Understanding Jesus. It Still Ain't Easy
Reflecting on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Three Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 119:105-112
Old Testament: Proverbs 6:6-23
Gospel: John 8:12-30
Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me (John 8:27-28).
Some things are hard to understand. In school, I struggled with advanced math. I remember one day in ninth grade algebra, the teacher was explaining a particular equation she had written on the blackboard. As I listened and attempted to comprehend, I finally raised my hand and asked, “If x equals 2, why not just put 2?” I didn’t realize until much later that my question was an indicator that I was destined not to study mathematics, but philosophy. I found the why questions in life more interesting than the how.
In John 8, the religious leaders struggle to understand Jesus. They weren’t the only ones. Even the Twelve, those who spent the most time with him, couldn’t figure out the nature of his ministry and teachings. It’s easy for Jesus’ followers in the twenty-first century to cast aspersions on those original disciples, we who have twenty centuries of biblical commentary and scholarship to stand on; but I continue to believe that there are ways that we still do not get Jesus today. Indeed, I would add that because of those twenty centuries, we have less excuse. Let me mention four ways in which we still struggle to get Jesus today.
The first is in reference to possessions. Jesus stands in the larger prophetic tradition of warning his people about the trappings of wealth. The Bible does not tell us to live in poverty, but with everything Jesus says about money, it is clear that wealth is not a morally neutral thing (Matthew 6:19-21).
Second, we find it easier to accept the cross as what Jesus has done for us than as an example of how Jesus expects his followers to live in the world. I think we emphasize the former (atonement) to avoid the latter (the way of suffering and death). Yet, we cannot avoid Jesus charging his followers to take up their crosses in following him (Matthew 16:24-26). We dare not reduce this to the platitude that everyone has burdens to bear. In Jesus’ world, when one carried a cross that person was headed toward death.
Third, is that we have completely rejected Jesus’ warnings against having and wielding worldly power. Jesus rejected the opportunity when he was tempted by the devil in the desert (Matthew 4:8-11), and he warned the disciples against it in his teaching (Matthew 20:20-28). Yet, today we have turned Jesus’ upside down kingdom and turned it right-side up believing that that faithfulness to the gospel will result in our candidate winning the White House. To quote the old Geico commercial, “That’s not the way this works. That’s not the way any of this works.”
Fourth and finally, we have failed to take seriously the intrinsically nonviolent character of discipleship. Jesus clearly rejected violence as an option for his followers in his words (Matthew 26:51-53) and in his own actions denying the option for himself (Matthew 26:53). In fact, I suggest that it is the rejection of this last aspect of discipleship that has allowed us to ignore or minimize the first three; for they can only be maintained by the willingness for believers to draw their swords.
I need to be clear. I am not only pointing a finger at other believers. I am just as caught up in this not getting Jesus as my fellow disciples. Even though we have a long tradition of commentary on understanding who Jesus is, what he has done, and how he calls us to live we still struggle to get Jesus as did Peter, James, and John and their contemporaries. It calls for some humility on our part not to look down our noses on them when we suffer from the same malady.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” By the help of the Holy Spirit may we who follow in the footsteps of Jesus walk toward the Christian ideal; and may we remember that the road behind our Lord cannot be traveled well without a cross upon our shoulders.
That ain’t easy.
PRAYER: O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Check out my podcast “Faith Seeking Understanding,” here.