Building Community (4): Closer to Jesus
by Louise Westfall
Poor Jesus! What a public relations nightmare he is! Remember these quotes? About the hungry: You give them something to eat. About immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable ones: when you welcome them you welcome me; when you don’t, you reject me. About success and greatness: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. About the nuclear family: Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother. About the scope of love: You’ve heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . About the primacy of faith: Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all you need will be yours as well.
Then there’s research recently published that reports the biggest decline in membership in religious communities of all kinds is among white Christians. Respondents cited reasons suggesting what is perceived to be “Christian” views on acceptance of LGBTQ persons, women’s leadership and agency, de facto racial segregation, exclusivist perspectives on salvation, along with partisan, mean-spirited rhetoric in the public square do not resonate with many younger Americans. Poor Jesus! As one of our marketing team members sighed “Jesus needs a serious make-over.”
… and so it has always been. The New Testament narratives of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry reveal the deep rift between him and the religious leaders of his day. Our morning text follows on the heels of arguments he’s had with the establishment over paying taxes, the source of his authority, money-exchanging practices in the temple, and more. In their eyes, Jesus has broken laws right and left and strayed far from the master message. He’s a public relations nightmare!
… and this text tells us why. A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the twelfth chapter, verses 28 through 34. Listen for God’s Word to the faithful, the fallen-away, and…well, everybody else. [MARK 12:28-34]
… after that no one dared to ask him any question…
I want to think that the religious leaders were silenced by an epiphany: Jesus’ recitation of the commandments they knew by heart and then the interpretation by one of their colleagues helped them see that when it comes to religion, all that matters is love. Not ritual, not a complicated set of rules, not endless debate over theological fine points. Just love. Love for God with the best of who you are. Love of others in the concrete ways you love yourself.
I want to think the incident was a breakthrough case, a teachable moment when the sodden weight of religiosity suddenly caught fire by the sparks of the Spirit. Love is the essence. Love matters more than “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” But no. The narrative hurtles onward toward Jesus’ death, just 2 chapters later, initiated by the religious leaders’ charges of blasphemy and sedition. Jesus was a threat to the status quo and had to be eliminated to preserve it.
Instead of struggling to fit Jesus into our worldview in ways that make him a little less demanding and more acceptable, what if we were to examine our own lives—individually and together--and see where we need to pattern our behavior, our community, our goals and plans more like Jesus'?
It is easy to imagine that we would have reacted differently to Jesus’ message, but would we have? Do we now? We justify all manner of practices and perspectives by calling them “Christian.” And it becomes all too easy to judge opposing perspectives as “un-Christian.” At least part of the blame for the hostile divide tearing apart our nation must be laid at the feet of the Christian Church which has been a pale reflection—and at times a blatant distortion–of the love demonstrated by Jesus.
Friends, it’s not Jesus who is in need of a make-over. It’s us. You and me and all who claim to be his followers. Instead of struggling to fit Jesus into our worldview in ways that make him a little less demanding and more acceptable, what if we were to examine our own lives—individually and together–and see where we need to pattern our behavior, our community, our goals and plans more like Jesus’? With love. More love. Deeper love. More distinctive than the soft and affectionate sentiment that often passes for love. Love as commanded here has little to do with feelings and everything to do with actions.
…beginning by recommitting to that first commandment. To let go of ourselves as the center of the universe and put God there instead. The God of love we come to know best through Jesus. The God we serve by following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus, who turns expectations upside down to reveal the nature of God’s redemptive love. Jesus, who chose to give in a world that seeks to acquire; who trusted God’s abundance when others feared there was not enough; who welcomed everyone in a world that categorizes and excludes; who offered mercy instead of vengeance; and forgiveness in a world that judges.
These two commandments embodied by Jesus offer us lives of purpose and a community of acceptance to help us practice what we preach and match our actions to our creed.
And I think these commandments together nullify the false dichotomy between personal belief and social righteousness. Love is manifest through individual acts of compassion and kindness AND in the pursuit of justice. It will take both to alleviate hunger in the US and around the world, for example. Food items and cash contributions to Metro Caring. Food deliveries to New Genesis from We Don’t Waste, and also monetary donations there as they experience severe financial need. But support on the other side of equation too: advocacy for broad programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, free-and-reduced lunches in public schools, and international food aid. Immigration policies that protect refugees and children. God’s love reflected in Jesus’ actions doesn’t define boundaries or worthiness or anything else besides need. I was hungry…I was naked…I was a stranger…I was in prison…I was sick…and you cared for me. You loved me. And in the Church’s life that “me” is none other than Jesus.
Last Sunday during Communion, I was mesmerized by the solo sung by bass section leader John Seesholtz—partly because of his powerful yet sensitive rendition (thank you John!), but also by its single-minded plea to “give me Jesus.” The Black spiritual affirms that on ordinary days as well as times of great stress and loneliness, nothing in all the world can match the spiritual comfort and empowerment of the One who shows us the heart of God is love.
Draw closer to that love, my friends, and see how it helps us love stronger and deeper and wider as well. Imagine that as the center of Central’s marketing campaign!
Thanks be to God.