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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before September 13


Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

What I Am Learning:

Okay, I know this is a shocking thing for lots of Christians: The whole idea of a "messiah" did not exist just two centuries before Jesus was born. And no, the whole "Old Testament" is not a reflection on 1500 years of faith wasting time until the messiah came along.


Many of us grew up with the Sunday school idea that God could only forgive Hebrew people, and only forgive them through an animal sacrifice. But then God sent the messiah so he would die so that Hebrew people (who believed) and gentiles (who believed) could also be forgiven without an animal sacrifice.

Nope. Sorry.

God does not have to go to that much trouble to forgive us and be reconciled with us. If God is God then how could God be that inefficient? We are usually the ones that make that complicated.

During the two centuries before Jesus, the People of Israel experienced an invasion by the Greeks. Antiochus Epiphanes, their leader, was not a nice person. He took over the Temple, tortured priests and all sorts of terrible things. Here is a quote from  2 Maccabees:

2 Maccabees 6:
Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; 2also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place.

3 Harsh and utterly grievous was the onslaught of evil. 4For the temple was filled with debauchery and revelling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit. 5The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. 6People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.

7 On the monthly celebration of the king’s birthday, the Jews were taken, under bitter constraint, to partake of the sacrifices; and when a festival of Dionysus was celebrated, they were compelled to wear wreaths of ivy and to walk in the procession in honor of Dionysus. 8At the suggestion of the people of Ptolemais a decree was issued to the neighboring Greek cities that they should adopt the same policy towards the Jews and make them partake of the sacrifices, 9and should kill those who did not choose to change over to Greek customs. One could see, therefore, the misery that had come upon them. 10For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city, with their babies hanging at their breasts, and then hurled them down headlong from the wall. 11Others who had assembled in the caves nearby, in order to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day.

This is just a small sample of the war crimes the Hebrew people were experiencing. After a time, the Maccabee family led a revolt that ended up casting Antiochus and his army out. They marched into Jerusalem to the temple, with palm branches and cleansed the Temple from and gave thanks for their freedom.

Out of this and  their other experiences of being invaded and occupied, the Hebrew people began to envision an "anointed one" that would restore them to freedom and to faithfulness to God. This messiah, the Hebrew word for "anointed one", would be a military general, king, healer, prophet and priest all wrapped up into one person. Greek word for this, since the Christian Scriptures are written in Greek, is "Christ."

In this well known passage, Peter says that he believes that Jesus is the anointed one. This came with a huge set of expectations. Because of the occupation by the  Roman Empire that began in 63 BCE the messiah as military general was the most widely anticipated part of the job. By declaring Jesus to be the messiah, Peter was basically declaring war on the Roman Empire, with Jesus as the leader of the revolt.

But Jesus has other ideas as to the methods he will use to carry out the messiah's work.

Instead of using violence against the Romans, he will use nonviolent public engagement with them to both enliven his people and to win over the Romans.

How can nonviolence work?

Non violence works 1) by calling people to more faithfully live out the human ideal they already ascribe to, and 2) by challenging the society to a higher ideal. When a prophet, or a prophetic community, is able to maintain great enough tension and attention on how their culture is falling short of its own or a higher ideal, others within the culture are highly motivated to change.

The reason this is so important is this: humans typically derive our sense of meaning and worth from our culture - and when our culture is exposed as not being ideal then our meaning and worth is questioned.

Many who write about nonviolent change call this “moral force,” yet they rarely offer an explanation for its capacity to create change. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the “power of the nonviolent march is indeed a mystery.” It works because people need to feel that their culture is ideal in order to experience most fully the meaning and worth it provides them. People are often willing to change when they see that 1) their culture is in fact not ideal, and 2) there is hope they will be able to bring about change. The trick is to get their attention, create tension, sustain the ethical argument, and maintain a calm, nonviolent stance. Additionally, when confronted by violence, the nonviolent leader embraces her or his vulnerability and power. This evokes, over time, a response of compassion even from those who perpetrated the violence. “Surely this man was the Son of God,” said the centurion.

Jesus compared and contrasted the highest values represented in his Hebrew tradition with those values that were being lived out around him. In so doing, he issued a call to his Jewish brothers and sisters (as well as to the Roman hierarchy) to be honest about the fact that they were not living up the ideals they espoused. He also challenged his culture to question some of their ideals, measuring them by what might be considered more truly ideal.

Obviously Jesus' methodology of nonviolent engagement did not fully, or at least quickly succeed in transforming Roman domination culture. Nor did it fully enliven his fellow Jews.

Because of this people will say that nonviolence does not work, therefore Jesus was not using nonviolent methods therefore we need to reduce all of Jesus' work to being a sacrifice for sin so that God can forgive us.


But Jesus himself understood that his work of nonviolent public leader would not complete the job. In each Gospel he calls disciples who will learn from him, work with him and continue his work after him.

We tend to want social change to occur quickly and mechanically and without cost - unless of course the cost is violence by and to those who serve in the 1% of people who serve in the military. These costs in terms of human lives, physical disability, emotional and spiritual wounds, the cost to families, the destruction and poisoning of the earth, and the use of resources for war instead of for building up and feeding people.

Jesus, in my view, seems to be saying that God's way of creating social change involves God risking Godself in love to expose the injustices of human society and relationships and offering hope for a different future. He called this future the reign of God.

Many fundamentalist and evangelicals use a diagram of a great chasm between God and  humans. They show that Jesus' cross is the bridge that allows us and God to be reconciled. Here is a clunky version:

Salvation image Individual

But it would be more adequate to say that the chasm is between human culture and society the way it is and on the other side God's vision for human beings. I think Jesus' nonviolent way of the cross is the methodology that Jesus proposes for how God is working to bring the human race in its current condition to God's future. Here is an equally clunky version:

Salvation image Wellbeing

I believe that Jesus is inviting us to take our part in God's ongoing work of salvation - that is bringing the well-being of God's future into our present reality, and moving us toward its fullness.

We experience salvation now as God's beloved and holy children in God's radical embrace of our lives as we experience them and because of that love in joining God in the healing and creation of the world.

I experience this salvation as a "now and not yet" sort of salvation. It is both secure in God's love and yet being revealed in God's ongoing work in and through me.

Liz says that salvation for her has to do with God's call for us to live that future into the now. She senses salvation in the reality of her freedom to take part in God's work, in her call to wholeness and her work as  healer and a cocreator in God's community here and now.

Even though there is God's future, salvation for her is experieincing that future in the hear and now.

How about you?