I’d like to begin by sharing an excerpt from a short story of the great writer Langston Hughes and it is set in the great depression of the 1930s (On the Road, 1935). The scene begins with a man getting off a train in the snow and looking for shelter. None being available he eventually walked up the front steps of a big church. Even though the door was locked he butted against it, hoping it would budge. Just when the door gave way a couple of cops came with their clubs and attempted to beat him away:
“Sargeant grabbed … for one of the tall stone pillars beside the door, grabbed at it and held it. The cops pulled and Sargeant pulled …the cops begin to beat Sargeant over the head…but he held on. And then the church fell down. Gradually, the big stone front of the church fell down, the walls and the rafters, the crucifix and the Christ. Then the whole thing fell down, covering the cops and the people with bricks and stones and debris. The whole church fell down in the snow.
Sargeant got out from under the church and went walking on up the street … Sargeant thought he was alone, but listening to the crunch, crunch, crunch on the snow of his own footsteps, he heard other footsteps, too, doubling his own. He looked around and there was Christ walking along beside him, the same Christ that had been on the cross on the church – still stone with a rough stone surface, walking along beside him just like he was broken off the cross when the church fell down.
“Well, I’ll be dogged,” said Sargeant. “This here’s the first time I ever seed you off the cross.”
“Yes,” said Christ, crunching his feet in the snow. “You had to pull the church down to get me off the cross.”
“You glad?” said Sargeant.
“I sure am,” said Christ.
They both laughed.
“I’m a hell of a fellow, ain’t I?” said Sargeant. “Done pulled the church down!”
“You did a good job,” said Christ. “They have kept me nailed on a cross for nearly two thousand years.”
“Whee-ee-e!” said Sargeant. “I know you are glad to get off.”
“I sure am,” said Christ.
They walked on in the snow. Sargeant looked at the man of stone.
“And you been up there two thousand years?”
“I sure have,” Christ said.
“Well, if I had a little cash,” said Sargeant, “I’d show you around a bit.”
“I been around,” said Christ.
“Yeah, but that was a long time ago.”
“All the same,” said Christ, “I’ve been around.”
They walked on in the snow until they came to the railroad yards. Sargeant was tired, sweating and tired.
“Where you goin’?” Sargeant said.
“God knows,” Christ said, “but I’m leavin’ here.”
“I’m side-tracking,” Sargeant said. “I’m tired.”
“I’m gonna make it on to Kansas City,” said Christ.
“O.K.,” Sargeant said. “So long!”
Sargeant went down into the hobo jungle and found himself a place to sleep. He never did see Christ no more. “Wonder where Christ is by now?” Sargeant thought. “He musta gone on way on down the road. He didn’t sleep in this jungle.”
Wham! Across his bare fingers clinging to the bars of his cell…suddenly Sargeant realized that he was really in jail…the blood of the night before had dried on his face and his head hurt terribly. Sargeant went over and sat on a wooden bench against the cold stone wall and he must have been talking to himself because he said, “I wonder where Christ’s gone? I wonder if he’s gone to Kansas City?”
How could an author like Hughes unknowingly write with such relevance for our own time, seventy-five years later? Some issues are always current and are recycled again and again. And perhaps the way we bind Christ to the crucifix is one of them.
The fact that the church had to be pulled down into the snow before the stony Christ could be set free into the world speaks directly to us. We are always tempted to possess Christ, or what we know of Christ, in order to broker him, dole him out through some system or the other. We feel that the more we keep the Logos strapped on the altar somewhere the more we’re in control. And it’s just a short step from a strapped down Christ to a strapped down church, too.
If there is a relevance problem for the church it is this: We have a parochial Christ strapped down to a provincial church. And, frankly, we’re losing the battle for the hearts and souls of a generation because of it.
The church that tries to broker truth like it owns it, possesses it, is dead or dying or will be soon. In the same way that Christendom had to fall so that the real church might resurrect out of the ashes, so certain ways, practices and assumptions in our churches need to fall down so that our real bodies might rise up in wonder and awe at the truth that is bigger than anyone or anything. If we don’t stop pointing to ourselves instead of pointing to God we’ll suffer the degrading end that we deserve. No one is good but God. That especially includes the church of our time, one that has a well-earned credibility gap, performance gap, and integrity gap. Is the church efficacious? It can be. But it depends where it’s pointing. Are we, for instance, talking about church growth or the blossoming of faith? They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course, but where does the accent lie?
