What to Call Jesus?
Homily Grits 19B, September 17, 2000
© copyright by Grant M. Gallup

Isaiah 50:4-9 - The tongue of a teacher
Psalm 116 Dilexi, quoniam
James 2:1-5,8-10,14-18 You have dishonored the poor
Mark 8:27-38 Mistaken identity
or Mark 9:14-29 An exorcism
While in Moscow in 1988 I visited the grave of Vladimir Ilyich Ulvanov, known a few years ago, before the "end of history", as Lenin. I watched the changing of the guard there, just as reverent but not as flashy, as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. A week later at Highgate cemetery in london, I visited the grave of Karl Marx. With that circuit completed, I felt like a Muslim who has been to Mecca, or a Mennonite who has been to Goshen. I felt as comfortable as a Republican in a bank, or a Democrat in a smoke-filled room. I felt complete. There at the foot of Marx's tomb in London was a plastic Christmas wreath, with a dedication in Spanish: "Your ideas guide the poor of the earth on the road of the future", and it was signed "the delegation of Nicaraguans in London." The following year I would move to Managua to live. Now, one of my proteges from Managua, a leader of Sandinista youth, in his twenties, is a student in London, and writes to me his analysis of world politics, from a Marxist punto de vista. I expect he has been to Highgate cemetery too. I don't think he'll be the last.

It has been said that Karl Marx was the last of the great Jewish prophets (although he managed to be confirmed in the State church in Germany), and that his and Lenin's ideas are a direct working out in practical terms of the good news that Jesus preached, and all the prophets before him. "Philosophers have only explained the world," says the inscripton on Marx's tomb. "The idea is to change it." Although we call Jesus the Wisdom of God, he did not change the world by becoming a philospher, and he did not change the world by becoming a Politician, though we call him Pantokrator and Lord, political titles from another age. The only Kings left are some nice old men in Scandinavia and those in the deck of cards. Prince is a brand of spaghetti or an epicene rock star in tight pants. Lord means a geezer in the upper house of Parliament, a male Margaret Thatcher.

What to call Jesus? His friend Simon and he bantered about what they should call each other--one day on the road to Caesarea Phillipi. Jesus himself brought up the subject of appropriate names, or titles. "What do people call me?" he asked his followers. Some said, "John the Baptist." This was a title a lot more complimentary than it is now--John was, in Jesus' own words, the greatest person who had ever lived. Why would people think Jesus was John the Baptist revividus? Not "like" John the Baptist, but actually the Baptist in person, resurrected, or reincarnated? They didn't dress alike, they didn't have the same lifestyle: John came ascetic, fasting and practicing penance, preaching a strict and narrow way, and Jesus came eating and drinking, partying and encouraging celebration. Telling Jesus that he reminded you of the Baptist is like telling an Episcopalian that he reminds you of a Baptist. Not likely to be taken as a compliment. "Food and clothing must be shared, so that the poor will be fed and clothed. There must be an end to bribery and corruption in church and government, and the occupation army just cease its oppresion." This platform, accompanied by a call for Baptism, is described in the text as "the gospel," the buenas noticias. It was because Jesus identified himself, not with the ministry of water baptism, but with this message of a new start for all people, for sharing, for an end to oppression, that folks thought he must be John come back from the grave that Herod had put him in. This was the understandable identification. And others responded "He's Elijah!" -- Another name that escapes most of us in its significance. Elijah was the greatest of the Jewish proophets, who placed national integrity at the top of his priorities, and called for radical political change, which offended Ahab and Jezebel. He became the national conscience, and was hounded into hiding. Pious folk still set a place for him at table. Something Jesus said and did must have reminded them of Elijah, and it wasn't platitudes about the dew that is still on the roses. Jesus reminded folks of Elijah because he called for radical change: he insisted on going to Jerusalem to confront power. Peter comes up with the title which was most satisfactory to the young church, which documented these events in the apostolic letters and in the gospels. To Jesus'invitation to come up with an appropriate title for him, Peter says "Messiah." The one rubbed with oil. Why that? What did Jesus do or say that reminded Peter of the expected national liberator? A sacred person who was at the same time political savior, not only the people's voice, but God's choice, to restore the status of the nation, to kick out the conquerors, to make the nation a respected one again in the eyes of other nations. "Messiah" was not going to deliver the other peoples of the world, the Gentiles--only the people of this little backwater nation. He was to be to Israel what George Washington has been to the English colonies, but more: what Fidel has been to Cuba; but more: what Agosto Cesar Sandino has been to Nicaragua; what Simon Bolivar has been to the Great Country. The Liberator.

