Saving Jesus from the Church – 10/10/21

I have always had a challenging relationship with the church.  As a child, church gave me a sense of purpose, that after enduring difficulties in life I had the hope of a beautiful afterlife with streets of gold if I just did what I was supposed to do.  But it was also a scary place.  Our pastor would often single people out from the pulpit for sin he was aware of in their lives.  And there always seemed to be conflict between people. People not liking the pastor fighting with people who supported him.  Petty squabbles over church decorations.  It seemed to me that in all of the judgment, in all of the conflict, Jesus was lost.  His message of love, acceptance and compassion replaced by one of domination and self-interest.  Faith was not a way of being in the world, and church was less a place of radical inclusion and more a place of exclusion.

Robin Meyers writes, “In many American churches, Jesus still comes as one unknown—or perhaps as one so well-known as to be unrecognizable. He was penniless and itinerant, yet his gospel is now attached to some of the richest and most powerful people on earth, and the good news is really bad news for the poor. Captives are not released; they are warehoused. The blind do not see; rather, the sighted wear blinders. The oppressed are not liberated; they have become the new scapegoats. Sermons are no longer dangerous; they are simply adapted to the appetites and anxieties of the audience. Conservatives rail against sins of the flesh, as if to exorcise their own demons, and liberals baptize political correctness at the expense of honesty.”

Much of what people know of the Christianity is what is represented by the religious right.  The religious right identifies itself by its emphasis on male domination in the home, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, control of women’s reproductive rights, and domination of the earth.  They tie these beliefs to nationalism, to capitalism.  They have been used to uphold special rights for men, for white people, for Christians, for the wealthy.  They have used Jesus as a spiritual rationale to teach fear of those who are different, for a moralism which undermines the messages which were the core of Jesus’s ministry.  We rarely hear about Jesus’ focus on the poor and the outcasts because of the ties such a focus brings to the need for racial, economic, and gender/sexual justice, something that many in the church seek to avoid.

This is not the Jesus I know.  Jesus’s ministry centered on the removal of legalism which disregarded the needs of people.  Jesus tried to shift the way people view God, from one that is remote, wrathful, to one that is nurturing and protective.  A shift from power to presence.  The manner in which churches tend to exercise power over people, to place obstacles in the path to the Divine, in many ways acts like the legalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus opposed.  While I may not view Jesus’s stories of healing as supernatural, I do view them as stories of the power of love to heal.  We can shift the image of Jesus being one who condemns to one who shows compassion.  We can move away from the idea that we just need to be saved so that we can wait to be raptured and begin to consider what we can save here and now, in this place and in this time.

To replace the image of Jesus portrayed in the gospels, religious leaders embrace the idea of Jesus as authoritarian.  And part of this may have been to further the purpose of consolidating the power of religious leaders throughout the centuries who have led in Jesus’s name.  To maintain control not only of churches, but of people and of larger social institutions.  Another troubling way that Jesus is explained is as obedient servant who does what he is told by the Father.  Viewing Jesus in this way, the church can encourage others to follow that example, to seek blind obedience to religious leaders.  We have seen the dangers of such blind obedience in the examples of cult leaders, in Christianity’s increasing embrace of authoritarianism as evidenced by evangelical support of the insurrection in January.

Part of saving Jesus from the church involves freeing him from the doctrines the church espouses about him as we discussed last week – the idea of blood atonement, judgment as central to the Christian faith with the looming threat of hell.  These doctrines serve to propagate fears.  Fear can serve to bring someone’s actions in line with a moral code.  But fear does little to encourage relationship, does little to inspire growth, does not help us evolve as individuals or as a society.  When the focus of the church is on the idea of salvation of the soul offered only to those within its doors, the church fails in its ability to model a different way of living, an example of living together in community.

But we must do more than disagree with evangelicalism.  If we want to save Jesus from the church, those of us who identify in a more progressive manner must show how we are different.  To define ourselves in opposition to those on the religious right by clearly stating what it is we stand for.  Not just what we don’t believe, but what we do believe.  The hope that we have to offer.  Our words can be a form of action, but they can also replace taking action.  Progressives have been guilty of over-intellectualizing faith, forgetting that faith involves not just evolving in our thought but also in our behavior, in the way we model Christianity to the world.  Christianity has lost the idea that it is a way of life.  And for those for whom it is a way of life, it is often far removed from the type of life modeled by Jesus.  We can focus so much on arguing that that the religious right is wrong, that we forget that being right has nothing to do with what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

The meeting we held a couple of weeks ago in which you shared your visions for NCC moving forward was inspiring.  And since that time, some of you have shared your visions with me individually.  As we continue to move through this time of discernment, I sense a new energy, a desire for NCC to reinvent itself, to move past complacency.  And I heard in your ideas a desire to move away from the way church has always been done.  NCC was started with this vision of creating something new.  And since that time, there have been many changes in our world, shifts in how people want to engage in a spiritual community.

Perhaps one way to continue to imagine what may be next is to look back at the same time as looking forward.  In keeping with NCC’s mission statement, perhaps we need to more closely consider how Jesus engaged in ministry and what that might look like for us today.  Rather than viewing the church as a place where the spiritually enlightened gather on a Sunday morning, what might it be like to emulate Jesus’s focus on the outcasts, the downtrodden, the neglected and find a way to incorporate that into our gatherings?  What might it look like for our focus to shift from sustaining our community to sustaining the larger community?  What if our financial commitments were less on paying our own expenses and more on helping those who cannot meet their basic needs?

Meyers also wrote, “If the church is to survive as a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, then we will need to commit ourselves once again not to the worship of Christ, but to the imitation of Jesus. His invitation was not to believe, but to follow. Since it was once dangerous to be a follower of The Way, the church can rightly assume that it will never be on the right track again until the risks associated with being a follower of Jesus outnumber the comforts of being a fan of Christ. Until we experience Jesus as a radically disturbing presence, instead of a cosmic comforter, we will not experience him as true disciples. The first question any churchgoer should be asked and expected expected to answer is: What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?”

Martin Luther King Jr. said “unearned suffering is redemptive.”  The church has become a comfortable place to be.  But is comfort what we should be seeking?  Discomfort leads us to growth.  Discomfort leads us to see things from a new perspective.  Discomfort challenges us to move beyond our comfort zones.  More than many groups who call themselves churches, this community recognizes the privilege that it holds.  And if we seek to save Jesus from the church, we need to find ways to relinquish some of that privilege, to join our fates with those on the margins in a more real and practical way.  For when we are willing to put ourselves in the position to experience the unearned suffering of others alongside them, we release that redemptive power which King spoke of, a power which can transform not only us but the world.

The church has traditionally been a place where we had to check our brains at the door.  To forget science, to put aside our doubts.  And this is at least part of the reason that many of you have found your way to NCC.  But the opposite scenario can also be problematic.  We cannot check our hearts at the door.  The church is a place for us to not only seek to authentically grapple intellectually with our concept of the Divine, but to have an experience of the Divine presence.  To commit to live our lives in accordance with the way Jesus lived his.  To be reminded of our worth, and the worth of all.  To recognize that we are part of something greater. That we are loved, and we are called to love.  That there is hope, not just for us, but for or world.

How can NCC save Jesus from the church?