Following on from yesterday’s article about finding a way back to wanting to follow Jesus, I have been thinking this morning about the biggest stumbling block that I have in my walk at the moment: community. For reasons I won’t go into here, the ‘community house’ in which I live is disbanding at the end of this month, and I am going to live with friends a couple of streets away and I haven’t been back to the city centre mega-church I used to attend for over a year now. This puts the activities of meeting co-consiprators and doing some conspiring at an all-time low.
That said, I wouldn’t change my journey or where it is heading in the immediate future. I have immensely enjoyed my time in my current house, but it is rightly the time for things to move on from here. I do not regret moving from a city centre faith community to a suburban one and then finally to a locally-minded one; even if it has meant having to get used to the quirks and eccentricities of the Anglican church.
Enough about my immediate journey. What I wanted to talk about this morning was about how the churches that I have been a part of (a Welsh Baptist, independent Charismatic, Assemblies of God Pentecostal, and finally CofE) have all made it enormously difficult to feel as though viewing Jesus as my role model for now can be the central pillar of my faith.
The first question is, is that right?
I mean, is it right to have that as the central pillar of my faith? Well, people come to faith for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways. You’ve only got to read the stories of Jesus to see this; never mind the myriad of reasons people give in modern times, ranging from the overtly miraculous to the coincidental and finally the absurdly rational. My reasons are two-fold.
Firstly, I was born with it. I was taught Jesus was God and that God loved me. So it always made sense to listen to what Jesus had to say. Then when I hit around 21-22, I realised that I had been fed this by my upbringing and set about intellectually burning down every last pillar of Christianity that I could find in my life. I’ve been left with feelings of unease, discomfort and loneliness. It is only recently that I have found a way back to wanting to believe, and that’s what I talked about yesterday. This has been my conversion mechanic.
So on emotional grounds, yes, it is right. On theological grounds? That depends who you ask. The more “orthodox” Christians would argue that what I am presenting is essentially what they might call a “social justice gospel”, which is some kind of distortion of the “real” gospel.
This is (look away now if you don’t like it when I get blunt) total bollocks. The real gospel, the “good news” that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself is time and time and time again concerned with the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the lonely, the prisoner, the rich man too distracted by worldly possessions. Jesus doesn’t walk around saying “pray the prayer and believe I died for you and was resurrected and you’ll get to live forever, isn’t that good news!”. No, instead, Jesus has a focus on the here and now and the way the world is and how it can be so. much. better.
Of course, you counter, it would be absurd for Jesus to say that because they haven’t happened yet. And you would be right – except that he actively tells people they will be with him in paradise, for nothing more than recognising that it all hinges on mercy. The man acknowledges that he is not destined for eternal bliss, and upon pleading with Jesus for mercy, Jesus assures him that mercy is his. So the good news becomes two-fold: There is hope for those who lack and There is mercy for those who have done wrong.
Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross is important. It allows him to become the god of empathy and allows death to be symbolically “defeated” allowing us a future hope that one day all suffering will be rendered powerless. But for me it is not the reason for my faith and I will no longer be ashamed of that! The reason for my faith is that Jesus promises a better way of life here and now and that this is somehow linked with the not yet which I do not fully understand. And I’m fine with that. I’m sure many would disagree and take me to task on this. And you’re welcome to. But moving on…
Church and the Kingdom
I can see more clearly than ever now that the problem lies in the way that church communities are built: invariably around the “Saving power of the Cross” or some other similarly crux-centric salvation mechanic that effectively sidelines the life of Jesus. The Anglicans skip over it in their creed, the Baptists tell you to pray the prayer, and the Charismatics obsess about bringing the “not yet” spiritual wackiness into the “now” and perpetually celebrate their boyfriend status with Jesus in their singing.
I don’t find any of this satisfying. That’s not to say that in each of these churches there hasn’t been a single thing I agree with. Of course there has. But when you look at the dominant narrative it often becomes about me as an individual and my “personal relationship” with God. I find this self-absorbing and unhelpful. I want to meet with people who want to change the world. I want to scheme and dream. I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be a part of the coming of the Way of God on earth today. now. here.
I want to sing songs of revolution. I want to cry out to God for social change – not of opinion on marriage or abortion but social change that allows the poor to have a chance in life, that gives the widowed and the orphaned support. I want to share in communion meals – involving good food and good drink – with people from all kinds of walks of life, not have to stare helplessly at a giant statue of Jesus while I am fed a wafer by a priest, nor to stare at my feet while I consume the shot of Ribena shared out among the congregation.
Why do I want those things? Because I earnestly believe that if we come together as community intent on following Jesus we will quickly find ourselves needing to live more simply (both inside and externally), love more wholeheartedly and care more compassionately. And when we do these things we run the risk of losing our lives; only to find them in God. We won’t need to go back every week to the addictive euphoria of worship gatherings, we won’t need to satisfy our guilt with sweet, strong port. We’ll be too busy getting a sense of meaningful change in the world. Just like the kind Jesus left behind as he walked Palestine two millennia ago. And that really will be sharing the good news.
If we put social justice and compassion here and now at the centre of our faith it doesn’t have to replace the cross. The cross is the signature at the bottom of the contract:
“There is a better way. There is a new world. There is an age to come. All may know it. It is here now. It begins. Join me.”