Thursday, September 14, 2006

'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild' - so where did the Christians go wrong?

This is a talk originally given at the National Union of Students' Fringe event in 2005. It appears following a request from an individual for it to be reproduced:

Good afternoon. My name is Peter Dray and I work for the Universities and Colleges’ Christian Fellowship, alongside Christian Union groups in Lancashire and Cumbria. In many of the campuses you represent, I imagine that the Christian Union is probably the largest regular-gathering group on campus.

I wonder what you think of when you think of the ‘Christian Union’. Or more widely: the church. Or more widely still: Christianity. Now I’d like you to ask you what you think about the man, Jesus Christ. I guess in the minds of many of you, there is a chasm of difference between your impression of the church and your impression of Jesus Christ. And this isn’t a new thing. Mark Twain, for instance, put it like this: “If Christ were here now, there is one thing he would not be: a Christian.” Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, all of India would be Christian today.” And I guess these might be similar opinions to those you might express today. How can people that call themselves followers of Christ – and all that he embodies – seemingly so often get it wrong? Why do people that look to the example of Christ and the beauty of his character seemingly slip into so much ugly bigotry and narrow-mindedness? Perhaps you feel that even applies to the Christians on your campus. Well these are the questions I will attempt to answer in the next few minutes.

I guess the first point I need to freely – though sadly – admit is that sometimes Christians get it wrong. I meet people from time to time who have had unhelpful experiences with Christians or with the church who have been put off truly considering Christianity for life. When we read in the newspapers about vicars who have used their position in the community to abuse children, or governments banning teaching on evolution in the name of Christianity, we are rightly appalled and ask ourselves how these people can identify themselves with Jesus. For others of you, an unhelpful RS teacher, unbearably dull chapel services, being told that to be a Christian you have to hold certain political views, or even having a conversation with an over-bearing Christian friend might have imbued you with a negative view of Christianity that is difficult to dispel. To you, I want to genuinely say one thing: sorry. I am sorry that the church has hurt you and I am sorry that it has let you down. I am sorry that to you the church has not been the powerful and loving witness to Christ that it should have been. The church is made up of rescued people and not perfect people, and I am sorry when Christians have been in the wrong and have disappointed you or offended you or hurt you when they should not have. I don’t want to minimise the hurt you have felt by Christians. I am truly sorry.

I hope I’m not under-playing that real stumbling block for many of you by saying, however, that the big thing about the Christian message is that it is not first and foremost about the institutional church or about Christians, but about Jesus. And so actually looking into Christianity is not about all those things we often think it is about. It’s not about vicars in dresses or cold sermons in cold churches or even about going to church. It’s about Jesus Christ. And it’s to this man that I turn next.

You see, the second reason I think that there is often a perceived discrepancy between Jesus and his followers is that many people who hold this opinion have never even read one of the Biblical biographies of Jesus. Often the Jesus that people imagine is not the same as the Jesus that we read about in historical accounts. The talk title picked up on an adage often used to describe Jesus – ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ And the Jesus that many people imagine today is a Jesus who is some sort of feeble and innocent cherub who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, or a frail character who wandered around in a nighty with a message primarily for children something along the lines of ‘it’s good to be good for goodness sake.’ A Jesus who really had no message at all, except for us to be sickly sweetly nice to each other. A Jesus who doesn’t really have anything to say to us in the 21st Century. A Jesus we can effectively dismiss as just a good man or a good teacher from a previous age. A Jesus we formed an opinion on at infant school which hasn’t changed or really been challenged since. Now let me say to you today: that’s not the Jesus I read about in the gospel and it’s not the Jesus I know. And to those people who label Jesus as merely a good teacher I ask: have you read any of his teaching?

In fact, Jesus was a revolutionary character. If you haven’t got one already, I’d urge you to take one of these ‘life’ gospels – they’re biographies of Jesus’ life, written by one of his disciples John, which appears in the Bible. And there’s no doubt that Jesus imparted vast amounts of moral teaching which appears attractive in our generation. For instance, in John 8:1-11, we read of an account when a woman is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus.

