Dean Baxter: “What to Do with Jesus Christ”
“That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” –John 17:3
I am finding that more and more modern Christians don’t know what to do with Jesus. They fear that faithfully to believe in Jesus as Christ is to believe in an exclusive Lord. One who limits our ability to relate to other Christians with differing views about Jesus; or to reach out respectfully to and cooperatively with those of the other great non-Christian faiths (such as Buddhism, Judaism and Islam). We fear that the only way to take Jesus seriously is to engage the world with strident religious rhetoric or doctrinal certitude.
There are Christians for whom it is more important that the world be converted to their doctrine of Jesus than to the spirit of Jesus. Almost as though they can’t wait to put another “notch” in their Bible. This has become so common that any show of Christian hospitality today is often seen as manipulative with the intent to lull the non-believer or the differing believer into a conversion trap. It is rather like the spider inviting the fly into his web. Now, I hasten to say that this is not uniquely a Christian phenomena, for more than once I have been the unsuspecting victim accosted for conversion to by more than one ambitious Muslim fundamentalist disguised as a smiling cab driver.
Far too often in our Christian witness, we are more like “dogmas of Jesus” than like the spirit of Jesus. Jesus never cornered anyone. He proclaimed and taught those who came to hear him or individuals who sought him out or to whom the Spirit lead him. But in the normal pattern of his ministry, it was his authentic spirit of love and his genuine hospitality that changed others. A love and respect which was offered whether the persons proclaimed him Lord or not.
One day my secretary informed me that my schedule had changed and she was sending me to visit a kindergarten class. The teacher had approached her about a group of Christian boys who were harassing a Jewish boy because he “didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God.” The taunting had finally come to a point of emotional effect for the little Jewish boy, and the children were refusing to partner with him in class activities. So I sat down with the class after being very warmly received by all of them. First, I reminded them that I was a Christian and that I believed that Jesus was very special. However, I also reminded them that I had some good friends who were of other religions that did not believe in Jesus but who were good people and who believed in God. Second, we talked about Jesus being a Jew but having a special message from God about love that was greater than anyone else ever. “How,” I asked, “would Jesus feel if I as a Christian was not loving and sharing with others just because they were different in color, religion or size?” Some said Jesus would be sad, some said he would cry. One little boy said with exasperation, “But if you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, the angels will burn you up in the end!” We went on to talk about not knowing what the end holds, but what is certain is that Jesus wants Christians to respect others and to show love to others even when they are different. I asked the children if they knew why. As other children were answering, the aforementioned child said, with his head down, “I know why. Because we all have one father.” There were many “yeahs” echoed around the class. We closed with big hugs around the room, a symbolic good ending but still a substantively tragic circumstance. For somewhere this little boy and perhaps others had been indoctrinated into a doctrine of Jesus but not the spirit of Jesus.
Our current post-sixties secular society is a time when Christians again feel vulnerable. Never before have American Christians lived in a society that is so religiously diverse and culturally pluralistic. Some Christians believe this calls for a new stridency in both faith and politics. But many other Christians find this kind of Christianity unacceptable; finding no alternative, too many have abandoned any meaningful or effective faith in Jesus as the Christ. Some seek an understanding of Jesus in popular literary biblical criticism – that is the academic assertion that when the Gospels are placed under the lens of critical scholarship, nothing can be proven about Jesus as Christ. So, at best you are left with a Christ-less Christianity, based on sketches of a first-century prophet. So many of us settle for Jesus as a good and wise teacher in whose memory a religious or philosophical tradition exists, much like Buddha for Buddhists or Socrates for the humanist.
But I believe it is a tragedy to abdicate Jesus to exclusive doctrines or to lifeless reason. A denatured Christology does not serve us, the world or God. Although we may define it in differing ways, as Christians we cannot abandon our convictions about Jesus. We need not abandon our convictions that somehow God was speaking uniquely to the world through Jesus’ living, his dying and his resurrection. This is the Jesus whom we celebrate in the Eucharist, through whom we make our prayerful intercession, and in whom we find our most basic values and commitments. We cannot abandon Jesus.
Yet, the basic questions remain:
- How can I believe in Jesus as the son of God in whom is salvation for the world and still honestly be respectful of different religions?
- How can I claim Jesus as my Lord and Savior and still work with others, even those of the other great faiths, on common matters of peace, of justice, of moral and social concerns?
- How can I see Jesus as the light of the world but also honor the light that I see in others?
- How do I share my faith in ways that are not strident and offensive?
I believe the answer is very basic: we must “get to know Jesus for ourselves.” First of all, I find that very few Christians read the Bible. They listen to Scripture in worship services, listen to sermons and debates about Jesus; many Christians read articles in popular magazines or substantial books about Jesus. Now that you’ve seen the movie and read the critical reviews, you just must read the book!
