All year round, not just in March around “St. Paddy’s Day,” I am a fan of Irish music, and of course when one talks about Irish music, the Chieftains are often the first to come to mind. In 1991, they put together an album of “Christmas” tunes with a tasty collection of guest artists. While some of these songs were traditional, some were written by more contemporary singer-songwriters. One of the tunes that made it onto the album was one Jackson Browne wrote especially for this occasion: “The Rebel Jesus.”
In this song, the narrator gently criticizes the commercialization of Christmas, and in a way, Christianity itself. At the end of the song, the singer calls himself, “a heathen and a pagan,” but nonetheless he identifies himself to be “on the side of the rebel Jesus.” The “rebel Jesus” who didn’t just urge us to go along with the injustices of the world, or to throw a few sacks of coins into the lap of beggars, but who freed beggars from their marginalization, who dined with outcasts, and who called the powerful down from their thrones (as his own mother predicted).
In our epistle reading this coming Sunday, St. Paul likewise urges Christians to own their counter-cultural heritage, to live fully and counter-culturally according to Jesus’s precepts of peace, justice, and hope in action. Such a commitment leads, without a doubt, to Christians living as, “strangers in a strange land,” whether in the context of 2000 years ago or now.
We in the US especially are often prone to assume a dominant Christian culture. Even people who are not particularly religious absorb a milieu that is nominally Christian. Our exclamations may include “Oh, my God!”—it even made it into Valley Girl-speak in the 1980s. Most people know that a “Judas” is a traitor, even if they never darken the door of a church. And of course, we see politician after politician posturing outside or inside the doors of churches, regardless of the way in which they live their very public lives. Tepid shows of piety for the sake of access to power is practically an American tradition. Probably as many business deals have been concluded at coffee hour at famous churches as have been concluded on the 18th fairway of the local country club.
Still, the reading from Ephesians reminds us that the Christian way of life is countercultural—and what is countercultural is often seen as foolish, at best, rather than wise. Living according to Christian precepts in a non-Christian culture such as that of the first century Mediterranean world made you outcasts—and outcasts quickly sank to the bottom in a culture based on family, tribe, and nation. Are we that much different?
As Christians, even living in a context awash with a mixture between secular and religious life, those of us who resolutely identify as Jesus-followers are STILL called not to conform ourselves to the world, quasi-Christian or not. That is, we as Christians are challenged not to bow to the expectations of a society founded on values that often fly in the face of the radical love and care that Jesus demonstrated time and again in the gospels. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians attempts to build a spirit of urgency, because most first generations of Christians believed Christ’s return to be imminent. But, even two thousand plus years later, we are challenged to embrace the radical ethos of the one who was crucified as a rebel against imperial power, rather than being a prop to it.
The 20th and 21st centuries have been marked by a pronounced loss of faith, hope, and love. Some acknowledge this by moaning about how “evil” these days are, and imagining that they are punishment from God for one perceived societal sin or another. Interestingly, the television preachers who trade in this kind of fear-mongering always pick an alleged “sin” from which they themselves feel safely insulated in their “personal” relationship with Jesus, which also demands nothing of them in terms of living as a person “FOR” others, as Jesus himself was wont to do.
While the days may be evil, they are evil due to our forgetting of the obligations we owe to each other as children of God and fellow pilgrims upon this earth. Yet this world is also a beautiful world, filled with wonder and love and loveliness. For this, Christians are instructed to give thanks to God always.
We are not supposed to stomp around hating this life, but are called to transform it through our action. This has great implications for those who are growing weary of attempts to reform our justice system and confront the systematic oppression built into our relationships often with each other.
Throughout the scriptures, we see a three-fold pattern that emerges for living a life in God: weep; hope; act. As we have discussed previously, much of our society now is directed at distraction and entertainment, which would be fine, except when we then become unable to sit with ourselves and our thoughts and values and examine them to see their effect on us and upon the world around us. Too often, it seems that many of us lack the ability to be empathetic to the suffering of others, especially if the action required to alleviate that suffering might make us uncomfortable or disturb the status quo. Wisdom can lead us to the place where we are able to weigh the costs and benefits of action against our calling to Christian love and radical acceptance and celebration.
We are called as self-identified Christians to be followers not of a corporate, buttoned-down savior. We are called to be followers of “the rebel Jesus”—rebel because he preached liberation to the captives; sight to those who were willfully blind, especially to the suffering of others; and hope to those who were told to suffer in silence rather than challenge the thrones and principalities that profited from human division and misery.
This is how the world is reconciled and redeemed: through the love that overturns powers and assumptions of privilege. It is a love that calls us to open our hands to received God’s good gifts rather than remain with clenched fists and closed hearts.
Lead on, O Rebel Jesus.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.