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Who I Say You Are 6

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I’m still giving my answers to the question Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is One who serves.

What I mean:

He told his disciples that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 NRSV). This wasn’t just a random fact about him; it was his very essence. The Apostle Paul invites us to become like Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself,

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

The New Revised Standard Version tends to translate the Greek word doulos as “slave” rather than “servant.” I’ve had people in my adult Sunday School classes chafe at that, and they insist we should substitute the word “servant” for “slave.” But that just illustrates how hard it is for us to accept Jesus in this role. We’re much more comfortable thinking of him as a service-oriented kind of guy than as a slave. In fact, it can be trendy to call him a “Servant Leader.” A lot of highly paid businessmen and entrepreneurs pay big money to go to “Servant Leader” training. We like to think of Jesus as a “Servant Leader,” with emphasis on the word “Leader.” We’re not at all comfortable thinking of him as a slave.

But that was a fundamental fact about Jesus: that he had come to serve. And although it’s service to God that motivated him, he became the servant of all humanity, dying in order to save us. While he was still on earth, he was available at all times of the day and night, whenever anyone wanted their sick healed or their children blessed. The Gospel of Matthew says he took their infirmities upon himself (Matthew 8:17, referring to Isaiah 53:4). But he also set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem and the cross (Luke 9:51, KJV), because that was the thing his Father wanted him to do – for people in all ages.

There are three seemingly-unrelated passages in Luke that, when read in conjunction with each other, are jaw-dropping. The fact that the first two come in reverse order, with the set-up in a later chapter than the payoff, insures that most of us will miss their relationship. And yet they are related.

In Luke 17:7-8 (NRSV), Jesus says, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?” In the next two verses, he says that we should not expect thanks but rather consider ourselves worthless servants because we have only done what we (as his servants) ought to have done.

But if we look very carefully at the part I quoted above, then turn back to Luke 12:37, the result is astounding: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

The very thing he just finished saying that a master will never do! But that’s because he’s no ordinary master; he’s the One who serves. He drives home the point in a third passage, also in Luke: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

When we Christians sing, “There is none like him,” I wonder if we’re thinking of passages like this? He never tries to prove how great he is. Instead, he serves. And by so doing, he shows us what true greatness really means.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com

Who I Say You Are 5

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I have been sensing Christ asking me to give my own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” I don’t have just one answer, however, so I have been giving a series of answers. Here’s another one.

What I say:

He is both lamb and shepherd.

What I mean:

He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 RSV). It is his blood, “like that of a [sacrificial] lamb, without defect or blemish” that “ransomed” me from a life of futility (I Peter 1:18-19). It was his death that tore open the curtain of the Holiest Place and made it possible for me (and for all of us) to come boldly into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).

I can’t tell you why it was necessary for him to die for us. I’ve never understood the doctrine of original sin, or how Christ’s death solves the problem. He himself never tried to explain it. I only know that, when Jesus said it was necessary for him to die, and Peter told him to stop being such a downer, Jesus responded to Peter the same way he replied to the Devil when he tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness: “Get behind me, Satan” (compare Matt 16:21-23 with Matt 4:10; in some ancient manuscripts the verbiage is identical). And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked his Father to prevent his death and suffering “if it were possible” (Mark 14:35). And he added, “For you, all things are possible” (v. 36). But he knew even then that he had to die for us. And he did. He was the sacrificial lamb whose death was a gift to us all.

I’ve never been any good at explaining all that. But I know this: it was only by claiming that gift, in the summer of 1971, that I found God. I didn’t understand it any better than Peter did, and everything inside me protested against it just like Peter protested when he first heard about it. But I understood what Jesus meant when Peter objected to Christ washing his feet (John 13:6-7). Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). That much was clear to me.

So on that early summer’s evening in 1971, I accepted the gift, despite all my inner objections. I told him I wanted his blood to wash me of my sin. And he did.

Someday when I stand before God and have to give an account of my life, I’m not going to justify myself. “My one defense,” as Matt Maher says, is Jesus, and what he did on the cross. He is “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12).

But, at the risk of mixing metaphors, I also identify him as the Great Shepherd. For after he cleanses us, then he guides us further into life with God.

