In I Thessalonians 1, Paul praises the remarkable and exemplary church in Thessalonica for their “work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” To those early Christians that phrase “Lord Jesus Christ” had a punch to it–a power and dynamism that is largely lost on us because of its routine use in our day. But within those three words we find the whole gospel. I want us to unpack this phrase with the hope that never again shall we take the words “Lord Jesus Christ” for granted.
I. Let us begin with the name Jesus. Jesus is the anglicized form of ‘Iesous which is Greek for the Aramaic Yeshu which is an abbreviated form of Yeshua which is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua – or what we know as Joshua.
The name literally means “Yahweh saves” and was a common name among Jews. There were many males named Jesus in first century Palestine. But the Jesus we are concerned with is Jesus of Nazareth–a particular human being with a history and an impact on his time and those around him.
He was a man who was so utterly committed and open to God that the divine flowed through him into the world. He saw with a clarity of vision unmatched by anyone before or since. He redefined the worth of human beings, basing their value not on accidents of birth, wealth, position, influence, or power but on their equal place before this God he called Abba.
No one else in his day was as sensitive to the oppression and discounting of women and children. No one else sat at table with outcasts, lepers, prostitutes, Roman collaborators, manual laborers, and the poor, giving them access to God’s grace, like Jesus did. No one else understood so clearly how the structures of politics, economics, and religion served the needs of the ruling classes. No one else understood how prone human beings are to trust in violence to solve the problems of nations and community. No one articulated as clearly as Jesus the role of nonviolence in stopping the spiral of brutality. And no one else lived so faithfully and courageously these values in the face of opposition on every side.
Jesus practiced what he preached; he lived his message and incarnated his values. And this threatened everyone around him. Neither Rome nor the Temple knew how to deal with this God-Intoxicated Jew. Pilate the prefect and Caiaphas the high priest realized that Jesus’ radical message threatened their positions and empires more than all the armed revolutionaries in Palestine. And these revolutionaries were threatened by Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and his emphasis on love, even for enemies. Like all other revolutionaries, the Jewish ones were not opposed to the domination Jesus spoke against. They were simply opposed to Roman domination. They wanted to replace Pilate’s domination with their own.
Jesus’ message and life were also a threat to the religious leaders who had God securely locked in a box called a temple or in a book called the Torah. The radically free God of Jesus who loved the unlovable, who forgave the unforgivable, and who desired intimacy and transforming relationships was too much to take for those who prefer their God in predictable and controllable doses. And Jesus was a threat to the pious folk who had worked long and hard to secure their positions before God, only now to see prostitutes and traitors walk into the presence of God as though they belonged. Few people could accept the new order–the Rule of God which Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate.
And so the story continues. The church could not maintain the radical message and life of Jesus for very long. For example, for three centuries it rejected violence, refused military service, and denounced war. But with the “conversion” of the Roman emperor Constantine, all that changed, and today one wonders whether the church converted Constantine or Constantine converted the church.
The place Jesus gave to women as full heirs of God’s domination-free order was lost within decades of his death as men reasserted their control over women. And the church which initially tore down barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free has more often than not spent much of its resources and energy re-erecting those barriers and creating new ones. The name “Jesus” points us to the concrete life of a man who walked on this earth and lived a life we can never escape. Jesus of Nazareth has let loose a fire on this earth which can never be extinguished. And every time we return to this Jesus (not the Jesus of our sentimental pictures or the domesticated Jesus of our cultural values, but Jesus of Nazareth) and see and hear him as he is, the fire will burn afresh and the reign of God will show itself in our midst in all its radical love and transforming grace.
II. What about “Christ”? Contrary to what some people think, Christ is not the last name of Joseph, Mary, and their son Jesus. “Christ” is the anglicized form of Christos which is the Greek word for the Hebrew mashiah which becomes the English word “messiah.” Many Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah–a leader anointed by God to secure justice, defeat the Romans, and reestablish Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel as a prelude to Jewish rule over the whole world. The early church scandalized Jews and Gentiles when it proclaimed that the messiah has already come and that some of his own people (the high priests and Sadducees) joined the Romans in having him crucified. But God had raised him from the dead and he was in their midst as they became his body continuing his mission and message in time and space.
