deconstruct-reconstruct What actually is the good news

Jesus is Lord – and Putin Is Not

I was once asked to sum up the gospel in a sentence. I said this: Jesus is Lord.

Why is this so controversial? Did you react a bit when I wrote it?

It certainly caused quite a stir amongst the nice, well-meaning Christians in my group. Is this not very stark? Surely the idea of a “lord” is a complete anathema to this democratic age?

Since I began writing this post, Vladimir Putin launched his appalling attack on Ukraine. The outcome is currently very unclear, except that it is going to create an astonishing amount of suffering on all sides of the conflict.  And it brings the whole idea of “lordship” into stark relief.

A big part of what makes the claim that Jesus is Lord so startling to modern, western, individualistic ears, is that we equate “lordship” with what Putin is doing. Recreating the Russian Empire seems the very definition of “lordship”, following in the footsteps of his many predecessors – Stalin, Peter the Great, Julius Caesar (which is where the Russian term Czar and the German Kaiser come from) and the rest of their bloody colleagues.

Surely in a world appalled by the lordship of Putin, more lordship is exactly what we don’t need? If this Christianity business is to have any future whatsoever, surely it needs to be freed of any association with Putin and his ghastly ilk?

I disagree. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that “Caesar is not.” That is just as true now as it has ever been. Indeed it might even be more important to say, given that the power of the state is bolstered so much by technology that the possibilities for a “putin-esque” lordship are greater than they have ever been.

So I say: Jesus is Lord.

And in saying that, in saying that Jesus is the real, true, Lord, the very type of lordship, the model which all lords have to imitate if they are to have any claim to lordship at all, we are saying something profoundly radical, across many dimensions of philosophical, religious, sociological, and even political thought.

Jesus completely explodes our picture of what it means to be “lord.”  The Apostle Paul, writing right at the beginning of the Christian era puts it this way:  “God has chosen the foolish things of the world, to confound the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27.)  

Similarly, in one of the earliest Christian writings, which might itself be quoting a pre-existing hymn

Christ Jesus who, though[1] he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.[2]

Jesus reveals God, and reveals that God is fundamentally about love, not power.

In the Song of Mary, which itself draws on the long tradition of Hebrew prophetic literature, Mary praises the God who “casts down the mighty from their seats.” And this is scarcely a marginal position in the faith – when I was a cathedral chorister, lo these many years ago, we used to sing those words at evensong on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Friday evenings. Choirs in the great cathedrals all over the world – those majestic buildings which try to point directly to the glory of God – still sing precisely those words. This juxtaposition of the physical glory of the setting and the complete lack of glory of the song of the young Jewish woman and her revolutionary words point to the central paradox of Christian faith. God’s power is displayed in weakness, failure, and death; not in strength, success, and power.

Contrast two images.

Vladimir Putin meets Emmanuel Macron across the famously long table

The first is the picture of the great leader sitting at one end of an enormously long table in a palatial room. Ceremonial guards stand by the door. At the other end of the enormous room, the great ministers of state are gathered, shuffling like nervous school children. One after another, they stand up and publicly voice their support of the great leader’s momentous decision to unmake a nation. Those who hesitate even slightly are humiliated by the great man. Surely this is a world-historical figure, who stands beyond your petty, bourgeois morality?

The second is a criminal, condemned by the religious authorities and the state, being publicly and humiliatingly tortured to death, abandoned by almost all of his friends, his weeping mother looking on.

Which of these is “lord”? Which of these commands our attention, our respect, our fealty?

The bizarre Christian claim is that the second picture, the crucified criminal reveals what God is really like, whereas to say the first represents God is idolatry. This is such an absurd claim, so contrary to everything we think we know about the universe, that, to paraphrase Lesslie Newbigin, the only place that it can possibly make any sense is in a community of people who believe it, and seek to live out this strange way of Jesus in their lives. Or, in his rather more technical words: “the only possible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation which believes it.”[3]

Jesus is Lord.

When we talk about who is “lord” we are talking about what is of ultimate value. That is, we are talking about God, and what God wants, it’s a way of asking what the ultimate justification for our behaviour is. There are a lot of ways to have that discussion of course- there are many competing versions of the Good Life. But when we say that “Jesus is Lord” we upend the order of the world. Because, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar, and indeed the Czar, is not.

The ultimate “right” in human affairs doesn’t issue imperious instructions in palatial rooms, nor  travel in a motorcade, nor take the salute in a military parade.

The ultimate “right” in human affairs is an executed criminal, condemned by both church and state, and then raised from death by God, who completely and absolutely vindicated him.

The ultimate “right” in human life is one poured out in service to others. Jesus lived a life of complete authenticity and service of others. He could have seized power, led yet another revolt against the Romans, dazzled the multitudes with his power. This is one of the points of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It’s a synecdoche of Jesus’ whole life. We can see it again when the crowd want to make him King[4], when he tells his disciples not to tell people that he was the Messiah, even though he was. It was because the true Messiah-ship, the true Lordship is the way of love and of service, not of power and domination.

Empires rise and fall. Power is applied in good ways, and often in very bad ways. None of these claimants to the supreme authority and power are anything more than twigs in the river of history.

The good news is this: Jesus is Lord. And Vladimir Putin is not.

[1] The word ordinarily translated here as “although” could just as easily translated as “because.” There’s a theological choice being made here, which just shows how very, very hard it is for us to believe that God is love, not power.

[2] 1 Phillipians 2:6-8

[3] Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (p. 232). Kindle Edition.

[4] E.g. John 6:15

Image: The Crucifixion of Christ, Tintoretto, 1568

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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