On that Day of Reckoning, I will be asked a number of stern questions: What did I do with the resources God gave me (Matt 25:14-30)? And how did I respond when I was faced with people in need (vv. 31-46)? In other words, I’ll be compelled to give an account of what happened after I was redeemed by the blood of Christ. What did I go on to do with that precious gift?

Here again, my only defense will be that I followed my Shepherd. But that, too, will be enough. Through the fifty intervening years since I accepted his sacrifice as the Lamb, he has guided me, prodded me, and kept me moving forward, as a Shepherd. The Shepherd not only lays down his life for the sheep but also guides them; and his sheep know his voice and follow him wherever he leads (John 10:1-30). That has certainly been my experience. He has taken me to places I never expected to go, and herded me into flocks I never thought I’d be part of.

He’s full of surprises… so much so that it’s impossible for me to tell you who he is in a brief, tweetable message.

And that’s why I’ll continue giving you my answer to that question in future posts.

Who I Say You Are 4

I’m still answering Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is both the Prince of Peace and the great Disturber of the Peace.

What I mean:

We Christians identify Jesus as the person Isaiah calls “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 6:9). He has promised to give us his peace that is unlike anything the world can give us (John 14:27).

But he also said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). He said that he would cause disturbances among people, even to the point of breaking up families: “and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (v. 36). The peace that he offers does not just soothe us and make us feel good; although it calms our fears, it also emboldens us to take a stand for him, despite opposition.

I’m sure the local leaders cringed when they heard that Jesus was coming to their town, because he often said things that upset them. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he said (Luke 7:23). It was a significant remark, for Jesus didn’t mince words. In Nazareth, the crowd got so upset they tried to grab him and throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). And these were the people who had known him as a boy!

Nor is this all confined to the pages of scripture. In my own life, he has been the Prince of Peace. Each day as I plug in my headset and take customer service calls for my day job, I sense him within me, not only keeping me calm when customers yell at me but also empowering me to respond compassionately, leading the discussion to a constructive outcome. And all the rest of the time (not just in those crisis situations), his peace wells up within me, helping me rise above boredom and remain fully engaged in each call.

But he is also the disturber of my peace, for his thoughts are not like mine (Isaiah 55:8), and every time I start to get comfortable with my conceptions of him, he reminds me of that in rather startling ways. Worse yet, he urges me to listen respectfully to viewpoints that I disagree with and to be kind to the people on the opposing side of the hot issues of the day. When I feel a strong impulse to hate someone, he places me in situations in which I must sort out those feelings and do something about them. There have been many times in which I have felt my course of action would be easier if I could just do things my own way.

He fits the description that the writer of Hebrews gives of the word of God: “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 KJV). I don’t just read about him; he reads me. And “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v. 13).

Those last words are especially appropriate: “him with whom we have to do.” I can’t ignore him. I can’t call upon him only when I want his counsel. He’s the one I have to answer to, not only at the end of the day but each moment of each day. As the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 13, he is “the one to whom we must render an account.” This calls to mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12:36: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.” And these days, with so many subjects becoming politicized, it’s hard not to stumble carelessly into a remark that hurts someone else. “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account…” Except that I don’t have the luxury of waiting for some eventual day of judgment; because I’m his follower, every day is a day of judgment. And he lets me know it.

My goal is to bring the two parts of this together – to know him as a disturber of my peace, and yet to rest in his peace. The New Testament tells a story about him that Illustrates this. Christ and his disciples were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee when a storm whipped up. At least four of his disciples were fishermen. They were experienced at this sort of thing, and they knew this was a bad storm. They hurried to Jesus, and he spoke to the wind and the waves as though they were a child having a tantrum. “Peace, be still,” he said. And the storm stopped (Mark 4:35-41; see also Matt 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25).

The lesson we’re supposed to learn from this story is to have faith in Jesus, whom “even the wind and the sea obey” (Mark 4:41). But I get more inspiration from a minor detail of the story. While the storm swirled about them, tossing their boat around like a toy, the disciples were surprised to find Jesus sleeping. He was at peace, and he was also able to make the storm be at peace.

“In the world you have tribulation,” he said. “But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 KJV).

Who do I say that he is? He is the eye of the storm. Controversy swirls around him, problems come at him from every side; but he is the peace at the center of it all. He himself is at peace, and in some cases it’s contagious.

