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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.