Friday, May 14, 2010

Saving Jesus (Sunday Reflections for May 16, 2010)

Jesus’ primary mission was to expose the world’s sinfulness and then die on the cross so that the sins of those who believed in him would be forgiven, enabling them to go to heaven. He was not especially concerned about people’s daily lives, except for sexual impurity which he strongly condemned.

Attending many churches today or listening to many TV preachers, one who could easily believe such a statement summarizes the importance of Jesus. This Jesus, however, bears almost no resemblance to the Jesus we meet in the gospels. In the gospels, Jesus talks A LOT about people’s lives, especially their relationships with other people. He talks about the use of money and material possessions far more than he does about sex. Jesus says very little about “getting to heaven” and (with the possible exception of John, the last gospel to be written) does not interpret his death in those terms.

A group in our congregation has been reading a book by Oklahoma City pastor and author Robin Meyers. Its provocative title is Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.Meyers’ contention is that within a few centuries of Jesus’ death, the church effectively “declawed” Jesus (my term) as a result of its agreement with Constantine to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Jesus stopped being a radical voice for change in human relations and in society. Instead he became an object of worship and, through the clergy, the sole official dispenser of tickets to heaven.

Over the past two centuries, modern biblical scholars have been attempting to re-discover the Jesus of history and it is this Jesus that Meyers is trying to promote. The world has changed—for the better—so that now people have little interest in a Christ to be passively worshiped. Today people are looking for guidance in dealing with the challenges and complexity of their lives and so instead the church needs to be presenting a Jesus to be followed.

Not everyone in the church endorses such a shift, of course. Clergy, especially, are reluctant to relinquish their “keys of the kingdom” power even if fewer and fewer people are interested in the door those keys supposedly open.

A recent article by Luther Seminary professor Gracia Grindal, a leader of ELCA dissidents, says that people traditionally came to worship to “hear the Word of God, to be reproved by it, not to be affirmed; to be cleansed of their unrighteousness.” Abandoning this tradition is what has led to the ELCA’s dramatic drop in worship attendance, she contends. Yet this ignores the fact that a church which presumably has kept this tradition, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, has declined at the same time and just as fast at the ELCA.

The church as “morals police” is another role hard to let go of. Speaking this week in Fatima, Portugal, Pope Benedict declared that abortion and gay marriage are some of the most “insidious and dangerous” threats to the world today. Hearing this it’s hard not to recognize that an obsession with rooting out evil only leads to a complete distortion of one’s view of the world and of reality—and of Jesus. Ecological destruction is not a threat, even as a runaway well is dumping thousands of gallons of toxic oil into the ocean? Nuclear terrorism isn’t a threat, even as weapons multiply, their control weakens and global tensions increase? Economic injustice isn’t a threat as millions lose jobs, despair for their future, and the world’s wealth shifts ever more to the industrial titans at the top of the financial pyramid?

When in the 4th century the Roman Emperor Constantine formally embraced Christianity it was for one purpose: to find a new social glue to hold his tottering empire together. Sadly, the church’s leadership enthusiastically embraced this role and the prestige and power it gave them. In the centuries since the church has continued to view itself in this way, even as political and economic powers have found new and much more affective means for achieving Constantine’s goals.

The church’s pretense to either earthly or heavenly power now simply looks pathetic. It’s no wonder people today walk by the church’s door bemused and shaking their heads, if they notice it at all. What Robin Meyers and many others have recognized is that Jesus would be among them. The church established in his name has become exactly what Jesus himself railed against, an institution that is irrelevant when it’s not being oppressive.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, however, people and the world still have real and important spiritual needs. Religion still can and should serve a genuine purpose, such as the five functions I quoted by Philip Goldberg. Such religion can’t be engaged in turf battles with religious and secular rivals. It can’t be obsessed with controlling people’s morality and personal lives. It can’t be distracted by theological disputes over words and rituals.

Rather, religion must do what Jesus did nearly two thousand years ago. It must take seriously people’s individual lives. It must help us see and understand two things: our lives and our world as they really are and how they could and should be. It must lead us to care for one another even as it leads us to a new appreciation of who we ourselves uniquely are.

Meyers quotes the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart: “This then is salvation: to marvel at the beauty of created things and to marvel at the beauty of their Creator.” For the “Jesus movement” to regain any value or relevance, it must return to the very beginning and affirm the Bible’s understanding of our world and everything in it. In the first chapter of the first book, God looks on everything he has made and proclaims it all “very good.” In the second chapter Adam and Eve are placed in the garden to “till it and keep it.”

This world is indeed a beautiful marvel and we are the ones responsible for caring for it, which includes caring for each other. Reminding people of that and challenging those who failed to do that, especially those with power and authority, was Jesus’ message and mission. It is also what Jesus asked his followers to do. For the sake of the world, the church needs to get back to following that Jesus.

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