Sunday, September 16, 2012

Messiah of the misfits, marginalized, & minjung

Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie,
When I was in college I did what I thought were some pretty intense Bible studies with my campus fellowship. After two weeks in seminary, maaaybe those Bible studies don’t seem quite as intense as they seemed when I was a sophomore at dear Bucknell, tucked away in the central Pennsylvania hills. But hey, times change. The Bible study that InterVarsity pushed hardest was a semester-long class on the first half of the Gospel of Mark. I did that with some of my closest friends, somehow interpreting Jesus’ cross-country trips as a pirate in a Winnebago. Studying the Bible does weird things to you, I guess. But while I can’t say that any of my classes for credit struck me and challenged me the way Mark study did. In fact, I enjoyed that study so much that I spent the week after classes ended that year studying the second half of Mark. That, too, was an amazing experience where I saw God’s Spirit whip around the room and inspire us to raise $5,000 to make sure one of my best friends could go back to school the next semester. It was awesome.

But looking back, there was something that could have been better about those Bible studies. See, we finished Mark 1, as we called the first-half Bible study, with the first half of today’s Gospel reading. I’m sure that ending the semester that way was intentional. Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, so after a semester of studying an account about Jesus, who do we say Jesus is? (Hint: we do have a preferred answer.)

The problem is that I don’t think the story should be cut up that way because Peter only gives an incomplete answer. Peter answers Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah,” so let’s dig into what exactly that means. Messiah, or the Greek title Christ, means “anointed one”, and there actually several people in the Old Testament were “anointed ones”, usually with monarchic and militarist implications. During the 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation, a lot of folks were looking for such a messiah. You know, someone who would take names and kick arse.

So maybe when someone answers with Peter’s words to Jesus’ question, we should then ask, whose Messiah?

 Moving forward in the story, Jesus does start to define what kind of messiah he’ll be—one who will suffer, be rejected by the political bosses, die along the way, but then rise again after three days, so don’t worry. So hold up, where’s the glory to that? Peter says something along those lines, with maybe some fisherman’s preferred speech, and probably reminds Jesus what a messiah actually does. Except Jesus doesn’t need that. Jesus immediately tells Peter whose messiah that is—namely Satan’s.

Btw (pronounced bee-tee-dubs for short), that’s the second time Satan shows up in Mark’s Gospel. The first time was Jesus temptation in the wilderness. Connection, anyone?

So if Jesus’ way of doing Messiah isn’t about kicking Gentile oppressors’ arse and plates heaped with steaming glory, it must be something less appealing. Or at least at first. But take a look at who Jesus talks to. It’s not the apostles; it’s the crowd. In Greek the word is “ochlos”.  Korean liberation theologian Ahn Byung-Mu noted that this word is found throughout Mark’s Gospel referring to crowds, but especially when Jesus is curing sick and unclean people and generally caring for the folks that the Pharisees marginalized with their interpretation of Jewish law. For Korean liberation theologians, these folks are represented by the minjung, a marginalized group in that country, and their theology is named after them.

So whose Messiah is Jesus? Well, it kinda sounds like the misfits, marginalized, and left-behind folks’ Messiah, the ochlos’ Messiah. And when Jesus talks about suffering and how his followers must also suffer, maybe it’s because those folks are already suffering. I’m Methodist, and I love me some John Wesley, but I’ve really connected with Martin Luther’s concept of the theology of the cross. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, chose the path of the poor, the desperate, even the criminal, and he suffered like they suffer. Like they continue to suffer. And when Jesus warns against being ashamed of the Messiah, I must believe that Jesus is also warning against being ashamed the ochlos, the poor, desperate masses that so want to free of their situation.

However, there is a second reason why Jesus tells the crowd that his followers must expect suffering, specifically from persecution. See, Jesus had this practice of not only hanging out with the ochlos, but he also brought them into the center of the stage with him. Unclean women take precedence over the child of a local political boss. Lame folks distract from the sabbath laws. And Jesus parties with the loan shark whom he just called into his inner circle. Being with the ochlos is fine and good with the ruling class as long as the invisible curtains of caste remains, but when Jesus tear through that curtain…well, he ends up suffering, rejected by the ruling class, and eventually executed.

And Jesus calls us, his followers, to do the same.

I am truly proud and humbled that I am in a place that takes solidarity with the ochlos seriously. I like to call First Trinity the Church of the Misfits and Dissidents, and it is really unique. Last week at Hildegard Rastutin’s beautiful funeral we talked about how and why she loved this place. It’s so open and welcoming. Open enough that even why I had a conversation with Hildegard about religion, her response was lending me her copy of the Book of Mormon, because, you know, it’s important to learn about other people’s traditions. Yes, this is the Church of the Misfits and Dissidents, and it’s great.

However, let’s take our solidarity with the ochlos of Bridgeport and Chicago even further. Let’s follow in Jesus example and tear down that invisible sheet between our ruling class and our ochlos. It’s a wall made of numbers, and it separates revenue and expenses on the ledger. It’s a wall that separates the sick from needed health care, unemployed workers from jobs, students from a good education, neighbors from a 31st Street bus. Dear friends, tearing down that wall is as much the work of the Messiah as clothing the naked for a day. And it is what will bring us up close and personal with the persecution of the Messiah.

So I ask you the same question my campus minister asked my class at the end of my grand study of Mark: who do you think Jesus is? But if you answer like Peter, “the Messiah,” be ready for me to ask a follow-up question: whose Messiah is this Jesus? I pray that you, as part of the ochlos, the minjung, this group of despised, misfit, and marginalized folks, answer “This Jesus is my Messiah.”