Colossians 2:8-15 ; Luke 13:31-35
In the five weeks of Lent leading up to Holy Week, we are exploring what repentance might look like when we think afresh about sin—a word that some churches have stopped using—understandably, because it has been so misused. But it’s another one of those words, like repentance, that this book [to Bible] won’t let us get away from. But in the Bible, sin is not just a matter of our personal failures. Now let’s be clear, sin is also that. And we probably all need to repent of our personal sinfulness, though perhaps to varying degrees—you hopefully less than me. We all turn from God; we all wound others and ourselves. Sin has left its mark on us in a deeply personal way. But the church has too often stopped there, leaving people to wallow in guilt.
I believe there’s much more to sin that just our personal shortcomings before God. Sin is also found in what Paul in today’s reading calls “the rulers and authorities” or in some translations, “principalities and powers”; these are forces in our world that Paul tells us earlier were created by God in and through Christ, like all things were. But now they are fallen and even diabolical, and we find ourselves serving them and suffering by their hand, often without realizing it.
Instead of talking about literal angels and demons, I am going to suggest that we think of Paul’s “rulers and authorities” as the more familiar, earthly forces of culture, economics, and political power that lurk behind much of human behavior. Deciphering these forces and powers is a very tricky task, because they are in a sense invisible, and doing so often rides on political biases and carries political consequences. Is the dominant destructive force in our society racism, as someone on the left might say, or is it moral relativism and lack of moral foundation, as a conservative might say? I think many perspectives are good here; indeed, one of the most important and dangerous forces in our culture is the one that forces us to choose between left and right on every issue. But the cultural force that can most stand in our way is the belief that we are each individually in conscious control of all our actions; we are all the complete authors of our own lives and are solely to blame or to receive credit for everything we do. I think that belief is only a myth we tell ourselves; I think any social scientist would agree with me, and I think I am also in line with what I’ve called the apocalyptic worldview of the New Testament.
So my premise, hopefully not too controversial, is that we are all caught up in social, economic, and political forces beyond our personal control. What then does it mean to repent? We still must take responsibility for ourselves. But rather than feeling guilty or beating ourselves up, repenting this sin might involve renouncing those social forces—a different way to think about fasting for Lent. Last week I urged us to renounce our culture of sexuality that can only see sexuality as a dangerous inner desire, something to be either repressed by the church or to be exploited by commercialism. Beyond renunciation, repentance might also take the form of protesting the forces that dominate us and seeking liberation from them by practicing here and now, in this church, an alternative way to be a community.
Today we turn to politics in our world. I’ll remind you that I addressed religion and politics once already in November. I said it cannot be avoided in church, but nor can it be allowed to dehumanize us. We must love one another even as we struggle together over political issues. Today I consider how we can repent of the sinful bent of our political realm, our “establishment” (which is another nice translation for Paul’s “rulers”). Where to begin? There is already so much cynicism about politics, that perhaps the place to begin is with this cynicism, this desire to throw up our hands and exclaim, “They are all crooks!” –except that it is hard to deny that there are good reasons to be cynical: the ever-growing invisible flow and influence of money in politics, increasing polarization and a breakdown of civil discourse, the untoward effect of politically slanted media on how we get our information. But that all seems obviously bad, and I don’t know how the Easter message about Jesus can be especially illuminating.
Since I am focusing in this series on the cross as a source of direction and hope, I want to center myself on that one verse from Colossians that gestures in a very different direction from how we usually think of the cross, if we choose to think of it at all: “He disarmed [or “stripped”] the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross].” Something about the cross allowed God to triumph over the rulers and authorities, these sinful social forces in our world. How did the cross do that, and how can it help us turn around (remember the literal meaning of “repent”?) our politics?
First, a clue from Luke’s Gospel. In the brief passage read today, a Pharisee tells Jesus to flee, because King Herod is out to kill him. Herod was the loathed puppet ruler of Galilee, installed by the Roman Empire. The Pharisee may be trying to help or may be lying; commentators differ. But what matters is that Jesus brushes off this warning and insists he must die in Jerusalem, like all the prophets (supposedly). And then he laments, speaking as if for a maternal God: O Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Jesus was enjoying success in the countryside and small towns of Galilee. But he knows that he must confront his destiny in Jerusalem. Why?
Jerusalem was the great city founded by King David, the center of politics, religion, and culture, which unlike in our day were all merged together under the Kings of Israel; in Jesus’ day, that potent mix was seething under oppressive Roman rule, and violent revolt would come in the year 66, just before Luke wrote his gospel. But for us, Jerusalem can represents the ideal of a religion that is fully embedded within the power structures of the world—remember, those structures were created good by God in and for Christ, as Paul says. Jerusalem was supposed to be the place where political power, culture, learning, and law were all sanctified by the presence of God at its center, in the temple. That’s the ideal. The book of Kings and the prophets of the Old Testament all testify to the many shortcomings and corruptions of this ideal long before Jesus’ time. Now add to the mix the volatile power politics that the rule of the great pagan Roman empire introduces, where some Jewish factions collaborate with Rome and others seek violent rebellion against Rome. Jesus is heading right into the political maelstrom, this disaster waiting to happen; he is going to expose this godforsaken mess as the sham that it is, and make a public example of this corrupted religious ideal, and somehow on the cross triumph over the rulers and authorities whose real center is Rome.
In other words, Jesus is leaving the countryside and going to Jerusalem because God is not going to let go of that ideal, and neither should we: the last vision of the Testament is the new Jerusalem come down to earth, the place where political power, culture, learning, and law will all be sanctified by the presence of God at its center. God is unwilling to settle for a church that thinks small, a church that is just about our private spiritual quests. God is unwilling to settle for a people who are “spiritual but not religious.” We are supposed to be the Kingdom of God, and to exercise God’s reign in this place, and to the extent we are able, in the world. But neither is God willing to join the ugly fray and give a blessing to a religion corrupted by politics. To that Jesus would say, using our colloquialism, “I’d rather die.”
