In a book review in the Mainline Protestant magazine The Christian Century, reviewer Marcia Z. Nelson writes that “Heaven is not a place where Jesus rides a pony with a rainbow mane.” This will come as bad news to some Bronies. You may have never heard of Bronies, the name itself a portmanteau of “Bro” and “pony.” It is a self-identification used by adult fans of the My Little Pony franchise, tech-savy, often male. Weird? Yeah, maybe.
You might remember My Little Pony, a Hasbro brand introduced in the 1980’s when America was trying to feel good again, to turn its back on the complexities of the Sixties and Seventies by dividing the world into a simple binary of good guys, with a white-hatted cowboy in charge, and bad guys, a new Red Scare with commies and pinkos and homos around every corner. It was the decade I went from apple pie, Boy Scouts and Go Army to being one of those Commie Pinko Homos.
The My Little Pony franchise had toys, of course, probably some in your own homes over the years, and television shows. The brand never really died, and had a resurgence with the introduction of the fourth generation line of shows and toys in 2010 through “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” featuring the unicorn pony Twilight Sparkle.
Bronies have conventions and cos-play. Yep, grown-ups wearing costumes to look like animated rainbow unicorns. Some see this as an exercise in irony, and there may be some irony. Others, however, see it as exactly the opposite, as an expression of the New Sincerity, a movement in the arts that rejects the bitter cynicism that has become all too common in the post-Boom era, My Little Pony held in contrast to something like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” from the 1980’s, a gritty alternative Batman. One of my favorite film directors, Wes Anderson, is often held up as an example of New Sincerity in film, where humans are humans, imperfect, truly weird and a little broken, but essentially good.
Cynicism and irony? Or a sincere appreciation of what is good and beautiful? Adventure along with Twilight Sparkle and and let me know what you think. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, a desire to believe that love wins and humans are designed for love and creativity, that the world can be filled with pretty colors, because it really is. This is why my video library leans heavily toward Disney, family films, “happily ever after,” and the aforementioned Wes Anderson. I’d be happy to live in Moonrise Kingdom. And I sort of do.
How will you see the world? Today’s scripture readings lift up the tension between three understandings of the Kingdom of God, the Peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah, the dualism of John the Baptizer, a world of good and evil, white hats and pinkos, and the good news offered by Jesus, an in-breaking kingdom and a God that forgives like a loving parent, which is a very different thing altogether. Perfect harmony, harsh judgment, or messy love?
There is a tension we ignore when we try to place John the Baptist inside of the Jesus story, and not just between the early followers of the two movements, though there was that.
Some, including Josephus, that biased source that is our only real independent source on events during the time of Jesus, argue that the community surrounding John dispersed after he was murdered. The effort gospel authors make to place Jesus above John suggests otherwise, that these two Jewish reform communities were competing for followers. Surely the followers of the prophet at the Jordan River did not see him as simply a precursor to Jesus.
So what was John’s message? John, like Jesus, sought reform within the Hebrew religion of his day. The Baptizer calls his fellow Hebrews to repent of their sins, the many ways that they fail to keep covenant with Yahweh, and he asks them to act out that repentance with a ritual washing away of sin. The ritual act was an innovation, an extension into the spiritual realm of the Hebrew mikveh, the bath used to restore cleanliness after someone had become defiled.
The broader call to repentance is grounded in John’s teaching about a divine reversal, a Day of the Lord or apocalypse if you will. Being baptized, John teaches, is about being on the right side when God comes in fury, in violence. Be a part of the closed repentance community, or face divine wrath.
Divine violence was nothing new to the Hebrews. They understood violence as the way a harsh and judging king-god should and would act in the world. They still participated in blood sacrifice, blood on the altar, were not all that far removed from actual human sacrifice. While we happily tell the story of Yahweh testing Abraham, never asking what sort of loving God would ever do such a thing, it is deeply disturbing to discover that the entire episode with the angel is a late addition, that Abraham comes down from that mountain alone. They not only saw divine violence at work in their escape from Egypt, but they justified their acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Canaan as a divine mandate.
No wonder it was so easy for some strands of Christianity to fall back into this pattern, scapegoating, purification through blood, not so far removed from those ancient sacrifices in which father kills child.
Jesus is also eschatological, the technical term for an orientation toward last times or end times, but he is not apocalyptic. If you remove the 13th chapter of Mark, which many scholars find suspect, Jesus instead seems to offer the idea that the kingdom of God is already breaking into the world, and that rather than bringing divine violence, it is an in-breaking of divine forgiveness, divine love. To be part of that in-breaking kingdom, one simply needs to opt-in.
The Messiah is not a conqueror. Instead, in Jesus, we find a messiah as the divine victim of human violence, a victim of the scapegoating mechanism that declares violence to be sacred and communal, a victim of the legal murder of execution that declares violence to be necessary for the ordering of society. But love wins, and as a victim of religious and state violence, Jesus empties it out, reveals it for what it is. It has no power, for love wins, the in-breaking kingdom wins, every time, not in apocalyptic reversal, not in a rapture, but because love gets back up every single time. No grave can hold it.
Love, agape love, is not what you have for your family, your close friends. Not that those are not important and good things, but they gain no merit in heaven. Luke and the author of the gospel attributed to Matthew, drawing from the same lost source, report Jesus saying that there is no reward in loving those who love you, for even tax-collectors collaborating with the Romans, even sinners, do the same.
The love of a mother for her infant son, so celebrated this season, is beautiful. But the greatest love of all comes at the other end of the story, for it is a love that continues in the most terrible conditions. It is a love that is tough as nails, that weeps in the garden and gets back up.
There is nothing ironic or cynical in the teaching of Jesus. It is the old sincerity, the dawn that finally comes, the happy ending where everyone is invited to the party. It is hanging on a cross and asking God to forgive those using violence, lying in a grave, and getting back up again. Love wins. All you have to do is opt-in.
Love invites all to the table, the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, the victim and even the victimizer. All are offered divine love. All are offered divine forgiveness. This is the reversal that the opt-in in-breaking kingdom of God delivers, not violence and judgment, but love.
We need love. We need love that is tough enough to suffer a defeat a keeps going. We need love for those who don’t love us. Nothing wimpy about it.
Get back up. Face outward. Love. Amen.