As his disciple, I want to live each day resting in his peace, no matter what storms or controversies are swirling around me.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com.

 

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Who I Say You Are 3

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I am giving my own heartfelt answers to Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is the common denominator of all the Christian denominations.

What I mean:

I’ve been a Christian for 50 years, but I’ve been a member of various denominations over the course of that time. I was raised as a Reorganized Latter Day Saint and left that organization to join the United Church of Christ (UCC). I briefly attended a UCC seminary but did not go on to become a minister. I was a Presbyterian for a few years, and then a United Methodist. I got my PhD at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit school) and taught courses there for four years, then went on to teach for two years at another Jesuit school, Xavier University in Cincinnati. I’ve published a few stories in The Way of Saint Francis, a Catholic magazine. For a number of years I’ve taught at Spring Arbor University, which is a Free Methodist school (not to be confused with United Methodist), and I’ve been a frequent contributor to The Congregationalist, the official magazine of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Years ago, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I was a member of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and served on a youth committee. For the past several years my wife and I have attended a variety of Evangelical churches.

Through all these experiences, I’ve seen enough to say this: despite the many differences from one denomination to another, we all sing and talk primarily about Jesus. I don’t mean to minimize the differences among us, for they are significant. I do want to point out, however, that every Christian organization I’ve been a part of has focused on Jesus, although they may differ greatly in their conception of who he is. (In other words, they give different answers to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”)

This has always been the case. Before the books of the New Testament were canonized, the various Christian communities may have had different books in their libraries, and they probably had different emphases. If you were used to worshiping with a group that emphasized Luke’s gospel, for example, then you would recite the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich.” And if you happened to visit another community that emphasized Matthew’s gospel, you might be very surprised to hear them spiritualizing it: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact, if you had come into the church excited about the social commentary that runs throughout Luke’s gospel, you might be scandalized by Matthew’s other-worldly interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

Or if you were a member of the so-called “Johannine Community” (who rallied around the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John), then your chronology of Jesus’ life would have been very different from those who emphasized the so-called “Synoptic Gospels.” (To give just one example, you would be comfortable with seeing Jesus in Jerusalem repeatedly throughout his ministry, while the Synoptics have him going to Jerusalem only at the end.) But your views on Jesus would extend much farther than mere chronology, for even his voice would sound different to you. (In the Synoptics, Jesus talks in sound bites; in John, he gives long speeches which in turn are filled with long sentences.) You would also be used to seeing him as a cosmic creature – “the Word that was in the beginning with God” – whereas the members of other Christian communities would tend to refer to him as the Messiah of the Jews, emphasizing his role within one nation’s history.

And then there was the Gospel of Mark, which pictured Jesus as being largely misunderstood by his own disciples. Mark’s gospel shows him being much more exasperated with his followers than the other gospels do, even to the point of calling them “hard of heart.” The earliest version of Mark’s gospel has the disciples cowering in fear on Resurrection Sunday, not even going out to tell anyone that he is risen.

All these early “gospel communities” exhibit differences in their views of Jesus, and some of these differences are huge. But all of them focus on Jesus. And it’s been that way ever since. Within the first few centuries, many different kinds of churches were established around the Mediterranean Sea: Coptic Christians in North Africa, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, and Roman Catholics in the West. They worshiped in increasingly divergent ways, but each group was responding to their own unique views of Jesus. And after the Reformation, each new group that split away from the “Mother Church” did so in order to follow Jesus according to their own conscience.

My point is that, despite our many differences, we all believe that our own group is following Jesus. If we concede that people in other denominations are also following him, we usually find it necessary to say that they are misguided in certain respects, or that they have misinterpreted him. We may even question their sincerity or the purity of their intentions in following him. But despite this tendency to try to claim him for the home team, the truth is that he is the common denominator among the denominations. We’re all trying to follow him, even though we’re going about it in radically different ways.

There are two further observations I want to make about this.

First, he’s too big for any one denomination. None of us have the corner on him, and we never will. He’s more than all of us put together. The world needs all of our witnesses, from all of our divergent vantage points. He’s that big.

