Thursday, June 11, 2015

Just follow Jesus

Something there is that has always bothered me about Christianity, particularly the kind of Christianity that seeks to triumph over people of other faiths, despising their beliefs about God or gods, destroying their traditional religious culture, in fact breaking their native self-confidence by abolishing every vestige of their pre-Christian life. We have done this to whole nations, killing some of them off completely in the process as if drowning the infant in its baptismal waters, stunting other nations or changing them beyond recognition.

We continue to do this today—some of us, not all: The sects are often guilty of this, but ‘historic’ churches rarely—evangelize by rubbing the convert’s face in the dust, calling him completely depraved, tearing him down completely so that ‘Christ’ can rebuild him in the right way.

This is what we—at least some of us, but the Church at different times in its historic journey—have made of the ‘Great Commission’ of Jesus, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:18b-20).

Perhaps we think that ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ refers to us, and we take it to heart, even though Christ is declaring this of Himself, and only of those who follow Him and do what they see Him doing. And what do we see Him doing? Is He dead and gone, or ascended to heaven and out of reach, and we have to ‘just do it’ for Him?

He tells us, not just the apostles in that distant apostolic day, ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.’ And how are we to do this ‘make them’? Does this mean we are to force them to be disciples? Whatever else ‘make them’ means, it means at least this much, as He Himself tells us: Baptize them into the life of the Trinity, and teach them to obey everything that He commands us.

Though historically, that is, ‘in the flow of chronological time,’ Christ ascended ‘into heaven,’ it isn’t as if He has gone away, giving us carte blanche to do whatever we like ‘now that He’s gone,’ though we often act like it. He says, ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ If nothing else His ascension means one thing: Before He could be in only one place at a time; now, He can be with everyone, everywhere, for ever. How’s that for a definition of power?—For what else can ‘authority’ mean, if not power? The great ‘I Am’ is also the great ‘I Can.’

Thinking about all this, and returning to what the Church has sometimes done, what individuals sometimes do—even what I, ‘of sinners the chief’ have done, ‘in knowledge and in ignorance,’ for I too am a Christian—I am utterly confounded, cannot believe that we think we are doing what pleases God, for God is not just our God, but the God of the whole human race, of every creature, even of the entire universe.

Just as the safest road for the Christian to walk is to follow closely behind Jesus, watching His every move so as to imitate Him, to do what we see Him doing, it is also the safest way to approach those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, to meet them in the same way that we see Jesus meet them in the Gospels.

Do we see Him mounted on a shining stallion wielding a bright two-edged sword, sending heads flying left and right? No, we don’t. He is never shown riding on a horse at all, just a donkey. What about His appearance in the book of Revelation? Well, yes, there and in some of the Psalms, but in these He appears outside of time’s flow, when the old universe as a book is forever closed. But we are here, now, and so is He. As long as there is time, Christ is in our midst. Yes, we can, and must, do only what we see Him doing.

Jesus, as an advocate for restoration of justice, had a peculiar way of including Gentiles who had been driven out of their possessions by imperialistic David. He was deeply impressed by God sending Elijah to the widow of Zarephath and enabling Naaman, the Syrian, to be healed by Elisha. This does not simply point to the ethical perfection of Jesus. It stems from His understanding of God and God's purposes and His role in the fulfillment of those purposes.

Jesus belonged to the school of the Pharisees. He worshipped in the synagogues of the Pharisees and was accorded the status of a Rabbi in spite of a lack of formal schooling in the Rabbinic tradition. Yet it was this group which pulled Him into many controversies and debates. During these debates, He was vehemently critical of their hermeneutics and praxis, which included also a strong condemnation of their proselytizing activities (see Matthew 23:15).

Like all faithful Jews, He went to the Temple and had a zeal for the house of God. This zeal led Him to ‘cleanse the Temple’ in order to make room for people of other faiths to worship God. He quotes Isaiah 56:7, affirming that the Temple was a house of prayer for all nations. A careful reading of Matthew's gospel would make us believe that as Son of David, Jesus saw His role not so much as to restore the Jewish kingdom but to undo the damage David had done to the Jebusites by driving them away from Zion, their sanctuary (see 2 Samuel 5:6-8; Matthew 21:14-16). The blind and the lame who were made to sit outside the Temple and beg were to be a constant reminder of the driven-out Jebusites. In encouraging them to come into the Temple and healing them, Jesus enacted a symbolic restoration of the Temple to the Jebusites. This was recognized by the children who sang Hosanna, but the Jewish leaders were enraged. The Kingdom of God cannot be equated with the restoration of Davidic rule over other nations. It’s clear that Jesus was critical of Jewish ‘religion’ and of David's ‘imperialism,’ both of which sowed the seeds of exclusivism and triumphalism. In this way He was Lord of David, and not Son (see Matthew 22: 42-46).

Though He rejected the title 'Son of David' when used by religious, He allowed the use of the title by a Gentile woman (see Matthew 15:21-26), the Galileans who had been ridiculed as having become Gentile, and, by the blind who were symbolic representatives of the chased away Jebusites. This was so because in their lips the title connoted a new inclusive reign of justice in which all nations would participate.

I am not so great a Bible student as to have noticed these points in the Gospels, but they express quite clearly what I have been thinking. I have edited them out of an excellent study, Jesus' Attitude towards People of Other Faiths, by Dhyanchand Carr of the Christian Conference of Asia. I am a pretty simple person, not a great theologian and, thankfully, not a member of the clergy. Maybe people who are theologians and clergy would know why the Church was, or still is, quite correct to conduct its evangelization of the world the way it does, but from my humble and limited point of view, if ‘the only purpose of this instruction is that there should be love,’ as Paul writes to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:5), then perhaps we should give this method of ‘making disciples’ a chance: Just follow Jesus.

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