We began our Lenten journey by going straight back to the beginning of our Christian faith: At the tomb of Jesus, where he had just risen from the dead. Why an Easter story during Lent? Because Easter is not a one-day-a-year thing, it is the every-day-of-the-year reality of who we are as Christians. We are a resurrection people, formed at a fundamental level by the reality that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. We looked at some of the specific things we will find when we look at the place where Jesus lay: specifically that Jesus is alive, that God has done it all, and that the possibility of connection with God is now a reality.
We are now looking at what it means for us as the Church to be a resurrection people, to live as the people of a resurrected savior Jesus Christ, even in the midst of a world which is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian way of looking at things, a world in which we as Christians have lost and are losing much of the privilege and influence we once had even as recently as a decade or two ago. A world in which we find ourselves in exile, in a manner of speaking–not actual, physical exile but a situation which in many ways resembles the situation faced by the Old Testament Jews in Babylon and the centuries which followed. In the past few weeks I have addressed some specifics as to what this will look like, which I will not rehash at this time. Go back and read for yourselves if you are interested; they are in the archives and will be there forever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet.
Today there is one simple big idea: Do not be afraid.
To answer this we need to go back to the beginning. Not the beginning we talked about earlier in the series, at the empty tomb. This beginning is before that; something you knew we would come to at some point during the Lenten season. It is an event both beautiful and terrible, something we in the Western world have not had to lean into very much because of the relative peace and prosperity of our Christian existence, yet there it is: Jesus, our leader and the author of our faith, was betrayed by a friend, unjustly arrested, illegally tried–the witnesses and ultimately the judge himself were bribed, tortured–not to get information as is the purpose of torture nowadays but to keep a certain group of people happy, mocked, and ultimately crucified–the maximum sentence. There was no mercy here.
Now as you may know, the Romans did not invent crucifixion, but they perfected it. A person who was crucified did not die of blood loss but of suffocation–eventually. You see, the Romans figured out that if you drive a stake through the person’s ankles or place a small wedge under his feet, you give him just enough to push up on so that he can breathe. Sort of. In this manner, you can draw out the time required for death to several hours, even as long as a few days. Which is exactly what the Romans wanted. The whole point of crucifixion was to create a spectacle so ghastly, so horrific, so shameful, that once you saw it you could never unsee it for as long as you lived. This was to serve as a graphic reminder of Rome’s authority and power, kept directly in front of the people at all times–just try to rebel against Rome and see if this doesn’t happen to you too. This is why none of the Apostles or Church Fathers or anyone else for the first 300 years or so of church history talked about the Cross. This is why the Gospel writers all went minimalist when talking about Jesus’ crucifixion.
But here is something very important to remember: Jesus was not arrested while on his way to Egypt. He was not arrested while hiding out in the caves of the En-Gedi where David hid out from Saul. He was not arrested while trying to catch a boat bound for Ephesus or some other Jewish enclave elsewhere in the Roman empire. No, he walked in under his own power. He rode directly into town, right down Main Street in broad daylight, knowing full well what was coming next.
Jesus was bold. He was fearless. And he says, “Follow me.”
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Meaning: When it feels safe, and when it doesn’t. When it is practical, relevant, and helpful, and when it isn’t. When it benefits you, and when it only hurts you.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
If you are going to fear something, fear God. Anything else pales in comparison as an object of fear.
Uncertainty and fear are inevitable. Living in fear–that is, allowing our thinking, our actions, and our lives to be limited by what we are afraid of–is optional. And when we serve a resurrected Savior, one who walked right into Jerusalem knowing it would not end well, and who came out on the other side with an empty tomb to show for it, that option is off the table.
Paul knew this. He went around preaching the Gospel message and starting churches. The Jews were upset with him because he wasn’t doing Judaism right. The pagans were upset with him because he was cutting in on their territory. It was a routine occurrence for him to be stoned, then dragged outside of town and left for dead. Meaning: He is going to bleed to death and then be eaten up by wild animals, let’s go home and have dinner. Each time Paul would crawl away, get well, and go on his merry way. Finally, he went back to Jerusalem. They tried to talk him out of it, in a moving scene in Acts 21. Yet Paul was not dissuaded. He knew it would probably not end well, and sure enough it didn’t. He was arrested. He claimed Roman citizenship, and they didn’t know what to do with him. They sent him off to Rome–most likely Nero’s Rome, where he was probably held in custody for an interminable length of time before finally being sentenced to death. Yet Paul was not dissuaded. He believed this was what God was calling him to, and he went through with it.
Mary knew it too. Jesus’ arrest and death meant that anyone close to him was a wanted person as well. Because she was the mother of Jesus, this made her an outlaw so she spent the rest of her life on the run, moving from place to place and finally (we think) winding up in Ephesus living with John in a community of believers there. Yet she was not to be dissuaded.
Is the version of Christianity we hold to in present-day American evangelicalism worth all of that? Is it worth the price these people–and more–paid? Is it worth everything it took to get Christianity out of first century Jerusalem and all the way to the twenty-first century? Is it worth dying for?
We do not know what the future holds for us. We live in a world where we as Christians have lost and are losing tremendous amounts of privilege and influence which were once ours. A world built upon the lies of modernity–a modernity we thought we could embrace and come to terms with–is now turning against us and we have no clue where it will end or what lies in store for us going forward.
Uncertainty and fear are inevitable. Living in fear is optional. And for us as resurrection people, serving a resurrected Savior who went straight to his own death, freely and deliberately, and came out on the other side with an empty tomb to show for it, that option is off the table.