“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:21-23
I was taught, as a young enthusiastic Christian, that “if I confessed with my lips that Jesus is Lord and believed in my heart that God raised him from the dead, I would be saved.” The words are from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. (10:9) But even back then it sounded a little too easy. Could it really be true that all I had to do to escape hell and damnation was to say “Jesus is Lord”? What about Jesus’ own words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That was more difficult to put into practice, but it made more sense.
Then I also learnt that when Paul said we must confess Jesus as Lord with our lips he was not being trite at all. He was referring to followers of Jesus who were being persecuted and put to death because they confessed that Jesus, not Caesar ,was Lord. In those days it was like confessing Christ today in ISIS controlled territory in Syria or Iraq, not proudly singing “Jesus is Lord” to reinforce the idea that Christians are superior folk to Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and the rest. That is what I call the “triumphalist heresy,” a heresy that pervades so much contemporary Christianity, and something that has become particularly obnoxious in the Republican presidential campaign in the United States. A heresy we need to think carefully about this Ascension Day, because it is especially on this day that Christians celebrate the triumph of Jesus and confess him as Lord of all. Yet, we too often do so without thinking about what this really means. We fail to see the heresy lurking behind the songs we sing and the banners we unfurl which proudly declare Christ is Lord of all. The message of the Ascension s not some fantastical doctrine about Jesus rocketing into outer space in which we believe in order to be saved, but a call to costly discipleship.
Let me explain what I mean by triumphalism. When the armies of the Roman Empire returned to Rome after a great victory they entered the city through a triumphal arch and paraded before the Emperor and cheering crowds, much like victorious armies still do today. Nations like to celebrate their triumphs; it makes the citizenry proudly patriotic, and reinforces the image of power of those who rule over them. But triumphal marches have their dark side. The triumphal march through ancient Rome invariably included hundreds of captives taken into slavery. Imperial triumph was achieved through the defeat of other people, oppressing them and taking control over their land and its resources. Now imagine in that context and amid that outpouring of national pride and euphoria someone had the courage to stand up and shout “Caesar is not Lord! Christ is Lord!” It would not be long before they would be fed to the lions or at least sent to Robben Island or some such place. To declare “Christ is Lord” is, in such contexts, a very radical statement. It challenges national triumphalism at its core.
This is the background to the “triumphalist heresy” in Christianity, a heresy that has plagued the church through the centuries ever since Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. It is the belief that because “Christ is Lord” the church has the spiritual authority to rule over others, convert them by force if necessary, and more generally owed a privileged place within the empire or nation as a God-given right. And, of course, Christian triumphalism claims that because Christ is Lord, Christianity is superior to all other religions, and that the church and those of who confess Christ are somehow a cut above others and called to rule as Ted Cruz made clear. While Christian triumphalism may not always be expressed so crudely or in the same way today as it once was, it keeps on emerging whether in giving sanction to war, fighting elections, or simply in regarding people of other faiths as beyond the pale. Christian triumphalism is the essence of right-wing Christianity whether in the United States, South Africa, or anywhere else.
Now let us contrast this “triumphalist heresy” in which the church bows its knee to Caesar, with another triumphal march, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem mounted not a war-horse or chariot, but on a donkey followed by a motley collection of disciples who he called his friends. And in doing so let us remember that this Jesus was put to death a few days later by Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem at the insistence of the religious leaders of the day. This donkey-riding Messiah we call Lord! This is the outrageous message of Ascension Day which we celebrate today. The one who was crucified God has made Lord, but a very different kind of Lord to Caesar or any other ruler. “He emptied himself,” Paul writes, “taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient …to death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him,,, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:6-11). Jesus’ triumph is one of self-giving love and service not conquest.
In confessing Jesus as Lord, then, we are confessing that the crucified One is Lord. That Jesus’ way of the cross, his way of love, sacrifice and service is God’s way, and that this is superior to hatred, violence and selfish greed. In confessing Jesus as Lord we are not exalting ourselves or our religion to some kind of privileged place. We are committing ourselves to the power of love not the love of power. We are refusing to blindly follow any political party leader or manifesto that contradicts what we have learnt from Jesus. In confessing Jesus not Caesar as Lord, we affirm that forgiveness and restitution. not vengeance, is the true path to a just society; that peace-making not war and violence is the method that heralds the coming of God’s kingdom. In confessing Christ as Lord we do not exclude others who are different from us from the human community, but embrace all whom the Son of Man came to seek and save. In confessing Christ as Lord we stand in solidarity with all the struggling peoples of the earth. That is why Jesus tells us “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, Ascension Day, 5 May 2016