Sunday, June 21, 2015
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” the disciples ask themselves. Aren’t many of us also asking that same question? Who is this Jesus guy, exactly, and what might he want from me? What does Jesus have to do with the rest of my life? What does it mean to follow him? Sometimes, in fact, many times, Jesus can surprise us to reveal to us more about who he is as we grown into relationship with him.
Recently, I’ve been reading the book They Like Jesus but Not the Church, where a pastor goes out and talks to people about what they think about Jesus and the church. It’s a great read, I highly recommend it, especially if you’re perplexed about why our churches are in decline and why our young people in particular have little interest or even animosity toward “organized religion.” Dan Kimball, the author, notes that most people he talks with who grew up outside of the church like and respect Jesus, even if they may have some pretty harsh things to say about the church. He says, they “understand Jesus as a peacemaker who loved others and died for what he believed in. They think of him as a rebel who fought for the poor and the oppressed and stood against religious hypocrites. They believe he stood up for social misfits and those who didn’t fit in the religious circles of his day. They see him as a wise and great spiritual leader, in many ways like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. But most also sense that he had some sort of unique divine connection and knowledge which set him apart from other leaders” (255).
Pastor Kimball suggests, and you might also be thinking, that a lot of people know who Jesus is but they have a limited idea of who he really is – there’s a lot we can read about Jesus through scripture that isn’t included in this list, for example: Jesus, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the one who died for us on the cross and was raised again, the Son of God, the righteous one. His point is, though, that a lot of people like Jesus and want to learn more about him, and too often, the church as “religious institution” gets in the way.
This curiosity about Jesus isn’t new – we’re only at chapter 4 in Mark’s gospel and Mark tells us that a large crowd is following Jesus. Even when Jesus tries to leave the crowd behind to go to the other side of the sea, other boats follow the one he’s in with his disciples. Many people want to be with Jesus, and to learn more about who he is – even taking the risk of the weather looking a bit ominous as they head out on their boats to follow him.
It’s one thing to think highly of Jesus as a historical figure or spiritual person, and another to go out and follow him. When we set out with Jesus, we take the risk that we might end up in less than comfortable situations. Jesus will probably “rock our boats,” so to speak, as we learn not just more about him, but what it means to follow him. Jesus will push us to follow him to “the other side” – the unknown, not to stay in the place that’s familiar. But we can also be comforted and assured even in our discomfort that Jesus will also calm those storms and speak words that we so often need to hear “Peace! Be still!” “Why are you afraid?” Jesus will be there with us and for us.
A question for you to ponder this week is, “Who is Jesus for you?” And the follow-up is, “How is your understanding of Jesus changing?” I hope none of us think that we’ve got Jesus all figured out – I hope all of us continue to have that curiosity about Jesus to want to read more about him in scripture, prayer, and study…to have meaningful conversations with others and listen to who Jesus is for them, to serve Jesus as we love and serve our neighbor. If you most commonly relate to Jesus as your friend, you could stretch your understanding of him to start also contemplating what it means for Jesus to also be the Son of God, who has command of even the wind and the seas. Or if you most often think of Jesus as the one who will come to judge the living and the dead, what if you started to consider that in that same creed we confess that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried? What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the Word, the cosmic Christ who has existed with God since the world began and reigns with God on high forever as well as Jesus is a human being who knows what we’ve been through?
This week, you could take some time to write down or reflect on how your relationship with Jesus has changed, especially from what you thought about Jesus as a child to now. Are there times you can remember Jesus being especially close to you, speaking comforting words in the midst of your own storms? Are there times where you felt the need to rely on Jesus’ strength and not your own? How about the times when you felt Jesus was more distant, angry with you – or that you were angry with him?
One experience that changed who Jesus is for me was in my first year of seminary. All future pastors had to serve 8-10 hours a week in a local Lutheran congregation their first year. I got assigned to Bethany Lutheran Church, a black Lutheran congregation on the south side of Chicago. For one of the first times in my life, I experienced what it was like to be a minority – I was the only white person in worship most Sundays. I learned that even while we think of Lutherans as being predominantly German or Scandinavian in background, some Africans and African Americans have been Lutheran for more generations than my Norwegian family has been. While worship at Bethany had many things that were similar to Lutheran church I grew up in – the liturgical order, readings, a fantastic choir, some things were different: two to three hour worship services with a sermon that was never shorter than half an hour, a time of prayer at the altar, hand clapping and dancing in the aisles. And what also was different was a painting of Jesus that hung at the back of the sanctuary, not unlike many of the paintings you see in many Lutheran churches, except this Jesus was black. I learned later from congregation members that when the neighborhood had changed from mostly white Swedish folks to middle-upper class black families in the 1950s and ‘60s, the church too had started to change from its formerly all-Swedish makeup. Bethany called its first black pastor during this time, and this pastor had asked a member in the congregation who was an artist to repaint Jesus to represent more faithfully the majority of the congregation. Unfortunately, this made some of the white members upset, and they left the church.
Serving at Bethany for a year helped me see how our church and really our world, is so much more diverse than we sometimes think. I also realized how easy it is to find images of Jesus as a white Swedish blonde-haired blue-eyed man than it is to find an Asian or Latino or Black Jesus. The truth is, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew, probably with brown eyes & hair and a dark complexion. None of us will really know what Jesus looks like until we get to heaven. And if we confess that we can see the face of Christ in all kinds of people, because all of us are created in the image of God, then it’s important to image Jesus not just as someone who looks just like me, but someone who looks like someone other than me.
As our whole country mourns the loss of those nine brothers and sisters in Christ shot in Charleston, I wonder how anyone could sit and pray with people for an hour and not see the face of Christ in those neighbors but only hate! Especially as we received news that the shooter had grown up in an ELCA congregation, and that the pastor and associate pastor who were shot had graduated from an ELCA seminary, I wondered how this could happen? I also wonder how any of us can continue to gather in prayer and in trust of each other when our schools, our shopping centers, and even our churches become places where we risk meeting with deadly violence. Sometimes, Jesus finds you where you least expect him: on a mountaintop, in the midst of grief and loss, in the middle of a storm. In venturing out to worship and serve the God made flesh in Jesus Christ, we discover more deeply who Jesus is, and we do take risks – but in those risks we hear Jesus’ powerful reminder, “Peace. Be still!. Why are you afraid?” This Jesus has power to command winds and waves. This Jesus has power to give life in the face of death itself. While we may always be discovering more about who Jesus is for us, Jesus knows who we are, each one of us, completely. There is nothing, then, to fear. Amen.