The longing for a messiah is a universal experience. All through history and all over this planet there are people who want a messiah–someone to redeem them from powers greater than themselves; someone to lead them against the forces of oppression and domination; someone capable of bringing to fruition those seeds of hope and longing planted deep in human souls. We all want messiahs, but often, like some of the Jews of Jesus’ day, we want them for the wrong reasons. We want someone to make everything better so that we won’t have to change. We want someone else to stick out his or her neck and face the principalities and powers which control so much of this world so that we will not have to suffer. We want someone else to listen to our agendas and problems and make those his or her own as we step on and over the needs and pain of our fellow human beings. We all want messiahs made in our image, after our likeness, and according to our desires and biases.
But by identifying Jesus of Nazareth with the Christ, the early church understood that what we most need is not our kind of messiah but God’s Messiah. By identifying Jesus crucified as God’s anointed, the church redefined forever the understanding of messiah. What does it mean to believe and trust in a Crucified Messiah? That is the question the church must faithfully ask over and over and over again. What does it mean to serve a Messiah who embraces the cross and who says that all who call him Lord must take up their own crosses and follow him in living God’s alternative to the world’s pride, greed, and violence? Pairing the words Jesus and Christ redefines forever the heroes of our world and the chosen ones of our God.
III. And then we come to “Lord.” The Greek word here is kurios. That is the word used in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the divine name Yahweh. The early church experienced God in Jesus so intimately, powerfully, and graciously that they gave him the title Lord.
But there was another meaning behind the title kurios which the early church intended – a meaning which communicated well to those gentile converts who were quickly becoming the majority in the church. These gentiles were accustomed to the term kurios/Lord as a title given to the Caesars–to the emperors of Rome. To call Jesus “Lord” was to deny that title to Caesar. Later in the time of John, the author of Revelation, Christians had to make a life and death choice as to whom they would call Lord. If they called Domitian Lord (and this mad ruler insisted that everyone call him “Lord and God”), then they could live and prosper. If they called Jesus “Lord,” they might die. The martyrdoms of the early church were over who was Lord–Caesar or Jesus. And the blood of the martyrs which was spilled from one end of the Roman Empire to the other bears witness to the faithful answer of the church. When the early church proclaimed Jesus “Lord,” they were confessing that the real ruler of the world was not Caesar, but rather this crucified Jewish carpenter named Jesus–and that ultimate obedience to him and his ways of love and compassion, sharing and nonviolence, grace and truth is what Christian faith is all about. In an age when we call too many “Lord” (perhaps not by word but by our values, choices, and commitments) and when our ultimate obedience is compromised on every front in a greedy and violent world, we would do well to recover this radical meaning of “Lord” as we make our confession.
So there it is: “Lord Jesus Christ.” The whole gospel is there in all of its challenge (perhaps more challenge than we are comfortable with) and all its hope (perhaps more hope than we have ever dared to imagine). May the time come when those words become not only the confession of our mouths but the content of our lives so that we too might be remembered for our “work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Communion: At this Table we meet the Lord Jesus Christ. On that last night he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In all our worship, in all our service, in all our words and deeds, we remember the Jesus of history who ate with sinners, challenged injustice, called God “Abba” and who must forever determine the content of our faith together.
At this Table we discover what kind of Messiah this carpenter really is. Before these symbols of his sacrifice we join the early church in identifying the Anointed of God with the Suffering Servant by whose obedience we are redeemed. We discover the power and paradox of the gospel as we proclaim and trust a Crucified Christ.
And at this Table and before these precious sacraments we bow the knee before the only one worthy of the title Lord. Here we offer our ultimate allegiance to this strange king who rules through sacrificial love and uncompromised devotion.
Let us come now to the Table of the one whose name is above all names– our Lord Jesus Christ.
Commission: We have remembered Jesus of Nazareth. We have beheld the nail scarred hands and feet of God’s Anointed. And we have bent the knee before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As we go now into the world, may our words and deeds, our attitudes and dreams be worthy of the name above all names. May this one sent from God’s own heart truly become our Lord Jesus Christ.
Benediction: May we be as living loaves, kneaded and shaped by nailed scarred hands. May we be as wine of the Spirit, poured out that others may know joy. May compassion be the leaven within. May love be the flavor of all our thoughts, words, and deeds. And may the peace of Christ dwell among us now and in all our tomorrows. Amen.