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Is There a Place for Jesus in the Church?
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
January 10, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Mark:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
While the United States remains shaped by Christianity, an increasing number of religiously unaffiliated people, a steady drop in church attendance and the growing tensions over religious liberty all point to a decreasing influence of the Christian faith.
Rather than quote current surveys, I suggest the best picture of our situation is actually over a hundred and twenty-five years old: Vincent Van Gogh’s beautiful painting Starry Night.
The bold yellows in the night sky and in the windows throughout the city capture our attention – and I’ve read that yellow is Van Gogh’s way of pointing to the presence of God.
But if you look closely at the picture, the one place where there is no yellow, no light, no presence of God – it is the church with its steeple piercing tall into the dark.
The basic issue, though, is not so much to talk about the presence of God in a culture that is not religious, but how do we help people respond to the presence of God in their world?
I like the way the late David Bosch, in his short book Believing the Future, helps us face this question when he says: “As we call people back to faith in God through Jesus Christ, we must help them to articulate an answer to the question, ‘What do we have to become Christians for?’”
The answer to the question, “What do we have to become Christians for?” is found, of course, in having something to say.
You would think what we have to say would be about Jesus, because isn’t that what it’s all about?
John the Baptizer says, “not me, him;’” and when they need to elect a new apostle, Peter wants someone who has been with them from the beginning, from Jesus’ Baptism.
I mean, here is the voice from heaven saying about Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved…”
You would think then that if it’s good enough for God to have something to say about Jesus, then it ought to be good enough for us to have something to say about Jesus, wouldn’t you?
A web-based group calling themselves TopVerse.com recently conducted a survey asking Christians to identify their favorite verses. The reason for the survey was to speed up an online search feature offered at the site.
The survey generated not only a list of favorite verses, but also favorite books of the Bible and even favorite chapters within those books. The final tally was pretty interesting.
The favorite verse list includes the ones we might expect–John 3:16 and such. In fact, there are only four quotes from Jesus at all in the list of top 10 verses, and three of them are from the Gospel of John. From the list of favorite books I was surprised to see that not a single Gospel was listed among the favorites. Not one.
I find all of this troubling. I have suspected for a long time that Christians consciously or unconsciously aren’t keen about Jesus sitting on their pew.
We are glad to have Jesus die for our sins and secure us a place in heaven, but we’re just not sure about sharing coffee with him in the courtyard!
Because some of the things Jesus taught and did simply do not fit with the way many of us want to live our lives today.
For instance, Jesus taught that we are to have compassion for the poor and to provide for the needs of the “least of these” in our midst.
Unfortunately that doesn’t fit a current economic agenda, so we refuse to hear Jesus on this matter.
Also, Jesus taught non-violent resistance to evil and told us that we must love our neighbors and our enemies. That however does not fit the way as we say, ‘the way the world works’, so we refuse to hear Jesus on this matter.
And Jesus taught that prayer and acts of piety are best done where God alone sees them. But that does not fit our current theological or church growth agenda, so we refuse to hear Jesus on this matter.
You have to wonder where is Jesus’ place in some of the current racial or religious agendas – what do we have to say?
Does it seem to you as it does to me that maybe the church is dark because there’s no place for Jesus in the church today?
Henri Nouwen, in Life of the Beloved, writes:
“The issue is no longer how to express the mystery of God to people who are no longer accustomed to the traditional language of Church…The issue is whether there is anything in our world that we can call ‘sacred’. Is there, among the things we do, the people we know, the events we read about in the newspapers of watch on TV, someone or something that transcends it all and has the inner quality of sacredness, of being holy, worthy of adoration and worship?”
That’s a theological way of describing what happened at Jesus’ baptism – the beloved Son, pleasing to God, worthy of our worship.
First, John the Baptizer was only confirming what Jeremiah had said centuries before: that God will move into our neighborhood, dwell with us as we clean up our act, the way we live, the things we do.
And secondly, it’s all a matter of what God has to say about Jesus – this voice, this announcement that places Jesus as the Son of God, the presence of God in our world.
Have we stopped believing that Jesus really is the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God? I don’t know what else to call it except a crisis of faith.
I don’t mean this is a lack of faith in Jesus, but rather, is there a lack of faith that Jesus is ‘up to the job’ – that’s why we don’t have something to say.
I think, without meaning to, we have somehow rewritten our understanding of just who Jesus is and what Jesus does and can do, believing that Jesus is a nice enough guy, that Jesus is a good story to tell our kids at Christmas!
But when it comes to the world of grown-ups, when it comes to the serious ‘business’ of the work of nations, Jesus is just too darned naive to be considered, let alone believed or followed.
We know better, don’t we –Jesus gave us something to say; in fact, the disciples asked for it – part of their own understanding of the place Jesus had in their life.
According to Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the matter, they asked Jesus to “teach us how to pray.”
Or teach us how to say what it is about how you want us to live, how to say the way we should live that is pleasing to you.
Think about it for minute. When the disciples asked for something to say, Jesus used it as opportunity to teach his followers the deepest essence of what he understood about his relationship with God – what it meant to him to be the ‘beloved Son’.
As John Dominic Crossan, New Testament scholar, points out when he calls the prayer “the Abba prayer.”
This grows out of a widespread scholarly consensus that Jesus encouraged his followers to call God “Abba.”
Though translated “Father” in nearly all renditions of the New Testament, scholars agree that a better translation of Abba would be “Daddy.” Jesus was inviting his followers to experience God in the most intimate and personal way imaginable.
The Beloved Son calls God “Daddy”.
In fact, Crossan goes even further by suggesting that the term Abba really refers to the “householder.”
In other words, Jesus was telling his disciples that it’s not about gender – they are to pray to the one they know who nurtures life, provides food and shelter, and offers protection and comfort – makes things right with the world!
Of course, that’s not the real meat of the prayer.
The radical part of the Lord’s Prayer, or whatever you choose to call it, is the part that goes like this:
“Your kingdom come, your will be done – on earth as it is in heaven.”
Crossan points out the obvious. In heaven, things work fine. Down here – not so much.
It is here that the faith hits the fan when we move beyond the walls of worship, away from creedal God-talk into actual deeds of God-walk!
Because Jesus teaches his followers, says to us: Pray for things down here to work like things work up there, pray for your life to bring change on the earth that is pleasing to God.
God does have something to say to you and me through Jesus Christ:
I think that gives us more than enough to say to paint this world with the yellow of God’s presence!
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.