The teachers of religious law and Pharisees brought a woman they had caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. "Teacher," they said to Jesus, "this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?" They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, "All right, stone her. But let those who have never sinned throw the first stones!" When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.

Its teaching like this - isn’t it? - that we like. Jesus encourages those accusing the women to look at the problems in their own lives before condemning her. It’s teaching like that which we are prepared to listen to. It doesn’t feel too threatening to us, does it? These are just good principles and a good ethical code to live by. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

However, the truth is that the vast majority of Jesus’ teaching is neither meek nor mild. In fact, the major point of Jesus’ teaching and claims is one that the majority of society finds offensive. My Masters was in philosophy and sociology and, even set alongside Marx and Machiavelli, the most shocking descriptions of human society and behaviour come from Jesus, as recorded in the Bible.

For instance, you can read in John 3 of a conversation that Jesus has with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee – a strictly devout religious group - but also a member of the ruling council. Nicodemus was an MP and the Archbishop of Canterbury all rolled into one. He would have been a good citizen – he would have always paid his taxes and probably would have been a family man. Yet, in some famous words, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to be acceptable to God, he must be ‘born again’; he must be spiritually reborn. We think, “It’s Nicodemus – he’s a good person and a religious man – God’s sure to go for types like him.” Jesus said, “Nicodemus, you are infected with the disease of sin, you have rejected God and lived your own way – and in your present state, you can have no place in my kingdom.”

Jesus is asking for perfection from Nicodemus – always choosing to live God’s way – otherwise he can have no place with God. This means always putting God first and others second before putting our own needs in third place. And if this seems like a high standard, it’s because we haven’t understood God’s holiness and how amazing God’s kingdom, heaven, will be. Listen to this description of heaven from the Bible:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. […] I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever."

See the truth is, in my natural state, I’d ruin heaven. Heaven is a place without crying and pain and, in my natural state, I act selfishly and make people cry. And in his natural state, Nicodemus had no place in heaven either. He too rejected God’s way and lived for himself.

And we can see this in our own lives. For instance God says, “I am a God of truth, so in my world, you’re to tell the truth.” And we say, “Who cares about you, God? In my world, I’m going to be the one that sets the rules.” And in situations where we can make ourselves look better, or to get us out of tight corners, we reject God’s rightful authority over us and, from time to time, we lie.

The point is that if I describe all you listening today as ‘sinful’, according to Jesus’ definition, I am not making a character judgement on you. What I am saying is that you – alone with the whole of the rest of humanity, including all Christians – have rejected God’s good and moral way of living in his world, in favour of your own individual way of living in God’s world. And it doesn’t take me to tell you that such sinful behaviour is extremely destructive. We hurt ourselves and we hurt others in living this way. It’s living in this manner, as individuals and as a society, that leaves us with millions of children living in poverty. It’s living in this manner that leaves broken families and marginalised people and individual hurt. And God, a good God, a God of integrity, says that justice must be done. And this means that all sinful people – including each of us – faces God’s just wrath for putting ourselves above God and above others. Some of you will find being told that you fall short of God’s perfect standards incredibly offensive but it’s the claim that Jesus makes.

To this, a bit of us wants to go, “Hold on, hold on. What right does Jesus have to say this anyway? What right does Jesus have to say that I am falling short of God’s standards?” It’s a good question. Post-modern theorists have rightly woken us up to the fact that, as individuals, each of us only has a limited view on the world, and so we need to be suspicious of claims to ultimate and absolute truth.

I drive a fair bit for my job, and quite often I’m stuck in traffic jams on the M6. The thing is, when you’re stuck in traffic, you have a very limited perspective on why there’s a queue. You’re limited because you can see about ten cars in front, and the guy in the car behind picking his nose. You’re guess as to why there’s a queue has no more authority than anyone elses. At best, you might have a good guess.

