Who is Jesus Christ to the Prisoner?

My name is Jim Ward and I’m an Episcopal priest and pastor a small congregation here in Marin County. The name of this meditation is “Who is Jesus Christ?”I know it’s after lunch and you may have trouble keeping your eyes open. But don’t worry, what I have to say will reach you anyway. So get comfortable. 

Because he lived 2,000 years ago sometimes people regard him as if he were a character in fiction. Yet Jesus was a real person who lived in history. Even people who don’t regard him as the Son of God do acknowledge that he lived. Some claim he was a prophet. We affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, that is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. By “Son” we mean that he’s exactly like God his father, the “spittin’ image” of him, not the genetic offspring. 

Born of a human mother he is exactly like us in everything except one: he is without sin. That’s what makes him divine, not super-powers. It’s that he doesn’t imitate the desires of others or grasp his identity (his self) in envy or rivalry with others, like we all grow up doing. Constantly looking to others for self-justification, for cues of who we are–a look of affirmation or challenge, a nod a smile or frown–we distort and exploit our relationships and hide our intentions even from ourselves. Jesus is different in that he always humbly receives his “self” willingly and joyfully as a gift from God his Father. So he becomes the perfect visible human expression of the Creator, the God of Israel, since the creator God cannot be said to “exist” because he is prior to or before and beyond all created being and so not in rivalry with anything that exists, with anything he made.

An ancient hymn quoted in Philippians says: “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (prisoner) being born in human form.” (Php 2:6,7) Or in Colossians (1:15-16) we read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Within a generation of the resurrection the witnesses all agree: listen to the opening of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews: “while God spoke to our ancestors in days of old. . . by way of the prophets, in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds and time. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

So the One who was present at the Creation but is not a part of creation, has come into the midst of his creation as a historical person in order to speak a Word to us who are his creation, a message intended to bring us alive who have been stuck in sin or locked in the shackles of death. God created us for himself, and all that is for us, but we’ve turned away from him and denied his purpose for our lives and for the creation. We traded our freedom for bondage to false gods, exchanged the creator for the creature and justified our idolatry with violence and blamed it all on God. 

Even so, in his love for us, God sent us Moses and the prophets whom we didn’t listen to for very long, inevitably ganging up on them to silence their message preferring death and violence to life and the message of God’s love. But loving the world in such a way as to become subject to futility and death, he came himself in the fullness of the One God, but as a human being to give himself into our hands. Even though he knew we would, in our blindness, turn on him like we had the prophets before him, seeing in his legal lynching a way to be finished once and for all with our own guilt and fear of death and of God’s wrath, he nevertheless spoke to us a Truth that unstops our ears: “Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing.”

By means of vulnerability and forgiveness he engineered the greatest prison break in history. He burst into our self-made system of fear and violence, guilt and resentment. Becoming one of us he broke the shackles of sin and by dying at our hands he subverted death from the inside. Taking on himself our shame and guilt he burst the gate and broke down the walls of our own hell.

Vulnerability and forgiveness: that’s what we on this weekend are all about. In the name of Jesus we reflect God’s Love for you to you. Testifying to our own weakness and God’s gracious love and forgiveness, we invite you to join us in true freedom and Life. Like us in all things except that he never turned away from his Father, Jesus loved a good party. Why else would he turn all that water into wine at the wedding feast. Or why was the first thing he did after calling the hated tax collector to follow him to bring him to a dinner party at the home of a wealthy religious leader. And like us sometimes he needs to get alone praying on a mountain to clear his head of the confusion of the crowd. On the lam, in the wind, facing arrest and trial he weeps in agony in the garden. Apparently abandonment even by his Father on desolation row he cries out from the cross, “lama sabacthani?” Why have you forsaken me?

Growing into his role as Christ, Messiah, as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 by the misunderstanding and finally the rejection of his own disciples, he accepts his call to stand alone, peacefully and lovingly in the most toxic place in his human society, becoming outcast and taking on Himself all the hatred and violence of sinful humanity. He becomes our victim so that freely following him, taking up our own cross, in the light of the resurrection, we might live in the good of the forgiveness and life he has made available to us.

