It’s a cruel, cold, survival of the fittest, eye for an eye, fight tooth and claw world out there. A world filled with prejudice and partisanship. A world filled with tribalism and terror. A world where the rich sit comfortably at the top of the heap while the poor struggle to put scraps on the table. A world of competition and coercion and compulsion where the haves have more than enough and the have nots fall further behind.
Yes, it’s a brutal world out there and the streets are mean. Everybody is jockeying for position and always in a hurry to get somewhere as road rage simmers just below the surface. Meanwhile, the streets are overrun with horns and sirens, police cars and ambulances, drug deals and gunshots and addicts overdosing.
It’s a hard world to live in out there. The Anti-Defamation League reports that in the year 2017 there was a 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents across this country…a dramatic and alarming reversal in trend after years of decreasing incidents. At the same time, we read about immigrant mothers being separated from their children. And we know that Islamaphobia is all too common.
It’s a callous world out there. It seems as though every week we hear about another male public figure whose past includes sexual harassment and sexual assault and predatory sexual behavior. Across this country we are averaging one school shooting per week this year and many students are more worried about when it will happen in their community than they are about if it will happen in their community. And David Mullins and Charlie Craig are refused a wedding cake to celebrate the best day of their lives in Colorado simply because they are gay.
It’s a rough world out there. And it’s a lot rougher in other parts of the world where dictators and despots rule with an iron fist, keeping their people oppressed and silenced at every turn so they can remain in power…
Nevertheless, here is the truth. The world in which Jesus lived, the world in which Christianity was born, the first century of the Common Era, sometimes known as the first century “AD,” was more brutish and more unjust and more violent and more frightening than our world. By a fair amount, actually…
I realize that fact may provide small comfort for those of us worried about the state of our current world. But think about it with me for a moment. In the first century world there was no healthcare and no pensions. There was no welfare, no social security, no public defense lawyers and no affordable housing. There was no such thing as a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. Women were treated as property and slavery was accepted and normalized. And infant mortality and infanticide were hardly remarkable.
It was a world dominated by the Roman Empire who ruled by sword rather than by law. In that world, Roman leaders were willing to crucify Jesus based on the spontaneous whim of a crowd who pleaded for his death. So soldiers drove nails through his hands and his feet and they hung him on wooden planks atop a public hillside in plain view where everyone could see.
Talk about a heartless world. Into that world, Christianity came into being as a defiant faith. Despite the harshness and the brutality and the violence and the injustice, Christianity was born in opposition to the prevailing darkness that started at the top of the Roman Empire and filtered its way all the way down to regular citizens.
And maybe that fact, too, offers small comfort. Just like the world was worse in the first century than it is now, maybe the notion that Christianity has always been profoundly counter-cultural doesn’t offer much hope or reassurance either.
Still, here is one thing I know. If Jesus and his disciples could bear powerful witness to the love and mercy and grace of God back then…if Mary and Martha and Peter and John and Paul and Timothy could bear witness to Jesus Christ when the odds and the opposition were stacked against them…then you and I can do the same in our twenty-first century world.
We have the tools. We have the spiritual equipment. We have our marching orders. We have an ethical code that guides our conduct. We have everything we need to live today in defiance of a world that is brutish and callous and cold and calculating.
We just need to practice what Jesus preached. The same way Jesus and his followers did it centuries ago. In subtle and not so subtle ways, they challenged the prevailing culture. In subtle and not so subtle ways they disrupted the prevailing culture. And in subtle and not so subtle ways they undermined the prevailing culture…
The way Jesus and his followers disarmed the prevailing culture was with extravagant kindness. The kind of kindness that affirmed people and lifted people up rather than beating them down. They did it with genuine tenderness. The kind of tenderness that recognized what was good in others and what was life-giving and hopeful rather than trying to humiliate people and make them feel small. And when kindness and tenderness didn’t work out, the early Christians went one step further…
They turned the other cheek and made a conscious choice to love their enemies…
It was pretty amazing. Revolutionary and radical, in fact. Those early Christians refused to adhere to an eye for an eye. They rejected greed and materialism because they deemed those things unholy in the sight of God. And they strove to live with humility rather than arrogance and pride.
It might not seem like much looking back at the whole picture of first century history. The Roman Empire may well have treated those first century Christians as little more than a minor inconvenience. Yet the truth is that the witness of those first century Christians mattered. Like a plumb line hanging down in the middle of a prevailing culture to measure ethics and morality and justice and righteousness, what they said and how they behaved made a difference…
We don’t have to look far or hard to know that our 2018 world is aching. Across the globe, our fellow human beings weep and despair. And they yearn, just as we do in this country, for our Gospel values. They ache for what we have to offer as people of faith. Kindness rather than meanness. Peace over and against violence and conflict. Generosity instead of materialism. Forgiveness versus keeping score. Patience as a preference over immediate gratification. Beauty instead of ugliness. Loving our enemies precisely because Jesus told us to let go of prejudice and hatred in our hearts and reach out with open arms to those who are different than we are.
Our rallying cry as Christians. Our mantra. Our marching orders summarized. “Practice what Jesus preached.” By doing so we critique and we rebuke a world that is cold and callous and frightening and divided. And we refute a world where might makes right and only the strong survive and the rich are comfortably numb.
Jesus tells us to go out there into the world bearing witness in our words and our deeds to a way of life that is magnificent and stunning and joyous. Let’s do it then, for Christ’s sake. Amen.