It said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. If that’s true what does the Gospel story tell us about Jesus?
The Gospels announce him as Israel’s long awaited King, yet he’s not born in a palace, hailed glorious by the nobility, but among cattle and goats and their pungent sweat and defecation. He lies in a repurposed feeding trough. The first to visit are pagan astrologers and rough-hewn shepherds.
Then there is silence for 30 years. There are no legends of a superhuman boy. The people of his hometown know him to be just like one of them, son of Joseph and Mary, just like any other kid in Nazareth.
For three short years his light blazes across Galilee and Judea. Suddenly everybody wants a piece of him. He is the miracle worker, the one who has authority over demons, the teacher of wisdom, the prophet bringing the news that God is about to reign once more. Some even whisper that he is perhaps the long awaited King.
Yet we only rarely see him engage with the powerful. He rarely spends time in the capital, the epicentre of pomp and power and prestige. He prefers to spend his time in the villages of Galilee where he teaches the common folk; he makes time to bless the children of peasants; he converses with a Samaritan woman; he courageously defends and saves the life of a woman caught in adultery. Where everybody rushes past the blind man, reduced to the life of a beggar longing for release from his misery, Jesus stops, gives the blind beggar his full attention, asks “what do you want me to do for you?” and then does it.
He seeks out the leper, those tortured souls filled with a wasting disease whom no one will touch, and he touches them. He shares meals with tax collectors and prostitutes. With tax collectors?! Those despised exploiters of their countrymen, collaborators with the pagan power that has crushed their country? With prostitutes?! Unclean, ungodly, scorned women.
He calls fishermen and tax collectors and bandits to form his disciple group. There are 12 of them, chosen to represent the 12 the tribes of Israel. They are to be the leaders of the new community Christ forms. This group? Leaders? What hope has the future if it’s in their hands? They’re passionate, they’re committed, but they are hardly leadership material.
And throughout it all he whispers words of hope and promise. That the reign of God is coming to these the forgotten, the diseased, the unwanted. That the Spirit of God is doing a new thing. And they all know what that means. They may be the little ones, the forgotten, the overlooked, but they know the traditions, they know a time is coming when God will re-establish his people as a light to the nations, when the yoke of Roman rule will finally be lifted from their shoulders and stye will enjoy peace, prosperity and freedom. With Jesus they can almost taste it.
And so we come to the night of the Passover. What an apt meal. As bread, meat and wine are shared the story is told again of the mighty liberation of their ancestors from the yoke of slavery in Egypt. They remember the powerlessness of the Hebrews before their Egyptian overlords, and they can’t help but think of how they are powerless before their Roman overlords. They remember the suffering of the Hebrews at the hands of ruthless masters, and they can’t help but think of how they have suffered at the hands of the ruthless soldiers of Rome. Now Jesus takes the bread and the wine and he says that just as God liberated the people long ago and formed a covenant with them, so he is the one through whom God will bring a new covenant.
Minds must surely have raced ahead. When the God of Israel went to war against the gods of Egypt it was a mighty battle, but one that Yahweh won convincingly. A series of plagues was a vivid demonstration of the power of Yahweh. And here at the Passover festival they remembered the terrible night when Yahweh reached out his hand and took the life of the firstborn in every household of Egypt, except for those families of the Hebrews put the sign of the Passover on the door so that the angel of death would not visit their homes. It was a hard victory, in which the violence of Yahweh proved greater than the violence of the gods of Egypt and the Pharaoh, a power contest in which Yahweh proved himself to superior. So who could blame that small group of disciples, chosen to be the leaders of the new Israel, for thinking that Yahweh would do the same thing in their time; that Jesus would lead them into a power contest in which the might of Rome was finally undone; in which God went up against the Roman gods and defeat them at every point.
But if Jesus had confounded expectations by the people with whom he associated during his ministry, he was soon to confound them again. This victory of God would not be won by out-Romaning the Romans. Victory would not be attained by defeating their violence with a greater violence. Jesus would conquer with grace, with love, with forgiveness. He would institute this new reign of God not after the patterns of old, nor after the patterns of the world, but he would stretch the fabric of reality to make space for an entirely new way of being. He would allow himself to be subjected to the very worst atrocities of the ancient world. He would be beaten, mocked, and crucified, yet his hands would not be clenched into an angry fist with which to pulverise his opponents, but stretched out with arms wide open offering forgiveness, blessing, and a fresh start. As he hung on the cross he would not take upon his lips a promise of vengeance but a plea for forgiveness. Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
And then he died. The forgotten ones who invested their hope in him, those scorned ones who had dared to dream, the powerless ones who had anticipated the turning of the tables were stopped dead in their tracks. Their dreams and hopes and aspirations died with Jesus on that cross. It had all been an allusion. Where was this reign of God of which Jesus had spoken? Their conquering hero had been conquered. Defeated. Extinguished.
Sadness. Despair. Hopelessness. Fear.
They didn’t know that Sunday was coming. They didn’t know that in two days time God would raise Jesus from death. But when they travelled to the tomb of the Sunday morning and found it empty, when they met Jesus not just once but many times, it changed everything. For the way of grace, love, forgiveness had triumphed over death. Rome and the forces of evil had unleashed all their fury upon Jesus, had extinguished his life. But in this one game-changing act of resurrection God recalibrated past, present and future.
This really was the way of God. They had been wrong to expect Jesus to out-Roman the Romans. He did something far better than that. Rome could merely conquer its enemies. Jesus could make them friends. Rome held people loyal through the threat of violence. Jesus held people loyal through the sheer power of grace and love. The Empire of Rome was fleeting, rising and falling with the vissitudes of history. Jesus’s kingdom was eternal, burning wherever there is just one heart committed to the way of grace, love and hope.
And so more than 2000 years after that first new covenant Passover, we gather to celebrate it again, to remember that night when Jesus gathered his disciples around him and taught them that God’s new way would not be the way of power or violence but the way of service, grace, love and resurrection. We gather to remember that the members of this kingdom may include the powerful, the famous, and the influential, but that is a kingdom open to all, led by a king who seeks out the lost, the least and the last; a kingdom of nobodies who discovered that in the gracious love of their God they are somebodies.
It is our generation’s turn to keep the memory of this kingdom alive, to allow it to seep down into our bones, soak into our hearts, fill our minds; to be agents of this new covenant, this new calling together of humankind under the reign of God, to carry into our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our churches, our world; to let it shape our lives, form our dreams and inspire our imagination.