Second, he’s been trying to bring us together from the beginning. When he chose his inner circle of disciples, he put a tax collector (Matthew, also called Levi) side-by-side with Simon the Zealot. Tax collectors were considered traitors because they worked for Rome; the Zealots were super-patriotic, even to the point of condoning terrorism. The fact that Jesus chose two such men to represent him shows not only that his program had room for both views, but also that he believed it was possible for them to accommodate each other. (We humans still haven’t figured out how to do that, however.) And in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17, Jesus asked his Father to make his followers one, as the Father and the Son are one. At the very least, I interpret this as a mandate to root for each other, support each other in prayer, and think the best of one another, even if we can’t see eye to eye.

Who is Jesus? He’s what we’re all trying to be. We may call ourselves Baptists or Episcopalians. We may belong to the Church of Christ or the Church of God (which is not the same thing). But we are all, in our own unique ways, striving to be like him.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com

Who I Say You Are 2

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I have been sensing that it is time for me to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And since my answer is not short, I am going to give it in serialized form. To begin, then…

What I say:

I say that he is the master of the short-short story form and of the memorable phrase.

What I mean:

A short story is usually at least several printed pages in length, and is often even longer. But a short-short story is one that can be printed on a single page.

The parables of Jesus are the most influential short-short stories in history. Yes, other religious and cultural leaders have told great short-short stories (Aesop, for example, and Chuang-tze), but the parables of Jesus have become so much a part of the fabric of our being, at least here in the Western world, that we still remember them even in this highly-secular age. People who would never set foot inside a church are nonetheless familiar with the Prodigal Son, and they even remember the evocative image of his father running out into the field to welcome him home. We still talk about Good Samaritans, and we still vaguely remember the story Jesus told about one of them. The parable of the Unforgiving Debtor might not be so well-remembered, but anyone who hears it is struck by the emotional power of the eponymous Debtor grabbing the other guy by the throat. Still to this day, people think they’re being clever when they say, “So I said to myself, ‘Self…'” but they don’t seem to realize that Jesus told that joke first, in the parable of the Man and His Barn.

Jesus’ parables are so extremely short that, if we had to do so, most of us would be unable to retell them as succinctly and yet as powerfully as he did. But as short as they are, they are so full of meaning that lengthy sermons – and even sermon series – are needed in order to explain their significance. As both a writer and a speaker (and an occasional preacher), I know how hard it is to be brief. It is amazing to me that Jesus could take the most important message in the world and encapsulate it in such tiny little narrative packages.

But he didn’t just specialize in storytelling; he was also a master of the memorable phrase. We still quote him often, although most of the time we don’t remember that he’s the one who said the line we’re quoting. Whenever we speak of the blind leading the blind (or joke about the blonde leading the blonde), or a house divided against itself, or the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, or we talk about having ears to hear or eyes to see or casting our pearls before swine, or we say we must separate the sheep from the goats – whenever we say any of these things, we’re quoting or paraphrasing him. When we say, “O ye of little faith,” we’re repeating what he said. Long before there were bumper stickers or tweets, Jesus was the master of both.

Why does this matter? Because I am in awe of anyone who can say something important and put it in such small packages. We humans (or at least we human speakers, writers, and preachers) are verbose by nature; to be concise takes amazing talent. But to be both concise and revelatory… THAT is divine. Those of us who follow Jesus may have many things we admire about him, and each of us can only speak for ourselves. When Jesus asks me to declare, publicly, who I say he is, this is the first thing that comes to mind. As a writer, speaker, and occasional preacher, I can give no greater praise: The way he preached… the way he told stories… the way he got his points across… I know of no one else in all of history who does these things like he did. He is the Master of short-form communication.”

I don’t suppose that was the kind of answer he was looking for that day when he asked his original disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” But I think he knows me well enough to realize how heartfelt my answer is.

Of course, I’m not concise like he is, so I also have several other answers to his question. I’ll share the second one in my next post.

Who I Say You Are 1

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The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell a very important story about Jesus. (You can read it in Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:18-21.)

Jesus asked his disciples, “What are people saying about me? Who do they think I am?” Their answer was that the public seemed to be comparing him with other great preachers. John the Baptist and Elijah were the top two mentioned.

“But who do you say that I am?” he asked.

The question recedes quickly into the background because it prompts Simon Peter’s “Great Confession”: “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.” And we love that passage because those words comprise the great Christological declaration of our faith.

