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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Are we following the REAL Jesus?

image from Red Letter Christians
As I was looking through my notes from Q Nashville a few days ago, I found myself being drawn back to a question that's been burning a hole in my brain over the past few months...

Are we following the REAL Jesus?

A couple of years ago my friend Patricia made a comment about how, as she had been re-reading the Gospels, she found herself wondering if the way she had been presenting Christianity to her friends was a false advertisement of sorts.  She had begun to recognize Christ's call to "die to self," and that wasn't something she had ever brought up when inviting someone to follow him.  Patricia's realization stuck with me as a critical reminder that sometimes we need to re-examine our preconceived notions about our faith.

That memory re-surfaced as I was reflecting on Russell Moore's Q talk, "A Prophetic Minority."  He spoke of how it's hard to argue that the Christianity of the New Testament was ever a majority in America; how one of the most dangerous things we could do as the church is try to normalize Christianity and the Gospel; and how Christianity has never proposed to be the "best way to live" but has instead always come with a scandal and a cross.  Moore reminded us that Jesus freaked out even his own disciples.

These were sobering thoughts.

See, I'm afraid too many of us in the American church have either forgotten these things, never realized them to begin with, or chosen to ignore them.  A friend of mine has said we like to talk about Jesus without talking about Jesus, and I've come to believe he's right.  I hear too many people talk about Jesus as though he came preaching a morality designed to keep us safe and separate from the rest of the world, and always "right," when in reality he stepped on the scene and proceeded to tear down the walls the self-righteous leaders had erected while building bridges to connect with those who had been locked out of their religious system.  He brought a message not of mere pristine morality but of radical love that treated those shunned by the religious as beloved insiders.  He shocked and offended his own people.

image from The Master's Table
And this is where I think we make the exact same mistake as the Pharisees. We trust our own limited, broken, human understanding of Scripture - of the written Word of God - more than we trust the example of Jesus - the living Word of God.  And so we erect our own walls designed to keep us safe, separate, and "right," ignoring the fact that Jesus' life broke down the paradigms that existed in the minds of the studied, scholarly religious leaders of his day.  We overlook the fact that Jesus showed the Pharisees in his words and actions that they were completely missing the point of the written Word, which was love.

Just like the Pharisees, we, too, are shocked and offended by anyone who dares to point out such things to us today.

I wholeheartedly believe every single one of us - but particularly those of us who live in America and treasure our culture of independence and consumerism - have our own faulty paradigms that Jesus wants to rattle apart, but many of us are so confident in our current understanding of Scripture we close our ears and eyes and hearts to the prophetic voices in our modern world.  We ignore echoes of the likes of Jeremiah crying out to Israel or Jesus rebuking the Pharisees telling us that we, God's people, have missed the point and lost the plot.

Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was.  He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."  (Matthew 22:37-40, emphasis added)  Paul echoes this when he says "the one who loves another has fulfilled the law...Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."  (Romans 13:8b, 10)

image from Free HD Wallpaper
Some people like to fixate on the fact that we are warned in the New Testament, even by Jesus himself, against false teachers.  It's as though this gives us license not to love certain people (at least not in our actions).  I think, though, there is a distinct possibility we have hopelessly over-complicated this whole "false teaching" thing.  If even Jesus himself boiled down good theology to loving God and loving people, is not the simple, logical connection to false teachers that they will discourage loving God and/or loving people?  It seems foolish to me to water down what Jesus made so plain, to act as though he left out some things when he said the law was fulfilled in love.  I certainly don't want to make any such claim, whether explicit or implied!  To do so would convey a sense of human pride which seems much more likely to fuel false teaching than humbly trusting in the simplicity of what Jesus said.

In fact, it's interesting to note that one instance in which Jesus warned people about such things is sandwiched between two statements about a loss of love among people...
And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.  (Matthew 24:10-12, emphasis added)
The absence of love and the presence of hate would seem to be closely linked to people being led astray by "false prophets."  Interesting.

Thankfully, Jesus offers hope in his next sentences...
But the one who endures to the end will be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.  (Matthew 24:13-14)
Some Christians seem eager to give up on the world, as though our belief that things are falling apart beyond repair will speed our reunion with Christ.  But here we're told the Gospel of God's Kingdom will spread throughout the world before the end comes.  That sounds like a hopeful movement to me, even if it's in the face of trials and tribulations...something to aspire to.  However, such a movement won't be fueled by our pride or fear or self-righteousness.

But it will be fueled by LOVE.

Maybe that's why Jesus boiled everything down to that one simple four-letter word.  And maybe the fact that Scripture clearly tells us he did that ought to motivate us to examine what sort of Jesus we've been following.  Because if we're following some version of him that's leading us to indoctrinate people with a thousand specific beliefs, and if that's causing us to condemn certain people or write them off or make any other number of prideful or fear-based moves, I think we're following the wrong guy.

But if we're following the Jesus who calls us to love, and if that's inspiring us to invite others to join us in walking with him as we receive and give away his radical love, then I think we're on the right track.
We speak with convictions and kindness because we don't believe transformation comes through a set of ideas but a Galilean voice.
-Russell Moore

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