“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Last week the New York Times released classified documents of the Chinese Communist Party. China is extremely worried about its Muslim citizens. Anything, including religion, that challenges the absolute rule of the Communist Party is regarded as a threat. Christians have faced this same kind of persecution in China.
According to these secret documents, up to one million Muslim citizens are imprisoned in what are called re-education facilities. The documents were instructions to local officials on how to deal with students who were coming home from college for vacations only to then discover that their families were no longer there.
One particular instruction advised that if a returning student asked if their relatives had committed a crime, the response was to answer that they had not. Then they were supposed to say, “It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thoughts. Freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’ in their thinking is eradicated and they are in good health.”
In other words, freedom is to do and say whatever you want as long as whatever you want is what the authorities want. What kind of freedom is that where different is illegal?
I bring this up today because Jesus is proudly different. And we shouldn’t try to tame that difference.
That carpenter from Nazareth, says Colossians, “Is the image of the invisible God, … in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell ...”
This is why Jesus defines different. Why would we imagine that God has to fit into our molds? This begins to explain why God enters into the world so strangely as a Nazareth carpenter, and then preaches to us as an unemployed wanderer. For non-Christians this is so different as to be preposterous. And Jesus has upset governments and institutions and even churches for longer than He has been called the Christ. Jesus is God’s disruption of the world’s normal.
And it gets even more so. While Jesus’ life was strange, His death was even more strange. Back to what is written in Colossians: “And through [Jesus], God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
And this is why, seemingly out of season, we share a Gospel story about Jesus’ crucifixion. The cross wasn’t defeat. The cross is the triumph of salvation. No matter what others did to Him, Jesus remained consistent and true. Even as they executed Him, Jesus would not succumb to hatred.
His commitment to what He preached never wavered in life or death, and it has shown us a completely unexpected path of righteousness and hope.
This is why Jesus defines different.
And again, it gets even more so. Jesus doesn’t die only for those who are saddened by His suffering. Colossians has one of those astoundingly strange lines that stands out in the Bible and has led to generations of thoughtful speculation.
What does it mean when Colossians reveals that “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”? This implies not only the good and holy, as we would expect, as we would define fair, but all things are reunited with God in Jesus.
This moves beyond deservers and touches on the unequivocal, unconditional love of Christ. Salvation is what God wants for “all things.” And this is just plain different.
If you have a pew Bible in front of you, I’d ask you to open to Luke 23:34.
When you get there, you’ll see that the verse is in double brackets, and there’s a footnote that explains that in some ancient manuscripts this verse is missing.
The verse reads: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’”
It’s in double brackets because some biblical scribes, way back in the earliest history of the church, just could not handle this kind of forgiveness. They wanted Jesus to speak of punishment like so many other biblical passages do. So they never bothered to record this verse in their manuscripts. They tried to remove it from sacred Scripture.
How could God forgive the ones who crucified His Son? This prayer of Jesus had to be a mistake. We all know how good revenge feels. How could Jesus ask that the ones hammering the nails into His body be forgiven? How could He take revenge away from us?
And because even in our Bibles we see how hard it is to appreciate this strangeness of Jesus, we have to remember to keep the door open to our imagination when we think who Jesus is and what He expects of us.
The Chinese communists explain different as in infection that needs to be cured. As Christians, Jesus’ different is our freedom to let Jesus out of the box, the cage actually, where we try to keep Him locked-up so that we’re not surprised by faith.
Jesus’ different encourages a freedom in us too, one that errs on the side of compassion and forgiveness.
This allows faith, and us the faithful, to be supportive of all kinds of people just like Jesus is. It gets church out of the business of condemning anything and especially anyone who seems different, and instead encourages us to become compassionate like Christ, that is without reservation.
What a great message with which to bring another church year to a close, that we are as free to be as different as Christ, which means to be as free to forgive and show compassion as Jesus.
For this may we pray in His holy name. Amen.
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