I have two book projects in the works, one well on its way toward completion by the end of this year, and the other in the pile-of-notes and largely-a-mess phase. The second is a spirituality of worship based on the Lukan meal stories. In the past two years as I’ve considered the best direction for that book I’ve done a significant amount of reading biographies of Jesus and life in first century Judea. (This has included some really good works like Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus and Hazleton’s Mary.) All my reading and pondering the nature of Jesus in his historical and spiritual context has opened my eyes to the wideness of the person we call the Christ. This is, I’m sure, one of the main reasons the second book-in-progress is still simmering. Jesus can’t easily be pinned down.
As I’m preparing for work in the liturgy this Sunday, our assigned text from John’s Gospel (1:35-51) in the Narrative Lectionary deals with Jesus’ identity in encounters with his early disciples. The question of “who is Jesus?” plagued his earliest followers who struggled to come to terms with the frustratingly different way he chose to act as a Messiah-figure, just as the very same question looms over the contemporary church’s struggle with matters of biblical authority, LGBTQ inclusivity, and political engagement.
When I was a youth in the conservative Baptist church, I witnessed (for many) a Jesus who was a red-state Republican who championed capitalism, democracy, and the unbridled use of US military force. He was a Jesus who would come in strict judgment over both the promoters and leeches of the welfare state. He was an angry, white, nationalist warrior who conformed to the fundamentalist Baptists I saw around me.
In my current context, pastoring a congregation that leans significantly left-ward in its political inclinations, I witness (for many) a Jesus who is a true-blue Democrat championing democratic socialism, radical inclusivity and acceptance of all, and committed to economic justice against corporate America. He is a Jesus who will come with open arms to those who are accepting, but in strict judgment of the wealthy. He is a dark-skinned, protesting anarchist who conforms to the liberal ideals of Western progressivism.
Theological consideration and political alignment are so closely engaged in the United States that it becomes the prevailing standard for each end of the political spectrum to believe that their particular leanings best represent Christ’s intent for humanity. We are undeniably incapable as humans of being objective; we approach every part of our existence with some bias that shapes how we view our faith and the world. The struggle we find in the gospels is that Jesus is so wildly misunderstood even by those who are closest to him. They want him to fit into their mold, to conform to their political or social desires so that Jesus becomes merely the religious legitimizer of what is already believed about the world.
But the bold truth that must be expressed in our current climate is this: Jesus does not fit our political or social molds. The Jesus we discover in the gospels is frustrating to both the political left and the political right because he defies the categories to which we assign him. He cries out against economic injustice that favors the wealthy over the poor, but he also calls his followers to high standards of sacrifice and commitment in community. He radically accepts all persons, but he also calls them to deny themselves and take up their cross. He seems politically apathetic toward Rome, yet is so profoundly subversive to Rome’s intrinsic claims of authority and might. Jesus inaugurates a new kingdom, a new way, a new life. And in his new way all the social, cultural, and political identities to which we’ve clung for so long are laid aside in favor of finding the wholeness of all things and all people. It isn’t a mold; it’s a task.
This, I believe, is the great gift of the liturgy and wonder that is the Eucharist. When the church gathers for worship we are surrounded by symbols that, if allowed to remain open without overbearing didacticism, create a space in which all our struggles of understanding Jesus’ identity can flourish. We come to Christ’s table with hands open to receive life and nourishment for that very task of answering our Jesus-questions. And in those moments, it matters not whether I am conservative, liberal, pro-life, pro-choice, feminist, anarchist, fundamentalist, atheist. In those moments at the Table I receive in equal measure what everyone receives: food for our work. This is why I so firmly believe that conversations about what Communion means or whether it is meaningful are fruitless and miss the point, just as trying to fit Jesus into a particular box will ultimately betray his fullness. Communion isn’t about conveying a meaning, it is all about giving a bit of spiritual nourishment so that we can approach the hard questions of Jesus we find in ourselves and in the world.
So, friends, as you prepare for the liturgy this weekend, consider your view of Jesus and contemplate how you can open space for those in your midst to encounter a Christ who defies our expectations.
* My Friday posts are reflections on the week in ministry that will propel me into pastoral care through the liturgy on Sunday. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.