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There Are No Heroes in the Kingdom of God

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/26/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 21:15-19. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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C.S. Lewis, the influential 20th century Christian author wrote:

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

Jesus is like that. Surprising.

I never would have imagined the God of Genesis, who weeps over human evil and regrets creating us. I never would have conceived of that same God loving us so much that he himself became human in order to liberate us. I never could have imagined that the creator of the universe would suffer, bleed, and die for us – living a life of total solidarity with the desperate, the poor, the homeless, the outcast.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe the things we believe.

What I mean to say is, it’s possible to intellectually assent to an idea without fully processing it. It’s possible to say, “God is love” while hating the people around us. It’s completely normal to worship a crucified savior, crushed under the bootheel of empire, while seeing no problem with those systems of violence and domination that operate in our world today.

It’s easy to practice the outward forms of religion. It’s harder to get to the substance.

So often, our religion is like food that we have chewed but not swallowed. We get a taste of it, and think that’s enough. The taste lingers in our mouths, but we never get the nutrients. We never get changed. We never get to grow in the ways that truly receiving that spiritual food would give us.

George Orwell, in his book 1984, introduced the idea of doublethink – the idea that it is possible to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time and see no contradiction. The practice of doublethink is foundational to the operation of totalitarian states. It is also essential to the practice of human religion.

Doublethink is the key to a well-adjusted life as a Christian in American society.

As Christians, we must believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and sends us the Holy Spirit. As Americans, we must believe that only those things that are repeatable, testable, and scientifically quantifiable carry any weight.

As Christians, we must believe that love is more powerful than violence; that the Holy Spirit is more real than money; and that we have no king but Jesus. As Americans, we must embrace the selfish, atomistic, and utilitarian logic of capitalism – a logic that reduces all interactions to inputs and outputs, bosses and employees, dollars and cents.

And most of the time, we hold these contradictions in our heads pretty well. We go to church and celebrate the kingdom of God. And then we go out, and operate according to the logic and morality of the world that killed Jesus. We mold our Christianity to fit the worldview of the society around us.

Because really challenging that worldview is the kind of thing that could make you lose your job. It could threaten friendships. And, in some places, might even cost you your life.

So much of what passes for Christianity has always been a convenient blend of pious words and ritual that never lead us to action. Never lead us to the kingdom. Never challenge the fundamental structures of the fallen world around us.

Communities are established and sustained by stories. And just as there are many stories that hold together the Christian faith, there are also stories that undergird and legitimize America, and empire in general.

One of the most important of these stories is that of the heroic individual. The idea that you – you personally – can make a difference. You can be the protagonist. What you do can shape the whole course of history. With enough grit, determination, and courage, you too can be a Moses, an Alexander, a Churchill, a Martin Luther King Jr. You can be a Great Man. (And, in the last few decades, perhaps even a Great Woman.)

This myth is powerful. Because it’s all about you. And you like you. (It’s OK – I like me, too.) And why shouldn’t you be the hero? Why shouldn’t you make a difference? Why shouldn’t you be the first person who, despite all odds, gets to live forever?

This myth of the heroic individual has infected my own Christianity. Because I was a heroic individualist before I was a Christian. And when I started to follow Jesus, I interpreted the whole story through that lens, without even realizing it. I centered myself in the story. I imagined myself as the hero. I thought the gospel was about me, myself, and I.

But that’s not who Jesus is.

The amazing, surprising thing about Jesus, is that his life completely explodes the idea of the heroic individual. In John 5, Jesus presents himself as the ultimate anti-hero. He says: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”

Jesus doesn’t do anything on his own. Jesus does not make himself the center of the story – he is here so that we can see the Father.

Let me repeat that again, because it’s so surprising that it might even sound heretical: Jesus does not ever place himself in the center. He doesn’t make himself the star of the show. He never makes himself the hero. He always points to the Father.

Jesus submits himself so completely to his Father’s will that he is pushed to the absolute bottom of the pit. He becomes a slave to everyone. He dies for you. He dies for me. He dies to preach the good news to those who are trapped in hell. He dies to save the very people who killed him. He dies for the Romans. He dies for the Pharisees. He dies for Judas.

In our reading this morning from John, we get a glimpse into Jesus’ great humility. We get to listen into an intimate conversation between the resurrected Jesus and the disciples, having breakfast together on the beach. We hear Jesus asking his disciple Peter: “Do you love me?”

If you love me, you will feed my sheep. If you love me, you will care for your brothers and sisters. If you love me, you will tend the flock.

We follow Jesus when we love one another. We follow Jesus when we act as shepherds to one another. We are his friends when we do what he commands us. And that is to love one another. To lay down our lives for one another. To become servants to others.

Do you love him?

Do I love him? Then I’ve got to give up trying to be the hero. I’ve got to surrender this narrative that centers myself. I’ve got to become the shepherd. The servant. The forgotten and hidden helper. I have to be ready to die, to become lost so that others can be saved.

That’s not something I would have guessed. That’s not what I signed up for when I became a Christian. That’s not what I thought I was getting into.

And that’s one reason I know it’s true. Because I didn’t make this up. God did. And Jesus shows me. He’s here to teach us. He’s sitting beside the breakfast fire with us – breaking the bread and cooking the fish. He’s asking us:

“Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”

We are the tyranny of evil men – but we’ve got to learn to be the shepherds.

If we’re going to follow Jesus. If we’re going to be like him. We have to drop the hero game and become servants.

Do you love Jesus? Feed his sheep.

Bring good news to the poor. Free those who are in prison. Care for those who are locked away, without human connection. Give sight to the blind. Love your neighbor as yourself.

We are his friends if we do what he commands us: That we love one another.

It may not be easy, but it’s not complicated. We don’t need an advanced degree or seminary training to understand what Jesus asks of us. Love one another.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe the things that we believe.

We’ve got to forget ourselves. Forget our need to be the hero, and turn our attention to the humans around us – each and every one of whom needs God’s love.

We can be vessels for that love. Feed those sheep. Care for the brothers and sisters. Bring a cup of cold water. Offer the words that bring connection and healing.

Stop trying to be the protagonist. Do nothing except that which the Father shows you. And God will lift you up, just like Jesus.

“Do you love me?” Then stop practicing doublethink. Stop trying to reconcile the myths of capitalism and empire with the way of the cross. Stop trying to be the hero when you’re called to be the shepherd.

Let go. Let God. “Feed my sheep.”