This post is based on my sermon from February 3, 2013 delivered at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Rd, Cincinnati, OH.
A few years ago, I saw a very thought provoking T-shirt. It said “Heretic in good company.” Underneath the title was a list of names, including St. Joan of Arc, Galileo and Martin Luther. In the midst of the names was one name that stood out: Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, that Jesus.
Woah, Michelle, did you just refer to Jesus a heretic?
Before I continue to further get myself into trouble by referring to Jesus as a heretic, let’s consider what heretic means.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines heretic as “1. A dissenter from established religious dogma and 2. One who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine.”
In his book Tribes, Seth Godin defines heretic as “ones who challenge the status quo, who get out of their tribes, who create movement.” He continues that a heretic can mean “a person who holds unorthodox opinions in any field (not merely religion).”
So, was Jesus a heretic?
When we look at the text today, we see Jesus challenging those in his hometown. Verse 14 says that he was filled with the spirit when he entered the synagogues. Once he starts referring to those in the margins positively – the widow and the leper, they started turning against Jesus.
This was just the beginning. In chapters four through six alone, Jesus heals Simon’s mother on the Sabbath, he touched a man with leprosy which made Jesus unclean as well, he ate and drank with the people on the margins, and he healed in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
That’s just who Jesus was.
Jesus reframed rules for something greater. He broke the rules so that he could be more inclusive to the Gentile, the widow and the leper. He broke the rules so that people could feel loved. He broke the rules so people could live a normal life, be accepted by their community, take care of themselves and family.
This is the Jesus I try to model my life after.
I’ve been told that our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And sometimes that means saying something in a very different and edgy sort of way.
This could mean that I support people who don’t fit an “traditional” love or life. This means advocating for the poor, the widow, women, children – - even when people won’t agree with me. This means volunteering to help those who are hungry, and yes, even call my representatives to be a voice to those who have no voice. It’s doing justice and loving kindness as I walk humbly with my God.
So is being a heretic a bad thing? Being a heretic is nothing new. There have been heretics throughout the centuries. Because the person with stated orthodox theology was more popular or powerful or had better connections, the less popular theologian was deemed a heretic and banished. Sometimes, it was over little differences or larger differences – like not believing in original sin or not believing that God and Christ were of the same essence.
Was Jesus a heretic? Let’s look at the various definitions:
Was Jesus a dissenter from established religious dogma? Was he One who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine? If he healed on the Sabbath, then he dissented from established dogma and accepted beliefs.
Was Jesus one who challenged the status quo? By advocating for the Gentile, he was.
Did Jesus hold unorthodox opinions? If he was willing to pick food on the Sabbath, then yes.
Jesus hung out with women, ate with all sorts of people and challenged those in authority. Jesus started movement. Just like Martin Luther, a significant heretic who lit the fire of our type of Protestantism, Jesus was the one who sparked the flame that started the Jesus movement, or, as many of us know it, the early Christian church.
I celebrate Jesus as a heretic because being a heretic means a person is willing to listen for the voice of the still-speaking God. Sometimes, it’s going beyond preconceived beliefs of the church or Scripture to embrace the greatest thing Jesus embraced: love. It’s putting love and faith above legalism and rules.
Sometimes, we’ll hear that voice of God ourselves. And we’ll follow that voice even though it’s unorthodox or means that we have to change the way we have always done it.
It also means that we have to be willing to get thrown of the cliff, like Jesus almost was in today’s reading. Or even crucified as we see later in Luke’s gospel.
It’s not easy standing up for what you believe. I can’t even imagine it was easy for Jesus – being disliked by so many people for saying what you believe.
It’s not easy for any of us to feel the dislike for our beliefs. Whether it’s from our best friend or stranger, we hate being called a heretic or false prophet as we try to follow the God that’s speaking to our hearts.
Unfortunately, when people are challenged in their faith, they aren’t willing to take the time for conversations, to say politely how much they disagree with you. They are just willing to call names and close relationships.
We need to have a very thick skin to follow Jesus. Because we are willing to fully open ourselves up to the divine – we also have to be open to all of the good and bad that can come from following the faith of Jesus.
As we follow Jesus, learn more about faith and connecting to God, we will see elements of our faith in new and unorthodox ways. Eventually, someone will make a comment about faith or religion that’s tough to hear. Or someone will associate their faith with politics in a way that you haven’t heard before. And it may be uncomfortable and against what you believe.
How can we make that uncomfortable feeling go away? There is no easy way, but one effective way is through dialogue. We need to say the edgy things that we believe to start conversations that need to begin. We need to find out why someone believes what they believe instead of calling them names and closing our ears to them.
Maybe they are saying something I need to hear. Maybe there’s something they need to hear from me. And sometimes, I will say something here that you may not agree with. I always invite you to have a conversation with me after a sermon. I can’t expect you to agree with me 100% of the time, and conversations will create an atmosphere of dialogue and love even when we think very differently.
So, was Jesus a heretic? Whether we believe that he was or just a guy who spoke in edgy ways, he made people think and got people moving. Are we heretics? As we continue to hear the still-speaking God as Jesus embraced and Joan of Arc, Galileo and Martin Luther followed, we may be deemed a heretic. But we are in good company as the God of justice, the Christ of mercy and the spirit of passion walk along side of us, calling us to serve a hurting world in their name.