Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Jesus the question.
Two reminders of the paradoxical relationship of Jesus to the church: Sometimes you have to leave the church to figure out what Jesus means to you — which is what Soulful Blogger Joe Perez has found — and sometimes you find the church long before you figure out what Jesus has to do with it — which is what Erik Walker Wikstrom discovered and has written about in his new book, Teacher, Guide, Companion, and in his UU World cover story, "Jesus and the Modern Seeker".
And sometimes, you live the paradox of just not getting what everyone else is going on about. One Christmas Eve, back when I was a college student who had given up the church of my childhood, I read the Gospel of Mark — the shortest and earliest gospel — thinking to myself, If there's something to this story, some revelation that I need, this is the perfect night to find it. And I read the book straight through and felt nothing. I was disappointed — and relieved. That experience grounds my respect for honest agnosticism, religious doubt, and humanism, because for several years I could only honestly say that I was interested in religion but unable to comprehend it. I was on my own.
Since then, I suppose I've stumbled onto two insights. The first is a twist on the ubiquitous bumper sticker, "Jesus is the Answer." As a liberal Christian and as a Unitarian, I have to say that Jesus is the Question — the provocation that keeps the church on edge, the personality that won't stay put in the roles we've developed for him, the story that won't quit. I find that Christianity poses questions to me that can only be answered in my life — not in doctrines and rules, but in an attitude of vulnerability to the story and to the relationships it models, especially in Jesus' parables and ministry. I don't think Jesus particularly cared what his followers thought; he cared how they regarded each other. So it makes sense to me that Jesus is often not in the church at all, and sometimes pops up in heresies and strange places and among people I wouldn't always feel comfortable visiting. So, first, Jesus is the question.
And the second insight I suppose I've found is that discipleship might be better understood as apprenticeship. Jesus didn't make an argument for the truth of what he was saying; he said, Come here; do this. A friend of mine who was a Buddhist monk for a year in Thailand told me that the monks are right: meditation works. If you do what they tell you, if you sit still for hour after hour and day after day, you will experience the Four Noble Truths; you will learn to let go of your desires, or they'll drive you crazy. When Jesus says, "By their fruits you shall know them," I think he's getting at something similar: He is inviting people to try living in what he called "the kingdom of God," right now.
I went to seminary unsure what to think of Jesus, and sometime early in my first year it dawned on me how unsure his own disciples had been. (In Mark's gospel, they never do figure it out.) Jesus didn't emphasize doctrine. He emphasized receptiveness, neighborliness, healing — ways of regarding other people as responses to God's love. But we have this completely unrealistic, profoundly dangerous notion that certainty is a characteristic of faith. We often think that having the answers is what it means to be faithful. The Christian story (which is really the many Christian stories of the people who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus) is about practice, not perfect. And this opened a door for me: I recognized that I wanted to be an apprentice, that I wanted to live in the Christian story, in spite of the fact that I don't "believe" many of the doctrines or recognize the authority of the church to speak on God's behalf.
So this Christmas, I think about the paradox of being a Doubting Thomas in a post-Christian church. I think about wanting to be a disciple, about knowing I make a terrible apprentice, about the story that provokes and unsettles and (strangely) affirms me. ("Don't be afraid," said the angel to the terrified shepherds.) Sometimes I like to believe that Jesus led me out of a church that believed too much about him into a wilderness where I didn't know where to find him, and then into a church that hesitates to talk about him so that I could see him, finally, as a question that I can only answer in the way I live my life.
Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 23 December 2003 at 6:21 PM