To Preachers Everywhere: Stop Domesticating Jesus!

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Seems I got a little ahead of myself last week putting up the lessons for this coming fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, thereby skipping altogether the thirteenth. No point in looking backward; therefore, I offer these further reflections on the texts for the fourteenth Sunday.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’” John 6:53-56.

If we are honest, most of us will agree that these words of Jesus are more than offensive. They are revolting. Cannibalism is taboo in nearly every culture and was certainly so in every strain of First Century Judaism. You might point out that Jesus is not to be taken literally here, but that only begs the question. If Jesus is speaking metaphorically, why choose such a vulgar metaphor?

The answer is that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically and that he knew full well the reaction he was likely to evoke from his audience. Internalizing Jesus is offensive and contrary to our deepest instincts. The way into which he calls us goes against all of our sensibilities. Take, for instance, Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek when stricken. There is nothing natural about that. Doesn’t Kenny Rogers tell us that you have to fight to be a man?” Preachers and religious pundits fall all over themselves trying to explain away the clear sense of Jesus’ command. Take for, example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council who, when asked about that very saying, replied “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” Evidently, you can’t rely on a milksop like Jesus to get Christianity right.  That’s a man’s job.

Jesus also calls his followers to “Sell your possessions, and give alms,” but who does that? Again, numerous hermeneutical gymnastics have been performed in order to extricate us from this clear and unambiguous command. I recall the pastor who confirmed me assuring the congregation that, while Christians must believe that the earth was created in seven days of twenty-four hours (as per Genesis 1), that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish in whose belly he lived for three days and that the sun literally stood still in the sky for twenty-four hours at Joshua’s command, we need not take Jesus literally in this instance. What Jesus really meant was that we must “have our possessions as if we have them not.” That is, we can keep what we own as long as we are ready to let go of it all at Jesus’ explicit command. If I had not been a timid, introverted teenager at that point, I might have asked, “So pastor, what part of ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ is less than fully explicit?” It all goes to show, I suppose, that we take the Bible literally until it says something we don’t like. When that happens, the staunchest fundamentalist is reduced to a wiggling bowl of liberal Jello.

Let me be clear in saying that I don’t follow Jesus’ teachings with any more rigor than the two gentlemen I just pilloried. It is not my purpose to charge them or anyone else with hypocrisy. You know what they say about people living in glass houses throwing rocks. But we do need to stop co-opting Jesus in support of our hypocrisy.  We need to stop trying to smooth out Jesus’ rough edges to make him more appealing and less abrasive to our cultural notions of manhood, our capitalistic values and all other aspects of our lives we deem non-negotiable. We need to stop trying to shape Jesus into the image of someone who fits neatly into our middle class lives to help us cope. Jesus didn’t come to help us cope with life. He came to transform it. Jesus didn’t come to help us adapt to and accept our circumstances. He came to make us uncomfortable with our circumstances to the point of being unable to tolerate them. Jesus came to put us into conflict with the “blood and soil” nationalism that is sweeping the globe; the blatant and cynical disregard for truth that characterizes our political discourse and the self-centered tribalism that demonizes the stranger. If you are comfortable with the way things are, you haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

For the last few weeks we have been following Jesus through Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. When the chapter began, Jesus had five thousand enthusiastic followers who were ready to make him their king. At its close, Jesus had only twelve disciples. That is hardly a model of success by megachurch standards. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in gaining followers. He is intent on making disciples. At the end of the day,  Jesus has twelve disciples who-however imperfectly, however incompletely and however tentatively-know that Jesus has the words of eternal life. That’s as much success as Jesus needs to build his church.

So perhaps we need to start asking ourselves whether we are more afraid of membership decline than we are committed to making disciples. Are we ready to take a hit in membership for the sake of discipleship? Are we preachers ready to say point blank, not in any denominational statement, but to our own people in our own pulpits, that we stand, as disciples of Jesus, with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, victims of deportation, young black men who are being victimized by police, women and men who are crying out against sexual abuse, the sick and dying who are being systematically denied life saving medical care? Are we prepared to call out the growing tyranny of a president who calls women dogs, Mexicans murderers and rapists and black Americans names I won’t print. Are we ready to hear a large part of our membership tell us, “This is a hard teaching! Who can listen to it?” Are we, like Jesus, willing to lose our following to gain disciples?

We (myself obviously included) are a long way from following Jesus with complete fidelity. We probably never will perfect our faith this side of eternity, but we can, and if the Apostle Paul is to be believed, we should grow in our faith. I believe that begins with letting our churches hear Jesus in the unedited, unredacted and unmodified biblical witness. We need to let Jesus question our most basic assumptions about our economics, our politics and our beliefs about God. We need to hold up our cultural assumptions, our patriotism and our relationships with one another to the light of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom with unflinching honesty-even when the words of Jesus embarrass, confuse and frighten us. My preaching professor in seminary used to tell us: “Don’t ever let me catch you explaining in any sermon what Jesus really meant. Jesus meant what he said and if you can’t stomach it, get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who can.” The words Jesus speaks are sometimes hard to hear, difficult to accept and run contrary to our deepest instincts. Nevertheless, they are good words; redemptive words; words of eternal life. They may not win many followers, but we can trust them to make solid disciples.

Here’s a poem/song by Phil Ochs illustrating both the radical nature of Jesus and our tendency to domesticate him.

The Crucifixion

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie
‘Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a-turning, a baby is born.
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn.
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard.
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard.
And the only single sighing is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence of distance they are sworn

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Images of innocence charge him to go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn.
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
A blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love there is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.

So he stands on the sea and he shouts to the shore
But the louder that he screams the longer he’s ignored.
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs;
The merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
‘Til the giant is aware that someone’s pulling at his leg
And someone is tapping at the door.

To dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then his message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land;
The rewarding of the fame is the falling of the man.
For ignorance is everywhere and people have their way.
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day.
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
And blood is the language of the band.

The Spanish bulls are beaten; the crowd is soon beguiled.
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style.
The excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets;
Gracefully he bows to the ovations that he gets.
But the hands that are applauding him are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Then this overflow of life is crushed into a lie;
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
It’s the death of beauty, the victory of night;
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light.
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger at the sight,
And the cross is trembling with desire.

They say they can’t believe it, it’s a sacrilegious shame.
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall.
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

Time takes a toll and the memory fades,
But his glory is growing in the magic that he made.
Reality is ruined; there’s nothing more to fear;
The drama is distorted into what they want to hear.
Swimming in their sorrow, in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for the new thrill parade.

The eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind.
To the safety of sterility the threat has been refined.
The child was created; to the slaughterhouse he’s led;
So good to be alive when the eulogy is read.
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
As the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.

So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true.
Come dance dance dance
Cause we love you.

And the night comes again to the circle studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie;
‘Til the universe expodes as a falling star is raised.
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed.
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was born in El Paso, Texas. He was a folk singer/songwriter and contemporary of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and 1970s and released eight albums. He performed at numerous anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and organized labor rallies. Ochs’s mental health deteriorated in the 1970s owing to what is now known as bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Tragically, he took his own life in 1976. You can find out more about Phil Ochs and his music at this website. If you would like to listen to the above song as performed by Phil Ochs, click here.

 

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