I think you’ll find more affirmation about your convictions as you read the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry for yourself. I think you’ll discover that Jesus was always reaching out to others. He had views different from many he encountered of the Jewish faith. Of course, he had very different religious ideas from the Gentiles around him, the Romans, the Greeks and North Africans. Yet, he lived his faith so grounded in God’s love that others could sense he loved them more than their ideas or disagreements.
I think you’ll find that Jesus never initiated confrontation about dogma or religious orthodoxy, although he ably responded when he was confronted by others. But he never initiated a debate or sought to debase the sincere conviction of others. He respected the integrity of others, even though he came expressly to bring a greater light.
For example, after a strange and persistent dialogue with a Syrian-Phoenician woman, who had approached Jesus not as Messiah but as a healer, Jesus said of this woman who did not share his religion, “I have not seen such faith among people of my own religion.”
And there was John the Baptist, who on the eve of his execution by Herod was still unsure if Jesus was the Messiah. We have no clue as to whether John the Baptist ever believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, Jesus had great respect for John and his ministry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is remembered denouncing the critics of John, some of whom were disciples of Jesus. Then Jesus says, “no one born of a woman has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Jesus was saying, in his opinion no human had greater personal integrity, moral courage or faithfulness to God than John. But, Jesus added, those most despised–the poor, sick, oppressed–are even of greater importance in the eyes of God.
The next thing you’ll find in your reading is that “the least” were a special focus of Jesus’ and that he did initiate confrontation, either by his words or his behavior, around matters of injustice. He risked through his love to stand for justice. For example, he stood up for the woman caught in adultery, when the crowd had ignored her male partner in the adultery and their own sexual sins, simply for the pleasure of self-righteousness. Jesus told her to “go and sin no more,” but he also stood with her against injustice.
Jesus reached out to those whom religion and politics and social life had ostracized: He ate and socialized with those who were considered social, political and moral outcasts, including lepers, tax-collectors and harlots. Time and again, his disciples had to face embarrassing questions from the religious leaders and civic leaders who asked such questions as, “Why does your rabbi eat with publican and sinners?” And, “Why does he seem to be a friend to sinners?” Jesus was more concerned about people than doctrine or orthodoxy. He loved people and they sensed it. This is the spirit of Christ. He was trying tell the world that this is what God is like; God is love. It is only in Jesus’ revelation of God that we come to know God as personally intimate and essentially loving.
The second way we come to know Jesus is through a spiritual life. Again many Christians who don’t know what to do with Jesus also have no prayer life. To know Jesus we need not only a personal familiarity with the Bible but a personal prayer life. A time to talk with God. A time and a way of opening ourselves to being present with God, to hear God, to feel the Glory of God’s presence, empowering us beyond our fears and doubts and uncertainties. Empowering us to love and live. No matter where we live or what difficulty we may have had with building a prayer life in the past we must keep trying. Pastors, spiritual directors, meditation and prayer groups and retreat houses abound all around us to help us to find a way meaningful for us.
Yes, when we come to “know Jesus,” something happens. The worries about religious exactness and arguing the fine points fade. The fear that somehow if we act more lovingly than more stridently, God will do something bad to us goes away. We feel Christ’s witness alive in us, saying “just believe, just live, just love!” Somehow the pieces fit together for us, and we find peace amid all the contradictions of religion and doctrines. It is a peace that is not dependent upon the condemnation of others but finds its joy in living the unique spirit of love and courage that comes from God. Jesus often said, ” Let what seems to you as wheat and tare grow together,” or, “Let what seems to be the odd mix of sheep and goats be. God will decide what the separation should be.” Just live faithfully to God’s call to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
So when we are personally at peace with God by living with the Scriptures, by a time of prayer discipline, of openness to God, Jesus comes alive. We see Christ in the liturgy and in worship as we have never seen him before. We will begin to see Christ as present also in the suffering, oppressed, poor, prisoner, lonely, vulnerable, the spiritually empty. Christ is there in them, just waiting to be reached out to, to be touched, liberated, reconciled, freed and loved, to have good news proclaimed to them. As he says in Matthew, “As you have done it to the least of these you have done it unto me.”
We will also see and rejoice in aspects of Christ in non-Christians, especially in leaders who work for peace and justice such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Koffi Annan and the Dalai Lama. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “The Spirit blows where it wills.” We will see the presence of Christ because we know him, we can see expressions of Christ.
Yes, we live in a difficult time. We live in a time of religious plurality. We live in a time of cultural diversity. We live in a time when the reaction is often strident, where doctrines and dogma and orthodox become more important than people. Where little Kosovos happen in kindergarten. But I do believe the world does not need more doctrine, more orthodoxy or more Kosovos. I believe, as the song says, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” And if love is of God, then the spirit of love in us becomes the gift that is missing in the world. We call it forth in our own lives and the lives of others. For we are seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we have committed to do this, we will not have to wonder what to do with Jesus. Amen.