Is Jesus Lord?
Sufficiently upset, or delighted to hear me say that? Humor me. I haven’t done extensive study on lordship in the early church’s context, but I think I understand enough to claim that most of us have no concept of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
When we read or hear the words, “Jesus is Lord,” most of us, I imagine, jump straight to the translation conclusion, “Jesus is God.” And, sure, okay, but there’s a little bit more to it than that. The word “Lord” is based on the Greek word kyrio, meaning “Lord, or lord, or master, or sir.” The word is used around 717 times in the New Testament alone, and the same root word kyrio is translated in all four ways, as well as our word for “owner.” It is used a lot, and it is used, it seems, with varying degrees of contextual hierarchy. So the word kyrio could be translated as “sir” every time, or “Lord” every time, but that would not make much sense contextually. In order to figure out whether by the word kyrio the author intended “Lord,” “master,” or “sir,” you would have to understand the context of who is being talked to, with, or about. “Lord” is the most reverent, “sir” was not as reverent.
The early church used as one of it’s primary mantras, “Jesus is Lord.” This only makes serious sense in light of the fact that one of the primary mantras of the Roman Empire was “Caesar is Lord.” And when one of Caesar’s messengers (apostolo=“apostle”) would roll into town, he came proclaiming the “gospel of Caesar.” When Julius Caesar was assassinated he was elevated to the status of a god. Before his death he adopted his distant nephew Octavian as his son. When Octavian officially took the newly minted throne of Rome he changed his name to Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, or appropriately in English, Commander of the world, Son of God, Messiah. In Rome, Caesar was Lord, God, Ruler, Master. The will and worship of Caesar ruled the day to day lives of the people. Caesar alone was worthy of praise, because it’s treason otherwise. There was a particular way of living under the lordship of Caesar, the Commander of the world, the son of god, messiah and Majestic Ruler, just as there is a certain way of living in the United States under the banner of the Gospel of Democracy and Capitalism. It’s a culture, a worldview.
So for the early church to boldly proclaim that indeed “Jesus is Lord,” was to effectively counter proclaim “Caesar is not Lord.” If Jesus is the ultimate Lord, Caesar cannot be. “Jesus is Lord” is a subversive, political counter claim against the way of living under Caesar, introducing thus a backwards orientation of a new world order. Peace is not brought through Imperial discipline, but rather by the One slain under Imperial discipline. Order is not kept in loving your friends and hating your enemies, but in loving your enemies until they become your friends. Love itself is the ruling ethic, not misguided concepts of virtue. For early followers of Christ, the notion that “Jesus is Lord” gave them a completely different worldview. Allegiance and service is fully granted to Jesus, his Holy Spirit among them, and the God of Israel who anointed him, not because of the threat of punishment, but because his love for them (as displayed during his life and on the cross) and among them (through the power of his Holy Spirit) had so, they believed, brought the course of human history to its climax and was dramatically shifting the world from one of kingdoms and nations ruled by violence and oppression to a kingdom ruled by love: the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God for them was an “already/not yet,” not simply some future ethereal reality that we’ll all sort of eventually reach. The kingdom is a reality in the present! Inaugurated by the true Son of the true God, Jesus the Messiah, and carried forth by his church to this day. Jesus is the Lord of this kingdom. But we (very much including the church) often fail miserably to recognize him as such. What has happened to our concepts of love, and community, and service, and worship, and mastery, and governance, and observance, and faith, and righteousness, and justice that have allowed us to view ourselves as Lord in place of Jesus, and view the Holy Spirit of God as simply our individual helper buddy with whom we never speak? What would it mean for us to again know and recognize that “Jesus is Lord?” Ponder it, as I am, and perhaps discussion for another time.