Lately, however, I have felt a strong compulsion to answer the question, “Who do I say that he is?”

As of this summer (2021) I’ve been his disciple for 50 years. I’m tempted to say to him, much as Peter said to him later in the story, “Lord, you know I love you. You know I have served you. You know…”

I have blogged about him, written books about him, preached about him, taught classes about him. But lately I’ve felt myself uniquely addressed by the question. For whatever reason or reasons, I feel I must answer, in all honesty, who I think he is. (And more importantly, who I say he is, here in this public space where anyone can see it.)

I feel it is time for me to answer the question – honestly and publicly. So over the next several posts I’m going to share my answer with you. I have avoided other people’s pious phrases and definitions, including Peter’s. I’m going to tell you exactly what I believe, after all my philosophical training and pondering, and after knowing him for 50 years.

I hope you won’t be scandalized by what I am going to say, because I’m not going to follow the well-worn paths and just repeat what others before me have said. This will be a deeply personal response, but it will also be a reasoned response. It will, in other words, be a response to all that he has taught me about himself.

If I were to tell you about the people who are closest to me, I would find it difficult to do it briefly. If you were to ask me about the teachers or mentors who have most influenced me, you should be prepared to stick around a while. If I were to talk about some of the great figures in the history of the world, it would take me hours. (I know this from experience. I do it in the classroom all the time.)

Why, then, do we think it’s a simple matter to confess who Jesus is? For he is all these things: the Person closest to me, the Teacher and Mentor who has most deeply influenced me, and the greatest of all historical figures – indeed, the one historical figure who transcends history. I feel myself called upon to answer his question: “Who do you say that I am?” but I simply cannot give a short, simple response to this question of questions. I have many things to say, and I will do so over the next several blog posts.

Surprises 6: Coming Out Christian

I gave my life to Christ early in the summer before my freshman year of high school, but for the rest of that calendar year I kept my commitment a secret. Most of the other members of my family were heavily involved in our church, but I did not at first think that my commitment to Christ had to find expression through church activities. I have already told you about a number of surprises I experienced after becoming a Christian, and they were all along the same theme: I was surprised by the many ways in which my relationship with Christ found expression in my secular daily life. This was an idea so foreign to me, and so different from what I saw and heard at church, that I kept it to myself for several months, fearing that I might lose what I had found – that my life would be redirected by others in my family and at church when they found out that I was now a Christian.

Today I want to tell you about how I came out publicly as a Christian. And since this is part of a series of things that surprised me when I became a Christian, I’ll tell you what surprised me most about it.

I left off last time telling you that, during my first few months as a high school freshman, I experienced a drastic change in circumstances, having spent the previous year laying low and now becoming a member of the Varsity Club and first chair clarinet (and therefore Concert Master) of the high school concert band. At about this same time (December 1971), I became filled with the desire to tell others about the things I had been experiencing. Over Christmas Break, I decided I would go back to school in January with a message.

Good and bad motives were all wrapped up so tightly together that it’s hard for me to sort them out now. But that’s when I came out as a Christian, not only at church but also at school. I started wearing a cross and carrying a Bible to all my classes. I wrote a series of articles for the school newspaper, trying to prove the existence of God, and when the teacher in charge of the paper politely declined to print them, I was deeply disappointed; but I didn’t let it stop me. I believed that I was called to preach, and since I belonged to a church that was made up of mostly lay preachers, that was not an unrealistic expectation.

I listened to sermons and Christian radio broadcasts at every opportunity and kept sermon ideas on 3 x 5 note cards. It wasn’t long before I had a box filled with cards. Meanwhile, I stood up and gave a testimony (a mini-sermon, actually) at every Wednesday night prayer service and at our Monday night District Youth Fellowship meetings. A very kind woman in our congregation asked me to co-teach a Sunday School class with her for Primary age children (young elementary), and I was invited to be on our congregation’s Worship Committee and Education Committee. Other congregations in the Grand Rapids area invited me to speak.