But the thing is, in a traffic jam, the one person who can explain the queue is the person in the police helicopter above. They can speak authoritatively about the queue, because they’re not limited by their own perspective within the system.

And breathtakingly, this is Jesus’ biggest claim above all: to speak as one from outside of the system. More specifically, Jesus claims to speak as God in human form: someone who, because they have come from outside the system, can accurately reveal God to us and tell us what we’re really like and what truth really is. And so, unlike any other philosopher and teacher and theorist in history, Jesus claims to be the only one who is not stuck in traffic. You may think Jesus is crazy, but that is the size of the claim he makes. Jesus is claiming to speak as God in human form, and so when Jesus makes such massive claims about the true state of humanity, at the very least we need to investigate the evidence to affirm or refute his identity and grounds for his truth claim. For me the biggest piece of evidence that God exists is that I can find no other way to satisfactorily explain Jesus’ identity.

Equally, when Jesus claims that his voluntary death on the cross, that you can read about at the end of this gospel, offers the way for friendship and reconciliation with God to be re-opened with each of us, we need at least academically to look into these claims with an open mind. The amazing claim of the Christian faith is that all of us, no matter how bad or evil we might have been, can be forgiven by God because of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for sin on the cross. The stakes are too high to ignore these claims.

So if the first reason that there is a perceived chasm between Jesus and the church is that Christian often fail to perfectly walk in the footsteps of Jesus, another is that often people misunderstand Jesus’ mission and message. We thought that Jesus’ message was to be nice to each other and to look for the good deep down in individuals; actually, Jesus’ message is that we are more evil that we can possibly imagine, but more loved by God that we can possibly imagine too. A love that practically showed itself in sending Jesus, himself fully man and fully God, to bear the dreadful consequences of sin on the cross and allow even wretches like all of us to be forgiven.

So let me finish with a question for you today. If you can see no connection between Christ and between Christians, could it be because you’ve never encountered the real historical Jesus? Could it be that you’re stuck with the caricature of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, a kind of Sunday School Jesus? A Jesus who really doesn’t have anything to say at all. But this is not the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus’ mission was to show us how far short of God’s standards we have fallen, and also to make a way of forgiveness possible.

Because it’s within this context of what Christians understand about Jesus’ identity and mission that we can start to understand Christian behaviour on campus; perhaps even some of that behaviour which previously you have understood to be intolerant or bigoted. One of the major criticisms of Christians is that ‘you ram your beliefs down our throats.’ This insensitive method of witnessing is not one that I would recommend. The New Testament calls Christians to treat others ‘with gentleness and respect’, and in speaking to and engaging with other people, I personally always true to show the respect to others that I hope they will show me. I constantly have to examine my motives and methods, ensuring that nothing other than Jesus’ words are causing offence, and considering how I can be more sensitive to a person without compromising on the message. And I will love and keep acting towards people as Christ would have done, even if they reject Jesus’ message, and even if they reject me.

However, as Christians, we are called to be witnesses to Christ – to introduce people to the claims to reality that Jesus makes. Telling people about Jesus is always unpopular in a secular society, because it involves telling people that they need to be forgiven. Jesus’ words, such as, “I am the way, the truth and the life” – when he claims his death on the cross is the only way of dealing with sin - are deeply unpopular – but as Christians, if we are not seeking to introduce people to Jesus, it implies we either do not truly believe Jesus’ message, or do not love people enough to tell them about the good news that Jesus’ death and resurrection brings. In fact, for a Christian, telling other people about Jesus is often not only the most nerve-wracking thing we can do, but also the kindest thing. It offers people the opportunity to investigate Jesus’ high-stake claims for themselves, and also offers the chance for them to know the true perspective on reality that Jesus brings. It’s what has driven me to wanting to give this talk and engage with you today, and I hope that you, in turn will take one of these gospels, and to read it with an open mind, deciding for yourself about Jesus’ claims and mission.


At 11:21 PM, Anonymous The Teapot said...

Thanks for that - interesting. Perhaps some of your views are closer to mine than I previously thought!


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