But how exactly will dying in Jerusalem at the hands of Roman rulers and their Jewish collaborators help? Well, I’m not sure Paul has this one all figured out, but lets see if we can go with what he has to say. When Paul, who was an earnest and faithful Jew, was confronted by the risen Christ, he completely reevaluated his faith, without rejecting Judaism at all. But what he saw was that even the very best gifts of God can be used by sin to thwart God’s purposes. And so Paul reevaluated the Torah, what we call the Law—which is not just a set of rules or commandments, but like our Constitution but even more so, a document that set out the story and principles of being a people—in Israel’s case, God’s holy people. Even this Torah, Paul discovered, can be used by sinful powers working within and over us to turn what was supposed to be a blessing to all people, as God promised to Abraham, into a tool by which Jews boasted about their own accomplishments, exalting themselves by putting others down, and thereby separating themselves from the Gentiles (the non-Jews). That same Torah became for some, Paul thought, a means of obscuring God’s grace rather than making it truly effective in the world. Besides becoming a tool for boasting, Paul also sees the Torah being misused by human insecurity as a catalog of our sins demanding death; in Paul’s words, “a record that stood against us with its legal demands.” If even the very best gift of God can be so misused, what about all the other structures God created to help guide human beings? Ah, sin is very crafty indeed, taking the best and using it for the worst.
But Paul recovered in Jesus a face of God’s quite different from the corrupt god of boasting and oppression, who is only the idol of corrupted religion. Paul found in God above all forgiveness: God neither boasts nor oppresses, but is like one who sets aside her superiority and authority to embrace us as the human individuals we are. God is not a ruler nor a judge, but above all a parent, a tender and loving mother or father. If we can only see in God’s perfect goodness and righteousness a terrifying threat, or a means to terrify and threaten others into submission, then God will on the cross happily abandon that righteousness and embrace us in total mercy and forgiveness.
And for Paul, Jesus shows us the human life that perfectly corresponds to this self-abandoning, giving God. It is a human life that refuses unto death to give in to the dehumanization that power works in our world. First of all, Jesus always insisted that the religion that God ordains can never take precedence over the value of each human life. That’s why he healed on the Sabbath, even though God’s command to do no work had been interpreted to include healing work. Jesus puts his principle quite directly in Mark: “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” But this approach to relentlessly love and respect human beings as such, allowing not even religion to come before human beings, threatened not only the Jewish establishment but any power structure, because they all turn human beings into tools to be manipulated and used. Systems of power, quite simply, put the interest of power above human beings, and if you align yourself with them, they will force you to put your own interests above those of your fellow human beings. That is what Paul means says that the world is “in the flesh:” the “flesh” is not our carnal, bodily desires, but simply the dominance of self-interest. Under the power of the flesh, we sin either by buying into a system of self-interest, or by not standing up to a system of self-interest when we or others are its victims. Jesus, however, both stands up to self-interested power, by exposing how it necessarily stands in conflict with God, and also refuses to buy into self-interest, accepting death rather than saving himself. That is precisely what he is doing in today’s brief passage from Luke.
Without necessarily having to die, our life can take the shape of Jesus’. For Paul, to take on baptism is “to [put] off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ, [and thus to be] buried with him in baptism;” in other words, we accept Jesus’ refusal of self-interest as the norm for our life. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves. God created us to take delight in the world and in each other, as did Jesus. But sin working in us and in the powers incites us to take pleasure at others’ expense, and to this regime of putting self-interest over others we declare ourselves, by our baptism, dead.
Of course, if you think about it, we can’t then boast that we are better than those who collude with power. God triumphs over self-interest by recognizing the common humanity that persists beneath the power trips, the exploitations, and the loss of life of those oppressed. We can only recognize ourselves as forgiven, and invite those still of the flesh, those dominated by self-interest, to seek forgiveness, to die to this system, to be buried with Christ in baptism, and to rise into the new humanity under the rule of love, the power of love that never seeks power for its own sake.
Well, what then of our politics? What kind of repentance of politics would correspond to the cross, to God’s forgiveness of us and to the triumph over the rulers and authorities of self-interested power? I can only leave it up to you: how far do you want to embrace your death to all of that? And how much do we have to accept the regimes of self-interest? Because just about every facet of our life is governed under a system of self-interest. Our economy is governed by private property: this stuff is mine, these are my rights, and the government exists above all to defend my property. Our interntional system of nation-states is based on distinguishing our American self-interest from the self-interest of other nations; our presidents often justify the use of force by saying, “It was in American self-interest.” Self-interest runs deep in our biology; our very genes are supposedly “selfish,” according to Richard Dawkins. Let’s not pretend that we can easily opt out of all systems that are based on self-interest. But let’s also acknowledge that the cross of Jesus puts all of these systems in question.
And so let us at least be aware when our politicians, despite calling themselves “anti-establishment,” seek to gain power for themselves by appealing to our self-interest, as they perhaps all do to varying extents. They do this when they promise to give us things they won’t give everybody else. Or when they try to appeal to us at the expense of someone else. And things aren’t really different when they come around, as they inevitably will, to ask us to sacrifice to defend our systems of self-interest. Let us be honest with ourselves that, when they do these things, they are peddling the powers of self-interest, not the cross of Christ. And to some extent, we inevitably will have to play along. Even the church has to strategically look after itself; we are still in the flesh, still beholden to self-interested power. But let us confess that that is not what Christ calls us to be; in him we have died to that power, and we alone can be the new life in Christ that renounces self-interest and follows the way of love.