That Jesus and Paul Were Criminals

El Greco, The Disrobing of Christ (El Expolio de Cristo). My picture choices are always a bit of free association. But I like how Jesus just doesn’t fit in this picture. This is a picture of the administration of justice, and he is the criminal. But something about him just makes everything else that is happening look absurd.

I’ve been asked to make my manuscript public, which I’m happy to do. I had written something else, but then got up early starting Friday morning to write a fresh sermon after Jeff Sessions made his awful comments about St. Paul in order to justify the unjustifiable. It was something else to prepare this one, but I’m really quite pleased with how it turned out. That said, I’m more aware with this one than with most of my sermons that it is written for a listening audience rather than for readers. For one thing, I don’t quite show my cards  until near the end. Anyway, this was preached at Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan last Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, proper 6. The principal text is 2 Corinthians, 5:6-17.


I’ve told this story to some of you, but my wife and I decided it’s time for everyone to hear it. Her mother, Erna, and her twin sister, Rosemarie, were born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1944. The Bohemian forest had long been a multi-ethnic region, and her German family had lived there for generations on one side. Then Hitler occupied the country. Erna’s family were certainly no heroes of the resistance, but they had minimal involvement with the Nazi occupiers. Erna and Rosemarie was one-year-old when the war ended. Everyone suffered in those days. But the Soviet and Czech authorities decided to heap tragedy upon tragedy by making it a crime for ethnic Germans to stay. They expelled them all, whether they’d had anything to do with the occupation or not. Soldiers came to my mother-in-law’s house and told them they had to leave in 15 minutes and could take only what they could carry. My wife’s grandmother spoke Czech and managed to negotiate an extra 15 minutes. But the forced evacuation was brutal. Many died, including one-year-old Rosemarie. There are lots of thorny political issues around this story that I’m not going to touch. What is clear is that what happened to my mother-in-law and her sister was obviously tragic, but also unjust, and completely unnecessary. The German government had carried out unspeakable horrors against the Jews of Europe, among others, and may those who were killed never be forgotten. But the Czech and Soviet governments then used the same logic, just on a smaller scale. They criminalized people not for what they had done, but for what they represented, and forced them out.

Paul tells us in the reading today that we should regard nobody from a human point of view, the way that he had once regarded Christ from a human point of view. Paul was in a fight with the church he founded at Corinth. They knew who Paul was, but they weren’t sure about what he represented. They were asking him, “If we accept you as our teacher, regardless of how sound your doctrine or how effectively you convey it, which side does that put us on?” It would be kind of like the way that it’s practically impossible these days to go to a church or read a book by a pastor or Christian writer without sending subtle messages about whether you’re one of those evangelical Christians or one of those social justice Christians. If you’re only going to accept people based on what they represent to you rather than what they are, Paul says to the Corinthians, then you can’t accept Jesus Christ.

Jesus had no credentials in the Jewish or gentile worlds of the first century Roman Empire. He wasn’t a philosopher in Athens or Alexandria. Philosophers were mostly aristocrats. He wasn’t a Roman statesman or general. In fact, he wasn’t Roman. What he was, was a criminal. He belonged to a subjugated people whose purpose, from a Roman perspective, was to provide goods and services necessary for the functioning of the empire. He was not an individual to Rome, let alone a teacher of genius who was offering a genuinely new way of living to the human race, or the savior of the world. It was completely irrelevant what Jesus was actually saying or doing. He was executed not for what he was, but for what he represented. He seemed to be threatening the peace and thus the supply chain, and that was a crime. To regard him from a human point of view would be to only look at what he represents to you or to somebody, and not at who he is.

