Can the empire strike back?

By Bob Hulteen

I loved the red-letter edition of the Bible growing up. Now, it so happened that the Bible my folks gave me also had a red cover, but that’s not why I loved the red print. No, it’s because I was really only interested in Jesus.

Now, I also loved Captain America and Black Panther comics, so maybe it was the hero thing. But, I loved Jesus – miracles, healings, ascensions, resurrections. That’s the stuff of a elementary boy’s dreams.

But, as I tried to live out this “faith in Jesus” lifestyle, I really started to appreciate the Acts and some of the epistles. The Christian life wasn’t all about heroics. Often it was just about how to live each day with integrity, incarnating the love and grace that I had experienced. As we are getting ready to be “post-Pentecost” and enter the “ordinary season,” I’m thinking about some of the gospel personalities — about how they lived after spending three years with the itinerant preacher Jesus.

“When I read John 17:6-19, I changed ‘the world’ to ‘Empire’ in some places and ‘powers and principalities’ in others.”

Judas showed up in this last Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings Acts 1:15-17, 21-26). Having grown up rocking out on my Jesus Christ Superstar album (before Brandon Victor Dixon stole the show in the recent live broadcast), I found Judas to be a sympathetic character.

Judas was an invaluable member of the traveling band who followed the itinerant preacher Jesus. He was the keeper of the purse. He raised hard questions about how the money was used: Couldn’t the coins be better used to serve the poor?

Perhaps out of frustration over Jesus’ choices or maybe his own personal disappointment, Judas becomes an agent for the authorities — a collaborator, a co-conspirator with the powers of the world, as Professor Bill Wylie-Kellermann describes.

 

WHEN THEOLOGIAN WALTER WINK read the RCL gospel text for last Sunday (John 17:6-19), he argued that the Greek word “kosmos,” which was translated as “the world,” would better be translated as “world system.” When I read it, I changed “the world” into “Empire” in some places and “powers and principalities” in others.

For my ear anyway, the 17th chapter of John makes much more sense using those terms. Does it make more sense to you as well?

 

And now I am no longer a part of the dominant world system, but they are still in the dominant world system, and I am coming to you. Holy Mother, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, an alternative to the divisive world system, just as we are one.

That really changes how the text lands, doesn’t it? And, here it goes on.

But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things while I am still with them in the Empire so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the Empire has hated them because they do not belong to the Empire, just as I do not belong to the Empire. I am not asking you to take them out of the dominant world system, but I ask you to protect them from the powers and principalities. They do not belong to these oppressive structures, just as I do not belong to these oppressive structures.

Jesus wanted his followers, his friends, to be ready to address the complex and corrosive issues they would face by confronting the powers of this world – even as that pointed to the cross, just as confronting Empire always does.

I’d like to see Captain America do that.

This blog is adapted from a sermon on May 13, 2018, at Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church.