On November 5, 2009

A Gentle Subversion

I took this picture on our trip to Ephesus a few years ago. Since then it has made the regular rotation for my desktop image, I’ve even talked about on this blog before. I’ve found myself somewhat haunted by it. And here’s why.

This is an underground first or second century symbol. It stands for Ixthus Christos Theos (all the first letters of this phrase in Greek make this symbol. The phrase means “Jesus Christ is God.”

I’ve thought quite a bit about this little mark for the past few years. Who carved it? Were they scared that it would be deciphered? And what would have happened to them if it had been? Acts 19 reveals that the early Christians in Ephesus didn’t have a very easy road in front of them for following Jesus.

I just finished N.T. Wright’s book “For All God’s Worth.” A book that is primarily about worship and how the church is called to be in the world. If you haven’t read it, you should. The final chapter is worth the price of the book.

Wright talks about how the Sermon on the Mount should be understood in the context of the 1st Century setting that it took place in. A time when Israel was riddled with one failed, violent revolution after another. And with each one they hated Rome/Herod/Tax-Collectors more and more.

For example, Matthew 5 starts by saying that when he saw the crowds, Jesus went up on the Mountain side and sat down. That means something.

Jesus knew what was up with this crowd. Much like John 6, they wanted a revolution. That’s what really got crowds together in that day. And when Jesus took them up on the Mountainside that was exactly what they thought he was doing. See, to go to the mountain is to get away. Away from the ears of the powers that run the world and scheme about a new way of running the world. A century earlier that’s where a holy brigand had gathered to plan out their rebellion.

The crowd wanted a new Kingdom…and that’s exactly what they got.

When Jesus ends his little talk with the phrase, build your house upon the rock, that’s important. N.T. Wright makes the point that this is Temple Language. Jesus is cryptically, but emphatically calling out the powers of Rome/Israel from the ruling aristocrats to the leaders of the Temple.

The sermon on the Mount was a subversive, non-violent, Kingdom message.

Jesus was critiquing both Rome’s way of ruling, and Israel’s way of being God’s people.

I like the way Erwin McManus talks about the relevance of this for today:

“Two Thousand years ago God started a revolt against the religion He started. So don’t ever put
it past God to cause a groundswell movement against churches and Christian institutions that
bear his name. If He was willing to turn Judaism upside down, don’t think for a moment our
institutions are safe from a divine revolt.”

The truth is that the Gospel, at it’s core is subversive. That is it’s a sub-version, a counter-version of what is being presented as the dominant reality. But it’s a different kind of subversion. It doesn’t operate like other revolutions. The people of Jesus day went to the mountain expecting one thing, and they walked back down thinking another.

And if we don’t get that then the Beatitudes are going to be nothing but something to put on a Collector’s plate or lovely plaque.

The truth is that every faith tries to find it’s place in society, and then attempts to become something it’s not. We call this civil religion. And when we are tempted to beat our plowshares into swords, when we are tempted to live like our story isn’t that different at all….

Then maybe it’s time to go back up into the mountains to listen to a fresh word from Jesus.

To be reminded that it’s the poor, the persecuted, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for the presence of God are really blessed.

That way of living is still subversive.

It always has been.

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  • http://myjarofoil.wordpress.com KO

    How interesting. And, I would love to hear more about what NT says about worship in this book. Blog about that!

  • Ryan Murphy

    I agree…have you read God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan?

  • Aaron

    McManus’ quote: “If He was willing to turn Judaism upside down, don’t think for a moment our institutions are safe from a divine revolt.”

    If we realized this as the Church today I wonder if it would rock some people’s world enough to really change their focus?

    We would most likely act more like a SENT people. We would go out to the lost and teach Jesus and only him.

    I agree man, its time to go back up the mountain.

  • http://blog.floydius.com/ Lloyd

    (a) I remember seeing that sign in Ephesus when I was there. It’s pretty great to see Christian graffiti lasting through the centuries. :)

    (b) I’ve also been wanting to read some of N.T.’s stuff for some time now, so maybe it’s about time I got started.

    (c) My favorite beautitude is “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

    (d) I feel very badly for Judas Maccabeus. He came to violent end. I wonder how much of a mandate he felt he had from God, and whether he really had one? It would seem not. It’s tough to think that God would let someone with his zeal die fighting against oppression.

    I think that tension between what we expect and what God has in mind is at the heart of your post here. Thanks for the thoughts. :)

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    KO, It’s good, but I would spoil the ending for you.

    Ryan, I have the book, but I haven’t read it. Is it good?

    Aaron, Thanks man. Yeah, McManus is a stud huh?

    Lloyd, yeah that was from the Banksy of the day…You should definitely read him. He’s by far my favorite author…Don’t feel too bad for the Maccabeaus. They have their own holiday after all.

  • Ryan Murphy

    Jonathan- I think you would really enjoy it. I went to a conference a few weeks ago, Crossan and Rieger were speaking about this very stuff. The fact is, Jesus was against empire and imperial power. We need to get together sometime, I would love to bounce some thoughts around with you.

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Ryan, I have read some of Croassn before. First in college where I thought he was the devil…then later when I began to appreciate him for the historical context he brings to the table. I love their anti-imperialistic stuff they help to draw out of the Scriptures. Have you heard of N.T. Wright?

  • Ryan

    Jonathan- Yes, I love Tom’s stuff. I’ve read almost all of his works. I am reading a book right now that he and Marcus Borg put out called “The Meaning of Jesus.” I really appreciate that you like these types of authors and it comes out in your sermons, which I really enjoy.

    Are you into post-colonial theology at all?

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Ryan, I haven’t even heard of Post-colonial theology. What is it?

  • Ryan

    Jonathan- its along the same lines as your blog post…its an approach to the bible…comparing imperialism and shaping our theology from a viewpoint void of western imperialsim…thus post colonialism

    here are some leading authors…

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0198752695/ref=sip_pdp_dp_0

    http://www.christianbook.com/christ-empire-from-paul-postcolonial-times/joerg-rieger/9780800620387/pd/620380?event=CF

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