All these centuries later, we face the same temptation. Christian or not, people want to know what Jesus represents, not who he is. In this Pride month, it’s a live question to many whether Jesus can represent anything other than heterosexual decency, both to those who want to enforce it, and to those who have suffered from it. We’re blessed in this parish with many GLBT people both in the congregation and among the clergy, who have decided that although this may be what Jesus has meant to others, this is not who Jesus is. Queer Christians have often been the most shining examples of what St. Paul means when he says that “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

And there’s a special irony to this, because queer Christians have often had a complicated relationship with St. Paul. Paul, like Jesus, has been made to represent many things. A few stray lines from his pen have been wielded as “clobber verses.” It’s not entirely clear what these verses meant in the context of his writings, and it’s even less clear what they should mean for Christians today. I’m not going to get into it. Paul’s words may have been wielded as clubs to render gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals criminal, at least if they came out of the closet and dared to love in the way that they were able (and maybe I shouldn’t be speaking in the past tense). But Paul, like Jesus, was a criminal too. We know from his own letters as well as the book of Acts and the tradition of the early church that Paul was imprisoned more than once. He lived the only way he could, which happened to be illegal. He didn’t care. Jesus Christ had died for all, and all have died in him, and anyone who lives in him is a new creation. He had died to the old ways of living and being, as well as to the laws and customs that presumed to enforce those old ways of being. “Woe is me if I proclaim not the gospel,” he said. So he went to places where he wasn’t supposed to go, and spoke in ways that were not welcome, and when ordered to stop by local government and higher up, he did not. He in fact knew that he would be arrested when he made his final visit to Jerusalem, and he went anyway. And after being held in detention by the Romans for a prolonged period, he was executed by the same government that had executed that other criminal, Jesus. This the Paul that I know. This is the Paul that emerges from the pages of the New Testament to anyone with eyes to see, who is not bent on regarding him in a merely human way.

So it was jarring this week, when a very prominent person invoked another verse in Paul, another verse that is obscure in its context, and whose application in our context is far from straightforward. And based on this verse, they made the case that the government can and should enforce any law it makes, and is entitled to do so in any way. The crime in question is the misdemeanor of improper entry into the country. The enforcement measure in question is to separate parents from their children, imprisoning the parents, and taking the children to—well, it’s not always clear. This policy has been condemned across the political spectrum, and by Christians and other religious people of many stripes. Republican members of Congress and evangelical leaders who have been very supportive of the present administration have called for an end to the separation of families. But the Attorney General pleaded that his “church friends” accept this policy because, well, the people are criminals. He said: “”Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” I am not an expert on law or policy. But I do know a thing or two about Christian theology.

I am not going to go through Romans 13 with you verse by verse. It would be fruitless. I can direct you to some websites and things if you’re interested. Nor do I want to pretend that the verse in Romans or the relationship between God and human government is simple. It is not. But Paul, who wrote those verses, was a criminal. Was the Roman state right to execute him? Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl were criminals. Were the Nazis right to execute them? Martin Luther King Jr. broke the laws of our own country. Did he deserve to be in the Birmingham jail? Were the concerned clergy who wrote to him to rebuke him for his disorderly and illegal methods actually the ones in touch with the prophetic spirit? And, this one’s personal, were the Soviets within their right to decide to expel my mother-in-law from her home? I don’t believe that. Neither did Paul. I’ll wager that none of you do either. In fact, I doubt that anyone who has ever invoked Romans 13 in this way has ever been thoroughgoing in their application. It’s just too common a thing in human history for criminals to be more righteous than those who obey and enforce the law.

Many people, most recently from Central America, have judged that their homes were no longer safe for their children, and have resolved to bring them here, whatever the cost. They know that crossing the desert is treacherous, and that their life here will be tenuous if they make it. They may even know that their children will be taken from them if they are caught. They come anyway. They believe they have no choice. What shall be done with them? Like I said, I’m not a policy expert. I don’t know how to solve the problem. But I know for fact that my children exist because there was a country that was obliged to take their grandmother in, despite being itself a pile of rubble at the time. But if Germany had been unable or unwilling to take them, I have no doubt my children’s great-grandparents would have taken Erna and Rosmarie wherever they had to, whether it was legal or not. And I know for fact that if this country became unsafe for my children, if I could not assure them of enough of the basic necessities of life here, I would take them somewhere else, whether it was legal to do so or not. Doing so might be a crime. But Jesus was a criminal. And a refugee. And whatever we shall have done unto the least of his fellow criminals and refugees, we shall have done unto him, before whose judgment seat all must appear.