I came up with this idea that “Jesus is punk rock” on a recent trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Kate and I recently went on vacation with her parents. It was her father's 45th high school reunion and we wanted to see where he grew up in the lonely but beautiful section of the country known as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the way he holds a grudge that your Philadelphia Eagles, beat Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the NFL championship game of 1960. On the ride up we listened to the songs of the class of 1963, Doo-Wop, Folk, and, what Bob Seger called that old time rock and roll. As I was listening I wondered how rock music of that era could ever be considered subversive. It seemed so lame.
Growing up, I was always puzzled at the music documentaries that showed how rock was hated and feared by the majority of Americans when it first came out. People at the time thought “How could anyone think that ‘You ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog’ was music compared to big band music from the Glen Miller Orchestra? And with those offensive and suggestive hip gyrations!” But from my perspective, I wondered how could Elvis or Buddy Holly be bad when I was listening to AC DC and Black Sabbath?! I recognize now that I'm puzzled because rock and roll is common place. When you turn on the radio today, nearly every station is rock and even our country music is starting to sound like twangy- rock. Then I realized that the same thing happened to Jesus’ teachings--what was once subversive and dangerous has become common place and no one gives it a second thought. This is what happens when the revolution becomes the new established order. We are largely blind to the revolution that is Jesus of Nazareth.
Now when I say Jesus is punk rock I’m speaking from my perspective. The majority of the music on the radio stations that I listen to is rock and punk is rarely played. For you, this sermon could be called “Jesus is flower power compared to Doo-Wop”. Or he could be a "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" compared to Frank Sinatra. Or Jesus is Praise music compared to traditional hymns, or hymns compared to Latin chants. Whatever the radio corporations are playing at the time, Jesus is making his own music that is in direct opposition!
So let’s go back to that old empire sound playing on all the stations in first century Judea. Welcome to Rome Radio! It only plays songs that say that the Kingdom of Caesar is saving the world through Piety, War and Victory… Peace through Superior Firepower and Economic Stability . Not everyone wanted to listen to Radio Rome though, and groups rose up in violent opposition.
One of these groups was the Zealots. Their songs were all about fighting and killing the Roman occupiers and their theology was “you’re not the boss of me now!” You may have heard of a few artists from the Zealots, Judas Iscariot was one as his last name is the name of the knife the zealots carried. Saul, later known as Paul, was one as well.
aside: here's what I think Radio Zealot would sound like in todays world, Watch and Listen Here.Paul says he was killing Christians because he was a zealot. But the Zealots failed against Rome because Rome is better funded and has a ruthless and vast army. So that Rome Sound continued as the violent opposition was brutally suppressed and killed off. So was there a way to rebel against Rome without getting killed?
The next new sound in radio came from the wilderness. I think John the Baptist was the first anti-Roman hippy. His music centered on the idea that Israelites were being over-run by this evil empire because they had sinned. John's plan was a reverse exodus. The Israelites will come to the Jordan River, be baptized, and return to the Promised Land washed clean of their sins. And since the Israelites would then be sinless, God HAS to kick out the Romans. This music is nonviolent, so Rome won’t mind as it’s not as disruptive as the Zealots’ music. And it worked for a while; Rome didn’t kill John… right away. Lots of people thought that this would work; even Jesus thought so as he was baptized by John. But Radio Rome does not tolerate dissent and John was killed and there ended his movement.
Here's what I think Radio John the Baptist would sort of sound like, watch and listen here.
Then… Jesus. He took the message of Radio Rome, namely that the Kingdom of Caesar is saving the world through Piety, War, Victory, and Peace through Superior Firepower and Economic Stability and completely reversed it nonviolently. Jesus said, “No, no, the Kingdom of God is better as it saves the world through Compassionate Covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace through love of God, neighbor and self.”
Radio Jesus was very similar to John’s movement, but Jesus had learned something. The problem with John is that he had a monopoly. He was THE Baptist. He was easy to find, thus easy to arrest. So when John was beheaded, there ended his movement. Jesus started a franchise. We see this in the great commission in Matthew and Luke and when Jesus says, “These things I can do, you can do and greater than these." He makes people part of the movement so they have ownership and the movement will continue no matter who is killed.
So how then is a parable of the mustard seed subversive and anti-Roman? The traditional idea is that it's about faith--start with a little and it'll grow. That's one interpretation. I think of it in different terms. It would be obvious to state that the Kingdom of God is like the mighty Lebanon cedar which also starts from a small seed, but instead Jesus says it's like the mustard seed. Here’s what Jewish historian Pliny the Elder, who lived during Radio Rome, had to say about the mustard plant:
“It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. Once it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the see when it falls germinates at once. (5) ”
In first century Mediterranean culture, mustard is a weed. What Jesus is saying is that the establishments of the day are trying to weed out God's kingdom, but it’s not working. Mustard is like multi-flora rose, those big thorny shrubs that house groundhogs and other vermin, that drive today's farmers nuts. What's with the birds in the parable? The people of Judea made money through farming and name one farmer who wants birds on his or her land?! So those who are getting shelter from the kingdom of God will not be the Romans or the temple authorities, it will be those unwanted, marginalized people like the lepers, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those other “punks”.
So the kingdom gets out of control quickly and tends to attract people who are not particularly desired… No wonder Radio Rome and its sponsors at the Temple were so afraid of Jesus’ message. Radio Rome’s message said piety was the best and that usually depended, to some extent, on birth. If you weren’t Roman at least you were a merchant, if not a merchant than maybe an Israelite priest, if not a priest than maybe a lawyer or scribe… The worst thing you could be was poor as that was the sign that God or the gods didn’t hold you in favor. Jesus was counter to what they were saying. Money and piety aren’t as important as compassion and justice and God’s purposes are directed to those who were always left behind.
Jesus constantly reminds us that salvation will not come from Radio Rome or anything in this world. Salvation comes straight from God. And salvation isn’t coming to us, it’s already here. Rome and the temple say that they have the market cornered on holy but Jesus is saying that we’re walking on holy ground ALL the Time! Like Jacob’s words, “God was in this place and I wasn’t aware of it.” Like Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus when he wakes up and realizes how his actions are affecting others, “Today salvation has come to this house!”
So what station are you tuned to, Radio Rome or Radio Jesus? Some ways to tune in Radio Jesus loud and clear are helping your community, donating to Goodwill, learning more about others, visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home, sending a card, doing the small things that mean so much to others… I’m sure you can think of a million ways.
Thank God we have Radio Jesus still broadcasting that God loves everyone, especially those who don't fit in. Those unwanted people. Like you and me. What a wonderful God we have to offer punks like us grace and forgiveness.
Here's three examples of what I think the diversity of Radio Jesus sounds like: Radio Jesus RISE, compared to Radio Jesus ONE and the more political Radio Jesus Sleep now in the Fire.
1. Crossan, John Dominic. “History and Jesus; What is the Content of your Faith?” Living the Questions DVD, 2008.
2. Galatians 1:14
3. Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Harper One, San Francisco CA, 2004.
4. John 14: 12
5. Crossan, John Dominic “The historical Jesus, The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.” Harper San Francisco 1991 page 278.
6. Genesis 28:18
7. Luke 19: 1-10