Church and State – this is the hot topic of the moment. This is due in part to the actions of our Supreme Court, which has spent the month of June shaking up the status quo on the difficult questions where faith and public life intersect. But, in greater part, it is due to the alarming rise of Christian nationalism in this country – and the alarming success that political candidates find when they adorn themselves with cross, flag, and gun.
For the record, I am not anti-gun and I am not here to preach about gun control. Instead, I want to highlight something that is happening to our dear savior Jesus Christ, as he frequently appears on the American political scene.
Recently, a congressperson was responding to criticisms that her pro-gun stances were inconsistent with her loudly-proclaimed Christian faith. Here was her response, in a direct quote:
“They like to say, “Oh, Jesus didn’t need an AR-15. How many AR-15’s do you think Jesus would have had?” Well, he didn’t have enough to keep his government from killing him.”
It is instructive to consider the theological mindset of a Christian who would utter such nonsense. In this church, we believe that Jesus accepted his death for our sake – we understand the crucifixion as the source of our salvation, a sign of God’s unending love for us, and an example of the Christian value of self-sacrifice that we are called to emulate.
Christian nationalists reject this Jesus in favor of a Jesus who wields worldly power in the political and military realms. As an example, let me note that a prominent political candidate running for office in this commonwealth has frequently spoken at events hosted by “Rod of Iron ministries.” This outfit is an apocalyptic group that mixes American gun culture and wild conspiracy theories with a veneer of Christian belief. The group recently acquired a 70-acre compound in Texas, and an administrator of the group spoke these words, again a direct quote:
“We believe that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of armed citizens, so we believe that everyone in that kingdom should be armed. The gun really does represent strength. Peace through strength.”
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This is a viewpoint that is growing in popularity and in mainstream acceptance in this country. It is a viewpoint that many non-Christians associate with all of Christianity. But here is the big question: does this Jesus bear any resemblance to the Jesus we know? Is this kingdom anything like the kingdom of heaven that we long for? Do we dream of a heaven where the saints who arrive at the pearly gates are issued wings, a harp, … and a firearm?
No, the gospels paint a very different picture of Jesus Christ, and they depict a very different kind of kingdom. And the gospel lesson that we heard today does a particularly good job of countering this false narrative.
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Remember, Jesus sends out seventy of his followers. They are to proclaim the approach of God’s kingdom, preach the good news, and heal the sick. How does Jesus arm them for this mission?
Not with guns or swords. Not with flags and banners, nor with a trumpet to announce a royal proclamation. No crowds of followers, no fancy clothes, not even sandals. He sends his followers out like lambs in the midst of wolves. They are armed only with a proclamation of peace, the truth of the Gospel, and their own faith in the Messiah. Jesus rejects all of trappings of worldly power, and instead he announces the coming Kingdom of God with divine power – power that is exercised with love and humility, through serving others. And the Kingdom he proclaims is one of healing, restoration, wholeness, righteousness, and peace.
This is the Jesus whom we follow. This is the kingdom that we long for. This is the kind of power that we should associate ourselves with.
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As we head into this Independence Day holiday, it is distressing to note that fear, discord, and division have won the moment. Many of us are dismayed and disheartened by the recent developments on the political scene. It would be callous of me to stand in this pulpit and call for celebration, without recognizing that many of us stand in danger of losing the precious rights and liberties to which we have become accustomed.
But friends, in spite of our present difficulties – or, perhaps, because of them – I am not ready to give up on this nation, nor am I ready to cede the mantle of American Christianity to those who distort and corrupt the Gospel message.
For a nation is not defined solely by its laws, regulations, and policies, nor by its elected leaders – a nation is also defined by its values. American values – equality, liberty, justice, government by consent of the governed, a mutual concern for the general welfare – these values are part of our national identity. We may lament the fact that, after 246 years, these ideals have not yet been fully realized. But we can also celebrate the fact that, though 246 years have passed, our collective zeal for these values still burns so fiercely. Perhaps times of division and discord are the price we must pay to keep this passion alive – if it is, then I believe it is a price worth paying. Many have paid a higher price.
It has been said that nothing in this world that is worth having ever comes easily. This is true for us whether we are building up a righteous nation, or building up the Kingdom of God. Those seventy disciples could not know the joys of the Kingdom of God until they risked being sent out, without worldly goods or worldly power, to proclaim the Gospel. But once they took that risk, they returned with rejoicing.
I believe that we, as Americans, are called to carry on the fight for righteousness in our public life in the same spirit; armed not with weapons, or money, or with political power, but with the courage of our convictions, the commitment to our values, the power of the truth, and the sure and certain faith that righteousness will prevail on earth. In government and religion – indeed, in all things – let the Jesus Christ of the gospels be our guide and example, our strength and our power.