The affirmation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is perhaps the oldest of Christian confessions.
To the original users and hearers of the phrase, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord has a very specific, pointed, and weighty meaning. It asserts that
a Palestinian Jew
who had been crucified by the Romans for sedition
is not only still alive
but is God.
It says to Rome, “You killed Jesus, but he didn’t stay dead; now he is coming to destroy you, thank God.”
In other words, this confession is an only slightly veiled way to thumb one’s nose at Rome. For to dedicate yourself to following a person whom Rome executed says that Rome’s violence didn’t work and doesn’t scare you like it’s supposed to. Indeed, it enthusiastically asserts that Rome is doomed.
Furthermore, the proclamation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is a deliberate and intentional twisting of a common propaganda slogan of the Empire: “Caesar Is Lord!” Anyone hearing someone say, “Jesus Is Lord!” immediately understood it to also mean, “and Caesar isn’t!” To say that “Jesus Is Lord!” is to participate in the sedition for which Jesus himself was executed. It is an essentially subversive, revolutionary, insurgent, and radical statement, and Rome took it to be so.
To join in this new movement centered on Jesus is an explicit act of resistance to empire.
In addition, since “Lord” is the name for God in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, “Jesus Is Lord!” is also a theological proclamation. When Caesar claimed to be “Lord” it was not just as supreme leader of the Roman Empire, but a claim to be a god. “Jesus Is Lord!” means that not only is Jesus now alive, but he is also in some sense identical with the one Jewish God who created heaven and earth, and therefore far more powerful than Caesar could ever dream of being.
The God of the Jews is the One who liberates a band of Israelite slaves from Egypt, delivers the defeated Jews from exile in Babylon, and is always siding with the rejected, the defeated, the broken, and the lost.
This God is thus a threat to all empires and entrenched human powers.
First century people who assert that “Jesus Is Lord!” are basically saying that what this God did to Egypt and Babylon is about to happen to Rome.
The entire ministry of Jesus has to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which is God’s reign of peace and justice. It involves a wall-to-wall reversal of social orders: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor are blessed, the possessed are freed, the hungry are fed, the rich and powerful are sent away empty-handed, and even the dead are raised. Jesus rejects secular power, fame, and wealth when the devil offers it to him. He empties himself in identification with the broken, even to the point of dying on a cross, which was even itself cursed!
His new community thus rejects earthly power, fame, wealth, and privilege, and gathers in oneness and equality, all qualitative differences having been wiped away. Paul talks about the members of the church having different gifts; but all the gifts are of equal value. It is the empire that imposes social strata, in-groups and out-groups, superiors and subordinates, and divides people by race, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, education, class, religion, and philosophy. This radical leveling is the basis for and expression of the love God has for the world.
Thus the followers of Jesus’ Way are known by the divine love they share for one another and for all.
So: “Jesus Is Lord!” does not identify Jesus with the lords who manage this world by violence for their own profit. Jesus is not a lord like the foolish and pathetic lords who wield power in our own lives, the owners and bosses and executives and leaders and investors and generals and presidents and chair-persons and trustees and judges and representatives and managers and so forth. Just the opposite is the case. His Lordship, because it is the Lordship of the One the world’s leaders crucified because of his resistance to them, and yet who is risen to reign, is an absolute contradiction of the lordship they maintain by lies, fear, and violence.
Jesus’ Lordship is an indictment and condemnation of all human lords.
So let’s remember what we are saying when we say “Jesus Is Lord!” even today. We are saying that we will follow and obey Jesus Christ alone. We are saying that the system of domination and privilege, in which the wealth and power of a few is preserved and extended over everyone else, is evil, false, and doomed. And that in anticipation of the inevitable Day when truth and goodness finally triumph, we choose to gather with others in communities of peace, shaping our lives by the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and his commandments.