The Gospel is a Joke

I don’t mean “the Gospel is a joke” in a pejorative way. I mean it in a metaphorical way:

  • When you hear it, you either get it or you don’t.
  • You can explain it and explain it and explain it and people will still not get it.
  • Sometimes after years of not getting it, something happens in your life that makes you say, “Oh, now I get it.” We call this feeling an epiphany.
  • You can tell by the quality of their laughter whether or not people get it. Some laugh along because they think they’re supposed to. Some assume that to be good, the joke must be at someone’s expense…
  • …but the best jokes are not told at anyone else’s expense. The best presentations of the Gospel contain no malice or contempt.
  • Sometimes you hear it so often you stop laughing. But maybe one day it sneaks up on you and you get it again, and you start laughing and can’t stop.
  • Sometimes you laugh so hard it hurts. Sometimes you laugh through your tears.
  • Sometimes you hear it and it’s not funny. Sometimes it’s the delivery. Other times it’s your attitude.
  • Something about being with other people who get it makes you laugh that much harder. Sometimes a group of you start laughing and you can’t stop, because you keep each other going. These moments of joy are when you feel most strongly that life is good, that this is a slice of heaven, and you want it to never end.
  • Sometimes when you try to tell it, it’s not funny. Usually it is because you are trying too hard. The best humor and the best Gospel emerges from being authentically human.
  • When you tell a really good joke, nobody stops you by saying, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” because it’s worth hearing again.
  • Sometimes you don’t laugh, but you smile inside.

Jesus in Disguise (John 7)

Preachers often talk about “Jesus in disguise” as a figure of speech, because he identifies with people in desperate situations: poverty, sickness, prison, and so on. But in John 7, he’s actually in disguise. His brothers tell him to go back to Jerusalem for the Tent Festival and do some magic tricks to boost his Klout score reputation, “…for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” Because it’s one thing to feed 5000 people in rural Galilee, but it’s quite another to do miracles in Jerusalem itself.

Of course, Jesus had already done a miracle: healing on the sabbath, back in chapter 5. This brought him exactly the wrong kind of attention.

So in chapter 7, he tells his brothers, “No, you go on. I’ll stay here.” After they’ve gone, he puts on a fake mustache and glasses, and goes to Jerusalem in disguise. While he’s mingling among the crowds, he overhears people talking.

“So, do you think this Jesus character will turn up for the festival?”
“I sure hope so. He’s a good guy and I’d love to meet him.”
“Are you kidding? He’s a charlatan.”

Jesus sidles up to the conversation and listens in. Maybe that’s why he decides half way through the festival to put the disguise away and start preaching. When he does so, the religious leaders start murmuring.

“Wow, he preaches pretty good for someone without a degree.”
“I got my degree from God. So why are you trying to kill me?” he asks.
“Are you nuts? Who is trying to kill you?” they reply.
“I heal one guy on the sabbath and you all get your underwear in a twist,” he says. “Why can’t you understand that I’m doing exactly what God wants?”

Then the bystanders start whispering to each other
“Did you hear? The priests want to kill this guy.”
“Then why are they standing around talking with him? Do they think he’s the messiah?”
“Can’t be. He’s just some guy from Capernaum. I think he was born in Nazareth.”

I’ve been trying to read through John with new eyes the last few weeks. John supposedly has a very high view of Jesus, a lofty Christology that emphasizes Jesus as the eternal Word of God. While I believe that’s true, I find it interesting that Jesus often seems like he’s doing all of this without much of a plan. In spite of the fact that he keeps saying “my hour has not yet come,” it feels like he’s improvising. His humanity shows up in unexpected places: his fear that his friends will leave him; his abortive attempt to secretly infiltrate the festival. Over the next few chapters, he plays cat-and-mouse with the Temple authorities. In many ways, he seems to be reacting more than acting. In spite of his lofty rhetoric, I can hear Jesus’ frustration and anxiety coming out in unexpected places. I’ve been taught a scholarly skepticism about how the gospel writers present Jesus’ teaching, but John does not paint a picture of a Jesus who is in control of things, who has divine foreknowledge of every event and placidly fulfills his destiny. There’s some of that, sure, but there’s also a lot of what I feel on a day-to-day basis while I’m planting a church: “Okay, I know what my mission and message is, but what the heck am I doing in this situation? God, do you have my back?” I think it’s a good example of how, even with a clear sense of mission, ministry is hard.

John used to be my least favorite gospel, because the dialogue seemed so stilted, warped by John’s high Christology. The more I read through this time, the more I’m having to reevaluate my perspective.

