Rev. Mark Schaefer
Foundry United Methodist Church
May 18, 2014
Psalm 47:8-9; Mark 12:13-17

One of my favorite books as a kid—and still today—is the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Toward the beginning, we encounter a character named Ford Prefect who works for said Hitchhiker’s Guide and who has come to Earth to update Earth’s entry in the Guide. The entry had been exactly one word long; it read simply: “Harmless.” After years of extensive research, Ford edited the entry so that it now reads: “Mostly harmless.”

Talk about damning with faint praise.

Every once in a while, I’ll get asked about the United Methodist community at American University by someone who is clearly suspicious of religion. They’ll say something like, “So, what are the Methodists like?” Clergy develop an ear for this kind of thing; we can read the subtext of a question like that. What they’re often asking is: “Are you guys one of those whack-job sects thinks the world is only 6,000 years old and hates gay people?”

And so, when I get a question like that, I’ll often respond with something like, “We’re a very open-minded and inclusive community committed to hospitality and justice.” And in my head, and perhaps in the questioner’s mind, what I’m really saying is something like, “We’re harmless.” And I think of that entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide and wonder whether in the grand record of human history, the entry for The United Methodist Church will be something like, “Mostly harmless.”

That’d be disappointing. Because to tell you the truth, Old School Methodists were anything but harmless. In case you are in need of a reminder, we were instrumental in getting the 18th Amendment ratified. You know, the one that banned the sale and distribution of alcohol for the entire country. Boy, those were the days, eh?

We haven’t been troublemakers like that in a long time. Today, we’re… harmless.


Of course, that should hardly be surprising. The Jesus we often talk about is likewise kind of harmless. Those of us who are liberal Christians are fond of talking about Jesus if he were a warm fuzzy prophet of love and peace and happiness. “Turn the other cheek.” Love. Forgiveness. Peace. All we need are some flowers and a Volkswagen bus and the image of the Hippy Jesus is complete.

But, here’s the thing: Jesus was dangerous. He was a troublemaker. And the two criminals crucified next to him were not the only insurrectionists on Golgotha that morning.

Image courtesy wordle.net
Image courtesy wordle.net

Even when we look at Jesus’ “Turn the other cheek,” we find it is not quite so passive as it sounds. In the ancient world, you slapped someone with the back of the hand if they were an inferior; you slapped them with the open palm of your hand if they were an equal or a superior. (Actually, this is still the rule—next time you’re watching a movie, take note of how men slap women and women slap men.) So, here’s the thing, if you get slapped with the back of someone’s hand and you turn the other cheek, they have no choice but to slap you open palmed—as an equal. Jesus is not telling his disciples to be submissive and passive, he is telling them to claim dignity and status. It’s subversive.

Likewise, the command to give someone who asks for your cloak your shirt as well is to take advantage of the fact that to cause another person to become naked was a shameful thing. And the one who demanded the cloak is all but begging the other to take his shirt back so that the first person does not incur shame.

And while a Roman legionary could compel you to carry his pack one mile, it was unlawful for him to compel you to carry it for him two miles. So when Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” he’s not telling you to be a doormat. He’s telling you to turn the tables, creating the comical scene of the Roman soldier chasing you down the road begging you to drop the pack, lest he get in trouble.

This “Turn the Other Cheek” ethic is nonviolent, but it would be a mistake to say that it’s passive. It is deeply subversive. And far from harmless. New Testament scholar Craig Hill points out any theology of Jesus that doesn’t account for why he was crucified is no theology of Jesus at all. Jesus and the prophets before and after him, were not happy hippies with nice ideas who talked about God, they were, as a close friend of mine likes to put it, “dissident intellectuals” contesting the power of empire.

It is worth noting that when Jesus was crucified, they hung a sign over him saying “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.” Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying, “Be nice to each other.” It was not because he did the occasional healing on the Sabbath, although we Christians like to make a big deal about that. Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist, as one who claimed a title of kingship, and who frequently announced that the Kingdom of God was on its way, and thereby threatened the security of the state.

According to John’s gospel, the sign that held the charge was in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. John is not reminding us how cosmopolitan first century Jerusalem was he is making a point: Jesus was condemned in the language of the religious establishment (Hebrew), the political establishment (Latin), and the cultural establishment (Greek). You don’t get crucified for being a warm, fuzzy, peace-loving hippie. You don’t get crucified when you’re “harmless” or even “mostly harmless.”


So, here’s the thing: if Jesus was such a troublemaker, then why is Christianity so often a part of the establishment? And why are Christians so vocal about maintaining the status quo?

There is, of course, a strong desire to make faith compatible with the status quo. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has said that there are a great many Christians for whom the central message of Christianity is “Support your local sheriff.”

After Christianity was decriminalized by the Emperor Constantine, Christians, now legitimate, began to adopt the outward appearances of the legitimate authority. Now able to move out of house churches and build church buildings, we adopted the basilica—the Roman courthouse—as the model for our church design. Our clergy began to wear vestments, robes, chasubles, and stoles—all of which had been vestments of the Roman magisterium. Where once we had been a renegade, outlaw sect, whose leader had been crucified as a enemy of the state, now we were respectable. Official. Imperial. Status quo. And we certainly have become part of the establishment.

There is a reason why Methodists named their national university “American” University—the two words used to be near synonyms. But can Christian faith be authentic and part of the establishment? Can we maintain both the Gospel and the status quo? Do we have to be cultural radicals?

A Roman Denarius, with the image of the Emperor Tiberius and the inscription “Pontifex Maximus.” Photograph by DrusMAX – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the passage we heard read earlier from Mark’s gospel, we encounter a very familiar passage in which Jesus is asked a question about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the Empire or not. This is one of those questions that is designed to trap him: if he says “Yes” then clearly he has sold out his people living under Roman occupation, if he says “No” then he is guilty of fomenting sedition and rebellion. So, instead, he asks to see a denarius and asks whose head is on it, and is told “the Emperor’s.” So he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And everyone is amazed. It’s a great answer. Politically savvy and at the same time, seems to establish the separation of Church and State.

Except that that is not at all what Jesus is doing. One biblical scholar, reflecting on the common practice of interpreting this passage from Mark’s gospel as a compromise between our loyalties between God and Caesar, writes:

“That any reader of the gospel could imagine that Jesus is here in Jerusalem to baptize the status quo is a tribute to the monumental stupidity of which Mark regularly, and rightly, accuses the followers of Jesus.” [1]

I’ll say somewhat less harshly, that there are other problems with our understanding of this story. It’s not my place to quibble with the translation done by the New Revised Standard Version committee, but as this is a sermon about challenging authority, I’m going to do it anyway. In the Greek text, Jesus does not ask whose “head” is on the coin, he asks whose eikōn is on it; that is whose “image.” It is the same word used in the Greek translation of Genesis when God says that God will create humanity in the divine eikōn, the divine “image.”

So, when Jesus is asking whose image is on the coin, he is leaving unspoken the question of whose image is on you. So that when he replies, “Give to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God those things that are God’s,” we understand that that is an entirely different statement than what we’re accustomed to thinking. He is saying to give of your entire being to God because it is on that being that God has placed the divine image.

To any listening Romans, it sounds like an acceptance of Roman power; but to the Jews who would have heard it, it would be a clearly subversive statement. It’s insurrectionist. Because if we give ourselves fully to God, then nothing belongs to Caesar. Jesus was an insurrectionist. A troublemaker. Subverting the established order.

So, here’s the awkward question: if Jesus was this way and if an essential part of Christian faith is to be countercultural and resist the structures of authority and power, then why don’t we do that?


See, here’s the problem: we think we are doing that. We gather on Sundays in worship, we meet at prayer meetings, or in the social justice actions and service projects. These places are the site of resistance for us. But what if it’s really something else?

You know, there’s something I should confess. I’ve never confessed this before in public, but we’re in church so it’s appropriate, I guess, for me to confess my sins to you. And what I want to confess is that I am a dangerous lawbreaker. Sometimes, as I am driving home down Massachusetts Avenue… I exceed the speed limit. By sometimes as much as five to seven miles an hour. I know. You’re scandalized. It’s a wonder they let me into this pulpit.

And I’m just not a lawbreaker—I am a brazen, dangerous lawbreaker. Why, sometimes on the highway, I’ll break the speed limit and drive right past the police. Yup. I’ll be going 69 miles an hour in a 65 mile an hour zone and I don’t care who knows it. I’ll drive right past the police without even slowing down to so much as 68 miles an hour.

Of course, I never get a ticket. But on reflection, no one does. Isn’t that strange? Why don’t the police write tickets for driving a few miles over the speed limit? In fact, on a 65 miles-an-hour road, you can probably push 75 before anyone will even notice. Don’t you wonder why they do that? It has nothing to do with traffic flow.

It’s a pressure valve. By giving us the space to rebel against the system. But interestingly, it’s a rebellion that takes place within the context of the system itself. That is, the system has a built in rebellion zone. We all know that we can speed a little bit. It makes us feel like we’re getting away with something, but we all know that there is a limit to that. When we speed by five miles an hour, we think we’re resisting the system, but in reality, we’re participating in it.

It’s the same reason your boss doesn’t care if you gather in the break room with your coworkers and talk about him behind his back. Because as long as you show up at 9 a.m. and punch out at 5 p.m., then you’re still participating in the system. In fact, the talking behind your boss’ back may be necessary to keep the system functioning smoothly. [2]

They let us drive 71 miles an hour so that we won’t drive 90 miles an hour on the sidewalk. They let us talk about them behind their backs so that we’ll still show up for work. They’ll let us protest on the sidewalks in permit-approved areas so that we don’t storm the White House grounds. And all the while, the machine keeps on going.

