Bart Ehrman says there are lots of good reasons for being the church, none of which has anything to do with the accuracy of the New Testament, or of the entire Bible. Or, I would add, with getting to heaven when we die. Wielding heaven as a weapon to coerce people into becoming “believers” and doing what they are told to do, and saying that “the Bible says” do this, and don’t do that, and don’t even think about doing that over there ever, constitutes the entire scope of the church’s presence in the lives of most of us. We don’t have any other experience of church than this. The church is constantly bludgeoning us with heaven in one hand and the Bible in the other. The only variation in that scenario is when the church puts the Bible down to pick up Jesus and throw him at us. That’s the church of our experience. Heaven, the Bible, Jesus, though not necessarily in that order.
We can do better. We have to do better. The future of civilization as it must become depends upon it. Here’s the deal: The church is the catalyst for the transformation of civilization. It is not heaven that hangs in the balance here, but civilization. We are shaping, molding, forming the future of the planet, and, once we figure out space travel, beyond. Nothing is more important than what we do together. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by heaven, Jesus, and what the Bible says. We have bigger fish to fry.
We have to learn the lessons of life together. The bedrock of civilization as we are reconstructing it cannot be me over against you and us over against them. We cannot be pitted against one another in an on-going and unending fight for the advantages. Love one another. Love your enemies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Get it? Those are the principles we have to put into practice if civilization is to become what it must become for the planet to survive. As it is, we are killing ourselves and destroying the world trying to have what we want at everyone else’s expense. We have to learn to live together in the service of the common good. But, isn’t that a pickle, though?
Whose good is served by what is good, is the question. Good for whom, is the question. At what point does your good become my bad, and what do we do about that then, is the question. Good and evil are not that far apart. What is good for one is evil for another. How can we live together in ways that take the best interest of everyone into account?
The church is the place these questions can be asked and answered. The church is uniquely positioned within civilization to become an international, intentional community serving the true good of all, for the transformation of civilization. Community formation, community development, community organization—always with an eye on the relationship between the good of the parts and the good of the whole—these are the tasks of the church for the salvation of the world. Nothing is more difficult or more necessary. The way, of course, is the way of death and life.
It is the way of Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, and here it comes, don’t you know. He’s about to throw Jesus at us. Duck and run while you have a chance. Don’t let ’em lock the doors on you. Get out while you can. No, wait! Give me a shot at defending, explaining, justifying and excusing bringing Jesus into the conversation. Here’s the deal about Jesus: Jesus is an ink blot. Jesus is whoever you want him to be. If you want Jesus to be the savior of the world, he’s yours. If you want Jesus to send everyone to hell who isn’t like you, you’ve got it. And, if you, as I do, want Jesus to be the image of the invisible God and the prototype ideal human being, bingo—that’s him.
We read into Jesus who we want him to be, and then use that to shape who we are. It’s really psychologically sound. Jesus is the consummate projective image. We project onto Jesus all the qualities and characteristics we admire most, and worship in him what we desire for ourselves. It works in reverse as well.
If you have rejected Jesus because he was introduced to you draped with the pathology and toxins of your surroundings—if the Jesus you think of when you think of Jesus is the worst of the wrong kind of people, with whom you have spent too much time and by whom you have been wounded, abused, warped, and fragmented, Jesus is going to represent for you all the qualities and characteristics you most despise and denounce, and you will see in him what you hate most in others, and fear most in yourself.
Two things follow from this. We can only get to Jesus through ourselves. And, what we see in Jesus shows us more about us than about Jesus. What is true about Jesus is true about us, in that it reflects and exposes where we have been and how it is with us. When you talk about Jesus, you are talking about where you have been and how it is with you. When I talk about Jesus, I am talking about where I have been and how it is with me.
And, if you cannot appreciate the significance of the last couple of paragraphs, you have been away from the church much too long. You should spend some time in one up the street, or across town, in order to be able to perceive the astounding nature of what we are up to here. This is remarkably unique and astonishing in the field of institutional religion, and when you get it, you will be dizzy and perhaps sick to your stomach because your head will be spinning from being yanked so suddenly without warning from where you have been and what you have come to expect to hear from the church to where you are. It is as new a thing as you are ever likely to encounter. It’s certainly the newest thing since “God is dead.” Jesus is an ink blot. If that doesn’t blow you away, you can’t be blown away. And, you may be dead. Someone should check your pulse.
All right. That’s my aside about Jesus. Now, I’m going to take you back to the point. The point is this. Today is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday before Easter. It is the day recognized by the church as the day of Jesus’ not so triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey. It was carefully orchestrated to be a slam at both religion and politics. Jesus deliberately assumes the role of the long expected Messiah foretold by the prophet Zachariah, who would come to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9.9). The coming one “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9.10). Of course, that would be after the fight.
The King of Peace would establish peace only after he destroyed his enemies. This expectation is defiantly proclaimed by the writer of the Book of Revelation, only the discussion there is about Jesus’ Second Coming, at which time he will get it right. “First victory, then peace” (Crossan). And, in saying “He’ll get it right next time,” the writer of Revelation is revealing himself, not the future. Jesus is an ink blot, remember.
Jesus’ entry was also a slam at politics because Pontius Pilate would have been entering the city at about the same time from the opposite direction, in a chariot with legionnaires and war horses and a resounding display of power and dominion (in order to bolster the local militia during Passover). Jesus meanders in on a donkey—a completely intentional and symbolic act declaring that his way is not the way of religion or of politics. He is not going to do it the way it has ever been done before. The model that Jesus sets before us—and he is indeed the model par excellence of faith and practice—is the model of No Model. It is the model of not knowing what on earth you are doing. It is the model of feeling your way along, and following hunches to see where they lead, and wondering what you are going to do, and trusting yourself to think of something, and being surprised at how things turn out.
This has certainly not been the model of the church of our experience, with it’s corporate executive structure, and it’s five-year plans, and it’s strategic growth strategies. The church of our experience has known exactly what it was doing, which was exactly what every other church was doing. The newest things that church did was to have Bible School at night and build Family Life Centers. Every church was a clone of every other church. If you, and every other person in Greensboro, made a list of what you expect a church to offer, the lists would be practically identical. We know what, and how, a church is supposed to be, and we expect a church to be those things. Just as the religious authorities in Jerusalem knew who the Messiah was supposed to be.
When Jesus ambles by on the donkey, he trashes our expectations, and leaves us to start anew. From scratch. With nothing to guide us. No blueprint. No map. No structure to call “church.” Call them together and tell them to take care of their own, and all sentient beings, and the environment which holds it all together, and see what they come up with. They will come up with different things. Radically different things.
What holds it together is their sense of community, their being community, their being with one another for the good of the other in all times and circumstances. And, their sense of mission. Their mission is to carry community to others. To extend community to all sentient beings. To practice loving-kindness for the true good of all. To offer the kind of help that help is all about. To not know what they are doing beyond letting compassion and justice guide them in their relationships with each other and all others. And to develop whatever structure they need to carry on the business of community whose specific business is the true good of all.
The service of the true good of all sets the church apart from practically every other group you can imagine. And, it requires us to think through what is good and how we know. The two ways open before us in any moment. The way of life, and the way of death; the way of light and the way of darkness. In any moment the challenge is to die to that which is not worth our life, and to live to that which is life itself. It takes a community to know these things, and do them. The work of the church is creating community, being community. It all flows from there.