A sermon preached by
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, 29 April 2018
Text: John 15:1-8
“Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.” – James Cone (1936-2018)
If you are a follower of Jesus it seems pretty obvious that his calling on our lives is to be good people, to bear juicy fruit, and to live as if we were an extension of his life and work.
Christ is the Vine, we are the branches.
But what makes for a good and sturdy branch, one that can bear juicy fruit?
Is it enough to simply be nice to the person bagging our groceries? Did Jesus get executed for calling us to be friendlier to our coffee barista? Can the resurrection really be boiled down to mere neighborliness?
I don’t think the symbol of the Christian movement would have been a political prisoners execution, the cross, if God was calling us to niceness.
When the early church is forming in the Luke-Acts narrative we read that the Spirit falls on Pentecost, the whole room shakes, and everyone begins to speak in each other’s native tongue, united in their diversity they share their money and property, they distributed their goods as different needs came up: the sick were healed, the hungry fed, the outcaste welcomed, and the naked clothed.
This might sound a bit strange so let me read the passage directly:
Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Their early Communion ritual was actually called a Love Feast, it was an extravagant party where everyone’s needs were met, nobody went away hungry or in need, but left filled with joy and fine wine.
The early Church was not about simply being nice, it was about equity and justice for all of God’s people.
John Dominic Crossan, the Biblical Scholar who many of you have been learning with in our Adult Spiritual Formation class, has just published a book on the Resurrection.
He and his wife went touring the Eastern churches of Byzantine times to discover an entirely different portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection than in Western cathedrals.
One of the oldest images they found was in a miniature Byzantine cathedral known as, the Dark Church (11th century). The events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection swirl in vibrant frescoes that have survived by the centuries of darkness that give the church its name.
Crossan describes seeing the usual events of Jesus’ life and death without much variation but when they saw the resurrection portrayed they were shocked at what they found.
They were used to seeing the Western portrayal: Jesus is rising out from a tomb while guards cower at his ascending feet. He is victorious, robed in glorious fabrics and beaming with light.
But here, in this Dark Church, they found an image that portrayed Jesus standing on the guard of the underworld hades (much could be said about this figure, as an entire tradition has been formed around his identity as “The Devil” but that was much later in history), his left hand holding a cross while his right hand is yanking Adam and Eve up out of death.
The Eastern portrayal of Jesus, shows him bringing all of humanity back to life, not a select few people and not just himself conquering death, but Adam and Eve, who represent the entirety of the human race, are risen up with Jesus to restore the world together.
So, I ask again, did Jesus get executed and rise from the dead, redeeming all of humanity from sin and death, so that we should be nicer to each other?
Our first clue is found in the opposite hand from the one Jesus is using to pull Eve and Adam up out of death. There he is holding a symbol: the cross, a sign of his execution by the principalities and powers of Empire.
In this way, the execution of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ are intricately tied together, giving one another meaning through their context and content.
It is the cross that politicizes Jesus death beyond niceness. For Jesus died in direct non-violent confrontation with Herod and Caesar’s Roman authorities. Jesus died fighting the forces of death and domination created by the oppressive Roman State. Jesus died because he was inaugurating a Beloved Community, the anti-kingdom of Caesar, the antitheses of Empire.
In the Dark Church, there are some Greek and Hebrew words detailing the events in the pictures portraying Jesus’ life high up above – under the picture of Jesus’ resurrection is the word: Anastasis.
The direct translation is not “resurrection” but rather “Rise Up,” or “Uprising.”
Jesus’ victorious resurrection is an invitation to rise up and join in the work of God in restoring the world to right.
Jesus isn’t calling us to join him in simply being nice, but in rising up to reality and thinking on much bigger terms. We are being called to Rise Up in Christ, bringing all of humanity with us, in the universal restoration of the world.
Jesus isn’t calling us to be nicer but is calling us to think bigger and to look at the larger systems creating the problems we have today, he is calling us to join God in the co-creative work of systems-transformation.
A problem in the United States for example is homelessness. There are tons of solutions about drug use, recovery programs, mental health problems, and lack of food or money to solve these issues. The homeless are criminalized for sleeping outside and for trying to exist within the cracks of a society that has failed them.
If we take Jesus’ message lightly and we think it is all about being nice we might start and finish our “world-transforming” by volunteering at a homeless shelter. But if we think Jesus died on the cross for non-violent resistance to the Empire of Caesar and rose again in an Uprising of all humans against sin, death, and destruction, then we might begin to ask bigger questions and find bigger solutions.
You see in the United States alone research suggests about 3.5 million people live without a home; in these same United States there are also about 18.9 million homes without anybody living in them at all.
Homelessness is not merely an induvial bad behavior problem. Homelessness is created through an economic system based on alienation through private property, endless consumption, capital accumulation, and ruthless competition.
Homelessness is created when economic systems look nothing like the one in the early church practiced in Acts 2 where everyone shared their possessions, and nobody went away hungry or without a place to call home.
Jesus got executed because he asked big questions and put his life on the line trying to answer them. Jesus didn’t merely question the symptoms of our society, but he got to the root disease. His solution was non-violent, creative, and joy-filled, but always geared toward revolutionary transformation and not the niceties of civility. He wasn’t worried about the branches, but the vine itself.
If our resistance today is to take root and grow, we must go beyond the branches and look to the root of our life-Vine.
We cannot let ourselves be distracted by someone like Donald Trump, he is a mere symptom of a disease, he is a branch of a much larger root problem.
We cannot let our solutions to climate change be as simple as shorter showers and recycling, these are branches to a much larger vine problem.
We cannot let our solutions to systemic racism be as simple as racial bias and diversity trainings, these are branches to a much larger vine problem.
The vine in these examples is our economic and social system itself, both of which have horrific histories of colonialism and imperialism, of war and violence, and of total ecological insanity, from day one. There is no glory day, no America to make great again, for that would be more empire-building through slavery and genocide.
It doesn’t matter who takes the highest office of the largest and most violent Empire the Earth has ever seen, unless we address the vine itself. If our Christian witness resistance only addresses the branches we end up pruning the vine for stronger and more fruitful growth, if our witness remains in the realm of critiquing Donald Trump’s bad attitude, absurd tweets, and scandalous sex life, we are merely pruning the Empire’s branches for even more fruit to blossom. We cannot be distracted with pruning a rotten vine, we must uproot that vine altogether.
And that my friends is what gets people killed. Question the root vine and you’ll get nailed to a cross, question the branches and you’ll be called a grumpy liberal. This was true of Jesus and more recently of Martin Luther King.
Jesus was telling his followers to uproot Caesar’s kingdom and replace it with the Vine of Christ, let Christ take root in your life and find your nourishment in his alternative way of being in the world.
May our lives bear the fruits of Christ and not the fruits of Empire.
If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be the branches to the Christ Vine, the fruit we bear is going to look a lot different than kindness and philanthropy, it is going to look like organized resistance to social and economic systems that impoverish people from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We are a resurrection people, we are Christ’s up-rising! Let’s get to work. Amen.