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Each Fall for the last number of years I have had the privilege of assisting in all things Homiletical in my colleague Mariano Avila’s Calvin Seminary course on the Gospels and Acts. Each semester Mariano begins with a quote from former Princeton Seminary President John A. Mackay from the opening of his book on the Gospels. Mackay wrote that in his experience too many Christians worship “a Jesus who was born, who died, but who never lived.” Mackay’s provocative point is clear: too many believers love celebrating Christmas and they are thankful for their personal salvation through Christ’s death on the cross but the in-between part of Jesus’s actual life and teachings? It does not get as much press.
Surely, however, the ethics of Jesus, the lifestyle of Jesus, the character of Jesus, the active teaching and preaching of Jesus ought to be the starting point and the key content to absorb if we are going to live a Christ-like life of discipleship. The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of Jesus’s teaching ministry but it is far from the only part. That said, if we could actively follow The Beatitudes alone, we would probably take several giant steps toward Christ-likeness. The late Dallas Willard wrote some challenging and wonderful books in this regard, including his classic The Divine Conspiracy.
Although I have heard John A. Mackay’s words before, last week when Mariano recited them to our class, they struck me with renewed urgency and vividness. The reasons why are obvious and not a few of you reading this know where I am going already. But after 18 wearying months of COVID, we have repeatedly seen right within the church failures to love, failures to embody Christ’s peaceable nature, failures to be as concerned about the stranger as we are about ourselves or those who agree with us on this, that, or the other thing.
What could be farther from Christ’s incarnate way of life than angry and profane people storming the Capitol on January 6 under (literally) banners of “Jesus Saves,” “Trump and Jesus,” as well as multiple armed people seen kissing and praying in front of the various wooden crosses that had been erected? Or what about the brutal judgmentalism and gruff, brusque (decidedly unJesusy/non-gentle) treatment various Christian pastors and others subjected a pastor and his family to as described by Christy Berghoef in her recent blog here on The Twelve?
As I read the Gospels, although Jesus had it in him to be direct when needed, he was exceedingly charitable and open. There is a reason sinners and others who had been pushed out by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus magnetic. He was, as reflected in the title of Dane Ortlund’s recent book “gentle and lowly.” When Jesus invited people into his rest under the promise of a yoke that was light and easy, he spoke those words from the core of a person who made it very easy to believe that that would be exactly what his “yoke” would be like. Never before had the messenger and the message been so snugly aligned.
Jesus was also, not surprisingly, the embodiment of his own Beatitudes. He loved those who, like Jesus himself, were meek and mild, who pined for righteousness and worked for peace, who were poor in spirit and found lots of reasons to weep on a regular basis. Jesus would rather be persecuted than be among those taking up the sword to fight (and that’s basically how his life ended of course). Above all Jesus was merciful, gracious and if ever he got exasperated, it was in the face of Pharisees who needed to embody all of the above but who mostly exuded none of these traits.
In the last couple of years we have had evangelical leaders promoting violence against those who disagree on various points (think of the pugilistic language and spirit that wove through the sermons highlighted on the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”). One prominent, albeit now disgraced, leader proudly hinted that even as he addressed a large crowd of evangelical undergraduates, he had a gun tucked into his belt. Speaking on a Christian campus, Donald Trump arrogantly predicted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no support. His presidency and its apocalyptic conclusion on January 6 proved how right he was on that point, including among the millions of evangelicals who cheered and defended all of that.
In the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters, at one point a character snaps off a TV set that had been airing the program of a televangelist and then said to his wife, “I tell you: if Jesus could come back and see all that is perpetrated in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” I fully recognize the nauseating parts of my own failures to live like Jesus and pray I can do better.
But I lament the grander scale on which too many self-professed Christians in the U.S. think it is somehow acceptable to sneer at those who wear masks, to perpetrate misinformation, to support armed insurrections, to manipulate and twist their faith to prop up faux religious (but real political) objections to a simple vaccine, and just generally to make life unpleasant for anyone they find to have differing opinions from their own. If you can find the Fruit of the Spirit in all that, then I stand amazed.
To paraphrase President George W. Bush’s speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, in America today—but I regret to say too often in also the churches in America today—every disagreement becomes an argument and every argument becomes a full-on culture clash in the midst of a politics that thrives on fomenting anger, fear, and resentment—three emotions that could not be farther removed from Christ.
Or to put it another way, we follow a Jesus who was born, who died, but who never lived.
True. Our flock particularly loves the church’s “feast” celebrations but easily forget/ignore Jesus’ very difficult teachings (repent, deny self, forgive us as we forgive others…)
I suspect the reason why “sinners and others who had been pushed out by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus magnetic” is because of the thousands of miracles he was doing in their area –– and if He was here doing it today, there would be a “Jesus movement” of heretofore unseen scope…
Maybe of some help in your lament of: mask-wearing-sneering, conspiracy-promoting, vocally self-assured, believers is to realize that they are terrified …
of liberals, of perceived personification of evil, of the future, of the uncertainty of “known and normal” continuing …
Good job identifying the problem, but can we help them truly get Jesus’ teaching …”desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow …” ?
