Fighting Words


fighting words -kelley nikondeha3

Jesus is Lord!

I’ve been singing this since I learned my first praise song under the wing of Mary at Saint Nicholas Church. Those around me sang it with a triumphant yawp. We’d summon our religious fervor and pierce the sky with our declaration about God who reigned supreme. We stood exuberant in our praise. Some called us charismatic crazies, but we didn’t care. If we could we’d shout from the church tops: Jesus is Lord!

But sometimes, when the guitar strummed slow and we swayed gentle like a breeze, it could sound like a lullaby on our lips. Sweet as orange blossom honey, we savored the taste on our tongues. Like a whispered prayer we’d say it with hands outstretched. We took comfort in knowing: Jesus is Lord.

I’ve heard pastors say it in the pulpit: Jesus is Lord! And the congregation responded with a hearty “Amen!” It echoed through the sanctuary as a holy affirmation. This has become a common refrain in the various churches I’ve attended over the years; it is almost too ubiquitous to keep its original edge. I suspect we’ve dulled the meaning.

When the early church convened, many of the patrons who opened their homes (and purses) were women, the leaders were tent-makers, and the gatherings a bit clandestine. Caesar ruled supreme over the Roman Empire. His claim was absolute and his fist made of iron. He had zero tolerance for insurrection. His methods were ruthless and unforgettable, including brutal military campaigns that leveled rebellious villages to smoldering heaps of ash and the writhing (then rotting) bodies of crucified terrorists lining imperial roads or clustered outside city gates. The message was clear—don’t mess with the empire.

There were a plethora of gods worshipped in those days; temples were peppered throughout the ancient cityscapes. The Jews were an oddity, somewhat suspicious with their monotheism. The imperial leaders often tolerated them because they could be enticed to collude or keep to themselves, for the most part.

A new sect of sorts emerged—followers of The Way. These people boasted of loyalty to Jesus, a Jewish rabbi crucified as an enemy of the state. This put them in the imperial crosshairs; while Rome had many gods, Caesar was their chief deity. In Caesar the politics and religion of the empire converged. One of his official titles was Son of God. He made it known that he was the bringer of peace, the one who secured victory for the realm. Everyone in the empire knew that Caesar was Lord. He was worshipped as such. Refusal to bow down to Caesar, to recognize his lordship, was treason.

It was in this highly charged environment that the followers of The Way practiced their faith. They sold their property, gave to the poor and were generous with one another. According to historians, there were rumors swirling that they might be cannibals who regularly gathered to “eat the body and drink the blood” of their leader. But the most troubling thing? These people declared Jesus was Lord. And by implication, Caesar was not. They believed Jesus was the only Son of God, the one who secures peace not through violence, but by love. Among all the gods and above all empires, their loyalty was to Jesus alone. They would bend a knee only to Jesus, their Lord.

Saying Jesus is Lord was an act of high treason. Caesar knew it. Everyone knew it.

The proclamation that Jesus is Lord has teeth. It’s the ultimate statement about our loyalties, given to Jesus and not an emperor or an empire. I do not heed the imperial directives of the empire; I do not hallow its symbols or stand for its anthems. They do not hold ultimate claim on me. My allegiance is to Jesus alone. My personal priorities have been shuffled by following the crucified Christ, how could it be otherwise?

Jesus is Lord! I say with a fist raised high. I declare that Jesus alone is Lord of this earth and God’s Kingdom of love trumps all empires. I do so and testify to the truth that Jesus, and not the rulers of this world, defines what is good and worthwhile.

Jesus is Lord! I declare my commitment to love, not hate. I declare my commitment to the care for the poor, not coddle the rich. I declare my commitment to peacemaking, and not warmongering, to melting swords into plowshares, preferring granaries to armories. I declare my commitment to welcome that embraces refugees, immigrants and the vulnerable ones, and not exclusive tendencies that build walls to keep people out of our land or our hearts.

Jesus is Lord! Those that mourn will be comforted, the hungry will be fed and the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus is Lord! Those who find themselves full will know hunger, those who hoard will find their pockets emptied, and those laughing at the expense of others will become the butt of a holy joke, a grand reversal.

It seems more true to me: Jesus is Lord! Those are fighting words.