Jesus as a metaphor?

I found the following advice offered to a parent in an inter-religious marriage (Jewish & Christian) who wanted guidance about how to respond to a son who is beginning to feel a tug toward Christianity, but still wants to have his Bar Mitzvah. The web site is one devoted to addressing spiritual concerns of the Jewish community.

Here is part of the answer given to this parent by one of three writers:

I would explain to your son that if he declares Jesus as his personal savior and affiliates with an evangelical Christian denomination, then that would be a choice of Christianity and a move away from Judaism. But if he wants to learn more about Jesus as an inspiring Jewish historical figure, or about Jesus as a metaphor in some of the more progressive Christian denominations, this exploration could be compatible with a Jewish (or interfaith) identity.

In my sermon this morning from John 6:42, I spoke to the kind of contrast that the Jewish writer above draws. I confess to preaching an incompatibility between a Jewish or Muslim view of Jesus and a Christian one. So I want to ask my brothers and sisters* who call themselves progressive whether they feel any tension or conflict in the description above. Is the Jesus of progressive United Methodism “an inspiring Jewish historical figure” or “a metaphor”? Or is progressive United Methodism not among the tribe of “more progressive Christian denominations” that this writer looks to with approval?

These are serious questions for me as I seek to understand my place and my role within our diverse denomination. I hope the answer is that progressive United Methodists do not embrace the kind of Jesus who can be understood merely as a Jewish historical figure or simply as a metaphor. We leave that to others, right?

*I read recently that the new progressive preference is “siblings” rather than “brothers and sisters.” I’m afraid you will have to tolerate my backwardness on this front.

The confession we need

There is a difference between confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and accepting as Lord.

In American evangelical Christianity, some variation of “accepting” Jesus is offered as the hallmark of conversion. Getting saved is often associated with asking Jesus to be our Savior or — more commonly — accepting or receiving him as such.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the active verbs here. It has always felt like we are doing Jesus a favor.

To confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is an entirely different thing. When we confess, we state what is true. To use a contemporary common example, we a person confesses a crime, they are simply stating the truth that they did such and such things. The things happened whether the criminal confesses it or not. To confess is to acknowledge what is already the truth, even if unknown to others. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to say that Jesus is Lord whether I acknowledge it or not. I am just now coming around to acknowledge that truth.

This strikes me as theologically and practically important. We Christians proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ has defeated death and broken the power of sin and that he will one day judge the world. This is not a claim that he will judge those who have accepted him. It is a claim that he will judge the world.

I believe that on the cross and in the tomb, Jesus really did save the whole world from death — including those who had already died. This is why there will be a general resurrection. All will be resurrected to eternal life. All will stand before the judge. The book of life will opened and all will be judged.*

When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, we are proclaiming this truth. At the risk of putting it too strongly: Jesus is not my savior. He is THE savior.

It is because of this, that I shy away from the traditional sinner’s prayer. It is not that I think new birth is unimportant, but because I think new birth is not about us “accepting” Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I think, rather, it is about a work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the Spirit opening our blind eyes to the great truth of Jesus’ love and lordship. Perhaps in response to that new birth we might utter words very similar to the sinner’s prayer. Perhaps in seeking to have that new birth we might utter that prayer. But unlike Joel Osteen, I don’t believe the uttering of those words is the same as being born again.

The Spirit blows where it will.

What we need to be given is the gift that allows to confess from the depth of our very soul the great truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is savior. Jesus loves me, even me, and died so that I might live.

*The standard of judgment appears to be how we have lived rather than what we believe or say, which opens up for me lots of interesting questions that would derail the simple point I want to make here.

Not the healthy but the sick

Thoughts come to me in odd places some times.

I was sitting in the back of a used bookstore in town Wednesday night. I was just sitting and listening to the people in the store. Downstairs, a group of teenagers were playing a role playing game, laughing and joking and reveling in being nerds. Upstairs, the staff were talking about Russian translations and high school classes and various other topics.

I found myself musing about what it would mean to witness to the gospel in that place at that moment, and I was instantly aware of the barriers that would make that difficult, not the least of which being that none of those people at that moment had any sense at all that they were in need of good news.

I prayed for them as I sat there and this thought came to me. I recalled Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I’ve read and heard that passage from Isaiah many times, but Wednesday night I found myself wondering if we should hear this as Jesus talking to the church about our target audience: the poor, the captive, the “blind,” and the oppressed.

Or maybe it is just a message for me and not the church. Or maybe it is just my own squirrel brain at work playing tricks on me.

All over my Facebook feed the last couple of days, people have been sharing this article by Carey Nieuwhof about reaching people who don’t think they need God. It seems like pretty good advice, but I wonder if maybe it is missing the point in a way.

People who find their lives comfortable and live indifferently to God have never been a very ripe field for harvest. This has always been the case. Read Deuteronomy 8 if you don’t think God knows this. Read virtually of the rest of the Bible for further confirmation. There is a reason the prophets were met with stones and chains.

As I ponder these things, I think of the way the early Methodist movement made its greatest impact among what John Wesley called “plain” people. Could it be that the ones who responded to Methodist preaching were people who had found the “happiness” their society offered them unattainable or false?

I recall Jesus Christ saying that he came not for the healthy but the sick. Is our chasing after people who see themselves as well-adjusted and basically comfortable a misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry?

Of course, a great counter point to my argument are all those beautiful and packed mega-churches sitting right in the heart of some of most affluent communities in America. Rich and powerful people have spiritual needs, too, I’ve been told more than once.

But I can’t shake this thought that my most effective moments in ministry have been with those who are already conscious of their suffering or unhappiness or pain. Perhaps it is just not my gift to shake the sand that so many people build their lives upon. When God has used me the most, it has been with people already aware that the flood waters and storms have washed away what they had been building their life upon. Could it be that discontent is the soil in which the seeds of faith find root?

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.

Q: Should these two things define the church?

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

If we in the church are an extension of the original apostolic ministry, then shouldn’t the core of our mission be defined by the tasks originally set out by Jesus? In this passage those tasks are preaching and driving out demons.

To this point in the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching has been the original proclamation of Mark 1:15. The kingdom has come near. Repent, and believe the good news. I have zero reason to believe the apostles were sent out to preach anything different. Is it fair to say that preaching the kingdom is the first task of those who see their ministry as in a line with the apostles?

Also to this point in the gospel, we have seen Jesus drive out demons. Here he gives the apostles the authority to do the same thing. Has the authority passed down to us today? If so, why do so few mainline United Methodists speak of such things, much less do them?

What do you think?

Are these things evil?

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

Here is my question today: Are these things evil or not?

I’m not interested in whether we would say these things are imprudent or potentially contrary to our own interests.

Are they, as Jesus says, evil?