As I say, I like stories. I can understand stories. So on the theory that you are like me, I’ll tell you a story. That way, maybe I can understand.
Church yesterday, one of our pastors preached about Jesus’s prayers prior to his capture. Prayers in John, who is. Oh. Whose Gospel is Handel’s Water Music to my ears. Who rejoices in the mystical shmystical Jesus. In the mystical shmystical nature of our attraction to Jesus. The mystical shmystical relation of us with Jesus and of him with the Father and the mystical shmystical relation between ourselves and the Father through him.
The pastor in question spoke about the prayers in John 17. Prayers that assert a relation among his followers then and his followers now and him and the Father. A relation that is full of knowledge and love and joy and glory and spiritual protection and unity. A oneness in relation. A unity of purpose in relation and because of relation. A unity that makes it possible for God’s own love for Jesus to be present in us. A unity that makes possible Jesus’s own presence in us, through his Holy Spirit.
And as he chatted colloquially about these prayers, the pastor never once mentioned mysticism or mystical connection. He never once mentioned spiritual connection among us. What he did mention was that Jesus was and is God’s word to us. He did mention that he prayed not only for his followers then but his followers now. He did mention Jesus’s concern for our protection from the evil one. And he did say that God’s glory is our glory. And he did say that we are like Christ because of our glory. Because we have glory like Christ has glory. And we are therefore capable of being like Christ and capable of growing in his character. And we therefore should seek to be like Christ and grow in his character.
So later yesterday evening we talked, at my request. And I was vibrating. I mean I had a hard time putting sentences together so that they didn’t sound like I was riding in a twenty-year-old beat-to-blazes truck, suspension shot, rushing at fifty miles an hour down a mightily potholed and washboarded dirt road.
I pulled out the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, and asked him if he could find in these any reference to our believing that we need to be or should be like Christ. No, he said.
Okay, I said. Can you show me exactly where in the Gospels that Jesus tells us to be like him. Well, he then spoke about how the Scriptures are divinely inspired and how there is, as far as he’s concerned, no automatic writing involved. No dictation involved. And so forth.
And so I asked him whether he viewed all Scripture as instruction. I said, take for example Genesis. Is Genesis designed to tell us what to do. Well, that is the Old Testament, he said. Psalms. Take Psalms, for example, I said. Are these poems designed to tell us what to do?
I think I’m beginning to get your point, he said. But let me tell you a little about my background. Baptist and Lutheran and Bible churches. And in all of that background, the New Testament was treated all the same. All the same thing. All the parts of the New Testament equal.
But it isn’t, I said. It is the Gospels and everything else. It’s the Gospel story of Jesus and what he said and did. (And Acts, the history of the early church.) And then it’s normal people’s responses—normal people like you and me with limitations and issues all over the place—to Jesus. To the Gospel story. To their particular experiences of Jesus. To his Holy Spirit. Their responses to the early Christian church, the issues there. Their responses to one another and to members of the early Christian church.
But don’t you think, he said. Don’t you think that we can have just a small part. A small piece of Jesus’s nature.
A small piece of perfection, I said. A small piece of divinity. How can we become divine in a small way. Perfect in a small way. I wanted to know. And he fell silent for a time.
So Paul, he wanted to know. Don’t you read Paul. I read Paul as Paul, I said. Limited. Issues. Imperfect. Groping. Trying to find a language he could use that would adequately deal with his experience. His mystical experience. Foundering. Flubbing. Stumbling to try to get across what his experience of the Holy Spirit was and what it might mean for him. And by extension what it might mean for all of us. And also, by the way, trying to find a way to get the hedonists to pay attention. And more, of course. Much more.
But don’t you read Paul as instructing us, he said. No. No, I said. I read Paul as instructing the particular people of his time, to the best of his ability to instruct. And his instruction is limited. Flawed. It’s hard to understand. It’s convoluted. It’s groping. It’s culture bound. It’s Paul bound. And it’s to some extent self-aggrandizing. I’m a Christian, I said. Not a Paulian. I follow Jesus, not Paul.
But Paul, he said. And James. And Peter.
Yes, all of these, I said. I’m not a Jamesian. I’m not a Peterian either. All of them limited and with their own particular personal and experiential and ideational and relational and cultural issues. And none of them God. None of them Jesus. None of them having the authority of Jesus in the Gospels. Some authority, certainly. Some significant authority for a variety of reasons. But not the authority of Jesus. Not the authority of the one we follow.
When you read the Psalms, I said. Do you read the prayers for the destruction of the psalmist’s enemies as a recommendation? As an instruction? Is it okay for us as Christians to actively desire the destruction of our enemies? Or have we been instructed differently? And if so where would that instruction be? Where would we go to understand that instruction. The Gospels or the Epistles.
Look, I said. You frequently preach that being Christian in this church means wanting to be like Christ. I don’t want to be like Christ. I don’t think there is any Scriptural basis for it in the Gospels. Jesus has not asked us to be like him. That would be cruel, and Jesus isn’t cruel. If you think there is a Gospel basis, show me. He has asked us to do a number of things. The Isaiah agenda. Love God and one another. Look for the Counselor and do what the Counselor counsels.
He has taught us about the Kingdom. He has taught us that there is a mystical relationship involving God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and us. And that the Kingdom is a way of talking about this relation.
He’s taught us that only God is good. Do you remember the rich young man, I said. Yes, the needle’s eye and so forth. Well, no. The tell me teacher what is the one good thing that I can do to obtain eternal life. And Jesus saying, there is only one who is good.
Then surprise in his eyes, the pastor’s eyes. You don’t mean. Certainly you don’t mean that we can do whatever we want. That’s another issue altogether. Altogether. The important thing to keep in mind for now is that according to Jesus only God is good.
But certainly we can disagree about something like this, he said. Certainly, we can disagree about this and many other things. But you are making your motive to be like Christ a condition of membership in this church.
What do you mean?
You bring this up often. You insert it almost, it seems, wherever you can. I am getting the feeling that if I don’t agree with you on this, I don’t belong here. If you brought it up once, fine.
How often do I bring it up. Oh, I said. I don’t know. Maybe every third or fourth time you preach. Really, he wanted to know. Really, I said. Then we rested.
You know, this is much better than your getting mad and exploding, he said. Thanks for bringing this to me. Sure, I said. I don’t like exploding. There’s always such a mess. And the paperwork. The mounds of paperwork.
So, there was silence for awhile. Then, give me time on this, he said. Sure, I said. Take your time. No pressure. Think about it. I’ll pray about it, he said. Certainly, I said. Whatever. And then when you’re ready, let’s talk again. Okay, he said. And then we prayed for God to come in and help us through this. Specifically asked God to help our relationship grow and improve through this.