Not safe, but good
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, which are either children’s stories or deep theological allegories of the Christian story (or both), Aslan the Lion represents Jesus Christ. He’s a real lion, a wild animal with sharp teeth and claws, not a tame cat. He has a big roar. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, before the Pevensy children meet Aslan for the first time, they are nervous. They ask Mr. Beaver if the Aslan is safe. “Safe?” Mr. Beaver scoffs. “Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
Not safe. But good. That understanding of Jesus informs the way we read today’s Gospel lesson from Luke. It doesn’t fit well with the Sunday school pictures of Jesus with softly- permed hair, perfect teeth, and snow white robes. Those are less Jesus-as-a-lion and more Jesus-as-kitty-cat. In today’s reading, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, announces, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” He goes on to threaten family values and call for a new world order. This speech does not have any of characteristics I associate with safety.
Whatever artists have done to him, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is not passive or innocuous. Instead, here Jesus tells the rich to give what they have to the poor. He asks the sick and alienated and lonely people to come and have dinner with him, instead of respecting the social hierarchy of his time. He tells the religious people that they would be closer to God if they would let go of their rules and rituals and instead embraced God and other people with fierce passion. Jesus touches untouchables and speaks of a kingdom that is more powerful than the empire that thinks it is dominating the world. God’s kingdom is a kingdom where forgiveness counts more than being right, where compassion counts more than revenge, and where all people are related, not divided by race, religious convictions, or any other artificial boundaries.
But we know—as Jesus knew—what the outcome of following such an extreme, and committed path of love would be. Not safe but good. As Jesus refused to condemn even those who condemned him, Jesus took the strongest stand anyone could against violence. He loved people even as they called for his blood. He loved people even when they destroyed his body. His very life was not safe, but good. And what’s more, Jesus did not keep all that goodness to himself, but extended it to all of us. God is not safe, because God is active, engaged, willing to bring down fire if that is what it takes to change a corrupt world order and bring all of creation home. And that’s good.
The catch is that if we are following Jesus, as we claim we are, then we cannot be meek and mild either. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to be not safe but good. Which is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. When Christians rise up to be our truest selves we threaten every idol our world holds dear. Those who follow Christ, who embody his dedication to the truth, are not blessed by the world. They are a threat to it, for they challenge the status quo.
We’ve seen how the church can rattle the powers more than once in this country. I think of the abolitionist movement to free the slaves in the 1800’s. It was lead primarily by Christian leaders who resented the suggestion that black people were any less beloved of God than white people. Their descendents were the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960’s, people like Dr. King, who continued to push the culture to recognize the inconsistencies in how black and white citizens of this nation were treated. Today, those who align themselves today with the Black Lives Matter movement continue that struggle, insisting that people of color be treated fairly by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
We can look at how religious leaders in our own ELCA worked to change policies that prohibited some people from being ordained pastors. In 1988, when this denomination was organized, it included in its forming principles the mandate that women could be just as called to be pastors as men. And since 2009, the ELCA has affirmed the waters of baptism as the great equalizer in the LGTBQ community as well, endeavoring to welcome all God’s children to the altar—as pastors, as parents, as couples, as agents of God’s grace. None of these shifts were easy, and many people are still catching up to where the Holy Spirit has been moving the church.
Still, if the church is the church, then it follows in Jesus’ footsteps: proclaiming liberty to the captives, good news to the poor, and calling for a reordering of our priorities. We do not walk around smoothing over everyone’s discomfort like the false prophets that Jeremiah complains about in today’s first lesson. No. We are not meek and mild. Followers of Jesus are rabble rousers. Fire-breathers. Truth tellers. Catalysts for change.
In today’s letter to the Hebrews we hear a catalogue of what people of faith did as a result of that faith: they administered justice, quenched raging fire, obtained promises, pulled strength out of weakness. They did brave and foolish things because they took the Bible seriously, not literally. They believed that Jesus meant what he said about everyone being children of God. They believed that Jesus was serious about honoring the least. They trusted in God, and lived as closely as possible the compassion and mercy and justice God calls for. And that got them in trouble. They were not safe. They threatened the order people had grown accustomed to. As the author of Hebrews points out, their actions led to mockery and flogging and imprisonment and persecution and even death in some graphic and gruesome ways.
Following Jesus is not safe. It may mean taking an unpopular stand. It may mean getting involved in causes and missions that are more heated than you’d like. For sure it means that we don’t get to sit back behind our stained glass windows complacently singing while injustice goes on outside, with the idea that God will take care of it. Sometimes God’s way of taking care of the world is through our hands and voices and votes. Our body and blood.
The Good News is this: if anyone is suffering from oppression, Jesus is not sitting by saying, “It will all be OK, just be patient.” No, Jesus is struggling alongside the oppressed and through the oppressed toward liberation for all of creation. If anyone is imprisoned in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus is not complacently waiting in the visitor’s room, but is actively campaigning for freedom, reaching through the bars to clasp each captive’s hand in the darkness. If anyone is hungry or cold or in need, Jesus is not oblivious to this struggle, but is laboring to bring each longing heart and stomach and life all that is needed and much more besides.
And Jesus intends to do it through us, the Church. We are not an irrelevant social club, as some people think. We are a dangerous company. Jesus is using us to change the world. Just this past week the ELCA voted to strengthen our ties with the historical black churches in this country, to recognize with our Roman Catholic family how much we agree on about Holy Communion, instead of what divides us, to walk with Latin American children who flee violence in their homelands, and many other significant signs that we are here not to condone the status quo but to shake it.
Our ministry is not safe, but it is good. And if following Jesus means following him all the way to death, then that is how it must be. Because following Jesus into the tomb also means following him into new life. If our baptisms take us to a death like his, they surely also take us to a resurrection like his.
In our baptisms, we have become united with Jesus. We have received his own passions, and through the Holy Spirit, have Jesus’ own yearning to stand firm against all that wounds the world God so loves. Now, even if our fathers and mothers oppose us, even if daughters or sons rise up against us, even if governments silence us, even if neighbors ridicule us, even if all we love seems to turn against us, we will never be alone. We belong to a community where water is thicker than blood. God’s mantle of acceptance and promise of new life is around our shoulders, strong and serious. No, Jesus is not safe. But he is good. And we belong to him. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider