“On Letting Jesus Be Jesus”

Mark 8:31-38

The Second Sunday in Lent

“Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and rejection . . .  And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today’s gospel lesson.  And, every time they roll back around, they remind us, all over again, of how hard it can be to let Jesus be Jesus.

In fact, the way of the cross which Jesus foresaw for himself, and his followers, in today’s passage, was so troubling that it caused Peter to rebuke Jesus, and Christianity to remake Jesus.

It isn’t easy to identify exactly when Christianity’s makeover of Jesus began, but it is clear that by the end of the fourth century, the vulnerable, suffering Jesus of the gospels had been remade into the powerful, successful Christ of Christianity.

Like Peter, we just could not bear to let Jesus be Jesus.  And, like Peter, we meant well.  We wanted to be big and successful, powerful and influential for Jesus, and it was clear that there were not many people out there who were going to line up to join up with a Jesus who called his followers to let go of their possessions, make themselves vulnerable, put themselves at risk and embrace in friendship whoever was most ostracized and marginalized.  That sounded as unreasonable and unworkable, to us, as it did to Peter.  So, across the centuries, we took the unreasonable Jesus of the four gospels, and remade him into the more manageable Christ of Christianity, which has left us with a powerful, useful, helpful, successful, very influential, world religion which has done much good for many people throughout the world, but which, also, sometimes, bears little resemblance to the true spirit of the real Jesus.

All of which came home to me in a powerful way a couple of years ago when one of those studies by Gallup or Barna or some similar polling organization came out with a list of the most Christian cities in America; with places such as Jackson, Birmingham, Chattanooga and Shreveport all at, or near, the top.

When I heard that, I had a Holy Spirit moment, when I recalled the several times, across the years, when I have heard people, who live in “the most Christian part of the country,” who had an adult son or daughter whose life left them outside the comfortable majority, say that they had encouraged their son or daughter to move out of the Bible Belt, to New York or Los Angeles, or someplace where they might be less likely to face the unkindness and discrimination which they might be more likely to encounter if they stayed in the most Christian part of the country; a powerful commentary on how far popular Christianity has wandered from the Jesus of the gospels.  You know that Christianity has strayed far from the Jesus of the gospels when the parts of the country which are known to have the most Christians are known to be the least Christian when it comes to the very things Jesus said matter most; loving all others as we love ourselves, and treating all others as we want all others to treat us.

Which is one example of how Christianity sometimes finds it as difficult to let Jesus be Jesus as Peter did, which is as understandable as it is ironic.  This week, I read every word of all four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, one more time.  When you take the time to do that, you can see why Peter rebuked Jesus, and Christianity  remade him.  After all, Those who try to save their life will lose it . . .  Deny yourself . . .  Take up your cross  . . .  Give up your possessions  . . .  Love your neighbor as yourself . . . Do unto others as you want others to do unto you . . . That is not the sort of thing that draws crowds, fills buildings and meets budgets.  One of the biggest obstacles to the successful church can be the real Jesus, because too much of the real Jesus can empty a church faster than the best marketing effort can fill it.

But, every now and then, at least once in every generation, in the interest of being as honest as we are capable of being, and, as a guard against self-deception, it is good and right for the Christian religion to acknowledge the fact that, across the Christian centuries, we have remade the real Jesus, and, to say, out loud, that, while we have done, and always will do, much good in the world, the path we have taken to success is a different way than the path to which Jesus called us when Jesus asked us, in this morning’s gospel lesson, to take up the cross and follow him; something Jesus asked us to do, not because he wanted us to die the way he died, but, because he wanted us to live the way he lived, and love the way he loved.