The Jesus that we in the church have often presented – the one wired to the crucifix, limited by our limits – fails people who really long for the wild, mysterious, untamable Jesus to which the Gospels testify. What we offer instead is the domesticated, sanitized, safe Jesus of Sunday School art, the tag name at the end of football game prayers. But we are reluctant to present the real Jesus because he’s out of our control and would most likely critique our churches poorly. If we were to be honest the Jesus of the Gospels may not be the one we actually prefer or embrace. The Jesus of popular culture or civil religion may be more to our liking. We like the Jesus that waves our flag. We like the Jesus who likes our style of life. And because of that there is cultural pressure to abandon the real one. Jesus may have been crucified for being true to his God, but anyone who presents a counter-cultural Jesus is often crucified by his followers. So we walk away. Unfortunately the Jesus we leave behind is often the very one people would like to meet.
What I experience today with countless people in diverse places in life is a thoroughgoing rejection of both God and Jesus as presented by the church. Ironically this is the same church that would very much like them to believe. And why is that?
And here is what I’m hearing:
The church as institution cannot be equated with the kingdom of God. Rather, the church is a community of faith stirred by the magnificence of God, revealed particularly in Jesus. At their best Christians point to this and are changed because of it.
Classical Theism as a model for God is coming to its end. We can no longer accept that God is one being among others, even if God is a super-being or supernatural being. Zeus, the old man in the sky, a human being projected large onto the canvas of the infinite – none of these work. No wonder Dawkins and militant a(non)theism makes such a strong case. They basically lampoon the God of a 1st century cosmology. Today the sacred must be understood as Being and not a being.
The humanity of Jesus connects with our humanity, yet he is more, the Spirit-man absorbed in the reality of God. He has to be in this world to matter to us. But he has to be connected to more than that, too. Jesus is not God; he has a God. He is the Son of God, belonging to God.
God has always moved everywhere in the world, including outside of the Christian faith. God moved before Jesus and in the many places he was not known. There is no fiery perdition created by the loving God to torture those who love God differently. Your Jewish or Muslim friend will not be the main course in the barbeque of eternity. Not all religions are the same, but the God of all of them is.
Gays and lesbians are not farther from the love of God than anyone else. If they have been created that way then they have. Conversion to a different sexual orientation is not expected. But conversion to God like everyone else is.
Jesus is not pro-war. In fact, he killed no one. There may be instances in which taking up arms is necessary, but using religious conviction to justify the worst that is within us is never acceptable. War always represents a human failure to reconcile and resolve conflict and embody the highest principle, love.
The integrity of creation is not beside the point for Christians. We are to be stewards of creation. As such we take special care to make sure that human behavior influenced by greed or exploitation does no damage to God’s garden. It is ours to tend. We are called to repair the world.
One does not need to have a end game theology of fiery Armageddon tied to a returning Jesus. Jesus already came. He comes often. It’s not our job to precipitate the end of history through our own irresponsibility. To wait for the Prince of Peace to come and torch it is untrue to God’s nature.
The Bible is a library of witnesses from different times, places and contexts all attempting to describe God and humanity in the world. It is not the transmission of the literal, infallible words of God. We turn to the Bible to listen and interpret the meaning of faith for us today. We discern the Word of God through the many words.
A God who would require the bloody death of his son to set things right is no God we’re interested in. Rather, the cross reveals the love of God, shown in the faithfulness of Jesus to the God he loved. God did not ordain suffering and death but instead, participated in the suffering and death of the creation through his son. And humanity is reconciled because the suffering love of God is so clearly revealed.
There is no war between faith and science except the one we create. Science is the fallible human effort to know the natural world. Faith is the fallible human effort to know transcendence, something science cannot know. They both know differently yet attempt to describe life in its many dimensions in the same universe.
Religion is personal but not private. It lives in the heart but lives in the world because God loves everything. Spiritual life is manifested in communities of faith, in redemptive social movements and the peacemaking between nations. Anytime there is more than one person in the room love has to be translated into justice and compassion, and those comprise God’s modus operendi.
Worship is not a performance, but it is a drama. We don’t entertain in worship or want to be entertained, but we do re-present the sacred story time and again through every avenue of art, story-telling and drama. Please don’t try to impress us with your technology. Give us instead mystery, community and the challenge to walk in the way of Jesus. Honestly, we’ll try it.
“I wonder where Christ’s gone? I wonder if he’s gone to Kansas City?”