Let’s just talk about Jesus for a minute, shall we?
We’re just going to talk about his love, kindness, and forgiveness.
Mind you, if we’re really just going to focus on Jesus and Jesus only, we shouldn’t think too hard about who Jesus loved, who Jesus forgave, or who Jesus showed mercy to. And we really shouldn’t think about how that impacts how you and I live, right?
If we started to think about those things, then we’d have to start thinking about changing our relationships and being kind to people we’d rather not talk to. And then we’re talking about things that sound like “social justice” and “mercy ministry.”
Gosh, can’t we just talk about Jesus for a minute here? Isn’t Jesus greater than all of this other “stuff” that gets tacked onto Jesus. Aren’t these things like loving our enemies, caring for the “least of these,” and being kind to society’s outcasts the extra stuff?
I just want to talk about Jesus for a minute. Just Jesus. Nothing else.
If we care about how we’re supposed to live, we’re not talking about “Jesus.”
And for heaven’s sake, don’t bring up the way Jesus healed Roman officials, welcomed tax collectors, and confounded the rebels and collaborator’s of his day. We can’t talk about Jesus and POLITICS. That’s divisive and troubling.
The minute we talk about political engagement, we’re not talking about Jesus.
In fact, let’s just make this really simple. Let’s just talk about the cross and the empty tomb.
I mean, talking about the cross is virtually harmless besides the fact that it was an ancient instrument of torture and death that symbolized the unquestioned power of the Roman Empire which Jesus then re-appropriated as the symbol of God’s triumph over the powers of this world.
Besides ALL of that, the cross is really just a symbol of the salvation of our souls. The resurrection offers assurance of new life in heaven. Isn’t it?
And perhaps those things are really what we want to talk about when we say, “Let’s just talk about Jesus!”
Try as we may, we can’t escape the implications of Jesus’ life for us today.
Removing Jesus from his context and the imitation of him that is essential for “disciples,” we’re left with a Jesus who just dispenses salvation, a holy pez dispenser that we pass from one person to another, teaching each other the prayer that unlocks salvation.
It is so easy to reduce Jesus to this hollow caricature, to assume we can just stop at his high-minded ideals of love and forgiveness without asking how he embodied them among others and how I could possibly do the same in my life.
I don’t want to ask myself the hard questions:
What if I’m associated with a Christian living in deliberate sin?
What if I welcome the people considered outcasts by society?
What if I need to use my political voice for the benefit of those who have no voice or security?
What if the way Jesus treated women gives us clues we dare not overlook when we read the rest of the New Testament?
And when I ask these questions, it’s just as easy to assume that my answers put me 100% on the side of Jesus. That’s another risk to following Jesus. It’s a tension we can’t avoid.
When we learn to follow Jesus, we start to love the same kinds of people Jesus loved, and that leads us into all kinds of trouble.
If you’re going to love prison inmates, you’re going to start caring about the “war on drugs” legislation that has become more of a war against black men who are incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate.
If you’re going to love your neighbors struggling to make ends meet, then you need to choose a political side on food stamps and other safety net programs (or at least think of a better alternative for your community).
I don’t claim to know what Jesus would do if we dropped him into America today. We’re all pretty much going to say that he’d care about the same things as us, right?
Isn’t that human nature?
With that risk in mind, Jesus did choose sides to a certain degree. As much as he occupied a murky position or found a higher path at times, a la render unto Caesar, he also took stands. It’s just that we won’t necessarily agree on what exactly Jesus was standing for.
Jesus was an instigator, at times pushing for one side over another. To say you’re going to ignore the gender equality debate and to just focus on “Jesus” misses a part of Jesus’ message and fails to consider the implications of his actions.
Just as Paul fought against the racism that divided Jew and Gentile based on their unity in Jesus, we have a similar calling today to ask hard questions about race in the church. This is not a peripheral distraction from the more central focus of Jesus.
If we look to Jesus first, he should be pointing us toward racial reconciliation and, I would argue, gender equality.
It’s certainly possible to focus on a cause and to lose sight of Jesus. I know I’ve done that, and I’ve seen it done many different ways.
However, I’m concerned that we’ve placed Jesus in an imaginary neutral territory that doesn’t ruffle feathers and only saves souls.
Jesus interacted with complicated, sinful people in a complicated, sinful culture.
He bucked religious conventions by sparing a woman who, according to the Bible, should have been stoned for adultery.
He taught women as equal disciples even though their family viewed them as only homemakers.
He refused to take “sides” in politics, but he also welcomed Centurions, zealots, and tax collectors to his table.
He didn’t leave us with a blueprint for discipleship. This isn’t easy stuff. We’re making interpretations based on how we understand an ancient culture.
It’s impossible to just talk about Jesus because he lived his life in a way that he calls us to imitate as disciples. We’re going to disagree over what that’s supposed to look like, and some of us will have different callings based on what we learn from Jesus.
The trouble is that we can’t say Jesus is greater than things like loving neighbors, forgiving enemies, advocating for equality, healing the sick, or becoming a neighbor to the poor. We can’t separate his identity as Savior from the kind of life he lived. And we dare not avoid the hard questions that the life of Jesus raises for us today.