Every now and then I run across someone waxing eloquent about who Jesus was, saying that Christianity today has warped his commands. The argument usually goes something like: If only Christians would stop creating divisions, and focus on the fact that Jesus himself preached love. Jesus was a great teacher who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and not to judge anyone.
Yesterday the sermon text at my church was John 6:25-59. Here is an excerpt:
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (53-57)
From time to time I come across a passage that knocks me right out of my Christian lingo comfort zone and reminds me of the absolute absurdity of what I believe. I don’t mean absurdity in the sense that it isn’t true—I mean that if it’s not true, it is completely absurd. The words above are not the words of a great teacher: they are either the words of the Son of God, or an insane man. There is no in-between.
Others have said it before me, but Jesus left no room for in-between on purpose. As CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall as his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
A friend of mine recently posted a blog in which he spoke about how he was coming back to his roots as a Christian after a long time away, and starting to get interested again in the person of Jesus. I read his post eagerly, excited to read his musings. He spoke eloquently of Jesus’ work as a theater artist (all those parables make me thrill to be walking in the footsteps of the greatest artist of all). But as I continued reading, this friend began the old claim: that Jesus was a great teacher who told people to humbly be nice to each other. I wanted to throw my head back and groan, because that is death; to patronizingly agree to write Jesus off as a nice guy. It's just not possible. Not if you really know what he said.
I could spend some time talking about how Jesus actually spoke about Hell more than any other person in the Bible, or recount all the times he intentionally confused those listening to him and rebuked both his friends and strangers. But what actually struck me most, in thinking through both the sermon text and the phenomenon of this whole nice-guy-Jesus thing, is just how attractive Jesus was. Utterly, bewilderingly attractive. So much so that the people to whom he said all these things about eating his flesh actually got in boats and chased him across the sea to find him. So much so that not just his band of devoted followers (who were getting nothing out of it except sleeping in hostile towns and eating grain from passing fields), but also tens of thousands of people constantly followed him around like hungry dogs. So much so that the leaders of the land trembled at the power Jesus displayed.
The only way to reconcile the utter devotion and awe people felt toward Jesus with the insanity and knife-like sting of his words is his crucial blend of truth and love. It appears over and over and over, proving that Jesus may not have been nice, and he may not have been gentle, but he was sure as hell honest (pun intended), and his honesty both destroyed and healed people all in one fell swoop. He told the woman at the well about her sins, and while her cheeks were still flaming scarlet he told her that her sins could be forgiven if she drank of his life-giving water. He asked Peter three times if he loved him, and while Peter was standing there hating his own cowardly guts, Jesus gave him both forgiveness and work to do: to feed his sheep. Every single word in the gospels—and in the arch of the Biblical narrative as a whole—rips wide our desire to pretend we can categorize Jesus as a great (read: benign) teacher and simultaneously presents us with the alternative truth.
It’s good for me to be reminded of this often. I have known Christianity my whole life, and the absurdity of the Biblical claims gets lost on me. I think it’s good for us as Christians to stop trying to defend our faith, once in a while, and be honest about the fact that if Jesus is not God, we’re screwed. We want to defend ourselves by dressing up our religion in a wardrobe of banality, so that it might be socially acceptable. But it’s just not. The man who said, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me,” had better be God, because otherwise he was an insane person who was making some kind of weird cannibalistic claim that is actually pretty creepy.
Let yourself feel the full weight of that panic bordering on horror, today. If your Jesus is simply a nice teacher, he can’t carry the death that this world reeks of, and he certainly isn’t the God of the Bible. We believe incredible claims, friends. We serve a God who loved us enough to be honest and terrifyingly mysterious. Don’t ever forget it.
(Artwork: "Alpha and Omega," by Gerald Ivey)
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard