For years I have collected songs about Jesus sung by people who were not always Jesus people. They ranged from hymns to grunge folk to rap, but one of my favorites was by a skate punk group King Missile III named “Jesus was Way Cool” that claimed that Jesus could among other things turn oregano into marijuana. Why? Because Jesus was way cool.
It’s easy to laugh at, but every time the song comes my pastoral heart thinks that this isn’t far off from what we offer to most people most of the time. Jesus is a superman figure who comes to do cool things and then die and rise again because that is what superman does. Along the way he crushes sin like Lex Luther.
“He could’ve played guitar better than Hendrix. He could’ve told the future. He could have baked the most delicious cake in the world.”
“He rose from the dead, did a little dance, and went up to heaven.” I think I’ve heard that sermon before. I think I have preached it. The Jesus we worship on Sunday morning in church *was* cool and did die and rise again and go up into heaven, and I could definitely assume the dance bit too.
But Jesus taught stuff. This is the missing piece of the gospel for most people outside of the church, and maybe inside the church as well. Do you know what Jesus actually taught?
I have very bright theologian friends who never quote Jesus. I have had parishioners who could give a competent answer to the question of what the Doctrine of the Trinity is, but who cannot remember more than one parable or saying of Jesus. They both usually have vague ideas of forgiveness and love of neighbor, but seldom is this taken as seriously as the things we think about Jesus.
Rarely have I found anyone who regularly offers a competently presented picture of the teachings of Jesus. If you ask priests and pastors most have a theological understanding they can articulate about his death. King Missile III offers that “people were jealous of him.” From the professionals usually you get something more along the lines of atonement of sins, payment of sin-debts, and possibly even mimetic violence: “people were jealous of him.”
Lately most of the pastors I know aren’t really happy with any of those theologies, but they are what we have, so we reference them constantly. Sin remains central, and the forgiveness that Jesus’ death offered for the repentant remains the point, because God was really, really pissed until Jesus, who was way cool, died. Articulating why he had to die is above the pay grade of most of us.
In reality we have moved across the theological spectrum away from the really, really pissed God to a loving God that still needed something or someone to die in order to forgive the sins of the world. In fact, he needed people to die, humanity, or at least one human being who would represent all of humanity. His own son is offered up as an act of love, which presents us with the contradiction at the heart of our theology: God is so loving and yet so blood thirsty, and we call him Father. The problem is with the nature of the father of this Father God.
Now, I am a father. I have two daughters and a son.
And I am wicked (see Jesus in Matthew 7:9) and I know that I wouldn’t give my child a scorpion instead of bread. “How much more compassionate is your Father in heaven?” Jesus always presents God as merciful and compassionate. Now in Matthew in particular he also sorts the good and the evil, but you cannot negate that Jesus presents God as exactly the opposite of our dominant theology of redemption. I could not offer my child as a child sacrifice and be considered merciful and compassionate.
Exactly the opposite. God is compassionate, quick to forgive, slow to anger, of great kindness. These verses pour down the scrolls of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. They are measured against justice and righteous anger for injustice and idolatry, but they are persistent in the calls for repentance. Our picture, particularly among reformed theologies, has become distorted away from the Bible. It has even led to a limiting of the power of the cross for redemption, ironic since that is all that really left to the life of Jesus after laying waste to his teachings and acts of mercy and compassion.
The total depravity of man and the absolute sovereignty of God are powerful theological ideals that still hold a hypnotic sway over many theologians and theologies. My problem is that it also holds many lay people under its spell. We lament death and worry about our salvation, clawing after or running away from grace as if we were still caught up in some medieval fund raising campaign, only we have traded in copper for paper, faith in the pope for faith in John Calvin.
But the question at the heart of John’s Gospel was, “Do you trust/beleive Jesus?” Jesus gives us a clear picture of God that is beautifully present throughout the Bible, but does not leave the Hebrew tradition as it is. He “exegetes” God for the believer according to John 1:18. That means he presents and translates God.
He is not just way cool for nothing. Jesus represents the logos, logic, the way, the life of God. He brings that life to bear on the world, to save and not to condemn. The criteria for whether that life comes to bear on us is whether we trust him (John) and participate in the love and life of God (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Do we love our neighbors, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners? I notice a distinct lack of theological statements in there.
