Confronting Empire with the Word

swordBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13-14)

The final Sunday of the church year celebrates the feast of Christ the King. It is at once a redundant and a confounding claim: Greek christos translates Hebrew meshiyah, meaning “anointed,” marking a person as a king (or priest, in some Jewish traditions). That is, the very label “Christ” for Jesus suggests royal authority. Yet many today reject the image and language of “kingdom” in relation to the nonviolent Jesus, preferring the wordplay, “kindom.” While we certainly embrace the image of the discipleship community as one, big family of faith, we believe that something crucial to who Jesus is—and who we are as radical disciples—is lost when we abandon the notion of God’s “kingdom.”

In Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Judas betrays Jesus because he sees him as a coward, unable to lead the messianic uprising against the Romans for which so many had longed. And in one of the most tragic ironies of Western history, the church and many if not most “Christians” have agreed, celebrating a Christendom grounded in imperial violence in the name of Jesus. We so long for Superhero Jesus, who rides in on a white horse to conquer the bad guys. Of course, there is further irony: it is this very image we hear in the vision of John of Patmos:

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Rev 19.11-16)

But John the Revelator understands well the irony in his vision, lost on many readers or hearers. This victorious rider conquers with a verbal sword. John’s image echoes the ancient prophetic tradition that pits the imperial sword against the power of the Word of God. For example, we hear from Second Isaiah: “He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’” (Isa 49.2). Similarly, the prophet Hosea speaks in God’s voice: “Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light” (Hos 6.5). The New Testament author of the letter to the Hebrews also takes up this image: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Heb 4.12).

All of this is to say that within the “religion of creation” strand of biblical narrative, God confronts the violence of empire not with God’s own violence, but with the Word that expresses the superior power of truth-in-love. We see this expressed in Luke/Acts via the image of “the Way” that Jesus has proclaimed and disciples are called to walk in (e.g., Acts 9.2). This is the tradition that links the passage from Daniel at the top of the page with Luke’s portrayal in this week’s Gospel of Jesus on the cross.

Daniel’s apprehension of “one like a human being” follows his vision a series of “beasts” that reveal the truth about the imperial kingdoms who have ruled over God’s people in the centuries before Jesus. The Human One receives dominion and kingship from the Ancient One, and thus rules truly as the image-of-God made flesh (Gen 1.26-27). This reign is not “beastly,” an apocalyptic symbol expressing rule through violence and domination, as Trump has promised his reign will be. Jesus’s reign, in sharp contrast, is truly human, embodying the character of the Creator God, whose work “in the beginning” was accomplished via God’s own, powerful Word. This revelation is not lost on Luke, who uses the title “Human One” (Gk, huios tou anthrōpou) for Jesus twenty-five times (of 52 among all the gospels). Following Mark, Luke recognizes that one ruling in the authority of the God of Love must accept suffering rather than retaliate against it, as must his disciples (9.22-24).

However, throughout the Gospel, this call to embrace the royal power of nonviolent Love is utterly lost on Jesus’ disciples (e.g., Lk 9.54-55; 22.49-51), just as it has been lost on the church for most of history. Oh, how people long for a military messiah, one who will crush our enemies to dust! In the same way, we mostly shrink from claiming the true power of Love, often afraid of being implicated in a mawkish sentimentality that denies the confrontational authority of God’s real power.

The portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke points us to the remedy for this reticence: the practice of Jubilee. Luke uniquely narrates that Jesus’ first words from the cross are a plea for forgiveness for his executioners (23.34). Jesus ignores the mocking of the leaders and soldiers, whose insults reveal their commitment to the religion of empire. Similarly, only the Lukan Jesus promises one of those crucified with him a place in “Paradise,” a realm ruled over by the angel Gabriel, according to 1 Enoch 20.8. And it is only Luke who features Gabriel in his Gospel, who announces the conception and birth of Jesus in royal terms: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1.32-33).

While this opening annunciation suggests that the reign of Jesus as king will follow the warrior tradition of David, the Gospel steadily subverts this expectation. Even John the Baptist isn’t sure, asking from prison whether Jesus really is the “coming one” (Lk 7.18-20). But Jesus’ response, grounded in his inaugural proclamation of Jubilee (Lk 4.16-21), affirms that Jesus’ reign is of a different power altogether: “And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me’” (Lk 7.22-23).

This is the power of God: the healing, sight-providing Word that can give life even to the dead. It is this power that Jesus is given from the divine throne, a power that rules over creation for all eternity. Whereas all human kingdoms that have ever been have fallen or will soon fall, God’s realm of power cannot be defeated. This is what we are called to celebrate at the conclusion of our lectionary cycle. This is what gives us the only true hope for victory in a world awash with violence and hate. This is what provides us the promise of Paradise: the place of lush bounty and freely flowing water uninhibited by the black snake of empire. Again, the prophet Enoch expresses this beautifully:

I answered him saying: “I wish to know about everything, but especially about this tree.” “This high mountain which thou hast seen, whose summit is like the throne of God, is His throne, where the Holy Great One, the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit, when He shall come down to visit the earth with goodness…. Then shall they rejoice with joy and be glad, and into the holy place shall they enter, and its fragrance shall be in their bones, and they shall live a long life on earth… and I saw a blessed place in which there were trees with branches abiding and blooming (1 Enoch 25.2-4, 6; 26.1)

As we move through the dark stillness of late autumn, may we live in eager anticipation of the Advent of the Human One, whose kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven. May we, like Mary, respond to the angelic invitation to participate in Jesus’ reign by saying, “May it be done to me according to your Word.”

Thanks to all who took time to read some of our offerings during this church year. We are so grateful for all of you committed to proclaiming and embodying Jesus’ Way of radical discipleship.

3 thoughts on “Confronting Empire with the Word

  1. thanks, Wes & Sue, for a-many reflection, exegesis, sermon, homiletic challenge!
    Yours and Ched’s gospel reflections will be missed for they have indeed been ‘powerful words,’ a kind of dynamite/dynameis.

    How good that this last commentary of yours illuminates Luke’s unique contribution.
    Not only will the ‘evil-doer’ be w Jesus in ‘paradise,’ he will be there w him TODAY, a proclamation that echoes the original manifesto in Nazareth.
    Today, may we all meet in a garden through the same strong word of love.

  2. Thanks so very much for this soul-nourishing read. Have already forwarded it to several friends.

    Praise be for the KINGDOM coming!

    Hedy

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