In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages people to go the extra mile, and most of us probably think he meant giving things the old college try, being persistent, and all that.
But he was actually referring to a Roman law requiring any subject of the Roman Empire to carry a Roman soldier's pack for one mile whenever asked. This was one of the many ways Romans exploited those over whom they ruled. It was profoundly inconvenient, not to mention humiliating, particularly if you were a conquered people and you were thereby made into a collaborator with the occupying forces.
So Jesus proposes this absurd idea. He suggests not only that we agree to carry the pack, but that we carry the pack an extra mile. What he is proposing is an exceedingly clever form of disobedience, a profoundly loving way of saying, "I am free."
He was proposing covert action.
I have to say I wonder about how much covert activity is going on around the world, encouraging these societies to rise up against despots and dictators. I'm sure some of you are wondering about that too. Is it the CIA, or some coalition of covert organizations, that has gotten all this going?
Or could it be that the covert activity is God's?
The church on earth, the whole church, is probably the healthiest its been in centuries. Worldwide, it is growing, though not in our back yard. The terrible corruption it suffered from about 1,000 AD into the 17th Century seems to have been largely cleared up. And of course, that corruption was really mainly in the Western Church. The Eastern Orthodox don't have such a nasty history.
Currently, the Pentecostal movement (you can't call it a denomination) is exploding in South America, Asia and Africa. The church that speaks Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and strange African tribal dialects is robust and vital. Did you know that many world-wide Pentecostals see the Cane Ridge Revival, which we Disciples claim as our founding moment, to also be their movement's birthplace?
I'm learning too that these congregations that are growing like wildfire all over the world, no matter what denomination may have founded them, are all pretty much cut from the same cloth doctrinally. If you were to hear their preaching you would think you were at a hard-core conservative Baptist revival, but if you looked at their social justice work you would think you were dealing with pacifist socialists. They are anti-war and they are anti-right, and at the same time they are preaching an old-fashioned hellfire and brimstone gospel.
I've heard from Lyle Predmore that he's baptizing a number of people in Bali today. He's written to me that these folks are so passionate about their faith, one is changing her name to Tabitha, after the little girl in Acts that Peter raised from the dead. Of course, in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, Christianity may be technically legal, but evangelism isn't.
I observed in our newsletter this month how the church actually seems to be at its best when its being persecuted. No, that kind of church doesn't have much money, no, it isn't comfortable and encouraging, no it isn't socially advantageous, and no, it usually doesn't have pretty little buildings in the main part of town, but strangely enough, when the church is taking a stand with the weak and the poor, that's when people find it moving. That's when people find it compelling. That's when people start thinking God has something to do with it.
The great power of the church is the practice of witness, or in Greek martyria, which is transliterated martyrdom. Martyrdom is not the sick, masochistic behavior that the word has come to represent. Martyria, or witness, is about risking real danger and loss for the sake of telling the truth, whether it be about God's desire to restore the world to paradise, or whether it is about the human systems of domination and exploitation that are determined to keep that from happening, that indeed make the world a living hell for most of the living things that dwell in it, so that they can make a heaven for a privileged few.
Whenever someone says something true that is nevertheless dangerous to say, they are witnessing. Whenever anyone refuses to stop announcing God's word in the face of mainstream persecution, they are witnessing. Whenever anyone tells the story, as missionary Jon Barnes put it to me recently, "from below," that is, from the perspective of people on whose backs the rest of world rests, they are witnessing.
Moses witnessed in the face of Pharaoh on behalf of the slaves upon which Pharaoh had built his power. Elijah witnessed in the face of Ahab and Jezebel on behalf of the Israelites they were robbing and enslaving.
So when Jesus is revealed as standing with Elijah and Moses, he is being revealed as standing firmly in the Jewish tradition of going counter to the cultural norms of his day. Israel, God's people, God's nation, is supposed to stand against all the others, to go against the stream, to stand out as profoundly different.
But it failed its mission for a lot of its history. And Jesus therefore had to witness not only in the face of Caesar, but also in the faces of his fellow Jews, Herod and the high priests, on behalf not only of downtrodden Jews, but other peoples Caesar was treading on.
It seems to me that what some churches have done is to chop the biblical message down into a harmless, private, individualist message about self-actualization, when it is actually a grand message about a king who has come to transform the world, to defeat great and powerful despots, to set societies free. We are not a social service agency comprised of like-minded volunteers. We are covert operatives for the realm of God.
God says "I have set my king on Zion," and God says to that king: "You are my son."
I believe that Jesus is the king that God has set on Zion. I believe that Jesus is the one God called God's son. This Jesus is a superior force, the captain of the winning team, the holder of the iron rod that shatters the enemy like a piece of pottery into a thousand shards. Harsh images, true. But we're not talking about a general with billions of dollars worth of military hardware and hundreds of thousands of trained warriors. We're talking about the guy that general nailed to a cross. The rod of iron is an alloy of peace, grace, forgiveness and self-giving love. It is the power that shatters evil like a pot into a thousand meaningless shards. It's covert power that beats all overt power.
Jesus, after he was revealed as the glorious son of God, became again just himself, Jesus alone. And he walked down that mountain that day and across the plains to Jerusalem, where he climbed another mount called Golgotha. As he died on the cross, no one there could see that light any more. No one there knew who he really was.
Could it be that we are to be like him? Could it be that we are all secretly children of light, burning with the glorious power of the Spirit that the world can't see?
Could it be that we are the secret agents of the realm of God?