Is This Message For You?

I couldn’t stay another minute at Catalyst. There are great speakers, of course, and some good, original music. In some ways it feels like the best (and worst) contemporary evangelical Christian culture has to offer, a giant pep rally and motivational time for church leaders. But after just a short while I felt God calling me elsewhere.

Part of it was that I could lip-sync to the event. I’ve heard the speakers before, and I’ve recently had training up to my eyeballs. I was very conscious of time slipping through my fingers.

But the other part was being made very aware that what they were selling isn’t for me. While I would very much like to buy into the idea that we’re all Christians and all on the same team, it’s difficult to do so when people’s language continually reinforces the idea that they are the team captains and you are the last picked.

Maybe that’s just my childhood insecurity coming out.

Anyway, Andy Stanley talked about leading as parents, and I enjoyed what he had to say about following our fear, and allowing our vulnerability and hurts to shape us for leadership in ministry. In one story, he even gave a shout out to St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and I appreciated his recognition of the unconditional inclusiveness of St. Mark and his honesty about the problematic relationship conservative evangelicals have not just to homosexuality, but sexuality in general. It still had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” vibe, but you know, whatever. At least he’s helping conservative evangelicals wake up to their own issues.

During one part of his closing prayer, I actually held my breath. The line was something like, “God, strengthen these people who you are calling to ministry. Lord, I know there are some women here who are afraid…” This is where I nearly gasped. Was he about to say something really powerful and controversial about women in ministry? “…of what God is calling…” Oh my goodness. He’s about to do it! “…their husbands to do…”

I don’t know why I let myself expect otherwise. I guess I just got caught up in his message. He is an excellent speaker.

He was followed by a band who had a retro folk-rock, Mumford & Sons vibe going on. This is the kind of thing I *should* love, because I’m always asking “Why can’t contemporary Christian music sound like this? Or this? Or this?” But in their enthusiastic, foot-stomping lyrics I couldn’t get past one line. As they implored God to set the church on fire, and send us out to do good work, and so on, they also sang “win this nation back.”

Now, this could mean all kinds of things. Bringing a nation back to God is certainly a prophetic theme of the Hebrew Bible. It also happens to be code among the religious right for defeating Obama, repealing Roe v. Wade and putting non-straight persons back in the closet. And instantly I went from thinking, “I’d like this kind of music in my church” to thinking, “I could never have this music in my church.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that they didn’t mean anything by it. But the nature of privilege is that you don’t hear how you sound to other people. It’s also possible that I’m hyper-sensitive to coded messages.

On the break, I wandered around the exhibits and looked at the materials promoting awareness of human trafficking. While I am very glad that there are stronger voices within conservative evangelical culture calling on Christians to be involved in doing justice, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical after what I’d just experienced. Church leaders know that many folks are hostile to the church because of a perception that it has been hypocritical and unconcerned with justice. We want to counter this perception, but we are too politically polarized to do anything about climate change, or women’s rights / abortion, or predatory lending, or drone attacks in Pakistan, or gay rights, or militarism, so we need a “safe” cause we can all agree on. Nobody is FOR human trafficking. Like Joseph Kony’s practice of using child soldiers, it’s something we can all agree is bad.

Before anyone begins angrily composing a reply about me being dismissive of human trafficking, please hear me: I am glad we can agree. I am intensely practical about such things, and I don’t particularly care why someone is motivated to do justice. Nobody has to meet an ideological litmus test before they can do good, or be passionate about a certain social issue before it is cool to be so.

But this is yet another way that the experience felt like God telling me, “This message isn’t for you.”

I am aware that there are cool hunters who serve conservative evangelical culture trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hip. They want to be able to reach more people, and so I do not resent their appropriation of what’s cool (like DIY trends). As I said, I’m intensely practical about such things. But for me and, I suspect, the people I’m trying to reach, you can’t just take the same message and wrap it in skinny jeans and hipster glasses and expect it to work. It will come off as fake, even if you self-deprecatingly talk about how uncool you are.

Now, for some people, it isn’t fakeThis is because we’re dealing with social discourses, those ways of talking, dressing, and presenting yourself that mark you as belonging to a certain group of people. We all “pull off” being a certain kind of person. If we succeed, we are “authentic,” and if we do not succeed, we are “fake.” But Christians often seem to have this idea that they can opt out of such discourses. They profess that they follow their faith, that they are neither conservative nor liberal, that their God transcends mere politics, or bandwagons, or economic ideologies, or brand loyalties. It’s charming, in a way, like Holden Caufield complaining about “the phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye,  even while he can’t keep himself from lying.

