I’m a Democrat/I’m a Republican... Said Jesus Never
This morning our sermon series is going to take a shift. For the past XX weeks, we have been exploring commonly said phrases attributed to Jesus or sayings attributed to Christian theologians. In …Said Jesus Never we are reconsidering phrases like “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words,” “G-d won’t give you more than you can handle,” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” All of the phrases sound harmless. They sound like something a “good Christian” should say, maybe even something Jesus did say, but the reality is that while these Christian cliches may sound like something we should say, often they run counter to the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
This morning we are going to shift our focus though from cliches and half-truths to a label that we often place on Jesus. Our saying this morning is something Jesus would have never said or been identified with because the labels were not created until 1828 and 1854. It would be outrageous to say that Jesus would identify exclusively with one of these labels. But every few years (say two or four) we hear that Jesus would be this today or that all good Christians should be this because Jesus was or would be.
While the Bible is full of politics, our scripture reading this morning is the only time we see democracy at work in the Gospels. Throughout His ministry Jesus’ disciples followed His lead, questioning His reasoning, yes but always seeing (or at the least going along with) the new teaching or way of life Jesus had just presented. Jesus didn’t take a vote among His merry-men and then move on that majority. The authority He had among His disciples came from the Father and His realization of who He was.
But our reading, which is usually reserved for Holy Week, details not only how Jesus was handed over to the Romans by the religious establishment of His day but also how quickly and unknowingly a crowd of people can be persuaded to abandon their sensibilities and fall for the persuasive tactics those in positions of power employ to maintain their power by eliminating any perceived threat.
Pilate had a problem on his hands.
After being underwhelmed by the case made by the Chief Priests and elders, there is a crowd gathered and Pilate has a 30-something-year-old Rabbi who hasn’t done anything wrong to deal with.
He did say that He would tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days, and as Stanley Hauerwas notes, that is not a claim you make within earshot of the people of Israel.
Jesus is innocent of the charges brought against him. Pilate knew this and acknowledge so much to the priests and elders. Pilate’s wife tried to convince him of the calamity which would follow if Pilate gave in to the demands of the Jewish religious authorities. The only thing Jesus was guilty of was disrupting the religious-norms of first-century Israel which was not a capital offense in the eyes of the Roman Empire.
Pilate had a problem on his hands.
He could let the innocent man go but that would result in an uprising, the exact thing he was in Jerusalem to prevent during the Passover festival or could sentence an innocent man to death, showing how easily persuaded he could be and as a result showing that he was no “commander” at all.
To save and possibly turn the crowds against the priests and elders, Pilate offers a trade.
“Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
Which Jesus do you want?
The Jesus named Barabbas (which means son of a father), a zealot-minded Jew “who had committed murder during an insurrection?” Or, do you want Jesus the Messiah, King of the Jews, Son of His Heavenly Father?
Like any good authority trying to maintain their own power and comfort by ducking their responsibility Pilate deflects his charge and places it upon the gathered crowd. The crowd that was to be manipulated by those who wanted Jesus arrested and killed in the first place.
The Chief priests and elders turned Jesus over to preserve their own power and now Pilate in an attempt to do the same pivots and give the decision making power to the crowd. In reality, Pilate gave this power to the priests and elders as they were manipulating the decision that was about to be made.
Self-preservation is not something limited to Pilate or the Jewish chief priests.
Today attempts are made to manipulate us into choosing which Jesus we will align ourselves with.
There are some who will say, “My Jesus will rise up against the powers and forces who oppose us and forcefully liberate us from them and all who stand int our way.”
Then there are those who will say, “My Jesus will bring about radical social change, holiness might be optional but our Jesus doesn’t care about that.”
In the fall of 2005 I worked on a US Senate campaign in West Virginia. I won’t tell you which party the candidate was in (because if I did half of you would probably check out of the rest of the sermon) but I will tell you that throughout the campaign I was repeatedly asked about the candidate’s religious preference and habits.
“Does the candidate believe in G-d?”
“How often does the candidate go to church?” Which church does the candidate attend?
“Which Bible does the candidate read (a question of translation)? Is there a copy next to the candidate’s bed?”
These are real questions I was asked by real people but if you distilled all of the questions I received into a single question it was this:
“Is the candidate a forceful rebel or is the candidate light on the holiness?”
Riding in the rented Winnebago that had been rented one too many times we would discuss the “correct” response to these questions as we traveled to multiple fundraising chicken dinners in the same night at various VFW and Moose halls.
Which Jesus was the candidate going to align with because the crowd had to a decision to make?
What the attendees of the chicken dinner fundraisers did not realize was the candidatedid not care which Jesus they wanted him choose, so long as it was the one that furthered his rise to power.
Like the chief priests and elders, the candidate used political manipulation to garner the response he wanted from the crowd. The Gospels tell us the crowd was “convinced,” persuaded to choose the Jesus that they chose. Meaning, that like my candidate in West Virginia, the priests and elders said what they needed to say in order to get the outcome they desired.
When it comes to making decisions about who will govern what and what the outcomes will be we often hear about a candidate’s faith. We want to know which Jesus they follow. Is it my Jesus who will rise up against the powers and forces who oppose us and forcefully liberate us from them and all who stand int our way. Or is it the other Jesus, the Jesus that will bring about radical social change, while ignoring holiness?
Once we figure out which Jesus they follow, in whatever form we decide or are told is necessary for the circumstances of the day, we assign that Jesus to the candidate and thus to the platform the candidate has aligned themselves with.
As a result of this, we are presented with a daily choice to make and like Pilate often we will defer to what the crowds decide for us.
Jesus the son of a father or Jesus the Son of our Heavenly Father.
Jesus of the latest party or cause to catch our attention or Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus the Democrat/Jesus the Republican or Jesus, the One who died for the ungodly on a tree and through the power and promise of the empty grave invites us to step into grace.
It’s not that Jesus never said He was a Democrat or a Republican (or for His time “I’m a Scribe/I’m a Pharisee”).
Instead, then and now Jesus offers us an alternative to the Barbabbases that are presented to us. We are told this person or that person most aligns with the Christian values that matter most to us. But instead we end up being caught between Pilate and the priests, receiving what they think we want to hear. And being told its for our own good or that it aligns with what they say we should value most because we are this.
Hauerwas also notes that we can never elect Jesus into office and because we cannot elect him we cannot place Him into a particular party or agenda. We cannot elect Him into the Presidency. We can’t even elect Him to be the Messiah. Calling someone Lord or Savior is not a “democratic title.” It is a designation of the One we worship and the One we are a witness to.
Jesus of Nazareth offers us an alternative every time we are told that we want and need Barabbas. We are told the Barabbas presented to us will make things better for us when in reality Barabbas is quelling the mob and ensuring power for those who will take it by any means necessary.
Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican. He is though unconditional grace and mercy offered to us freely despite our tendency to choose Barabbas time and time again.