March 7, 2013

Extreme Jesus

jesus clears the temple

I start with a disclaimer: Actual blog post is in no way related to Extreme Jesus – the movie and its exploration of Team Xtreme, the particularly well-muscled evangelism outfit)

We’ve heard it said so often haven’t we? They Like Jesus, But Not the Church (there’s a book title in that surely – behind-the-times Ed).   It’s often said as a hand-wringing exercise during a conference/in a book/at church. What follows is an exploration as to why the church is so on the nose in western culture, even while at the same time people think Jesus is pretty cool. If only we could get some of his sparkle to rub off on the church! Sometimes it’s more nuanced than that, as Christian sociologists explore why church attendance, even church awareness, is so low.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this reluctance is also true of those involved in professional ministry.  How many pastors respond when asked what they do for a living, “I spend my time telling people about Jesus”, rather than what is probably more the case, “I am a pastor who spends at least sixty per cent of my time organising church-based activities.”  But put yourself in their shoes and you can see why. What response would you rather give at your next street party or cocktail night at your wife’s work? What answer is more likely to garner a “That’s interesting” response, and perhaps a follow up question? What answer is more likely to result in the other person thinking “Now that’s just sad”, at best or “What a sicko” at worst. Granted, many of those involved in paid ministry do spend a lot of time telling people about Jesus, but let’s face it,  the context for that is often a church setting.  The bottom line: Jesus is cool, but the church has problems.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the church makes the whole Jesus thing just that bit more “extreme”. And in turn, the problem with “extreme” is that it is so, err, so extreme. You may not have noticed but in a post 9-11 culture extremism itself, rather than what you are extreme about, is the concern. We have all seen ad nauseum what extreme can do. The modern person therefore believes that the most  sophisticated and safe response to any belief framework is a certain detachment – a sangfroid – in an effort to distance themselves from any extreme response. After all, holding too tightly to any position is the path to zealotry and fundamentalism.

Recently I was reminded of John Stott’s little classic Basic Christianity, in which Stott observes that there is, if we understand him truly, only one way to respond to Jesus, and that is “extremely”.  In one short chapter Stott confines the “questionnaire” Jesus to the dustbin.  There can be no sliding scale of “not satisfied – extremely satisfied”. All things being equal, every reaction to Jesus should be extreme!.  Tim Keller helpfully coalesced this in a recent sermon when he stated:

The only possible way to respond to Jesus is extremely.  No one who ever met Jesus ever had a moderate reaction to him.  They either hated him and wanted to kill him.  Or they were afraid of him and wanted to run away, or they were absolutely smitten with him and tried to give their whole lives to him, but nobody ever had a moderate reaction to him.

Hate/Fear/Smitten. All very extreme.  Moderation is music to the ears of post 9-11 secularism – moderation, that is, from all other perspectives, as secularism itself has become extreme to the point of being immoderate.  Secularism is, by definition, required to be a disinterested and moderate moderator, allowing a whole range of viewpoints and lifestyles to exist under its umbrella – even those, especially those, that challenge secularism’s assumptions. We have seen in recent years, highlighted in Don Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance,  that secularism is anything but disinterested, and in fact has an agenda to commit the most extreme act of all – foster a false diversity (in reality, uniformity) and silence true diversity.

But before we start harrumphing and blaming secular society for all our ills, perhaps we need to admit that the church is generally the cause of its own problems. There are reasons why the church is not simply disliked, but also discarded. Often this springs from our attempts to utilise Jesus for our own purposes. Let me explain.

Firstly the church falters when it is extreme without Jesus. Both the left and the right in Christian culture have a habit of making the side issues central and making the central issue – Jesus – the side issue.  The result is polarising and, inevitably, riven by a political agenda that plays a zero sum game. There are winners and there are losers and being a winner is everything. The irony is that the church is on the nose, less for being extreme-Jesus-focussed, and more for being extremely focussed on just about anything else. We become extreme in all the wrong ways when we are so convinced of our rightness about everything. When Joshua meets the captain of the LORD’s army in Joshua 5:13-14 he asks him “Are you on our side or the side of our enemies.”  The answer “neither” would gall many of us today, wouldn’t it? That this “captain” is in all likelihood a pre-incarnate second person of the Trinity – the Christ who was still to come in history – makes his response all the more telling.  The true test of whether you have side-lined Jesus is to ask what percentage of  what your church does could be conducted by a secular organisation just as well. This is not a call for social disengagement, simply a call to ensure we are not seen as more extreme than Jesus is.

Secondly the church falters when it seeks to moderate Jesus.  Once again the left and right fall for this trap. In my own experience, I have seen Jesus presented as therapist/benefactor/best friend – all nice things to be sure – but far removed from the disturbing Warrior King image of him in Revelation 19. Extreme Jesus does not allow us to create him in our own mold, or present him to people in a form that is acceptable to 21st century spiritual consumers. Rather he shapes us away from our natural inclination to turn in upon ourselves, and declares to us that he is not here to assist us in our spiritual journey, but rather, save us from the broad path that leads to destruction and turn us onto the path that leads to life. The fact is you can get a better therapist down the road than you can at church, and probably with less time invested. What you can’t get down the road is a Saviour.

I want us to be extreme about Jesus.  I want me to be extreme about Jesus. My own half-baked life is so often a testament of my desire to either be extreme about stuff that doesn’t matter, or my desire to moderate Jesus to fit what I want him to do for me at any given time.  I don’t want people to like the church. If truth be told I don’t want them to like Jesus either. I want them to love him – extremely.  I want them to be astonished by Jesus AND by the church. To be shocked by Jesus’ life and death and a church wiling to die daily to itself and follow him. To be curious of and suspicious of Jesus and his people at one and the same time. To be offended and compelled by Jesus’ words that the church announces.  To be repellently attracted to the Bride and the Bridegroom. In short I want people to relish the idea of getting up close and personal to this extreme Jesus and his church, but at the same time wondering if they dare.  Cos let’s face it, settling for being liked is the same as settling for “let’s just be friends” from the woman of your dreams. It’s just not extreme enough.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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