[Preached at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in San Diego, CA on Christmas Eve, 2017]
The Force Awakens
A long time ago in a civilization far, far away, a hero named Jesus was born in a backwater little town called Bethlehem, right under the noses of the evil Roman Empire. Bethlehem was on a caravan route and so had people from many diverse cultures, all of them under the control of the Emperor. The baby’s family had travelled to Bethlehem from Nazareth due to the emperor’s call for a census. Everyone knew the census was a tool the Empire used to oppress the people. The Roman emperor used the census to increase taxes to the poor and to draft men into the military. The taxes imposed by the Roman Emperor were so oppressive that Jewish zealots were beginning to riot.
No one was exactly sure who Jesus’s father was. But from his earliest days, people recognized that this baby was different. The force was with him. This force, the power of God to heal and Redeem, to empower and restore justice, emanated from the baby Jesus like a force field. It drew wise men to come visit him. It drew angels and shepherds to come to his side and marvel at him. And this was long before he showed his magical powers of healing, his deep insights into people, and his perplexing teachings.
We are so drawn to stories of heroes with magical powers such as Luke Skywalker and Rei, Princess Leia and Obiwan Kenobi. Typically, they are born of humble origins, but they demonstrate unusual powers that set them apart from the rest. At first, all people notice is their magical power. But during their training, they are encouraged to look deeply into themselves, to reject darkness and to embrace the light side of the Force. Luke plunges into a cave to confront the dark truths in his life. He discovers that Darth Vader is his father, and that Luke himself wants to kill him out of fury. Rey plunges into a dark hole to struggle with the dark forces in her life. They succeed in their battles against the evil Empire because the Force is with them. And they are with the Force. The Force that is in all of life and connects all of life.
The epic sagas of Star Wars pale in comparison to the Gospels about Jesus. Mainstream archaeologists have no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth existed. In fact, the more ancient sites the archaeologists discover in the Holy Land, the more they find 1st-century details that corroborate important details about the life of Jesus as depicted in the four Gospels. Typically, archaeologists would find it very unusual to find proof of a particular individual from eons ago.
And yet, in the case of Jesus, the more they excavate, the more they find historical glimpses of Jesus. An archaeologist turned journalist named Kristin Romey wrote of this work for National Geographic in an article titled, “The Real Jesus.” For example, it used to be thought that there were no synagogues in Galilee at the time of Jesus, so the Gospel accounts of his teaching in synagogues were thought to be concocted, not factual. That was until they discovered a 1st-century synagogue in a recent excavation in Galilee. Now they consider that Gospel account historically accurate.
How real is the Jesus of the Gospels, and what do we mean about Jesus being real today? Archaeology and Biblical study can only reveal so much. If we believe that Christ is somehow present in the world and in us, then we need to dig somewhere else besides the Holy Land to find Jesus. The excavation that must happen is the same journey that Jedi knights in training must undergo: we must dig down into ourselves to find the Real Jesus. We must pull away the layers of civilization that keep us from God and this Force within us.
It should not surprise us that Christ would be in us. The reason we love these epics with magical heroes is that we are drawn to the sense of glory and grandeur in human life. This glory and grandeur does not necessarily come from fame or greatness, but paradoxically amid humble circumstances. The glory and grandeur of God came to Earth as a baby swaddled in a manger to show us that God’s grandeur can be in small, simple things. God’s grandeur can be in us.
And so, to find the real Jesus, we need to look into ourselves for this divine spark. Like any Jedi knight, we will find that looking for a divine spark might cause us to encounter darkness. When Luke or Rei encounter darkness, they feel drawn to murderous impulses and revenge and must struggle with those feelings. The divine spark, the Force that is called God, in fact illuminates and scatters the darkness that is in us. And like Jedi knights, we can choose to turn away from the dark side and embrace the light of the Force.
This Force is not like the power of any Empire: instead, it is the creative and regenerative energy of God. This divine Force has the ability to transform our lives dramatically, if we are willing to dig deep inside ourselves like archaeologists. We need not fear any darkness we encounter. Fear or darkness cannot overcome us if we cling to the power of God.
Recently, a friend told me, “If I get the same life whether I believe in God or not, there’s no point in believing in God.” I have pondered that statement quite a bit since hearing it. I believe it contains a false premise: “IF I get the same life whether I believe in God or not….” Believing in God (and more to the point, Jesus) changes lives, and there is ample historical evidence for that. Clinging to the Force preserves marriages, helps people to recover from addictions, causes people to reject selfishness, violence, injustice, and inequality. Clinging to the Force causes people to desire and embrace life-enhancing behaviors. There is even ample evidence that religious belief improves people’s mental and physical health.
Belief in God in Christ can bring about lasting change in society as well. Just look at that evil Roman Empire. It persecuted Jews and early Christians, until the Roman Emperor Constantine experienced a powerful conversion to Christianity before a decisive battle. Not only did he stop persecuting Christians; he made Christianity the state religion–and changed the course of history forever. It was the force of Love that ended the evil Empire’s persecution of Christianity, not armed battle. It was the force of Christ that inspired leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
So I think it’s a false premise that our lives are the same whether we believe in God or not. There is also an unstated assumption in my friend’s comment. The unstated assumption is that the only reason to believe in God is so that we will get some benefit. It’s as if we are negotiating with God to get something we want. If God delivers, then we’ll pay God back by believing in God.
That approach doesn’t make sense for at least two reasons. It assumes that God is a needy individual who is desperate to get us to like her or him. No representation of God in any religion looks like that. But this negotiation scheme also puts us in the position of negotiating with the very power whose existence we threaten to deny if life does not go the way we want. To do that, we would have to threaten to end an agreement with something we claim does not exist.
That would be like a Jedi knight saying, “I’ll believe in the Force if it helps me win this battle.”
But a Jedi knight is always at one with the Force and does the bidding of the Force, knowing that the battle may be costly. The divine Force within us works the same way. It is always in us and around us, stirring us to heroic acts of self-sacrifice and love and godliness.
There is, however, a big difference between the Force in Star Wars and the divine Force of Christ. In Star Wars movies, only a few people sense the Force strongly. Only a few receive the special training that marks them as Jedi knights. They often take on evil alone.
But in the case of Christ, the divine Force is present in us all. The special training is available to any who ask. And when we do excavate our souls and encounter dark corners in ourselves or in our world, we do not have to confront them alone. Jesus came to save us from this darkness. Together, we can pray, “Help me, Jesus. You’re my only hope.”
Jesus also told us, “You will do greater things than I.” Jesus doesn’t mean that we as individuals can do greater things than he; we cannot hold even a little candle to his light. He means that together, we can be part of a larger Movement, the Jesus Movement. Together, as the Jesus Movement, we can end injustice and hatred, racism and sexism and nationalism and bigotry and poverty. At least in our own corner of the galaxy. We can tap into the Force of Christ and resist the darkness of imperial forces, each and every one of us. We can fight to preserve what we love, rather than kill what we hate. Each of us is a Luke Skywalker or a Rei or a Princess Leia sent to bring peace to the galaxy using the Force of Christ. There’s no time to lose.
May the Force be with you.