Our belief in the total depravity of man, sovereignty of God, infallibility of popes all remain unmentioned by Christ. This seems important to me after two decades of ministry and preaching. When we focus on the wrong goals in sport, we lose the game. The central teaching of Jesus is the Rule of God. The Rule of God remains a mystery to us because we aren’t involved in it and don’t trust it. So how can we hope to receive it? How can we hope to bring others to it?
We have to reconfigure our thinking (*metanoia* for the professional theologians reading this). We have to refocus our faith, our trust in the one in whom we have come to know God. We cannot allow other versions of gods to take us off into fear and be shackled to false ideas about who God is.
This work begins with a clearing of the slate, a wiping away of our old ideas. We then go back to the Gospel themselves with a simple idea. “I can know and understand Jesus with the help of the Gospels: by reading what he said.” Now, this sounds easier than it is.
Our beliefs about God and the world (theology and cosmology) become lenses through which we see. It is hard to identify our lenses. I wear contacts most days, and it is hard to notice them, though I know I am blind without them. I cannot see them until there is a problem like a smudge when I am tired. I notice the problem, not the lens. So our goal is to create problems by looking at clear visions.
We get those clear visions from the Gospels. As you read, have a notebook at hand and take note of places where the character of God is implied. What kind of God is described? Is God caring and involved? Is God condemning? Why is God angry if angry? Or happy if happy?
What kind of person is Jesus? What motivates him to do what he did and teach what he taught?
For seven years as I studied trying to understand the meaning of Kingdom of God I prayed almost hourly, “Lord, let me see what you saw that made you teach what you taught.”
After seven years of studying, reading, and writing about this one focus of Jesus’s teaching, I had a vision. I was stuck on this problem we have with the kingdom. It is present in Jesus’s teaching, but it is also not yet.
The “not yet” bit leads us to push it into the afterlife. This is convenient because the kingdom is a place of justice. I don’t have to be just if the kingdom is not a reality until after I die. But that is not how Jesus talked. The kingdom also is a place of peace, where God is known, and where we are God’s sons and daughters. It is a place where everyone has enough. I could read all of that, but I was not blind. I could see that none of that was true in our world as I knew it.
So I was preaching fourteen years ago at Saint James in San Francisco about Saint Francis of Assisi. I said, “If you could see what Francis saw, maybe you would walk around naked and talk to animals.” (It was San Francisco where you could say things like that in a sermon.) And the veil dropped.
I saw the kingdom of God. I heard that prayer said back in my mind, and I saw it. I saw the people crammed into that little church aflame with the presence of God. They were sons and daughters of the living God. Right then. Right there. Babies and old women. Irish and Japanese, American and immigrant, clergy and lay, we were God’s and God’s alone. It is true. That is what the kingdom is, a royal priesthood. Royal because we are God’s children. Priesthood because we mediate the love and mercy and forgiveness in our being.
The Rule of God is right here right now when we live into the truth of our reality. We are what Jesus says we are.
And it is true right now because of the cross of Christ back then. He, as the first-born (*monogenous*), took upon himself both the promise and the condemnation of humanity’s failure to live up to our calling. As the first-born he was representative of us, the first fruits of the resurrection to come. He brought the reality “someday somehow” into right here right now by dying and coming back to life.
We are invited into that reality. We have to trust Jesus about it because it does not look like that to us. We have to choose to act in accordance with it, because we can certainly act as if it is untrue, as if people are not that holy, not that royal, not that beloved. We can exploit and ignore. We can curse and betray. We have been trained to act in just that way, by our politics, social conditioning, even our religion in many cases. We must choose to live in the kingdom by how we live, not just what we believe.
And if we don’t, we don’t inherit the kingdom that is ours because of who we were made to be, who we were remade to be in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
See, if you trust Jesus, you are God’s daughter, God’s son. You are meant to be holy, bringing to bear the love and mercy of God on the world, “let your kingdom come and your will be done.” You are meant to inherit all that you need, “our daily bread.” You are going to fail, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But that does not negate your identity or calling, so you have to forgive.
So, Jesus was way cool. But he was trying to make us cool. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of a participant in God’s Rule. You assume in praying it that you are God’s child, active in bringing both his kingdom and will, and in bringing his forgiveness by forgiving others. You may acknowledge that you are going to fail, but you also know that you will rise because he did.
When we see this way, we see through a kingdom lens. We see people as they were made to be, children of the living God. They may be lost, squandering their inheritance, or the singing dancing wholeness of wisdom, but they are God’s child. Our job is just to love them in. They are way cool, if only you are cool enough to see it.
This is the first lesson.