Jesus did not come so that we could go to heaven. Jesus’ mission was to choose his own path. And Jesus chose his own path, as much as any of us choose our own path. Jesus did not have to be the Christ any more than any of us have to be the Christ. Jesus woke up one day and realized that the way it was being done around him—the way he was being told to do it—was not the way to do it. Jesus realized there was a better way than the way being espoused and followed by those living with him in his particular time and place. Not that there weren’t already in place plenty of alternatives. The Essenes had their way; the Zealots had their way; the Pharisees had their way; the Sadducees had their way; John the Baptist and his followers had their way; the Romans had their way… There were different ways to do it all over the place. Jesus saw through them all. “I am the way!”, he said. “You have heard it said,” he said, “but I say unto you!” And, he went on to outline for all those who listened his idea of what God required.
It wasn’t much. Human decency. Compassion. Respect. Right-thinking, right-doing, right-seeing, right-being. Jesus’ ethic, his sense of how things ought to be done, was not radical, or even new. Anyone hearing, “Love your neighbor,” or, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” would not be surprised. “Well, Duh!”, they might reply. The kicker is how Jesus defined “neighbor.” It was everyone. YOU are the neighbor, he said, to everyone! The poorest of the poor, women, children, Roman legionnaires, The Enemy. Everyone is raised up. Everyone is brought low. Everyone is my, your neighbor, neighbor. That was a new twist.
Jesus’ attitude toward the Law was also different. The Law was not sacrosanct. The Law had to serve the best interest of the neighbor. “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” said Jesus, “not humankind for the Sabbath.” When the Law forbade what was needed, the Law was ignored.
And he gave Caesar a hard time. His message about “the kingdom of God” was in direct defiance of the Roman idea of the divinity of Caesar and “the kingdom of Rome.” In today’s world, the United States is likely to put you on its bad list, or in one of its prisons, if you speak out against the policies of the United States, particularly if you do it in the Middle East, where unrest is rampant and people are on edge. Conditions were worse in Jesus’ day. The Romans did not deal kindly with opposition to their principles and policies. Jesus’ idea of how it ought to be done created a lot of enemies for him to love.
And, love them he did. Jesus practiced what he preached. And, it killed him. Jesus was who he said he was, who he said we all ought to be. Jesus lived in each moment the way that moment ought to be lived. When he was crucified, executed, he was crucified, executed, the way one ought to be crucified, executed. He died exhibiting compassion for those around him. Right-thinking, right-living, right-seeing, right-being all the way to the end.
Nowhere in any of that was there much concern expressed for himself. Even the phrase, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was a quotation from Psalm 22, which is a bold statement of faith on the order of the Habakkuk passage about no grapes on the vine and no cows in the stall, and being faithful, living faithfully, no matter what. It was an affirmation of faith: “Even if God forsakes me, I will be faithful to my idea of how it ought to be done to the very end!” That’s how to do it. That’s how it ought to be done.
Doing it that way doesn’t leave much room for “me,” “mine,” or, even, “ours.” “What about me?” “When it will it be my turn?” “What’s in it for me?” “What do I get out of it?” “Where’s the pay off?” “What’s the point if there is no profit?” are all questions that the way of Jesus leaves politely, and pointedly, un-asked. It is another of the sad ironies of history that we have turned Jesus into the ultimate Me-Item. “Jesus died for ME!” “Jesus loves ME!” “Jesus is coming to take ME to heaven!” Pick up any church hymn book and scan through the songs. They are all about ME. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like ME.” “Jesus walks with ME, and he talks with ME.” The religious emphasis is upon Jesus and ME. “Jesus is MY best invisible friend!” It doesn’t seem to matter how clearly you see and describe the way. Even if you are Jesus, your followers aren’t going to follow it in your absence. Everybody has to find it for herself, for himself. No one can give the way to anyone.
Which makes the structure of the church absurd. The church cannot be the place where people are handed the way; where people are told what to believe and do. The church can only be the place where people come together to talk about what they are believing and doing, where they talk about what they think is the way, as a way of expanding their awareness, deepening their consciousness, waking up to other possibilities and seeing things differently.
What does it mean to live well? We have to talk about that. We cannot be told that. What does it mean to be fully alive? We have to talk about that. We cannot be told that. What does right-thinking, right-living, right-seeing, right-being mean? We talk about these things, we are not told them. We live our way to understanding. We experience our way to truth. It cannot be explained to us (he said, explaining how it works).
So, where do we go from here? What’s next? What’s the next step? How’s this for a plan: You take your next moment, whatever that is. You take whatever happens next, and you deal with it as well as you can imagine anyone dealing with it. You do as well with the next thing as anyone could do it. You live in the next moment in light of your best idea of how to do it (Without letting the “ME” questions, objections, considerations to un-track you). Bring your absolute best to bear on the next moment. Then, as soon as you are able, reflect on that experience. What happened? What did you do in response to what happened? How do you feel about what happened and about what you did in response? How can you imagine responding, living, doing, differently? How can you imagine improving your response? That’s it. That’s the plan. For every moment for the rest of your life. Bring your best to bear on each moment and process the experience to see how you might improve your response, to see how you might do it better, next time. And, if you are lucky, find a community of folks, a gathering, a “church,” where you can talk about these things with those who are talking about them, too.
This will require you to clarify your idea of what is good, and what is important, and what is the way to do it. That’s all Jesus did. He had a very clear idea of what was good, of what was important, of what was the way to do it. And he lived out of that idea in every moment of his life. When he says, “Come, follow me,” that’s what he has in mind. When he says, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” he means we get to the heart of truth by doing it like he did it—not by doing what he did, but by being clear ourselves about what is good, what is important, and what is the way to do it, and doing it. This is quite different from memorizing the creeds, and the catechisms, and the doctrines and waiting for Jesus to come take us to heaven. It’s living in each moment the way that moment ought to be lived, and letting the outcome be the outcome. It is being clear about what is good, what is important, and how it ought to be done, and doing it that way, no matter what. Even if God forsakes us.