In this passion week, I’m happy to share with the Rabbit Room community an essay I wrote fifteen years ago for the liner notes of what turned out to be one of the most laboriously-titled CD’s ever:
“Music From and Inspired by Jesus, the Epic Mini-Series”
While the TV mini-series starring Jeremy Sisto did manage to portray a warm, even playful, side of the Messiah, it also had some glaring theological flaws. Enough so that after viewing an advance copy, I didn’t know if I wanted to accept the writing gig. I even went to my pastor to talk through the implications of affixing my name to a project that presented a distorted view of the nature of the Son of Man.
Ultimately though, I decided that someone, somewhere, was going to write something about Jesus that was going to be included in the CD packaging. And whatever was written was going to be read by thousands of people (this was back in the days when everyone still purchased CDs, mind you), many of whom wouldn’t have any accurate idea of who Jesus was. At that point I came to see the writing of the essay as an opportunity to introduce people to the Jesus I believed the gospel writers truly testified to.
So I said yes to the gig. Over the years since, I’ve been pleased to see the essay pop up in various places on the internet, taking on a modest life of its own. I wish it well. I hope it runs a course that lasts far longer than I do.
Having not looked at it in who knows how long, I re-read it now with some surprise, because there are insights reflected in it that I could swear I only just started to see in the last few months, even in the last few weeks. Revelations I’ve just uncovered that strangely, I had also apparently just uncovered fifteen years ago. But then, maybe that’s the nature of the Christ. In some ways we never get past square one with him. Even as our experience of him and our love for him grows over time, we still find ourselves confounded by him over and over again at the same points we did when we first dared believe that his words might be true.
So in the midst of this week of deep lament and celebration, of death and life, of crucifixion and resurrection, I offer the following meditation for your consideration.
“What do we do with this Jesus?”
That was the question on everyone’s mind at the swing-point of history 2000 years ago. The Jews, the Romans, Herod, Pilate, the High Priests, even Jesus’ own disciples — they all found themselves wrestling with the same perplexing question: “What do we do with this man?” For some reason he didn’t seem to fit very conveniently into anyone’s agenda — personal, national, religious, or otherwise. The Jews wanted a warrior king to drive the occupying Roman army out of the promised land. The Roman’s wanted to maintain and expand their empire over the known world. Everyone else just wanted what people everywhere have always wanted: pleasure and prosperity and to be left alone.
Jesus came along and upset all of that. He refused power. He didn’t seek fame. He treated the pleasures of this life as inconsequential. He humbled himself as a servant and his selflessness alone became a walking indictment of all human agendas — base and noble alike. It’s no wonder he made people nervous. He was like a splinter in the soul. Even those who despised him couldn’t ignore him. They buzzed around him constantly, angry and perplexed.
In their defense, his presence must have been a bit overwhelming. The story of his life on earth is more than we seem eager to contend with today, but people then had no choice but to physically rub shoulders with him. They walked the same dusty roads and breathed the same air. There wasn’t any getting away from it. He kept popping up at odd moments, infuriating people with his compassion, perplexing them with his gentle wisdom, and frightening them with his unbearable love. And then there was the whole business about claiming to be the Son of God.
Truth is, Jesus was an absolute scandal. He taught that the least were the greatest, the rejected were the blessed, the wise were the foolish, the weak were the strong, and the secure were the lost. He taught that people should selflessly love, not just their friends and families — which would have been difficult enough — but strangers and enemies as well. He called on those possessed by their possessions to leave their wealth behind to follow him into a life of uncertain suffering for the one promised consolation of his love.
His words grew so appalling one afternoon that many of his followers gave it up for good and returned home, muttering that his teaching was too hard. They had had enough. Those who stayed were apparently in too deep already. Most scandalous of all was the way Jesus publicly and persistently rejected the proud, self-righteous religious leaders of the day and instead drew prostitutes, half-breeds, political revolutionaries, smelly fisherman, and turncoat tax-collectors into his circle of friends — all of whom soon and somehow found themselves, by his very acceptance, transformed from what they had always thought they were into a new existence as children of God.
It’s one of the eternal ironies surrounding Jesus that those who allowed the exposure of their own weakness, shame, and guilt were the very ones who were afterward able to drink with joy from the fountains of eternal forgiveness and love, while those who fought desperately to prop up their own crumbling facades of self-righteousness were in the end reduced to a ridiculous position, raging blindly against love and their own liberation. Jesus was always hard to take that way — an insult, even — because beneath it all, it seemed that everyone needed him whether they wanted to or not, prostitutes and Pharisees alike.
And that really was the crux of the problem. His very nature exposed the heart and forced the hand of everyone around him so that in the end, after the haze and baggage burned away, it was all laid out pretty simply. You were left with only two possible ways of answering the question “What do we do with this Jesus?”
You could either follow him or you could crucify him.
2000 years of science, progress, and religion don’t seem to have changed things for us all that much. The human heart is still the human heart. Nuclear power, psychotherapy, and satellite television notwithstanding, most of us still find ourselves — in our more honest moments — faced with the same troubling question and the same simple options that perplexed Christ’s contemporaries . . .
“What do we do with this Jesus?” It’s something to think about anyway. . .