I recently had the great privilege of being asked to deliver the message at a local, Black-led Evangelical Church whose Pastor is a friend of mine, and with whom I also share Chaplaincy duties for our Local Neighbourhood Policing Unit. Being Evangelical in outlook, the focus of their worship is on the person of Jesus and the teaching of the bible as being the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by faith in Jesus Christ. The task therefore was to create a message of 20-30 minutes which provided a perspective on Jesus, his life and his ministry, which the congregation could take away and reflect on. Pastor Debo told me upon my arrival that he was keeping the children in the main church rather than allowing them to go to their own activities so it became, de facto, an All Age Worship type of message.
Having been at the front of the church for most of the service, when eventually called to speak I turned around at the lecturn and saw a sea of faces, all ages, whole families, about 150 people in all. Certainly the largest congregation I have preached to. I just hoped I had crafted the right message because having been to a service at this church previously, I remember how infectious and enthusiastic African worship is and didn’t want to disappoint. Below is a summary of that message.
I chose the title Stereotypical Jesus because we all seem to have different ideas of who or what he was. I began by declaring my love of old black & white movies particularly the gangster genre. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson all icons from a bygone era. However, whenever the setting for these movies is either New York, Boston or Chicago the local chief of police is usually an Irishman, and are invariably named Flanagan, Houlihan or O’Malley! Therefore, if the movie world could portray the stereotypical Irish cop who are what constituted, A Stereotypical Jesus? The Bible does not really give that much away about the kind of character he was or about any extended family. I did share an anecdote from my time in Ireland about a local farmer I once knew, who upon being introduced to a group of Nuns one market day calling themselves the Little Sisters of Jesus responded, “I thought he was an only Child!”
Using what is commonly known as the Inductive approach to preaching, drawing on congregational experiences of a specific theme which are then shared in order to gain a new perspective, we began by means of an interactive session by going round the congregation and asking them in no more than three words, who or what Jesus meant to them. Likely answers were pre-empted on a PowerPoint slide which was shared afterwards, and some were included in the responses of several members of the congregation. The slide is shown below.
All of these and much more indicate people’s perception of Jesus the man and how he impacts their faith beliefs and practices. It was here I introduced my alternative perspective, by highlighting a character trait which might in other circumstances be called a character flaw – that of BELLIGERENCY.
Without this quality Jesus would have been unable to challenge the many injustices he encountered in his earthly life. Jesus came to earth to reset the relationship between God and his creation and it was necessary to stir things up sufficiently to create the environment for this to flourish, particularly amongst the Scribes and the Pharisees who formed the religious elite of the day.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matt chapters 5-6) could be considered in some quarters to be subversive by bringing down blessings on the meek, poor and downtrodden in effect, turning the accepted social and economic status of the time firmly on its head. Such sentiments inspired many who followed including that most famous non-Christian, Mahatma Gandhi. In Mark 2: 16-17 in response to the Pharisees questioning why he was eating with sinners and tax collectors Jesus replied, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus use of parables in many of his public teachings and their often hidden meanings were designed to make people think more seriously about their relationship with God and each other although in private he always explained to his disciples what he meant, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that looking they may not perceive and listening they may not understand.” (Luke 8:10) Jesus could be brusque when he wanted to be, another indicator of his belligerent attitude when he felt it was needed. In Matt 16:13-23 just after declaring Peter to be the rock upon which he would build his church then foretold his death and resurrection. Peter upon trying to counsel Jesus for this kind of negativity was openly rebuked when Jesus declared, “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block, your cares are worldly, mine is the higher calling.” Earlier in chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel verses 34-36, Jesus declares, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword, to set father against son, mother against daughter, household against household” and in verse 37, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
The message here clearly being, “Come out of your comfort zones”. Following Jesus is not easy, he warns us numerous times throughout the Gospels, “You will be hated because of me”, “you will suffer persecution and death”, yet sometimes to answer that calling does involve sacrifices and just like Christ on the cross, sometimes the making of the ultimate sacrifice by those who followed after. The Apostles that first Pentecost realised it; Paul on his missionary journeys also realised it; so too did all those martyred for the faith and who were not afraid to do so publicly; the most recent example being Saint Oscar Romero of El Salvador, murdered in 1980 by a right wing militia while celebrating Mass during that country’s bitter civil war.
Jesus’ belligerence can be seen in one of my favourite passages of scripture Luke 11: 43-46, where Jesus denounces the Pharisees and lawyers as hypocrites more concerned with their status and love of wealth and for placing burdens on the weak and vulnerable which are hard to bear and do nothing to alleviate them. By driving the moneylenders from the temple he once again made another direct attack against the religious and political authorities of the day. To highlight injustice you have to make it visible by taking a stand whatever the consequences may be. To do this requires courage and determination but also something Jesus had in abundance and not something we usually associate him with. That trait called belligerency: to ensure that God’s love is recognised by his creation – by us – and to be acted upon.
The same belligerency of the early disciples and of later missionaries of the early church. The same kind of belligerency that drove Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, who also challenged the religious elite of his time preaching the Good News of Christ while highlighting the unjust conditions endured by the working classes. In more recent times people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, used the example forged by Jesus in developing their doctrine of non-violent, passive resistance to the injustices they fought against when being physically and verbally attacked by the civil and military authorities of their times. Martin Luther King is quoted as saying, “Jesus showed us the way, Gandhi showed it could work.” In the UK, similar examples of belligerency could be found in the activities of the Suffragettes in their fight for women to have the vote. Likewise, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Rochdale Pioneers who laid the foundations of the Trade Union and Co-operative movements respectively. Lastly William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who was arrested several times for defying a ban on open air preaching and yet, because of the organised campaigns he led against sweated labour and child prostitution, resulted in a change of the laws in Victorian England.
We still see that kind of belligerent attitude in the activities of many Christians today, both individually and in charitable organisations, where the churches are the leading providers of homeless shelters and foodbanks, places of welcome for the lonely and isolated, breakfast clubs, food parcels to needy families, youth outreach, tackling drug and alcohol addiction as well as community deprivation, providing debt advice and self-help advice such as job clubs etc, the list goes on.
Jesus was love and kindness, he demonstrate plenty of both during his time on earth. But he also had a harder edge used when challenging injustice and by declaring his preference for the poor and marginalised. This then is the Stereotypical Jesus I came to know and love; and we should all be willing and able to do the same ourselves. Doing the Lord’s work is risky, it leaves us open to ridicule and abuse just as he warned us it would. Doing what is right and just is never an easy task, but do it we must.
So let us pray to our Saviour for the same spirit of kindness and compassion and of courage to do what is right – and yes, with a large slice of BELLIGERENCY too.
Footnote: I am glad to say the message was well received and have been invited back by Pastor Debo and his congregation to preach another message in the future.