Here’s what was so surprising: Almost overnight, I went from having a very private, deeply personal, and profoundly secular relationship with Jesus Christ to being a very public, very showy, exclusively religious church person. At the point that I am at now in my life, it’s hard for me to have sympathy for the guy that I became. I suppose I’m probably too hard on myself. There was a lot of good in what I was doing: for example, I studied the Bible hungrily, using a concordance and pursuing themes and key words, and I told everyone who would listen that Jesus Christ was real, that He was accessible, and that He cared about everyday life. But I had forgotten everything He had taught me in those first few months. I was no longer interested in anything secular. School became nothing more than my mission field. I no longer cared about history, literature, science, or anything else but the Bible. I didn’t like school anymore. Where I really wanted to be was at church.

This was the surprise: that I could start out so excited about the goodness of God in my secular life that my enthusiasm could then make me completely forget about experiencing God in secular life. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that it is important for Christ’s followers to step forward and declare themselves publicly. I just regret the fact that, when I finally did it, I ended up in the opposite direction from the one that He had been guiding me in the months leading up to my public profession of faith. This, then, was perhaps the biggest surprise about becoming a Christian: that there is a frighteningly thin line between being an authentic follower of Jesus and being merely a religious person. It is all too easy for followers of Christ to be seduced by religion, and especially by positions of prominence within the church. This is something Jesus warned us about repeatedly, and with good reason. It is precisely because of how amazing He is that we want to read the Bible and tell the world about what He has taught us… but Bible reading and telling others can become ends in themselves and can tempt us away from the very God who inspired us to go in that direction in the first place.

The good news is that Jesus Christ is perfectly capable of wooing us back. And that leads me to the next big surprise…

Surprises 1: Things Happened

I mentioned recently that I became a disciple of Jesus Christ the summer before my freshman year of high school. After I committed my life to Christ, however, I was surprised about a number of things. Over the next several posts, I’ll share some of those surprises.

I don’t know how to put the first surprise into words other than to say that “things happened” after I became a Christian. I don’t just mean that I started seeing my prayers answered, although I did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post. What I mean instead is something more mundane.

One of the motivating factors in my coming to Christ was the feeling that nothing of any great importance ever happened to me. I was a budding young writer, and I had written a number of book-length stories which I called novels, but all the excitement in my life up to that time had happened in my head. In fact, that was one of the main reasons why I started writing novels: to bring to full expression my rich inner life which seemed so much more exciting than real life.

In a very basic way, that changed the summer I became a Christian.

Interesting things started happening to me. Grownups started noticing me and talking to me, and they didn’t talk down to me. It was like I had been invisible before, and now I wasn’t. I should mention here that more than 6 months passed before I told anyone about my commitment to Christ. It was so deeply personal that I didn’t want it cheapened by conversation with others. My family was very religious, and I wasn’t ready at first to have my Christian commitment rejoiced over, analyzed, criticized, and everything else that I knew would go along with a public declaration. So when I say that grownups suddenly started noticing me and talking to me, I’m not referring to church people who approved of my becoming a Christian. I mean that people on the street – complete strangers – started saying hello to me, conversing with me, and treating me like I existed. Who knows… maybe I carried myself differently now that I was a Christian. Maybe I looked at them differently. I suppose I did. All I can say is that the dynamic changed. I became a vital part of my environment in a way that I had never been before.

But there’s more. When I say “things happened,” I also mean that I started having experiences of my own: funny, interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things started happening to me as I went out on my paper route or rode my bike or went with my family to the beach. Just a few short months before, I had embarrassed myself setting an after-school appointment with one of my eighth-grade teachers, asking him if we could please do something (I don’t even remember what it was) that he had done with students the previous year. One of my brothers, who was a year older than me, had spoken in glowing terms of whatever-it-was, and I felt cheated that the teacher wasn’t going to do that same activity with us. I say it was embarrassing because this particular teacher wasn’t very sympathetic and couldn’t figure out why I was meddling in his business. What I was unable to express to him at that time was my deep disappointment that nothing interesting ever happened to me, and I was simply trying to orchestrate something that had happened the year before, in my brother’s experience in that class.

But now, after I gave my life to Christ, I no longer found it necessary to re-enact experiences that my older brothers or older sister had had, because I started having my own interesting experiences. In fact, from that time onward my life started along an entirely different trajectory from the paths that my older siblings took. Again, I don’t mean that my life was more religious than theirs; I just mean that I started following my own path. I also don’t mean that I started having earth-shattering experiences; I just started having experiences that were my own and that were worth coming home and talking about. And I had never had that before. But in the months and years ahead, it happened more and more. In fact, some of my friends said, on random occasions over the years, “Things happen to you!” Meaning, you don’t just go door-to-door collecting newspapers for the high school band’s paper drive; you have funny, charming, or even absurd encounters with the people at the homes you visit.

