I’ve always been struck by what a bad evangelist Jesus is in this text, if evangelism means what I have always heard it presented as: as some sort of ad campaign for Jesus & Christianity, promoting it in a way that will make it popular with the masses or at least accessible and easy to choose to take part in. Both liberals or progressives like me and conservative Christians like folks in the churches in which I grew up and was baptized all talk about evangelism, often in this way. In conservative churches it is talk of “winning souls” and “spreading the kingdom”. In progressive or liberal churches we talk about “widening the welcome”, “embracing the outcast”, and “removing barriers”.
Sometimes this can mean the sort of beautiful radical welcome Jesus offers throughout his ministry, when he sets down at the table of fellowship both with the well-to-do religious or city leader and the outcast poor, including even sex workers and con artists. It can be like Jesus not waited for people looking for things of the spirit to come to us but going to where they are and reaching out in love, as Jesus does to the Samaritan woman at the watering hole and the many people with illness or disability whom have been ostracized by the community outside the city limits.
But such a focus can also lead toward reducing the very challenging teachings of Jesus down to their least common denominator: heaven when we die, God loves everybody, be good people. Jesus didn’t get killed for telling people about love, about heaven, or to be good. Many other Jewish preachers said the same without having Rome become fearful of them and attempting to stamp out their teaching with ruthlessness.
Jesus’ teachings radically cut to the heart of our own preconceived ideas about life and how it works. He challenges our expected notions of fairness by painting images of a radical all-inclusive grace of God in his parables which upsets our notions of the well-to-do and acceptable or the gone to far and beyond help, of the hierarchies of power and vulnerability, of the victim and the perpetrator, … well of how our world and lives work. His example upsets the power structures of his day by living out radical inclusive love in a way that ignores how society has set up its systems of power and demonstrates how another way, which levels unfair patterns of wealth, power, and privilege can happen. He questions the beautiful and pious practice of religion which can become a money-making scheme for the few but is empty and destructive when removed from compassion for actual people.
What Jesus is seeking is not converts but rather transformation — to transform our world starting with the community we live into places in which swords are beaten into plowshares, into a place living out the peaceful vision of healing and reconciliation, equality and inclusion, which the prophets of old dreamed and spoke concerning. For this to happen he does not simply need people joining a movement like one joins a club, signing their name on the dotted line and doing little else. He does not need either people who voice admiration for him with their lips as either a good teacher or as God in the flesh, thinking such voicing of faith in Him gives them a get into heaven free ticket, yet who do nothing at all else with this claim of having faith in Him. No Jesus needs people willing to be transformed, from the inside out, into people who live out these values of a new and different world built on justice, compassion, care for all at every stage of life, and of transforming communities and the earth into places that are life-giving for all people and all living things. And transforming are hearts is no easy task.
So Jesus meets the eager folks saying they want to follow him not with a “good job” or a “welcome home”, not with a big hug like one gets when they come up to the altar with “Just As I am” or an “all are welcome here” like we say in my beloved progressive churches. No, he begins by saying troubling, vexing things which speak right to what this path of following Jesus and transformation will mean they have to give up. He says things that sound at first like actually setting up obstacles to being welcomed. Of course, I think it is more that he describes what following him *actually* entails.
I am reminded here of the great quote by C. S. Lewis on conversion in his classic book Mere Christianity:
“Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor– that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.
“Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen…”
Lack of gender inclusivity aside (for this predicament he describes is not reserved to only male-identified folks but people of all genders), Lewis hits the nail on the head. Jesus begins by describing the barriers that exist to following Him not because He is saying we should not as liberals do practice radical welcome or as conservatives do point people toward the path of salvation for their souls but because he is showing what we are radically welcomed into and what salvation for our souls entails. We are welcomed into a path of transformation that is painful, hard, and (though life-giving) entails a sort of death, a dying to our selfishness, our complacency, our indifference, our prejudices, and all the things that keep us from living as those making this earth as it is in heaven and from loving God, ourselves, others, & God’s good earth as Jesus modeled.
To me Jesus’ approach reminds me so much of other spiritual teachers in history who focused on transformation. Particularly Jesus’ approach reminds me of the example of Christian mystics we know of as the desert mothers & fathers, as well the Buddhist mystics we know as Zen masters.
Both groups would have eager folks show up seeking deep meaningful spirituality but end up first being given hard, paradoxical challenges which could seem to be presenting barriers to the spiritual life but, later, they would find to be the very things that caused them to discover what barriers in their heart they needed with God’s help to remove before they could undergo the transformation which makes spiritual growth possible.
Jesus’ example shows us we need to make sure to remember that spiritual life involves dying to old patterns of thinking and acting in order to be transformed into new patterns. This dying and being raised to new life is the constant pattern of the spiritual life not just in Christianity but in all true spiritual paths.
To be true to this pattern Jesus is giving we need to be open to those voices in our life that question our assumptions, challenge our patterns of life, and push us uncomfortably to look at things we are overlooking. We also need to, yes, continue to practice radical welcome and radically reaching out but not do so in a way that we remove the scandal of the Gospel, for its scandalous nature is like the scandalous statements Zen and monastic teachers used to wake us up to where our hearts have become lax, complacent, or where we simply are not conscious of our barriers to growth. Jesus again and again demonstrates in the Gospels that we can lovingly reach out without compromising this call to transformation.
For me a part of how I do this is to be honest about my own short-comings and areas in which I see barriers in myself. Admitting I have not arrived but, like everyone else, am on a journey while openly talking about the areas I falter allows dialogue with others about their struggles in ways that disarm their defensiveness (and my own) while opening up awareness to their areas where change or growth is needed.
Another approach I use is to take time to listen to my own questions and challenges in my heart. So often we fear our questions, push them down, and act as if they threaten our own faith. Yet in the Gospels it is often questions Jesus uses to push people out of complacency into real growth. Your vexing questions about your faith and life can be the voice of the still-speaking God calling you to deeper awareness. For an example of someone doing this, check out my wife Katharine’s blog http://www.questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/ In that blog she is openly exploring her doubts and questions about faith & life as a spiritual practice.
What are ways you are learning to open up to voices of others or within yourself that can challenge your preconceived notions? How are you learning to balance radical welcome, pro-active outreach, and also remaining faithful to the Gospel’s scandalous call for transformation?
I look forward to hearing what helps you on your journey.
Your progressive redneck preacher,