What about his death and resurrection? He was crucified as an enemy of the state (executed as a slave, a blasphemer, a criminal rebel subversive), and He came back to life not so much to prove his power over death as to show us a new kind of Life beyond Death and free from the fear of Death. By his resurrection appearances to the apostles and by his forgiveness of those who betrayed him and abandoned him, as well as his appearance here among us this weekend, he bears the message of forgiveness to us and makes clear to all who receive it that God is not about punishment, violence or death. God is about Life and since he is not in rivalry with anything he has created, he is not angry or hateful toward anything either. Whatever religion or culture may claim there is no condemnation in God; “God is love,” the same “yesterday, today and forever.” 

Some have claimed that the resurrection was faked, that someone took the body out of the tomb. But the Romans wouldn’t have done that. They were the ones who killed him and they were guarding the tomb. And the religious authorities wouldn’t have done it because they wanted him dead. They didn’t want any mystery or drama, like the disappearance of the body, so they asked for an extra guard detail. And of course there is the testimony of the apostles hiding in terror after Jesus was executed expecting to meet the same fate themselves. They were too afraid to do anything but scatter. When they saw Jesus among them dead but somehow newly more alive than ever before, they rejoiced and began spreading the good news. The risen Lord by the Holy Spirit gave them strength and boldness. 

According to tradition, eleven of the disciples were eventually tortured and killed for their work and witness. If the resurrection was just a phony plot by the apostles, certainly some of them would have confessed to avoid death. Can you imagine eleven people accepting whippings, beatings and executions when they could have gone free by admitting to the scam, if there was one? But instead they seemed like new men, utterly alive and free, filled with the life and power of Jesus and willing to follow him into death, confident of the resurrection. 

Take Paul or Saul: a dedicated Pharisee, elite among the Jews, he delighted in hunting down and persecuting the followers of Jesus whom he hated. When he was on the road to Damascus chasing them, the Risen Lord appeared to him and asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was struck blind by Jesus’s glory, only to be healed by Ananias, one of those of Damascus Saul was hunting, who was acting in the Name and power of Jesus. 

This Saul become Paul the apostle. A Roman citizen, Paul spread the good news of Jesus to gentiles as well as Jews, slave and free, in many Imperial cities around the Mediterranean that one Jesus of Nazareth who had been executed on a cross as a slave and criminal terrorist was now risen from the dead and revealed to be Lord of all. Today this claim doesn’t sound nearly as absurd and revolutionary as it did at the height of the Roman Empire. Instead of greeting one another with “Hail Caesar” as loyal Romans did, the followers of Jesus in Corinth shouted “Jesus is Lord!” an affront and a challenge to the local powers of the Empire. It would be a little like saying “Jesus is Warden” or “Jesus is President.” By the free gift of God liberty, forgiveness and eternal, spirit-filled life was now on offer to all in Jesus’s Name. 

Paul’s letters to the church in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi and others collected in the New Testament. show Paul and his companions confronting the power structure of his day and suffering its retribution. In 2nd Corinthians Paul wrote, “Five times I was punished by 39 lashes by my own people. Three times I was whipped by the Romans and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks and once spent 24 hours in the sea. I’ve been in danger from fellow Jews and from Gentiles alike.” 

Paul was imprisoned at least three times and died at the hands of the authorities in Rome. For twenty-five years he endured agony and risked death to spread the same good news of Jesus we bring to you. He was extremely intelligent, and if there had been anything false about Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, you can be sure that Paul, more than anyone, would have known. Persecutions such as those undergone by Paul would seem to threaten to smother the good news and yet due to them it has spread throughout the world. 

Moreover, due to such persecution we come to recognize over time that in the announcement of the gospel sin and the power of death have become more sharply and broadly defined. Instead of as disobedience and transgression of the law, in the light of revelation of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ, sin must be seen as resistance to God’s forgiveness and release. 

So long as the Word or message of release in Christ does not penetrate our defenses–having ears we do not hear–the hateful judgement and persecution of the One who brings the communication of love and forgiveness becomes an indirect attempt to silence the voice of God in our own hearts. Our judgement of others is always our judgement of ourselves. God is the one Whose true judgment disturbs our more or less comfortable little arrangements with our familiar demons and Who alone can relieve our guilt and shame that the cost our violence hides from ourselves. 

Receiving forgiveness in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ allows us to tell our own stories openly without the tiresome distortions of defensiveness and also to understand that all imprisonment is violence done to Christ (Mt 25). God is the victim of our violence, however we may justify it or rationalize it, or whomever we may blame for it, yet he offers us his forgiveness here and now in Jesus Christ. I hope you see that the issue is not whether the resurrection of Christ is historically true, but that the risen Christ is alive today in us, in you. Jesus “is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structures of injustice.” (James Cone)

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