Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the Curious Claim That People "Like Jesus" (But Not the Church)

I would guess that most folks reading this blog have heard the claim, whether on book covers or in popular magazines, that "people like Jesus, but not the church." Lately I have found myself perplexed by this statement.

On the one hand, I get it. Churches, particularly churches in North America, have so forsaken their calling to follow and embody the life of their Lord, have so capitulated to cultural temptations like consumerism and hyper-patriotism, that non-Christians only see a great big archaic institution, rotting in aging outposts dotting the neighborhood's geography like windows into a time -- ostensibly the "good old days" -- when everyone was a Christian and the pews were filled every Sunday. But widespread hypocrisy and an abandonment of the true gospel of Jesus have so consumed the church that, like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, Christians have become the problem rather than the harbingers of God's good news. What are we about? Growing the church. What about Jesus? Oh, well, we'll get to him.

I get it. And clearly, the claim has weight. It is a needed and truthful challenge to a church long used to being on top, merely by being present. And that time is swiftly coming to an end.

But what is curious about the claim, what in all truth is baffling, is this notion that "people like Jesus." Here is my question: What is there to like?

In a culture consumed with money, possessions, and endless creation of wealth, Jesus walks with the poor -- with single moms on welfare, with illegal immigrants in need of health insurance -- and says, "If you are righteous yet wealthy, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then you will have eternal life." What is there to like about that?

In a culture obsessed with sexuality, whether expressed in chauvinist conquest or in personal preference, Jesus walks with the celibate and the faithful, and says, "In the beginning, one man and one woman. What God has joined together, let no one separate." What is there to like about that?

In a culture fixated on marriage and family, with "traditional values" and the white picket fence, Jesus -- a celibate man with no children -- walks with prostitutes and orphans, and says, "Unless you hate mother and brother and sister, unless you leave your own family and follow me, you have no share with me." What is there to like about that?

In a culture possessed by ceaseless lust for ambition, for power and dominance, Jesus lives with the homeless and finds the character of the Almighty in the powerlessness of a child; and he says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." What is there to like about that?

In a culture unable to imagine life that is neither grounded in nor sustained by perpetual violence, Jesus refuses retaliation and submits to shameful execution by the state; and he says, "Put your sword away! Instead, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Yes, take up your cross and follow me!" What is there to like about that?

In a culture whose language and values center around concepts like universal humanity and freedom from authority, Jesus comes forth as a Jewish man from Palestine, calling a particular people to himself, and says, "Anyone who is not for me is against me. Do not live like the pagans, but in trust and obedience, imitate your heavenly Father, who shows kindness to the just and unjust alike." What is there to like about that?

And so on. If one actually reads the Gospels, instead of assuming nice pretty pictures of a blue-eyed baby Jesus giggling his guts out in celestial bliss, it is clear that the man from Nazareth -- who lived an identifiable human life in the early decades of the first century in occupied Palestine -- is certifiably not in any discernible accord with what American culture "likes." In fact, he seems to stand squarely opposed to much of it.

Of course, this does not mean that Jesus -- or the life of his people, when faithful -- cannot be attractive to weary American eyes. The offer of the gospel -- as invitation into truthful speech and marital fidelity and enough food for all and reconciled community and peaceful living and witness against oppression and worship of the one true God -- is indeed good news, after all. But the goodness of the news is not that it confirms what we already know: though its judgment is grace, it is still judgment.

And I have a feeling the sort of judgment Jesus brings is not something people "like" beforehand, if they like it at all.

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