And there’s one more thing I’m trying to convey. Just days or weeks after I gave my life to Christ, I was in the mall with my mom and my older siblings and one of my older sister’s teachers happened to cross my mind. This was not someone I would be taking a class from soon, or perhaps ever, because he only taught upper-level students and I didn’t like the subject he taught. I really can’t tell you why I thought about him. There was absolutely no connection between him and me. And yet, I had no sooner seen his face in my mind than he rounded the corner at the mall and we stopped to converse with him. I don’t mean to say that becoming a Christian made me see the future or anything like that; I just mean that coincidences started happening at that time in my life, and they’ve been happening with greater regularity ever since. Some of them seem significant and many of them don’t, but it just struck me as odd that “things happened” like that once I gave my life to Christ.

I hope you can see why this was all a surprise to me. There’s nothing religious about what I’ve told you, and yet there is something very meaningful about it. I felt like I had come alive, more alive than I had ever been before. And that, I soon learned, was the reason Christ had come into the world, that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). I just never would have predicted that it would play out in such a mundane way.

Bullies: A Sermon

This is the text of a sermon that I wrote on January 8, 1985, prior to attending seminary. I never ended up preaching the sermon (nor did I finish seminary, for that matter), but it illustrates the kind of practical approach I envisioned I would take as a minister.

Something important is missing from the stained-glass conception of Jesus.

Look at any image of him on a stained-glass window. Would you invite this man to your next cocktail party? And if you did, what would you talk about? There you are with all your best friends; you’re laughing and having a great time. Where would the stained-glass Jesus fit into this picture? Imagine him having the least interest in the latest movie you’ve seen, or whether you caught anything on your recent hunting trip! It seems much more likely that he’d sit apart from the group, perhaps reading a religious book and waiting for dinner to be served.

Nor is it easy to think of him – the lofty, holy Savior – trying to maneuver an automobile through rush-hour traffic and not getting peeved at a motorist who just cut him off. We can’t picture him slaving away at a monotonous job (like some of us do), or babysitting some bratty kids (like we’re sometimes stuck doing), or (again like us) getting involved in a dirty, no-holds-barred family argument.

Which is just another way of saying that there is no room for the stained-glass conception of Jesus in life as we know it. As much as we may love and adore him, we can’t expect much help from him when it comes to the details of day-to-day life.

The tragedy of it is that Jesus actually did fit into practical daily life – the real Jesus, that is – and he came to make it possible for US to live our lives to the fullest. (Not, in other words, like stained-glass zombies.)

Take, for example, the cocktail party: Jesus went to parties like that all the time. One notable tax professional even threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited all his friends and business associates to come and meet him. The religious community was scandalized!  Evidently Jesus didn’t put a damper on the festive mood. His detractors called him a wine-bibber and a glutton, and they criticized him for being in the company of unreligious people. One time, when they ran out of wine at a wedding reception, Jesus used his miraculous powers to make more wine before the guests were even aware that there was a problem.

As for taking an interest in your latest hunting trip, his closest friends were fishermen, and on more than one occasion, as they were wrapping up an unsuccessful night of fishing, he called to them from the shore and asked how it had gone. And when they complained about not catching anything, he again summoned his miraculous powers to point out where all the fish were.

(Hmmm. . . he might’ve been just the person to invite on your next hunting trip!)

There were no motorized vehicles in his day, but Jesus experienced his share of traffic jams. Because of his notoriety, people pressed in on him in large crowds on many occasions. One time he tried to get across town to help a sick girl, but traffic wouldn’t budge. The girl died before he got there.

We can’t imagine him slaving away at a mindless job all his life like so many of us are forced to do, and yet he did, apparently. The Bible only talks about the last three years of his life; the rest of the time he was working – we think as a carpenter.

As far as dealing with bratty kids, consider this: although his close associates tried to keep kids away from him, Jesus enjoyed them. The only reason it has never occurred to us that any of those little ones were brats is the fact that he got along so well with them.

