Preparing for the greatest day of the year, Easter, was a bit harder this year than last. On Thursday, the night we remember how Jesus was betrayed and handed over to both the religious and political empires of his day, I happened to read of the new bill that seeks to designate the Bible as the state book of Tennessee.
There are a ton of ways to scream “no” to this legislation, starting with the both the Tennessee Constitution and the United States Constitution. There is also the objection that the bill places the transcendental and eternal qualities of the Bible on the same footing as the lily (our state flower) or the raccoon (our state animal). Of course, then there’s just downright common sense: The laws I use to influence my neighbor’s religion (or lack of) can easily be the same laws by which my neighbor one day attempts to subjugate me.
Those are fine ways to oppose this bill, but they are of lesser concern to me as a Christian pastor of 25 years. I am most deeply concerned at the way in which an action like this stands in stark opposition to the actions and words of the Bible itself, most especially as revealed in the person of Jesus.
When we read that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” in Gospel of John, I can only assume that there’s something about the way he lived, the truth he stood for, and the life he exemplified that is worth understanding and accepting.
In no instance do we ever see Jesus consorting with the political powers of the day to accomplish his objectives. We do not see him leaning into the Roman Empire to advocate for “his rights.” We don’t see him threatened in any way by what was likely the most godless, licentious, and sadistic empires to have ever existed. He never feels backed into a corner, insecure in his faith, or anxious enough about the future to launch a political advocacy campaign for his religion.
In fact, Jesus not only refuses any collaboration with the empire for the political advancement for his ministry and mission, he also actively bombards a religious empire who worshipped and honored its religious texts with more fervor than the God who authored them.
“You search the Scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life. But they point to me!” He said in John 5:39. The religious empire had “spirituality” whittled down to the very last bullet point, but as Jesus noted, in so doing they rejected the reasons the texts existed in the first place: to promote the justice and the love of God. (Luke 11:42).
Jesus came to us as a “new word” (John 1:1-14) that would be written down, not by chiseling into stone (like the recent “In God We Trust” campaign), but rather by inscribing eternity straight onto the human heart (2 Corinthians 3:3). The old systems of the empire were not to be salvaged; Jesus came to declare a whole new system (Mark 2:22). He called this new way of being in the world “the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God has no room for empire thinking. It is not taken by force, though many have tried (and continue to do so). The Kingdom is received as a little child (Mark 10:15). Children do not push their worldview on society, parents do that. Children do not legislate their holy texts, politicians do that. Children don’t force their morality on a community. Empires do that.
Jesus’ message about children and the Kingdom was very clear: Stop trying to be everyone else’s parent. We have one parent, and that is God the father.
As if that message were not clear enough, he spells it out in detail two chapters later with even more authority (Matthew 20:25-28). There’s no parenting or lording over others in the Kingdom. How can we claim to be his followers while being so absolutely dull and ignorant as to the way Jesus changed the world?
There is no room for the empire in God’s Kingdom. Jesus stood every power structure up on his head and he never passed a law, raised an army, or flashed a fancy degree to do it. “It was accomplished” (John 19:30) by the unstoppable love of God alone. God gets the credit for that—not Pilate, not Caesar, not the temple or the high priests.
How small the love must be that needs an empire to prop it up! What a powerless kingdom that needs the backing of human law. Only an easily forgotten faith is in need of memorial; and only the most fragile promises need be etched in stone.
How lost, the Way.
How forgotten, the Truth.
And oh, how shallow the Life.
Rev. David Allred
High Places Community Church