misunderstanding Jesus

As a college sophomore, I spent the summer as Southern Baptist Summer Missionary, in Minnesota trying to convert the Lutherans.  We mostly worked with refugees from Vietnam and Laos, but we spent two weeks going door to door, knocking on doors in a small Wisconsin town, whose name escapes me.  We worked with Pastor What’s-His-Name, who never actually knocked on a door.


My partner in door to door evangelism was Wes from Mississippi.  The Citywide Directory gave us a name, and we rang the doorbell saying: “Good afternoon, Mr Olson, I am Paul and this is Wes from Friendship Community Church, and we are giving away  New Testaments! If the homeowner agreed, we handed them a red, white and blue New Testament with a cover proclaiming “Good News America, God Loves You.” We then asked “Would you take a short religious survey?   We started with hopeful zeal, which dissolved into muted happiness, when we simply checked the box marked “refused survey”! After all that meant they took a Bible!


Weary from 60 hours of checking “refused survey”, fleeing dogs, and enduring a few tongue lashing, we rejoiced when a kind elderly woman answered our knock and invited us. She offered us soda and took one of our patriotic Bibles. Two other women joined us in the den.  They asked polite questions. We lacked solid answers, but Wes and I pressed on. We guided our hosts through six survey questions printed right alongside verses in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The Roman Road to Salvation” Our hosts answered each question with a solid ”yes” and a warm smile. We checked every box, when they prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”:  “Lord, Jesus, l know that I am a sinner, I invite you to come and live in my heart, come be my Savior and Lord.” Wes and I were all hallelujahs as our hosts offered us pie. As Anne returned with apple pie and ice cream, Wes and I invited our hosts to join us at church so Pastor Whose-It could baptize them! They smiled and politely declined. They answered with a gentle chuckle,  “We belong to Saint Joseph’s, Mary used to teach there!” Wes and I felt confused. Anne said, “We are sisters.” Wes and I nodded without understanding. “We are sisters. We are nuns. We took vows to follow Jesus. I am Sister Ann and this is Sister Elizabeth” as Sister Mary waved. Choking his pie crust Wes blurted out, “why aren’t you wearing your nun uniform?” They gently explained their religious order, laughing and affirming our evangelical zeal.  They sent us on our way with a blessing and an invitation to return.


As we walked back to find Pastor Whose-it’s car, Wes kept crowing, “Praise The Lord, we won three souls to Jesus today”.  After his third Hallelujah, I demurred, “Wes, I think the Sisters knew Jesus before we showed up” Wes protested. He cited that the Sisters had checked every box on the survey.   I argued that the nuns “were just being nice” by practising Christian hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and encouraging us in our weariness. Wes remained steadfast as if the nuns would wade out into the Eau Claire River and Pastor-What’s-His-Face would immerse them in the cold water. The more we talked, the more Wes grew unsure of my salvation.   


We have different understandings of Jesus.  How often do we try to force Jesus to fit our understandings.  On this Palm sunday, and during this Holy week, will we gaze deeply at Jesus, absorbing the nuances of his passion? Will we follow Jesus or use Jesus for our own designs?   


In America, we so often misappropriate Christ for political gain, that many people of goodwill want little to do with Jesus. The Cross must not be reduced to a plank in a party platform. Let us not  coop Jesus. Let us never, misuse Jesus, grabbing just enough Scriptural putty, to fashion a Jesus that reinforces what we already believe. Jesus is not an american idol.


The Palm Sunday crowd deeply misunderstands Jesus!  They fail to read the signs and so do we. Jesus comes riding on on colt or in another Gospel a donkey.  I love the donkey, for donkeys live as fierce defenders of the herd. You can see little donkeys grazing in Tennessee fields, not as pets but for the protection of the calves. Now, consider a grown man riding a donkey.  Jesus’ feet drag the ground. Christ does not come astride a Roman warhorse, 20 hands high, towering six feet above the crowd, with his equine charger’s nostrils flaring and hooves clattering with crowd controlling strength.  Jesus rides with no sword or shield by his side, not shimmering silver armor encasing his sacred heart. Jesus would be taller standing than on that donkey.


