I went to a local public meeting a few months ago that really crushed me.
It was a meeting in which a few local business owners and residents submitted a petition to city officials to have our two-year old emergency homeless shelter moved out of their part of town. And while this fact alone was frustrating enough, as it seems no one ever wants the homeless in their part of town, it was even more confounding when I walked into this public airing of grievances and realized that the people who were heading up this initiative were church-going Christians.
Sharing this story is difficult for me. The last thing I want is to come across as sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, or as if I don’t make mistakes or have lapses in judgment. I do. I make many mistakes. I have had significant lapses in judgment over the years. So the last thing I expect is perfection in myself or others.
More than anything, I just want people in the church to be like the Jesus they profess to follow.
But it seems that much of American Christianity has increasingly abandoned the way of Jesus as the model for how we live our lives. And this one story is indicative of our larger problem.
When the life of Jesus is not the singular template we use to pattern our lives, as Christians, and then to pattern our churches, we end up with a lot of people and groups with Christian labels, but nothing that really looks like Jesus.
This may seem like it ought to be common sense, but for many in the church, it’s actually not.
I saw a conversation the other day that perfectly illustrates the fundamental flaw of not making Jesus the exclusive pattern by which we, as Christians, pattern our lives. A daughter and stepmother were having an honest conversation about her church-going stepmother’s Islamophobia. When the daughter replied that her stepmother’s posture toward Muslims looked nothing like Jesus, the stepmother responded by saying that she would rather be “biblically correct” than “politically correct.”
Do you see the problem here?
“Biblically correct” can be used to justify virtually any position a person wants to take on any issue. Being “biblically correct” can be used, and has been used, to justify racism, slavery, ethnic cleansing, war, gender inequality, religious triumphalism, and every other divisive, exclusionary, hate-filled ideology that one wants to perpetuate. And that is exactly why the Bible should never be the central template of our faith, because it can be cherry-picked to construct and validate the ugliest and most hideous aspects of humanity while enshrouding it with a “Christian” label.
The truth is that hiding behind the phrase “biblically correct,” is actually a convenient way for those who wear a “Christian” label to completely ignore Jesus.
If a “Christian” was truly seeking to be “biblically correct,” they would look exclusively to the one who is referred to as the “author and perfecter of our faith.”
And that is Jesus.
But making Jesus the model for how you live, rather than just a convenient label for your religious group, is not a welcome experience when it challenges the way you think and how you see the world.
That is why it is psychologically easier for the religious to operate within a “biblically correct” faith space where the Bible is selectively applied. Because you can continue to believe, support, and perpetuate narrow, hateful, and xenophobic worldviews, while still going to church and singing your hymns, without ever having to come face to face with a Jesus who calls you out of your hard-hearted and fear-based religiosity.
Can you hear me?
It’s not enough to say, “But didn’t we preach each Sunday in your name? Didn’t we sing your praises at each service? Didn’t we wave our arms in the air and experience your presence? Didn’t we attend Sunday school or small group each week to learn more about you? Didn’t we study and memorize the Scriptures while always having your name on our lips? Didn’t we pray morning, noon, and night to you?”
The hard reality, in Jesus’ own words, is that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord will enter this kingdom. Only the person who does the will of God.”
And what he is saying is that, even though a person may go through the right motions and say the right words, you will never enter into the present reality of God’s fullness for your life unless you pattern your life after Jesus and be doers of God’s will on earth.
I think it is obvious that we desperately need a transformative experience that can only come by making Jesus our singular template, our exclusive pattern, in our lives and our churches. We need people who care more about presently following the way of Jesus than hiding behind religious pretense. Because when we make Jesus our center, we begin to discover how radically different the way of Jesus is than our Bible-centered religious constructions.
And the difference is night and day.
While the Bible can be selectively used to marginalize and ostracize certain people or groups, Jesus is always on the side of the outcasts, the sick, the afflicted, the despised, and the unclean. While the Bible can be used selectively to make a solid argument for being prejudice and exclusive, Jesus is always welcoming and sharing a table with women, foreigners, drunks, whores, cheats, liars, and deceivers. And while the Bible can be selectively used as support for nationalism, tribalism, ethnocentrism, and religious intolerance, Jesus is always affirming the great faith of people from other countries, sects, and religious backgrounds.
Not only did Jesus affirm the faith, and stand in solidarity with, the homeless, afflicted, and disabled outcasts, he affirmed the great faith of the Greek Syrophoenician woman of a Gentile religion, the great faith of the Roman Centurion of a pagan polytheism, and highlighted the great faith of those who were Samaritan, Canaanite, and Syrian. Even more, Jesus had the audacity to make a Samaritan, a religious enemy of the Jews, the hero of great faith in one of his parables. And he did it at the expense of the religious, who were supposedly favored by God because of their position, title, and chosenness.
Do you not see the irony here?
Jesus called out the empty religiosity of the supposed “chosen and saved,” while elevating the great faith of a man from a different religion.
This is why the religious in America keep Jesus at arm’s length, while embracing a vague, Bible-centered position, because Jesus doesn’t hate the people that they hate. And if that makes you mad or uncomfortable, Jesus is calling you out your empty religiosity, as well, and into something so much deeper and life-giving.
Jesus is not interested in your Christian label, your religious knowledge, the importance of your position, the self-assuredness of your baptism, your saved status, your dedication to weekly rituals, the preservation of your church, the impact on your net worth, or the image that you convey.
He cares only about each of us presently living out the love of the Father to all people, whether it be the homeless in your town or your Muslim brother or sister.
And that is exactly what he modeled in his life. And the model to which he is calling each of us to pattern our lives.