And as for family arguments, Jesus had those, too. For a while, his brothers tried to get him to stop preaching. They thought he was a crackpot.

It makes you wonder how accurately we have pictured Jesus, doesn’t it? He faced all the problems we face, but he made constructive use of them. And people noticed. They observed how he lived, and they said, “We’ve never seen anything quite like this.” Jesus showed them how to live life at its best. He gave them a glimpse of what life could be like for them! This is what we miss when we think of him as Stained-Glass Jesus.

I want to illustrate this by talking for a moment about a problem we’ve all experienced.

Bullies.

Children aren’t the only ones who get picked on by bullies. We all meet them from time to time, at any age or station in life. Even the most sophisticated among us must deal with some form of intimidation or coercion on occasion. And when we do, we are often puzzled as to how to handle it.

Generally, we adults are no more adept at standing up to bullies than children are. In fact, adult intimidation is more subtle and complex. Volumes have been written, and will continue to be written, on how to deal with bullies in the workplace, at home, or at the check-out counter. Techniques have been advanced to help us say No to pushy salespeople. There are books full of snappy comebacks when someone insults us.

As helpful as techniques may be in specific situations, no one set of techniques can prepare us for the whole gamut of intimidation that may come our way. What we really need is a personality that can rise to meet whatever challenges we face, as we face them.

The Stained-Glass Jesus would be of little help to us here. He would want us to assume a sheepish position, no doubt, even to the point of letting bullies slap us in the face or crack us over the head. He’d want us to remain passive while they’re stomping us into the ground.

The fact is, however, that Jesus’ actual remarks on this subject are much more complex than that. . . and make more sense. He said lots of things about bullies, and I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m going to cover them all today. But here’s something he said that you would never expect to come from the lips of Stained-Glass Jesus.

He was talking to his closest circle of followers about some of the things that would happen to them in the days ahead. He warned them they would be coerced, lied about, and threatened with bodily harm. And he offered this prescription: “Therefore, be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

That’s the trick, isn’t it? Nobody wants to be a dishrag – thrown on the floor and stepped on. But when people insult us or intimidate us, we often can’t think fast enough. In the moment when we most need wisdom to keep from looking foolish, we can’t think of the right thing to say. Generally, we adults get stepped on far more than we care to admit.

But how many serpents, as a general rule, get stepped on?

In Jesus’ conception of Life As It Was Meant to Be, we could become like serpents in our ability to keep from getting stepped on, BUT. . . at the same time. . . our intentions could be pure. We could reach a state of being in which it would be possible for us to defend ourselves artfully from intimidation while wanting only the best for the person who was trying to hurt us.

It seems like an impossible balance, but what if it could be achieved! Who wouldn’t want that kind of power!

The problem is, Jesus didn’t lay out a Three-Step Program for achieving that kind of personal poise. The remark about the serpent and the dove was just part of the overall way of life he offered. The kind of character he had in mind included that and much, much more – and it would need to be developed over time. He taught us the basics and promised to guide us further by the Holy Spirit, but we’ll never get there if we don’t acquaint ourselves with the things he actually taught and let those teachings chart a course for our lives.

That’s why Stained-Glass Jesus is so harmful. He may be nice to look at during the Prelude, especially when the sun hits him just right, but you want to avoid thinking he’s the real Jesus. Because he’s not.

The plain folk used to gather around when Jesus met up with bullies. Proud, educated, aristocratic clergy tried one after another to make a fool out of him in public. The people used to howl with laughter at his replies. Anything the bullies said or did, he could turn masterfully against them. But when they nailed him to the cross, he looked down at those same people and said, “Father, forgive them.” Yes, he was a miracle worker, but in moments like that we see how powerful he really was.

Wise as a serpent. . . and harmless as a dove!

If YOU could have that kind of power, would you want it? Would you let him bestow it upon you? Even if it took him the rest of your life?

 

 

 

 

How Our Conception of God Can Become an Idol

This is a short sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church at the early morning Communion Service on Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2012. If the members of the congregation were going to “give up something for Lent,” I suggested giving up our current conceptions of Jesus and spending Lent praying for clearer vision of who Christ really is.

Here’s a link to the audio.

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