Jesus is the swingman of history, but that isn’t Jesus’ fault. Jesus never meant to be the swingman of history. My perception of him is that he only meant to be the swingman of religion and politics as they were being practiced in rural Galilee during his lifetime. He came onto the scene proclaiming, “Not like this! Like that!” The “that” that he pointed to was what he called “the kingdom of God.” It was an imaginary, yet potentially, tangibly, immanently, present and real kingdom of radical equality around the table, across the board. It was the first level playing field in history. No leg up. No advantage. No hierarchy. No patriarchy. No in-group. No steering committee. No controlling mechanism. No power plays. No one, really, in charge, possessing the vision that everyone else has to share. If you think that’s easy, give it a spin.
How would that work—complete equality around the table, across the board? One person’s opinion being as good as another’s? How would you ever make a decision? How would you ever get anything done? Jesus doesn’t answer the questions. He spends his time telling the people, “Not this! That!” Easy for him to say! Jesus could outline a scheme for life together without actually putting it in practice. He couldn’t even achieve harmonious equality and cooperation among his disciples. Peter was always blocking him, and Judas betrayed him. You can talk radical equality, but when thirteen people have different ideas about what to think, where to go, what to do, how to do it, you don’t have a community of equals. You have a sack full of cats. Just try getting them to purr on cue. Or even to come when you call.
Jesus wasn’t the mayor of Jerusalem. He did not institute his ideas for life together in any formal way. The disciples tried, after his death, but their model of the church, a community that cared for its own and the place where they were, was able to be sustained only in hope (with the threat, really) of Jesus’ imminent return. The strain of communal life together was too much. Some people felt that they were doing more than their fair share, and that others weren’t doing nearly enough. Some people felt as though they were making all of the sacrifices and others weren’t making any. You can talk about the grass roots, and organic community development, and organizing from the bottom up, and power to the people all you want, but, in the end, somebody has to cut on the lights and make the coffee and show up every week. Jesus better return in a hurry, because that gets old fast.
It is easy enough to talk about radical equality, but the practice of radical equality comes to grief upon the reality of the way we are. Those who serve the most think they should have more of a voice in the way things are done, and think that those who don’t serve at all shouldn’t benefit from the work that is done. “Those who don’t work won’t eat,” is the way the New Testament puts it. The practice of radical equality depends upon everyone doing his, doing her, part. Where have you ever known that to be the case for long?
When Jesus doesn’t return in a hurry, we have to come up with something else. So, we invent paid clergy. We institute the church. It’s the same process that got Israel a king in the Old Testament. We need to be delivered from the grime, and the grit, and the unfairness of being taken advantage of by those who aren’t doing their part in holding the community together. And, even here, the church moves forward, toward who, and what, and how it ought to be, without a director, or a king, or a boss. There is no plan for being the church, no check sheet, no blueprint. No one is in charge. We are a sack full of cats trying to become a community.
Jesus wasn’t the mayor of Jerusalem. He wasn’t even “the carpenter.” He was “the carpenter’s son.” Which means he may very well have been kicked out of the house for being a slacker and a lay-about. For wanting to spend his time talking with the rabbis and debating the fine points of the law. It most certainly means he didn’t have a “real job.” Jesus got by “with a little help from his friends.” He was carried along on the shoulders of those who liked him, or loved him, whether they understood him and agreed with him, or not. He was supported by an assortment of those who were becoming the church as it ought to be, whether they knew it or not.
One of the primary requirements of the church as it ought to be is that no one knows exactly what it ought to be. Nobody knows what they are doing. The church as it ought to be evolves, emerges, becomes itself over time, and it is quite different over time, and in different places.
