This last week they buried Nelson Mandela. I talked about him quite a bit last Sunday. So I don’t need to go over all of that again, even though singing those liberation songs was fun! But in light of today’s Gospel lesson, and the aftermath of a South Africa withOUT Mandela, there may be something here still worth connecting to. Part of it is that when the current leader of South Africa and of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, came to pay his respects at the funeral, he was resoundingly booed by the crowds. Why? It’s not hard to imagine: Zuma is corrupt in the style of so many African dictators, he is making millions while the people are in worse and worse shape, he is out of touch with the heritage of the ANC as a freedom and liberation party, he has been implicated in scandal and mismanagement, and on and on. It seems like he’s more than just inefficient. He may be a very bad man.
But then why are all these awful things even more obvious than usual for a corrupt politician? One main reason: Zuma is NOT Mandela.
I remember when I played basketball in high school, there was one player who was far and away better than any of the rest of us. He could dribble, and shoot, and jump, better than any of us, and he made what we found hard, look easy. But the coach wouldn’t let him play all the time, and the reason was this: if I let one person do all the work, the coach said, then the rest of you won’t learn. The TEAM won’t be as strong, and the wins won’t come, no matter what.
The cult of “one special person” was a trap, our coach thought. And it’s a trap for Mandela’s South Africa and for faith, too. It’s wonderful that Nelson Mandela became such a symbol of liberation and justice. But there’s a danger. When one man or woman becomes the focal point for all such hopes, and the only one thought capable of fulfilling them, then the problem is: what happens when they’re gone? If the world considers them, not just a hero, but a super-hero, then no one else can do it. And justice and liberation should be everyone’s concern. Even a non-Mandela’s.
Which brings me to today’s Gospel lesson. Notice what happens. Go to Jesus, the Baptist tells his disciples, and when you see him, ask Jesus if he is the one.
That kind of language makes what I would call the same “cult of personality” or “cult of person over process” mistake. Yes, the people of God had been waiting, many of them, for a Messiah, someone to rise up and be another David. And yes, there was also in some circles the anticipation of a prophet who would announce this political figure and prepare the way. I guess that Messiahship – if you can call it that – was and is inevitably a kind of single-person, cult phenomenon.
So maybe it was natural that John should be reported as using such language: “Is he THE ONE?” But then, given that, we should also notice how Jesus answers:
Jesus is very careful. He never ever says, to John, or to John’s disciples: “Yes. I am the one.” To their question about whether he is the Messiah, Jesus doesn’t answer with his own person at all. Go and tell John, Jesus answers “not who I am, or who I say I am, but what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
As I read this, what Jesus is saying is this: I’m not important. Tell John that the Kingdom of God is what’s important. And that kingdom has come.
At least in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (John is a different case), Jesus pretty consistently refuses to get involved in a cult of personality. Which raises all kinds of questions for us modern-day Christians.
Firstly, as the theologian Bultmann once said: Jesus preached the Kingdom and Paul preached Jesus. Meaning, our faith has an awful lot to do with the person on the cross, and in light of the message of Easter and of Paul and of all of Christian orthodoxy, rightly so. But . But there’s a question we need to answer: in our emphasis on Jesus, do we sometimes miss the very reign of God he was crucified for proclaiming? I believe so.
This coming season is a prime example of the cult of personality. Firstly, Christmas is of course overwhelmingly secularized. We could go on and on about the commercialization and the buy buy buy and the sentimentality and all the other overindulgences. And perhaps we should. But even those Christians who want to oppose this phenomenon of our societal “binge and purge” usually say something like this: let’s put the CHRIST back in Christmas.
WRONG! Let’s NOT put the Christ back in Christmas! Maybe, in light of the Gospel this morning, we should be saying: let’s put Christ’s MISSION back in Christmas. Because that would be even better.
That means helping the poor. That means clothing the naked. That means visiting the sick. That means standing up for justice for the outcast and marginalized. That means doing something – anything – for those who cannot always do things for themselves.
I’m not sure if any theologian has ever talked about the Jesus who didn’t want to be Christ. Maybe that sounds silly. Even unchristian. But maybe there were times when Nelson didn’t want to be the ONLY Mandela, if you know what I mean. And the Gospel of Matthew, near the end, makes it painfully clear that Jesus is to be found in everyone who needs our help. When were you sick? When were you in prison? When were you naked, and we did not clothe you? say the damned, to which the Lamb on the throne answers: Whatsoever you did to the least of these, you did to me.
We need a new category of Messiahship. A new kind of Christ. A realization that Christ is in the people who most need our help. And Christ’s work is in US, when we do what the Gospel says.
Our music and films, our history, our Nobel prizes, our governments…just about everything about our society is based on the cult of important, seemingly indispensable, people. Christs, of a sort. From the latest American Idol winner to the latest supermodel to the latest Youtube hit. On the surface, Jesus seems to be the ultimate example of that kind of cult – the most important person of all. The little carpenter’s son who changed the world.
But as we approach Christ mass, may we reflect on where Jesus himself pointed. Don’t look at me. Look at the work, he said: let the blind receive their sight, help the lame to walk, work so that the sick and diseased are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. In South Africa, we should honour Nelson, but pray that there will be a thousand Mandelas raised up to continue his work. And on this side of the ocean, we should be praying that there will be a hundred thousand of US to do messiah’s work. And then Christmas will truly come, truly blessed will we be, and happy will be anyone who takes no offence at such great good news. Are you the one? No, not the one……AMEN. Come Lord Jesus, in this way.