Today in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives a very specific warning to his disciples, to us. He says, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”
“Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”
This story from Mark’s Gospel, as is true of all stories about Jesus, takes place during a very fearful time. Jewish people had been living under an occupying force – the Roman Empire. And they were desperate for a warrior messiah – one who would conquer the enemy, expel them from Jewish lands, and reign as king of the Jewish state so that Jews could be free from oppression.
When we read historical accounts of first century Palestine (or, rather, what would come to be known as Palestine), we learn that there were other people claiming to be the messiah at the same time as when Jesus was teaching and gathering followers. There were many others ready to take up the call to build a Jewish army and lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire. There were many others who were willing to conquer the world by worldly means – nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom; generating war and famine and death.
This is important to understand because it was a desperate time. And during desperate times, it’s a very human response to seek vengeance, to react out of a fearful place and exact pain, impose death, to meet violence with violence. It’s a very human response to erect borders and draw lines in the sand.
But Jesus, instead of trying to lead an armed rebellion against the occupying force goes out and heals both Jews and Gentiles, feeds both Jews and Gentiles, and teaches both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus teaches people that we are to love God and love our neighbor as our self. Instead of responding to fear and desperation by building walls and drawing lines in the sand, Jesus crosses borders.
And Jesus says, “Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”
In times of despair, we are called to pay attention to what Jesus did, to how he responded and how he ministered because in this teaching we learn that our God is not a god of vengeance. Our god is the God of Love.
If we don’t remember that, we are likely to be led astray. We are likely to follow a false messiah, a misguided savior. We must remember because we must be willing to follow our true messiah and cross those borders with Jesus, rather than draw lines in the sand.
I saw a video the other day. It came across my Facebook feed. It was a clip from a new documentary called Human. And in the clip, you see the head of a human being against a pitch black background – no context, no scenery. Just the face of a human being.
This clip contained the story of an African American man, probably in his 30’s or 40’s – the kind of face that wasn’t aged but had definitely seen more than a couple of decades of life. And he began to speak – slowly and clearly, deliberately choosing his words. He started by telling about how he was abused by his stepfather as a child – being hit with different implements of punishment – and at the end of each beating, the stepfather would say, “I do this because I love you.”
The man in the video proceeded to talk about how, once he had grown up he believed that the degree of love someone felt for him was directly related to how much pain someone could tolerate from him. This continued until he killed a woman and her child. Crimes, for which, he was sent to prison.
While he was in prison, he said, he met a woman named Agnes – the mother of the woman he killed. The grandmother of the child he killed. He talked about how Agnes and he had been on a journey together, that she saw past his condition.
He said, “by all rights, she should hate me.” And, unable to contain himself any longer, huge tears rolled down his long brown face and he fell silent as he tried to gather his strength, regain his composure. And he said, “she showed me what love is about.”
“She saw past my condition and she showed me what love is about.”
And you knew in that moment, that the love of this woman Agnes was exactly what unbound him from the pain and self-hate he had been carrying for most of his life. You knew in that moment that he was no longer a violent man. You knew in that moment that it was love that turned his world upside down.
It was Ages who liberated him from the prison he had made for himself to protect him from the world. It was this unconditional love offered to him in his most despicable place that gave him any kind of hope
I’m not sure I could ever, ever muster that kind of love. But that’s the task, isn’t it? That’s how Jesus is leading us, isn’t it? When society wants to seek revenge, Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, and to heal one another. When the culture says to make a profit, we are called to make sure people have enough to eat and a place to live. When the self-important and conceited run the system at the expense of the poor, Jesus explains the system must be thrown down.
Our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, spoke about this at his installation a few weeks ago. Bp Michael talks alot about the Jesus Movement and in this sermon he said,
“Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion… Nor did he come here to establish an institution or an organization. Jesus came to inaugurate, to begin, to catalyze a movement to change, to transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends for all of us.”
And in the midst of troubled times we will be confused and afraid. When 127 people die in coordinated attacks in Paris, we will want to cling to security and receive easy teachings. We will want a merciless warrior to exact revenge. And we will hear other leaders who will claim to come in the name of Jesus.
But if they are not teaching the way of Jesus, if they are not crossing borders and teaching forgiveness, if they are not healing and feeding hungry people, if they are not proclaiming love… these will be false teachers, misguided messiahs.
Because what we do as the Body of Christ, my friends, is not about the maintenance of the institution, it’s about living the way of Jesus. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s not a debate over the right theological understanding about the nature of Christ or the purity codes of a society that are ever-changing or which songs we sing during communion or how many kids we have in the youth group or whether or not a coffee cup has the words Merry Christmas on it.
Jesus is telling us that in the midst of the world and all its ups and downs and changes and chances beginnings and endings… in the midst of all the fear-mongering and the vengeance-seeking and the line drawing, our messiah, our true messiah is found in a very simple teaching, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
As Bp Michael says it, “On these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets. Everything Moses was talking about, all the justice that the prophets proclaimed, everything that’s in the Bible, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor. That love will turn this world upside down. And if it’s not about love it is not about God.”
Agnes probably struggled a lot when her daughter was murdered. She was probably inconsolable when she found out her grandchild had been killed. There may have been a time in her life when she wanted that man dead.
I’m willing to bet that Agnes angered the rest of her family when she chose to love this man in prison. Even more, I bet there are members of Agnes’ family that no longer talk to her and think of her as a traitor, failing to understand how she could betray the family and the memory of their loved ones by giving this killer her time or her love. How could she?
Indeed. How dare she risk everything she knows, her family and friends, and choose a path of love over a path of vengeance. It’s not always easy to love in the face of terror, in the face of hate, in the face of bigotry and fear and violence.
But if we don’t try, if we don’t commit to walking the way of Jesus, we risk losing ourselves to the God of hate. Because our messiah has told us in no uncertain terms, ours is the God of Love.
Ours is the God of Love.