I notice in today’s news that Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches who compete with each other for the pilgrim trade to the Israel/ Palestine, have managed to reach agreement on upgrading the burial place of Jesus. The site itself of course is pure tourist trade invention from more than a thousand years ago, and the very thought of pilgrimages to Jesus’ grave would have revolted the first believers who passed on to all holy tourists the question, “Why look for the living amongst the dead?”
But it’s entirely typical of the churches that rather than obeying the commands of Jesus, which to be sure, can be a little troublesome, they will put resources into tarting up his tomb. My own experience however leads me to wonder if these churches are not seriously underestimating the extent of their task, as it seems clear that the world church in most of its parts is the burial place of Jesus.
I freely confess that this judgement arises from my conviction that genuine faith comes from discipleship of the Jesus of the gospels. I have no quarrel at all with the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is utterly devoid of substance in the absence of the life and teaching of Jesus. Let my readers ask themselves if in any church known to them, a fresh and lively memory of the man Jesus is fostered, and a practical obedience to his teaching and example made a first priority in congregational life.
In many liberal churches Jesus has become a good chap associated with decent liberal attitudes. In many evangelical churches, he is just a name for God’s forgiveness of me and my hope of heaven. In many Free Churches he is an excuse for denouncing everything liberal and secular. In the Catholic Church he is a justification for an exclusively male clergy. In Episcopal Churches he is the tiny foundation for a splendid architecture of rituals. In most Orthodox churches he is a figurehead of the fight against Islam, socialism, modernism, historical truth and anything that stands in the way of a militant authoritarian revival.
Well, yes, I am joking. There are many genuine believers everywhere, but I don’t think many churches are providing them with a nourishing vision of Jesus. We say he is the Word made flesh, but most mainstream theologies have made him word again, forgetting the man Jesus, while appreciating that he has accomplished a useful salvation for human beings through his death and resurrection, or for some denominations, through the gift of the Spirit which he brokered. If you ask outsiders, “what are churches about?” how many would reply, “They are people who follow the teachings of Jesus.” ?
There’s a reason for this. Jesus is a bit tricky to be honest. He’s impertinent enough to enquire about my sexual morality, my wealth, my treatment of the poor, my capacity to forgive, and so on, things that are nobody’s business but my own, so he’s a complete disaster if the church wants to be popular. All the more reason then to use his name, and his rather helpful death and promising resurrection, and to bury the rest of his life and teaching. Any good PR person would agree.
There has always been a problem about the life of Jesus. Doubtless the first Christian communities were provided with memories of Jesus by disciples who had been with him. Nevertheless we can see from Paul’s letters that he did not teach the story of Jesus’ life, nor did he expect his converts to follow his earthly way, but rather to make his descent into this world a model for their own humility and service. For them too, the Spirit would have been a more immediate experience than Jesus.
It is my conviction that the Gospels were written to balance this kind of spirituality with the memory of Jesus, so that every generation of believers could be faced afresh with his character, actions and teachings. The gospel writers were in no way denying the salvation of men and women through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, but they wanted to flesh out the nature of “being saved” and of life in the Spirit, by providing vivid stories of Jesus himself. His actions were not to be imitated slavishly but meant to inspire actions of equivalent goodness; his commands were not to be taken as a new Torah but they were meant to be obeyed; his wisdom was not considered to be the finished truth, but to lead disciples into deeper revelation. They were saying, “Here is Jesus the Word of God. Let us take God at his Word, and build our communal life on our memory of what he was, for it will unite us with what he is now and forever.”
Even the poorest church ought to provide within their buildings their own presentation of Jesus’ life, and death, resurrection, with a clear statement of his basic teachings. This might be done through the visual arts, or cartoon, video or film, backed up by the best and most interesting books about Jesus, for all ages. Education departments of mainstream churches ought to be providing materials that can be used in this way, showing the facts about Jesus without distortion or disabling piety. The “Jesus corner”, of a church building ought to be open to its members and to non-members as often as possible during the week, and should have space for study, creative response, prayer and meditation.
Such a display would only be a symbol of the church’s trust in Jesus, and an expression of it. If that commitment was lacking the display would fall into disuse.
Jesus is the church’s best bet. I have never met anyone, of any religion or of no religion who, faced with the facts of Jesus and his teaching, found him boring. Some disagreed with some of his teaching, but few were unmoved by the man’s wisdom, courage and compassion. Unfortunately the church is not so well thought of. So it would be the merest common sense for it to put the gospel Jesus at the centre of its communal life and public communication.