And yet the crowd shouts: “Hosanna!” Or “God Save us” “ Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”


What did the crowd long for?   Whose image did they thrust upon Jesus? They longed for the warrior king- David.  David, who picked up one perfectly smooth stone and hurled it at Goliath. When the giant fell, David rushed the Philistine line, crushing his enemies with a warcry and making a trophy of Goliath’s helmet and sword.  The crowd longed for a King to do their bidding: to turn stones to bread, or to glide down from the pinnacle of the Temple rallying the masses in a revolt against the Roman oppressors. If the Crowd’s King only sat on Caesar’s throne, then all the kingdom’s of the world would serve them.  They did not want to follow Jesus, they wanted to use Jesus.


In John sixth chapter, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5,000 with a sack lunch.  Does the crowd learn lessons about feeding the hungry? Some do. The first church committee organizes to run a foodbank. (Acts 6) However, most of us misunderstand Jesus. We coop Jesus.  We comender Jesus. The just-fed crowd seeks to “make Jesus a king by force”. Instead of feeding the hungry, they dream of Jesus setting up miraculous mess tents to feed their hungry army. Instead, of providing healthcare, they see Jesus healing the sick and imagine Jesus healing wounds, only to send the troops back into battle.   Often, we do not long for a Lord, but long for the Lord’s power. That is completely different. So often, we do not worship Jesus, but use Jesus to check off our pre-existing idolatrous boxes.


Think of Jesus astride that donkey.  Jesus carries no sling, spear or sword.  He will prophecy “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52)  Jesus wears no crown. He will wear a crown of thrones. He wears no royal robe. Jesus will take off his dinner jacket and button down shirt, kneeling down, soiling his clean undershirt as he washes our nasty feet. Lean in and absorb his pascal words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  


Jesus will be stripped, spit on, mocked, crucified, and laid in a borrowed tomb. He will be denied a proper burial.  2,000 years later, we will continue to misuse Jesus to prop up our wars, preach a prosperity Gospel, and make the cross a plank supporting our agendas.  Some of us will even use the grace and love of Jesus like a knife to cut those who understand Jesus just a little differently than we do.


In series of CD’s, Ken left for me, Walter Bruggelman said “if you read the prophets, only very rarely do they ever discuss any particular issue, they are way underneath the issues in a way that is completing and contesting for the imagination of the community of faith.  And the task of these prophet-poet-artists is to find ways of allowing for the claim that God’s holiness is at work in the world, and what God’s holiness does it to make all our best truth penultimate. It is a great temptation for conservatives to imagine that their truth is ultimate, and it is a great temptation for liberals to image that their truth is ultimate, and in fact God’s holiness is underneath subverting all of our best truths.”  


In this Holy Week, will we dive into Christ’s healing stream or simply run our fingers over the surface of the Living Water?  Will we gaze long enough at the Crucified One to lose our preconceived notions and easiest ideas? Will we  confess the limits of our understanding in deepest awe or tragically continue to misapply Jesus?


Tis mystery all: the Immortal dies: Who can explore God’s strange design?

In vain the firstborn angel tries to sound the depths of love divine.

’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore, Let angel minds inquire no more.

Jesus left His Father’s throne above— So free, so infinite His grace—

Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

’Tis mercy all, immense and free, For, O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

God’s eye diffused a quickening ray— I woke, my dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee. ( Charles Wesley)


Will we worship the Crucified Christ, dropping our desire to control, coop, and use Jesus?   Come, let us gaze upon Jesus until we see God’s holiness, justice and love. Let resolve not to use Jesus, but to follow Jesus.   Let us no longer gather scrap paper pieces of Jesus’ teachings into our own personalized notebook. The Word Made Flesh is not a theology to master.  No see from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow, goodness, love and justice flow mingled down. This Holy Week, may Jesus become our Lord, not the tool of our lesser work.  Let us not conquer Jesus’ image but humbly ponder the Holy Mystery that transforms us. Amen.

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