The church as it ought to be in rural Galilee is not the same as the church as it ought to be in urban Rome. And the church has to change with the times. The church cannot sing the same old hymns through the years. There is nothing admirable about “the rock of ages.” Being chained to the rock is a death sentence. God is like the wind, remember, blowing where it will. The timeless and unchanging features of God, God’s constancy in compassion and justice, grace, mercy, and peace, for example, are constantly exhibiting themselves in new and surprising ways, searching for different forms of expression, finding application in shocking and disconcerting, even blasphemous and obscene, places. We grow in our understanding of God’s loving presence, and perceive the implications of living as expressions of loving presence in ever changing and challenging ways. Prophets live to appall even the prophets who have gone before them. Isaiah would have been undone by Jeremiah’s proclamation. The church’s understanding and expression of the way of God changes dramatically over time and circumstance. We cannot say what and how the church will be. We can only lay the groundwork for, and foster the expectation of, unfolding and transformation.
In the meantime, what keeps us together? Why do we care? Why should we do the work, make the sacrifices, pay the price of being together, over time? What’s in it for us that we should peacefully coexist and work together for the common good of all? What brings us to the table? Why do we stay? What is valuable enough about our presence with one another that we will do what it takes to establish and maintain a community of presence? What makes this gathering, this community, special? Sacred? Holy? What makes this a holy place? What is the nature of the sacrifice we are willing to make to be together? What makes that sacrifice worthwhile? We are working toward what? For what?
Here is my list: Honesty, vulnerability, intimacy, integrity, transparency, safety, compassion, grace, acceptance, willingness to listen with understanding, willingness to listen so as to elicit—so as to access—a deeper truth, a respect for personhood—for boundaries, and limits, and the perspective of the other, an innate distrust of doctrine, and dogma, and creed, and slogans, and catch-phrases, and answers, and things that are supposed to be said; a place that respects each person and each person’s ability to find what she, what he, needs and do the work that he, that she, needs to do at this particular time and place in life.
Jesus is not my best invisible friend. As Jesus personified God, so God and Jesus are personified in the people who are for me as Jesus would be, as God would be, if Jesus, if God were here, now. Is this to say that Jesus and God are NOT here, now? Only to say that Jesus, and God, are ALWAYS here, now, in the people who exhibit the qualities of Jesus and God in the here and now of daily existence. God is personal in and through those who personify the attributes of God and make them personal in tangible, actual, real-time ways. Jesus is raised from the dead and present in the same way—in and through the people who live so as to evidence “the way of Jesus” in the world.
My experience of God and Jesus is communal, not private and individual. The presence of God and Jesus is mediated to me through the presence of others who are as God is, sometimes intentionally and deliberately, and sometimes unaccountably and mysteriously, but always graciously and compassionately, justly and kindly, and considerately. God has soft eyes, and a gentle, light, touch.
What this says to me is that we stand between two spiritual realities and express one or the other in actual, tangible, physical ways. This is the age-old (I think the oldest) Doctrine of the Two Ways. There is the way of light and the way of darkness; the way of life and the way of death; the way of goodness and the way of evil; the way of the spirit and the way of the flesh. The way of… Well, you could extend the description of the ways into the far distant future, but you get the idea.
There is, in every moment, the possibility of godliness, holiness, rightness, and the like, and there is the possibility of littleness, meanness, spitefulness, vindictiveness, self-centered-ness, my-way-only-ness, and the like. And, those possibilities break into the moment, become actualized in the moment, through us, through our decisions and choices, through our way in the world. We act to make God known or to keep God from being known. We are the arbiters of God. What we bind on earth is bound in heaven. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. We carry with us the keys to the kingdom, and, indeed, ARE the key to the kingdom.
We are as much of God as some people see. We are as close to God as some people get. We are all that God is in the lives of some. In each moment, we bring to life that which is of God or that which is not of God. In each moment, the Two Ways open before us, and we act in the service of one or the other. Some moments, of course, are more significant than others. And some peoples’ choices carry more weight than others. But, there aren’t as many “throw away moments” as we might like to think. The little things add up. The cumulative impact of our life on the lives of others over time is considerable. It matters what we do, and how we do it. It is critical that we take care of our own and the place where we are, and all sentient beings, and the environment that impacts all sentient beings. Always. Forever. Amen.