A.   The System

What it if turns out that what we think of as resistance by the Church isn’t really resistance, but is just the pressure valve that allows the system to keep functioning? That is, what if Church just helps us to assuage our consciences on a Sunday morning so that we can go be dutiful parts of the system the other six days of the week? What if far from standing outside the system, the church is part of the system, enabling it to keep functioning? What if Sunday worship is nothing more than our gathering in the employee lounge and griping about our bosses, but then Monday comes and we go right back to work, supporting the very thing we oppose? What if we’re part of the problem?

The robes I’m wearing are no simple vestige of imperial entanglement. In addition to being a reminder that the church is never at the forefront of fashion, they a reminder that the church is often complicit in the very things we claim we oppose. Because while we talk about opposition and resistance, our behavior betrays our participation in the system.

For example, I can say that I oppose child labor, but if I continue in blissful ignorance about where my clothes are made and by whom, I am perpetuating the very system I claim to oppose.

I can say that I am troubled by violence and poverty in Africa, but when I purchase a smartphone without regard to where the tungsten, tantalum, and other precious metals came from, or who is profiting from their trade, am I not perpetuating the very system I condemn?

I can say that I support the Palestinians living under occupation, but until I take action to make sure that my ministerial pension fund is no longer invested in companies that profit from military contracts that perpetuate that occupation, I am still part of the problem.

We can lament the crisis in Syria, but if we don’t examine the role my own country has played in creating a line of dictators who have oppressed that country, then we’re still part of the problem.

We can lament genocides like the Holocaust and commit to ensuring they never happen again, but if we don’t look at the role Christians played in creating a climate of anti-Semitism, then we’re still part of the problem.

What we do as individuals the church does as a body. We talk all the time about the things we deplore but never really stop to consider the extent to which we are helping to perpetuate those very evils.

Emergent Church theologian Peter Rollins says that if the Church continues in this way, we are in danger of becoming an “ironic” church—engaging in the very behavior that we claim to disavow with our words. Like hipsters wearing graphic t-shirts for things they don’t really care about, the church clothes itself in ideas of peace and justice while continuing to participate in the structures of injustice and oppression. We may like referring to Christ as King, but when it comes right down to it, we are much more like the crowds on Good Friday yelling to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!”

V.   END

We’ve accepted the idea that we render some things unto Caesar and some things unto God, but we neglect to realize that by adopting that mindset, we render an awful lot more to Caesar than we realize. We legitimate the idea that Caesar is entitled to anything at all. We enable the very system we claim to resist.

Sometimes we treat the scripture as if it were the Constitution of the United States. Or worse: as if it were Better Homes & Gardens. But the scripture isn’t a warrant for the status quo. It’s a manifesto for an insurrection to overturn the structures of oppression and injustice, of violence and hate.

Today is the Fifth Sunday in Easter, the great fifty days when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The Resurrection of Christ was not simply some parlor trick of Jesus’. Nor was it simply confirmation of a divine bargain to ensure our places in the afterlife. It was a demonstration that God was turning the world on its head. The powers of the world, even death itself, had been overthrown. We believe that, while it is still very much in the process of coming, the Kingdom of God—God’s kingdom, not Caesar’s—is inaugurated in that Resurrection.

The church that is formed in the light of that Resurrection has to be more than a social club. The church has to be more than a group of well-meaning do-gooders. It has to be more than an echo chamber wherein we shout out our grievances. And it definitely has to be more than simply the pressure valve that that allows the machinery of the system to keep functioning. If we’re going to resist the structures of oppression and injustice, of racism and bigotry, of violence and fear, of militarism, colonialism, and imperialism, of sexism and discrimination, of homophobia and exclusion, of Islamophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice, and othering the stranger, of the accumulation of power to the mighty and the continued disenfranchisement of the powerless, then we’re going to have to do much more than the occasional petition drive. And certainly much more than a damned Twitter hashtag.

Caesar’s image is on all the coins, and he’s welcome to them. But God’s image is on us, and that means that our loyalty, our fidelity, is not to the structures of power, but to God, and to the love, grace, justice, and peace that God brings about and that the Resurrection testifies to.

Christ was crucified for leading an insurrection as a testimony to the Kingdom of God. And the Resurrection is God’s vindication of the insurrection that Christ began. It is a sign that the world is being changed. In light of the Resurrection, we can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which we are a part of the problem. If we would live out the Gospel, we can no longer afford to be harmless.

We are called to be the staging ground for an insurrection grounded in the love and justice of God that can transform the very world itself.

The Texts

Psalms 47:8–9 • God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

Mark 12:13–17 • Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.


[1] Theodore W. Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified, p. 205.

[2] This illustration and the foregoing one are taken from Peter Rollins.

One thought on “Resurrection and Insurrection

  1. One of the most thought provoking sermons I’ve heard: helpful insight into words of Jesus through explaining them in the context of his time, clarity of message, unsettling reminder of my own complacency, and call to act differently in the world. Thanks, Mark.

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