"You are the Liberator" Peter said. When the church took to speaking Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic, we translated that to CHRISTOS, the Greek for one who has been anointed with oil. And Jesus said, "Hush. Don't tell anyone just yet." Instead, he began to give a description of himself, one that Isaiah had given, as the Servant of God, the Child of Humankind (which is what Jesus mostly called himself): "the son of Man," as our older texts have said. This Servant must suffer, must be rejected by the clergy and the politicians, and be politically murdered, as Salvador Allende, before there could be resurrection in the nation's life. Isaiah had said the "Servant of God" would be beaten, insulted, tortured, shamed, spit on, but ultimately vindicated. Vindication is not "success" in the world's terms. Agosto Pinochet had success; Salvador Allende is now vindicated. Risen from the dead.

The Church has over the centuries tried to get along with political power by conveniently fogetting what the name "messiah" meant to Jesus, and has usually dressed Jesus up in the period costumes of the ruling clique. In the old ikons of Russia, it's hard to tell whether you are looking at a picture of one of the Tsars in royal robes or at Jesus of Nazareth, who forbade his disciples to own more than one coat. Episcopal Churches for the last half century have been fond of slipping in crucifixes (horror to earlier low churchmen) of Christ as King. But Christus Rex is not an offensive crucifix: it doesn't remind anyone of "the multiplication of masses" or exaggerated Roman Catholic Devotions to the Five Wounds. Was it because monarchy had by then been de-fanged and made a harmless decorative institution that Jesus in a tiara and chasuble was acceptable?

In response to Jesus, who claims for himself the title of "Suffering Child of Humanity" instead of "Strongman Messiah", Peter objects. Took him and began to rebuke him, Mark says. Peter here is an emblem of everything in the Church Establishment that cannot live with the Jesus of history, the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg. The Jesus of his own naming, as one who is in solidarity with the suffering of the land, with the anawhim and the wretched of the earth. Peter forsees only success, and wants to reassure Jesus himself that (if he can help it, certainly) nothing like suffering will ever come his way. The church when it is distracted from Jesus engages in the same ministry as the Media in our society: its purpose becomes not reporting good news to the poor, that God wants land to be redistriubted, food and clothing shared, that God wants justice before peace, mercy before orthodoxy, but instead the purpose of the church (like Peter's purpose) like the purpose of TV and as if it were "a Time-Warner company", to reassure the millions of citizens of the empire that the system is working, that success is down the road for us all, that God is on our side and history is complete, that we are all going to be happy now, shopping till we drop.

Jesus says, what about those crosses over there on the hill? What about the suffering of our brothers and sisters? What about the electric chair, George Bush's favorite furniture for the poor? Where poor and Black and Hispanic are lined up for seating and where the Rich Man will never get to sit? What about the gallows tree where the poor man hangs and the Rich Man springs the trap? "Get behind me, you devil Peter, for your vision of what I've come to do is a limited human vision indeed: salvation for one country, one race, one class, with nothing but triumph and joy down the road for those of us who are shopkeepers of religion. No, Peter, get back with that view, for it's not the vision from God. It's not God's side of things, but a merely human one. If anyone wants to enlist in the Jesus Way, in the Jesus Revolution, they are going to have to take up a Cross."

Now in Jesus' time, a Cross was only for the underclass: the subjugated nations of the Empire. The government of Judea didn't use crosses, because the law of Moses forbade the shedding of blood, so when executions were carried out they had to be done by stoning: hitting people with big stones dropped on them, to break them up without bloodying them. The Romans didn't use crosses on themselves, indeed, or on any citizen of the Empire who had been found builty of a capital crime. St. Paul, who was a card-carrying Roman citizen, was able to appeal to be taken to Rome for trial instead of being tried in Judea, and was executed by the gentlemanly method of beheading--quick, clean, immediate, neat, finished. But the Romans reserved crucifixion for the wretched of the earth: revolutionaries, bandits, messiahs, anyone who was a threat to law and order. Jesus didn't say take up the stones but take up the cross of suffering which the poor of the earth must always carry. Take up the lethal injection. It is by way of identifying with the least of the earth that the world will be saved, that we ourselves will be saved.

The ways in which the Church wishes to forget this message at the heart of Jesus' life and death are many. One of them is illustrated in today's lectionary, in the verses appointed to be read from the Letter of James. Several verses are missing in our reading. The citation says we should read Chapter 2, verses 1 to 5, then skip to verse 8. Why? These are the words omitted: "In spite of this you have no respect for anybody who is poor. Isn't it always the rich who are against you? Isn't it always their doing when you are dragged before the court? Aren't they the ones who insult the honorable name to which you have been dedicated?"

Think for a minute why such words will be omitted in most Christian churches this morning. This is class analysis from the Git. When I read these sentences from James at St. Andrew's in Chicago's west side Black ghetto, I included the omitted verses. As I looked around, I could see the faces of people who had been in jail, who had been dragged into court, sometimes the week before. I saw a young man who was jailed for burning the flag, another who was driven from his apatment for sharing it with white students, a few blocks from the Mayor's house. (I saw also of course other faces, of proper young ladies who had been to their Ebony fashion shows and cotillions the day before, and of middle aged Black men who were 33 degree masons in segregated, "Clandestine" lodges, of shop foremen and janitors who had driven to church in Cadillacs). This is something Karl Marx might have written, or Vladimir known to history as Lenin. "In spite of this you have no respect for the poor" says St. James. The poor are dangerous, they look dangerous. On the street at night, we look to see how the person is dressed who is coming up the way as we park or alight from a taxi. Nice clothes means nice manners. Poor clothes means trouble. If you're Black, step back. If you're Brown, stick around. If you're white, you're all right. Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore looks dangerous--neither one looks like they could open my Toyota without a key. Hardly anybody in government looks dangerous, although many of them have served time and more will do so. Many should hang, if we believed in capitalist punishment. But it's not because they tried or will try to overthrow the Empire, or bring an end to the Domination System. St. James's analysis and Jesus'good news are liberation theology in formation. And Jesus' life and death and resurection are a continuing call to his disciples to take up the Cross of the Oppresed, take up the cause of the poor, and take up an option for a new society, anointed by God to come through suffering to wholeness for all people.

Who do you say that Jesus is for you? For your life? Who do I say that Jesus is for me? For my life? Messiah? Well, yes. Lord, well yes. King? Well, okay. Shepherd, I guess so. Savior? Sure. Redeemer? I hope so. Friend? You bet. God? As much as I know, yes. Liberator? Most of the time-- a word that means something in our time, a word that means something in our space, in our experience. The one who comes to Liberate, to set free, to whom we bring all that needs liberating. Our life, Our ideas, Our hopes, Our illnesses, Our health--and to guide us and the poor of the world together on the road of the future.


[Grant Gallup's "Homily Grits" are now appearing as a regular series on Louie Crew's Anglican Pages. -- Ted M.]

Home Traditional Values The Heritage Friends and Companions Liturgical Ramblings Something of William Morris Some Good Reading Some Links The Jubilee Group