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Christian clichés elicit strong reactions in my household. First comes the eye rolling, which I chalk up to the inevitable effects of seven years of theological study. Then there are the groaning and theological mumbling, two other such side effects. Sometimes counter proposals emerge that turn the clichés on their heads, and this I chalk up to being married to someone with a lot of wit. And then come the laughter and reminder that I probably take myself too seriously, more glad side effects of my life partnership.
“Jesus is the Answer” is the latest cliché to elicit glares, groans, eye rolling, and witticisms in our house—only this time, I decided it all deserved more thought.
Whether plastered on billboards, bumper stickers, tee shirts, or hinted at in sermons, this phrase just irks me. First, there’s the whole trite factor. Say that phrase to someone in pain and you get an “F” in my pastoral care class. (Okay, that wasn’t very pastoral, and I wouldn’t say that to a student or any well-meaning Christian, but you get the point.) The phrase glosses over the particularity of the human predicament, over the uniqueness of our sin and suffering, pain and perplexity. “Jesus is the answer” really makes no sense on its own, because it doesn’t account for the beauty, complexity, and neediness of humanity let alone particular humans. God grants particular spiritual medicine for particular spiritual ills. In other words, God’s ministry to us is context-dependent even as it is universal. Jesus message to the religious leaders was not exactly the same as his message to the prostitute and the destitute. What Jesus said to Mary was not what he said to Martha. “Jesus is the answer” ignores the very particularity and thus poignancy of Jesus’ message to each one of us.
Second, and most fundamentally, Jesus is not an “answer.” Jesus is a person—and, of course, Jesus is God. Not an abstract principle. Not a solution. Not even a model for our lives—not first and foremost anyway. All these ways of thinking about Jesus de-personalize him. Jesus becomes an “It” not a “Thou,” which means that Jesus is at our disposal, like a tool we use to get a job done. Jesus becomes a means to an end that we’ve determined.
Even when Jesus becomes a model, we’re on shaky ground. Yes, Jesus teaches us (models) what it means to be truly human. Jesus reveals the image of God to us, and his life demonstrates obedience, faithfulness, wisdom, and peace (among other things). But he’s not some static being whom we watch and copy. We’re not meant to simply read about and learn from his life and then go and do likewise. Certainly we do “go and do likewise” but such going and doing flows naturally from encounter with Jesus, the living God who rose with scars in his hands and side, not without them. Which is to say that God has incorporated human nature into God’s own being, for eternity. Moreover, watching and copying Jesus isn’t really a possibility, not on our own. Our lives take on the shape of Christ’s by the power of the Spirit. Jesus encounters us again and again through the Spirit and re-creates us in God’s image. Jesus lives. We don’t control him. We can’t determine our encounter with him, for such encounter is sheer gift, initiated by God.
My basic point is this: “Jesus is the answer” isn’t an answer because we don’t need an answer. We ultimately need God, a living God who ministers to us in the here-and-now. Who meets us personally through a wildly diverse body, the members of which find themselves listening more than answering and participating in the gift of healing and reconciliation rather than orchestrating it. Of course, this won’t fit on a billboard, tee shirt, or bumper sticker, but at least for the moment all eye rolling in my household can end.