But it made me aware of the contextual nature of the gospel. I do not think God’s “Good News” is necessarily the same news for all people. It isn’t, as many evangelists argue, a timeless truth that you wrap in a different package to reach a new generation. It’s a living truth that gets embodied, incarnated in a group of people with a particular mission. So their message wasn’t for me.

And if this blog post bothers you, or is incomprehensible, then maybe this message isn’t for you. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

Give Me that Old-Time, Watered-Down Religion

Wine Barrels

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets…” (Matthew 5:17). Have you ever noticed that Jesus sounds a bit defensive, here? Jesus launches one of his most powerful speeches, the Sermon on the Mount, by acknowledging the criticism of his opponents. For him to start this way means there must have been people saying, “Jesus is abolishing the Law and the Prophets!”

I think I can imagine what some religious people were saying about the new Jesus movement. “They’re just preaching Judaism-Lite,” they said. “These Jesus-followers set a low bar for discipleship: you don’t even have to cut off your foreskin! And you know what they forbid you to eat? Nothing! You can eat whatever the heck you like! What kind of religion is that?”

This new Jesus movement preached a message to Gentiles, of all people, and told them “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

Of course, everyone knew that “yoke” and “burden” were metaphors for how you interpreted religious law. When the big debate over whether or not new Christians would have to be circumcised broke out, Peter turned on the Pharisees and said, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Then the church leaders composed a letter to the new Gentile converts: “…It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well’” (Acts 15:28-29). Anyone who read Jesus’ words about yoke and burden knew what he meant: “Hey, you Gentiles—you can follow God without cutting off your foreskin!”

With such a light set of requirements, critics of the new Jesus movement had a field day. The theology of this cult was designed to please humans, not God. They were watering down the Bible, teaching their followers dangerous things that would alienate them from God.

This is why Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with a defensive statement, and why Paul constantly has to defend himself to churches. Make no mistake: A good portion of the New Testament was written not to potential pagan converts, but to religious traditionalists who were critical of the liberal theology of the new Jesus movement.

This is why Paul is so defensive in Galatians: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). He also sounds defensive in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The people who were trying to make Paul ashamed of his gospel were not secular pagans, but Christian Pharisees who insisted his Gentile followers should be circumcised, abstain from pork, and celebrate Jewish holidays.

So when I preach about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons or against religious exclusivism, I expect the same reaction from religious conservatives that Jesus and Paul faced from their critics: “You are watering down the Bible!” In fact, I might go so far as to argue that if you are *not* getting this kind of criticism from Christian traditionalists, you’re probably not actually preaching the gospel.

In response, both Jesus and Paul shifted the charge back onto their Pharisee critics: YOU are the ones who believe in human tradition more than the Bible (Matthew 15:1-20). YOU are the ones who are playing to the desires of the flesh: the desire to dominate, to divide, to conquer and possess (Romans 2:1-5, Galatians 5:14-24).

Jesus goes on to contrast his followers with the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He tells his liberal followers that they must outdo their traditionalist critics; out-pray, out-give, and out-live them in their spiritual lives: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus ups the ante. Though his followers have heard religious language about how to live their lives, his requirements are actually more stringent: “You have heard it said you shall not murder—I tell you don’t be angry. You have heard it said don’t commit adultery—I tell you don’t lust.” How would he preach this today? “You have heard it said love the sinner but hate the sin—I tell you don’t hate at all. You have heard it said give a tithe—I tell you give it all.” Yet he considers this discipleship an easier yoke than what his critics offer.

Jesus-followers claimed that their “watered-down” religion was actually more intense about things that matter. Even though their yoke was easy in one way, they were still obligated to conduct themselves with strict personal moral discipline, making it clear to others that this new community would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This new teaching was not for the traditionalists who already felt they knew and owned God—it was for all those alienated from God who needed Good News. Jesus compared his message to new wine, which you cannot put in inflexible, old wineskins. If his Good News offended you, maybe it wasn’t for you.

Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (turning water to wine) was a tongue-in-cheek jab at his critics: you may think this new teaching is “watered down.” But it may be too strong for you.

I am thankful that more and more Christians are waking up to a gospel that is fully inclusive of all people. And I am thankful that I have met more and more folks who hold traditionalist values who also understand that this new wine is not for their church, but needs a new church, a new wineskin, to hold it.