By all accounts, Jesus was a strange fellow. He was known as a strict religious teacher, but he spent his time eating and cavorting with sinners. He knew the Jewish scriptures and Mosaic law as well as anyone, yet he regularly broke the sabbath restrictions. He preached a message about the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, but he allowed himself to be tried, convicted, and executed by the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land. He was a countercultural revolutionary who used nonviolence and love to win over his enemies, and his teachings still stretch the minds of religious and political elites.
It’s easy, as a student of the gospel, to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in a Jesus-vs-the-World kind of way. That’s especially true in John’s gospel account. In numbingly repetitive language from John 15 through the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus says time and again that he is not of the world but is in the world and that his followers were of the world but have been called out of the world. “The world is going to hate you,” Jesus warns his disciples, “because it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Hate is a pretty strong word, but Jesus means it here. Elizabeth and I try to teach our children not to use the word hate, but how do you explain to a four-year-old that Jesus is allowed to use it because he means it in a way we usually don’t? The point is that Jesus and his message and ministry seem to run in conflict with the ways of the world.
But you don’t even have to read any part of the New Testament to get that sense about Jesus. How many people in the name of Jesus let the rest of the world know that the world is wrong? How many t-shirts and bracelets and hats and bumper stickers have you seen that basically say, “I’m on Jesus’ team, and, if you’re not, you’re wrong?” When was the last time that someone made money selling a shirt that says, “Jesus proves that God loves you even if you hate him?” But isn’t that the real message of the gospel?
Today is the feast of Saints Simon and Jude. (I wrote yesterday about All Saints’, and I’m still thinking pretty carefully about what it means to be a saint, but I’m taking a break to focus on these two for today. There’s a chance they’ll be folded back into tomorrow’s post.) Do you know anything about Simon or Jude? I don’t—at least not much.
Simon is mentioned in all three synoptic gospel accounts as Simon the Zealot. What a great name—Zealot! That title distinguishes him from the other, better known Simon Peter. But what does it mean to be a zealot? He had zeal for the law and the traditions of Israel. He would have identified with those who worked to overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine. He would have insisted that God’s ways and God’s kingdom come first—that the kingdoms of this world mean nothing in comparison—that every ounce of energy should be spent doing whatever is necessary to help establish God’s eschatological, theocratic state here on earth. In other words, he was the disciple who stood in the corner, twirling his knife in his hand, talking about how good it would feel to personally dispatch one of these pigheaded Roman centurions.
Jude, on the other hand, comes from the other end of the spectrum—at least according to extracanonical, almost-certainly-made-up tradition. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Why? I’m told that it’s because Jude’s real name is Judas. There were two Judas disciples. This one is the one Luke calls “Judas, son of James” (6:16). John speaks of him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (14:22). Matthew likes to call him Thaddeus, which may or may not be the same person, but the point is that there was another disciple named Judas. But those who appeal to the saints and ask them to pray for them did not want to call upon the wrong Judas. Surely God wouldn’t want his faithful to appeal to the name of the Betrayer. So do you know when you finally call on Jude—the other Judas? When you’ve already called on everyone else. He’s the last resort. Jude represents those of us in our most difficult moments—when trouble is closing in all around us. Where Simon the Zealot represents the other-worldliness of God’s kingdom, Jude embraces the brokenness of this life and the world in which we live.
And Jesus, of course, is both. His life and witness was other worldly, yet he came as one of us. The Incarnation is God becoming man—the human and divine natures united together without separation and without mixture in the one person of Jesus. The Son of God is God, which means that Jesus is fully divine—totally of God’s kingdom, not of this world, perfect. But the Word became flesh, which means that God took on the full brokenness of humanity. He became the hunger, poverty, sickness, heartbreak, and addiction that plagues the human race. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:21, even though he did not know sin, he became sin itself. And why? So that we might be healed.
It’s easy in the Christian faith to think that the point of following Jesus is to depart this world. And, in a sense, it is. We are called to be citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. But that is not an escape-pod theology that holds as its goal the departure from this broken life. Instead, we believe that God, because of the incarnation, has shown us his ability to transform this life from brokenness into wholeness. Although he calls us out of this world, he does not beckon us to leave it. Yes, the world might hate us, but we do not hate the world. We look for the worlds re-creation until it is fully God’s kingdom—right here.