Most of those who went to church this morning will have heard the Palm Sunday story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being adored by the crowds who welcomed him. As we approach Easter, the liturgy encourages us to consider what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. You may have heard that many of the people wanted a messiah who was a political revolutionary, a warrior that would free them from the shackles of the Roman Empire. To their surprise (and probably disappointment), they got a crucified saviour instead. Jesus died and the Roman Empire flourished for centuries to come.
We are told that this was the plan all along. That Jesus’ death accomplishes far more than a temporal revolution; it brings us back into right relationship with God. Jesus didn’t fail to fulfil expectations, the crowd were looking at the wrong thing. “My kingdom is not of this earth” is interpreted to mean that what happens here matters far less than what is going on in another separate, eternal, spiritual realm. But what if this was a false choice? What if we didn’t have to make a choice between a messiah concerned with the troubles of this life and a saviour oriented towards the next?
Over time, I’ve become less interested in forms of Christology that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death as a spiritual transaction to the neglect of his life as the incarnational bridge between the Creator and creation. The dualistic separations between material/spiritual; human/divine; earth/heaven-hell have become for me unhelpful constructions that obscure the presence of the sacred in everyday life. This notion of God’s presence in the most normal of places, things and encounters is at the heart of Salvationist orthodoxy. God is not just ‘up there’ somewhere, God is to be found here – where the Samaritan responds with compassion to the wounded traveller. Our actions on earth have spiritual consequences, not just in the sense of adding credits or debits to some heavenly scorecard but because our very existence is inscribed with spiritual meaning. So, what might this mean for the Easter story?
Was Jesus opposed to the Roman imperial rule? I think the answer to this question is a resolute ‘Yes!’. Despite Monty Python’s “what have the Roman’s ever done for us?” sketch, the reality of empire is never truly benevolent. Empires endure through structures that hold power by any means – political, military, ideological and, almost always, violence. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke about and illustrated in his life a vision of community in which no one was left out: the poor and disabled were invited to banquets; physical and relational healing took place; people shared from their abundance and all were fed; those who were socially marginalised were restored into the life of the people. These actions directly challenged imperial power structures that relied on social hierarchy and a culture of shame that elevated elites while pushing down the poor. What if it was the inauguration of a radically inclusive community of grace that was the real means for bringing down empires? Could this be part of what Jesus meant when he prayed that God’s Kingdom should come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’?
Before people’s heads explode (too late?), I’m not dismissing the Christian hope of heaven, neither am I advocating for a purely materialist understanding of religion. I am not suggesting that Jesus’ death is only a non-violent protest against imperial power. I don’t want a reductionist faith, I want a more expansive one. I want the kind of faith that meaningfully connects the realities of everyday life with Jesus’ vision of a Kingdom that has very different values to most of the world we currently inhabit. I do want to question versions of the Easter story that skip over Jesus’ life and reduce his death to a spiritual transaction that entirely ignores the social and political context of his time. I believe that, perhaps especially in The Salvation Army, we need an understanding of Easter that can account for why Jesus spent his life with the poor, the sick, those who were socially marginalised. Why did he seem to value those who had been labelled ‘sinners’ by their own community above the self-righteous religious people of his time?
It’s ok to take a moment over Easter to think about how Jesus deals with our own personal sin. We should do that. I’m not interested in a version of Christianity that has no place for self-reflection and acknowledgement of our own personal failure. But I don’t want to stop there either. I want to explore what Jesus might be saying about the sins that are bound up in our social structures, how sin is endemic in the way prejudice and exclusion are used to maintain power for some groups to the detriment of others. What does his self-sacrifice at the hands of an empire say about this? For me, that’s the kind of Easter story that makes sense of the incarnation – where that which is truly and properly divine meets our humble, human existence.