Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus Without the Church

 I was sitting in the hospital here in Michigan (where I'm at for a few days) after my Mom's knee replacement surgery on Friday when I stumbled upon this blog post from Scot McKnight.  It's about a new book by a minister named Rubel Shelly called, I Knew Jesus Before He was a Christian.  You can probably guess by the title that this is not a book that's going to celebrate all that's good with Christianity.  Here's a sample of what the book is about via McKnight:

Jesus “did not come to found a new religion that would generate still more human precepts masquerading as divine doctrine. He did not produce a creed or command us to write one. He came to ‘reveal the Father.’”

Jesus did not round up disciples to teach about the Trinity, millennium, baptismal formulas, worship protocols, head coverings, the Rapture, female clergy, or a thousand other topics that divide Christians today. He focused on the ‘fundamentals’ instead. He gave his pupils their two-question final exam on the first day of the course — and left us our lifetimes to cram for it. Question one: ‘Do you love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?’ Question two: ‘Do you love your neighbor as yourself?’”

Here’s a killer statement: “People who read the Gospel stories from the life of Jesus are attracted to him. People who know Christ only through his followers often can’t stand him” (14). Print that out, paste it on your desk or shelf or mirror and let us all remind ourselves. We have a challenge.
There was a time in my life, maybe when I was in my 20s, when such a book would make sense to me. This book and a lot of others, tend to be in the "I-would-follow-Jesus-if-it-wasn't-for-the-church" kind of book.  Somewhere along the way, as I entered my 40s, such books piss me off.

Let me explain.  I know what Shelly and others are getting at.  Jesus came preaching and teaching, he came loving people that most of us would not welcome into our homes.  The people who followed him created an organization that didn't always follow Jesus.  It started to support things like slavery or the subjgation of women or demonizing gay people.  Instead of calling people to follow Christ, it called people to follow the institution called Church.

As a gay man, I get it.  As an African American, I get it.  As someone who is autistic, I get it. The church should be called to account for the times it has so severely gone off the rails from the teachings of Christ.

But I'm still pissed off.

The first thing wrong here is that while I don't think Jesus was interested in setting up an institution, he did want people to tell others about him and pass on the teachings.  Humans being humans, they tend to set up structures to keep those teachings alive.  The second problem is that Jesus shared his life, his teachings with incredibly imperfect people.  The disciples would deny and betray him, and even after Pentecost they would still not get the whole picture.  The church, those folks who profess to follow Jesus are very human and make big, big mistakes.

Maybe its been the years working at a church, but I've come to learn that some of the most wonderful people I've met also have lives that are incredibly imperfect.  And yet, through it all, Jesus shines through.

Sometimes what I desire is a book that took the old quote from Will Campbell seriously: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."  I'd like to hear more stories about how God takes all of us jerks and produces wonderful things, because that is what church has become to me.

Maybe we can have Jesus without the church, but I don't think it would be a living Jesus.  I would not learn about how Jesus is alive today if it were not for those fickle, sinful followers of Christ.

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