Can we help them?…… maybe it’s not only them who need to get Jesus’ teaching. Maybe it’s us. We all need to stop insulting, sneering, dehumanizing, and judging each other. Maybe it’s time for all to forgive and unite in Christ. I cringe when I think about what He thinks of what Christians are doing to eachother in His name. Maybe it’s time to stop talking and writing about how sinful they are( whoever they may be), and focus on our own sinfulness and forgiveness. Maybe we can do better living the beatitudes, so we can better love the ones who see and experience life different from us. Maybe we all need to stop behaving like Pharisees.
Yes! Thank you.
Thank you, Scott!
Thank you, Scott. Jesus lived and Jesus died. But he is risen, he is risen indeed! We have been transformed and sanctified through our Savior’s death and resurrection but I and so many others often forget this. In his living, Jesus showed us what this looks like. That’s why he constantly summoned us to “follow me”, isn’t it?
At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus said we must be perfect. The Greek is telios. Finished, completed. We are like wood for a project. Rough cut, precision cut, planed, sanded with differing grades of sandpaper. We are in process, being sanctified by the hand of the master craftsman. The refiner’s fire. The potter’s wheel. We pray for willing submission to God’s intent for us. Hopefully we are being made cross-ready and cross-worthy! Thanks for the reminder that Jesus “pined for righteousness and worked for peace.”
Right on, again. And then, phenomenologically, you have to wonder at the How and Why. Because this kind of Jesusism looks like a mystery-religion. Devotion to Jesus is not necessarily orthodox Christianity. How did our Protestant denominations allow this to happen? I’m thinking about all kinds of John W. Nevin warnings here. Mystery religions are often violent.
Painfully true, Scott, and powerfully written. Thank you for your courage, and for expressing so humbly your own heart of faith.
Thanks for this. I often wonder why the Apostles’ Creed goes from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” without a word of the life by example in between. Maybe back when the creed was written, the powers that be found the life and teachings of Jesus to be too tough a pill to swallow to include in a creed.
Last Saturday evening at mass (I attend Catholic Church in my retirement in Philippines as there is no Protestant Church where I live that resembles mainline and its worship order closely resembles my church’s except the Eucharist at end of each Mass) I wondered this as we recited the Nicene Creed, why nothing said of Jesus’s life between birth and “suffered under Pilate?” Was his life viewed as imconsequential to salvic religion? Have no bearing on our salvation? Did he live only to prove worthy of his sinless sacrifice on the cross for our salvation? Would his death and resurrection have become so popular world wide apart from the inspiring life he lived and taught his disciples to both live and do? What attracts us to Jesus? Was it not the life he lived as a human among humans and the teachings he shared, including how it ended as he said
Raised in a separtistic and very fundamentalist Baptist tradition I never remember sermons on the Beatitides or loving our neighbors as except “Suffering for righteousness sake” which was a big deal and converting our neighbors to our religion. We were never encouraged to feed the hungry or assist the poor. Foreigners and immigrants were spoken against even back then with no recognition that ultimately our ancestors in America were precisely that! Mine came in 1797 from Kassel, Germany, four brothers who were maybe escaping being canon fodder for religious and Napleonatic wars. We heard much about America supposively being a “Christian nation” though Jesus’s name doesn’t appear in any of our founding documents or Constitution, only an undefined “God.” It separated church and state so European religious wars wouldn’t be imported here. A false Christian nationalism was proclaimed and a Western European one at that; Civil Rights, MLK, large protests were roundly comdemned from pulpit and this was in the Yankee North! Civil War Vets were buried in our graveyard. I left that church at age 14 hearing little about Jesus’s life and teachings I read about in the Bible. I had a grave conflict. How did “Born again” end up not focusing on the life Jesus lived and taught us to live? Only when attending the Reformed Church on Long Island was that richly proclaimed! Then the life of the Jesus in the gospels became important, the meaning of “Born from above!”
C H Dodd deals with this issue in his little classic, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development. He suggests the Creed is based on the earliest kerygma, which can be found in the early sermons of Peter in The Acts and the Gospel summaries in the early epistles of Paul. It was the delay of the parousia that led to the writing of the Gospels, as well as the new Gentile majority being unacquainted with the Torah. The Creed was never intended as the total teaching tool, but rather the baptismal confession. Indeed, the social class of almost all early Christians was so low, and their cultural privileges were so minimal, that peaceable humility was a life virtually forced on them, as Peter’s epistles demonstrate.
I’m reading and writing today a message for October 10 on the first three fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, love, joy, peace, and so read what you had say in “The Jesus Who Never Lived.” Our wise transition pastor, David Sieplinga, assigned our spots in this Freedom series I’m sure in view of the aching absence of Holy Spirit fruit in church and community life today. Easier to find, looking around, animosity, acrimony, and antagonism than the beautiful three! How may love, joy, peace be commended, without unloading on their opposites, easy targets. Your article, Scott, provides a good lead: preach Jesus (Jesus’ life) as gently, explicitly, compellingly as I can, right up to the Tree from which Spiritual fruit grows. Thanks, Friend. John A Rozeboom