nations."

I firmly believe that Jesus was not killed by God’s hand, nor by God’s plan. Jesus was executed because he was an Enemy of the State. Simply put, Jesus was viewed as a dangerous radical: "too good" for his contemporaries, "too loving" of his enemies, and "too committed" to embodying the non-violent Kingdom of God. In his teaching and his actions, he stood firmly against the institutions, groups, and ideas that powerfully shaped and distorted the religious, economic and political life of his day.

"Directed by Rome and Temple, this oppressive [Domination] System was responsible for Jesus’ death and for the hunger, poverty, violence, and despair that were part of daily life for the vast majority of his contemporaries."

That Domination System was marked by three characteristics:

  1. A politics of oppression,
  2. An economics of exploitation, and
  3. A religion of legitimation. (5)

I believe that the cross of Christ both exposed and began to defeat the powers of the Domination System that kept people broken, oppressed, and powerless. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God initiated the ultimate defeat of the principalities and powers of the universe that have so long held humankind in bondage.

The crucifixion of Jesus exposed those powers. The resurrection of Jesus counters the system’s ultimate sanction that is death. Clearly, the death and resurrection of Christ is not the end of evil, violence or injustice-it still exists. It neither transforms it nor redeems it. In fact, it leaves it largely untouched. What the resurrection of Christ does do is to overturn the world’s value system, herald our own resurrection, and free us to challenge evil, violence and injustice, energized by the presence and power of the Living Christ within us.

How ironic it is today that no pilgrim in Jerusalem can walk the "Via de la Rosa," the "Way of the Cross," because of religious violence. How much better it would be this Palm Sunday if we would begin to follow Jesus’ footsteps in our own lives:

  • not by endlessly rehearsing and remorsing over our sins, not by letting evil win by refusing to confront it with love,
  • not by flagellating ourselves for our past mistakes.

But rather,

  • by not keeping our mouth shut in the face of wickedness, not by "going along to get along" with the world,
  • by not "rolling over and playing dead" to the violence and violation of humanity we see everyday in our homes, our streets, and in our world,
  • and by not tacitly supporting the invisible powers of institutional evil and death which parade themselves as Christian.

Let us this Palm Sunday, emulate the passion of Christ-not in his physical death, but in his refusal to let love die, in his refusal to let hope die, in his refusal to let God die, in his refusal to let God’s creation die.

The truly Christian life springs not from fear, but from a divine passion. "It is the open wound of God in one’s own life coming alongside the open wound in the tormented children of the earth." (6)

Jesus kept his head and hopes high this week by living passionately into his baptism by John in the Jordan river, where he remembered hearing his God say, "You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." Jesus’ passion ultimately drove him to love the world to death. Like Jesus, we must not run from who we are. It is not so much that we choose our destiny, as it is that our destiny chooses us.

Soren Kierkegaard once said this age will die, not from sin, but from a lack of passion. Our lack of passion is killing us, and killing Christ’s church. We have lost sight of Calvin’s image on that seal of dedication. Remember the image? A fervent heart in the palm of an open hand. Beneath the symbol is written: "I offer my heart to thee, O God, promptly and earnestly." We need our hearts on fire for God.

Bishop John Spong said it well: "Most churches will die of boredom long before they die of controversy. They are unwilling to risk death in order to engage the search for truth." (7)

Our passion for God’s reign of love, truth, and justice on the earth may make us enemies of the state, or enemies of the church, or enemies of the club. But, as John Templeton put it, "The person who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how."

Too many nice Christian people die before they live. How sad! Let’s change that. Let’s each of us resolve to live until we die. And remember, no matter how tough it gets by Friday …Sunday’s comin’!

References:

  1. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 216.
  2. Ibid., p. 20.
  3. Ibid., pp. xi, xii.
  4. Raymond Schwager, cited by Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1998), pp. 84-85.
  5. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), chapter 1.
  6. Jurgen Moltmann, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ellen T. Cherry, A Passion for God’s Reign: Theology, Christian Learning, and the Christian Self (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 2.
  7. John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p.125.
Texts: Matthew. Resource Types: Sermons.

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