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Say what you will about Jesus of Nazareth, but he was not a play-it-safe, hedge-your-bets, keep-your-distance kind of guy. Most prophets weren’t—and they had lifetimes of persecution, isolation, and grief to show for it. Jesus experienced all that and more, being that he was not just any prophet, not just any rabbi.
It is impossible to know, of course, when and how he became aware of who he was, when and how he came to understand his life’s purpose.
Some might say he was born again—born into the fullness of his identity—when went down into the muddy waters of the River Jordan to be baptized and came up to hear a heavily voice calling him Beloved Child. Or immediately after, when the Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness, where he fasted for a long time and was tempted to use his special gifts in any number of less risky, more selfish ways, to pursue a far more conventional career.
Then again, there was that time when he was only 12, when he traveled with his family to Jerusalem for Passover. After the festival had ended, the family began the long journey back to Nazareth. They traveled an entire day before realizing that Jesus wasn’t with them. His frantic parents asked everyone and looked everywhere, and then they turned around.
After three days of searching they found Jesus in the Temple, of all places. There he was, a 12-year-old hanging out with the rabbis and asking them questions.
Mary, who had gone through so much to bring Jesus into the world, had a few choice questions for him, which boiled down to: Are you out of your mind? What are you doing? Your father and I were worried sick.
And the boy Jesus replied, in so many words: Hello? Of course, I’m here! Where else would I be but in my Father’s house?
His earthly parents had no idea what he was talking about.
Oh, just come ON, already! they said, as parents of precocious children are wont to do. And back to the Galilee they went.
It would take his family and his followers a long time to figure out what he had been talking about that day in the temple, who he was and what he was up to. He was a mystic, after all. They might have just considered him odd, written him off as a misfit, except that he was always wandering off to pray for hours at a time.
Except that he was so grounded. Except that he had this aura about him, a mixture of holy compassion and unsettling authority. Except that he always had a clever answer for the religious leaders. Except that he seemed to have a direct line to the Holy One. Except that he loved them like no one else ever had.
As for the sick and the hungry, the sinners and the outcasts, the oppressed and the abused, they didn’t really care who he was—as long as he healed them, as long as he fed them, as long as he made them feel like they mattered.
And Jesus was forever breaking things—expectations, social customs, religious rules, the chains of oppression, the despair of he poor.
What conventions had Jesus not broken? What barriers had he not crossed? There was his tendency to speak to—and listen to—women, as if they were equal to men. There was his habit of eating with sinners—and enjoying it. There was his willingness to touch and be touched by the ritually unclean, and his passion for healing the sick and infirm—even on the sabbath. There was his tendency to describe God as someone so loving, so merciful, so indiscriminate and extravagant with divine favor that it left Jesus’ listeners scandalized and confused. And with his raising of Lazarus he seemed to have broken even the bonds of death.
And so it was that his teachings and his healings, and his increasingly large and unruly following, were threatening the order that the religious leaders and Roman collaborators had worked so hard to maintain. And as Jesus empowered the people and gave them hope, even as he spoke of the realm of God, he chipped away at the repression and fear-mongering of the Roman Empire.
Long after Jesus was no longer with them in body, his followers came to believe that breaking and entering was central to who he was, essential to his very nature. That before he was born he had broken the barrier between Spirit and human, that he had emptied himself of divine power and entered the world as one of us: poor and powerless, mortal and vulnerable, and yet somehow attuned to God’s plan to redeem and restore all of creation. That his breaking and entering and living among us as one of us had made all things possible.
Looking back, they came to see his entry into Jerusalem as another breaking and entering. While the Roman military came into Jerusalem from the west—astride mighty horses and wearing armor and carrying shields and spears intended to stir fear—Jesus entered the city from the east riding a lowly donkey, armed with nothing but love, inciting holy hope.
Looking back, they came to believe that he had known exactly what he was doing, staging a bit of powerful political-religious theater to break all preconceptions of what God’s realm would be like, to more fully enter into the pain, injustice, and conflict of this world that it might be more fully revealed, that it might be healed and transformed. Perhaps he could have gone on at least a little longer if the people had been silent that day, if they had repressed their hopes and joys, if order had been maintained. But he knew even the stones would have sung his praises.
Those who try to protect their lives—their power, their privilege, their separation from conflict and pain, injustice and suffering—will lose them, Jesus had told his followers. Those who stand on the sidelines in fear or indifference will themselves be left out; those who avoid engagement with pain and poverty will also miss out on the fullness of life. But those who are willing to give up their lives, he had said, everyone who is willing to get involved with and stand beside the oppressed, the rejected, and the lost—they will find their lives transformed; they will find their lives made new; they will see God.
Within days of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he himself would be broken. This poor man who had not even a place to lay his head would be tried for treason and executed to deter would-be revolutionaries, to crush a nascent movement of hope, to dissuade anyone who believed things could be different. In a show of raw and heartless power, his body would be broken like so much bread and his blood spilled like wine. His tomb would be guarded by representatives of the very powers his love had threatened.
Say what you will about Jesus the Christ, but his life and death were not limited to one time or space, and the mind he had for breaking chains and entering hearts was not for him alone.
We, too, have privilege. We, too, are considered more equal than others. And we, too, cannot help but hear the cries of the poor. We, too, see the suffering of people of color, the vilification of the stranger, the separations, detentions, deportations, and abuse of migrants, the denials of climate change, the increasing gap between rich and poor. We, too, are dehumanized by the cruelty and hatred, lies and injustices of empire.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, says the ancient hymn.
So may the same mind, which is equality, be in us.
May the same mind, which is solidarity, be in us.
May the same mind, which is tenderness, be in us.
May the same mind, which is mercy, be in us.
May the same mind, which is bearing the pain of others, be in us.
May the same mind, which pours itself out for the sake of justice, be in us.
May the same mind, which is love in all, for all, be in us.
So that we might be saved.
So that we might know God.
So that we might know new and abundant life.
So that we and all creation might dwell in the house of the heart.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord of Love.